Combat medic to receive Medal of Honor for intrepid actions in Vietnam

By David VergunAugust 3, 2017

Combat medic to receive Medal of Honor for intrepid actions in Vietnam
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Combat medic to receive Medal of Honor for intrepid actions in Vietnam
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Combat medic to receive Medal of Honor for intrepid actions in Vietnam
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WASHINGTON -- When James C. McCloughan sees a young service member in uniform on the street or at the airport, he often offers to buy lunch, said his wife Cherie.

She recalled one such instance at an airport. Her husband asked the young man where he was headed and the reply was "Iraq." She said her husband then thanked him for his service and said "you be careful."

At other times, the now-retired high school coach and teacher would invite veterans into his classroom to talk about their service experiences.

McCloughan said he's in awe of the young men and women who voluntarily enlist and often go on multiple deployments. "They're just amazing."

Little do those youngsters realize that McCloughan, 71, who never wanted to join the Army, much less go to combat, has his own incredible story.

That story begins in the summer of 1968. McCloughan had just completed his Bachelor of Arts in sociology, along with a teaching certificate from Olivet College in Michigan, not far from where he was born in South Haven on April 30, 1946, and where he grew up in Bangor, Michigan.

"My sights were set on teaching and coaching football, wrestling and baseball," he said. South Haven High School already had sent him an offer letter and he had eagerly accepted.


A short time later, he received a draft notice directing him to report for duty at Army basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, Aug. 29, 1968.

Those teaching and coaching plans were now on hold while he prepared to serve his two-year enlistment. McCloughan, who was married at the time, said he had worked hard to get good grades and paid his own way through college. Getting that draft notice was "a real blow" to his plans.

During his first four days of processing at Fort Knox, he met a medic who had just returned from Vietnam. The two talked a lot in the evenings and the medic learned that McCloughan had taken a number of anatomy, kinesthesiology and advanced first aid courses in preparation for coaching. McCloughan said he thinks their conversations led to him being assigned duties as a medic after basic.

In retrospect, McCloughan said basic training was not too strenuous for him since he was in really good shape from exercising and playing football and wrestling in college. He credits his physical conditioning and team sports with not only getting him in top shape but also preparing him for moments of high intensity in combat, where quick thinking and movements are required.

"The mental discipline gained from football and wrestling not only saved my life but allowed me to save the lives of many others," he mused.

After advanced individual training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, the newly-minted medic was informed that his first duty assignment would be Vietnam. It was another unexpected and unwelcomed development, he said.

"My first thought about going to Vietnam was that my wife might lose her husband and my dad might lose his son," he said.

"Then I thought, 'I'm tough. I'll survive this.'"

He also took consolation in the fact that his brother, who was serving with the Air Force in Alaska, and who was also married but had a small child, would not have to go to Vietnam because of the rules of deployment.

At the time, he said most of the Soldiers he served with were not too thrilled with being in the Army, much less going to Vietnam. But nevertheless, they served and did their duty.

Some of McCloughan's leaders knew that he had a four-year degree and encouraged him to become an officer, but that would have meant staying in the Army longer than two years and he said he just wanted to get his two years done so he could return home. That was his number one goal.


McCloughan's flight to Vietnam took him through Oakland, California; Alaska; Guam; Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam; then to Chu Lai.

On the afternoon of March 9, 1969, a helicopter dropped him off at Landing Zone Center, where he was assigned as the medic of 2nd Platoon, Company C, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 196th Infantry Brigade, Americal Division. LZ Center is just inland from the northern coast of South Vietnam in Quang Tin Province.

LZ Center was the private first class's first day in the field in South Vietnam and on that day, McCloughan said, he'd receive his first baptism of fire.

There to greet him, he said, was Sgt. Doug Hatten, a machine gunner.

"His helmet was on crooked, he's got a tooth missing right here in the front and he talked real slow," McCloughan said. "I thought Lord, you put me in a life and death situation and this guy's supposed to save my life?"

McCloughan said he and Hatten were off the LZ on a search and clear mission when two North Vietnamese Army soldiers came at them.

"Nothing prepares you for this," he said.

Hatten opened fire with an M-60 machine gun, killing the NVA soldier on the left and at about the same time McCloughan shot the NVA soldier on the right with his M-16 rifle.

"I hit this guy," he said of the NVA soldier. "I saw him go. He literally flipped backward when I hit him in the chest with my first shot.

"In that instant, I couldn't believe I just took another person's life," McCloughan said. "I was in shock. Hatten slapped me and said 'This is the way it's going to be from now on. It's either you or him.' And I'm thinking, this is the real deal."

In retrospect, McCloughan said "Sgt. Hatten was a godsend. He had compassion and always treated the FNGs well because he knew they were needed for everyone to survive." FNG stands for "new guys," he said, adding the first letter is an expletive.

McCloughan said he followed Hatten's example by treating everyone, including the FNGs, with dignity and respect.

In the hours and weeks and months that followed, McCloughan credited Hatten and others like squad leader Spc. 4 Joe Middendorf with looking after him and saving his life.

Even their platoon leader, 2nd Lt. Randy Clark, depended on those veteran Soldiers for advice, McCloughan said. "You rely on them if you have any intention of getting home alive," he said.


In the early morning hours of May 12, enemy sappers attacked LZ Center, killing four and wounding 24. McCloughan spent most of that morning patching up the wounded and "dusting them off," a term he and other Vietnam vets used for helicopter medevac.

The next day, May 13, Company C received word from battalion headquarters that they were to move out in a helicopter assault to Nui Yon Hill, near the city of Tam Kỳ. McCloughan said his company commander and others thought it was a "flawed mission" because forward observers were not sent out first to scout the enemy's strength and disposition. Also, Company C's strength was down to 89.

McCloughan explained that a full-size company should have about 120 to 135 Soldiers in it, but some of their men had gotten killed, injured or wounded and others had rotated out of Vietnam.

At the time, Soldiers deployed individually for a standard 12-month tour of duty, so units were always losing men or getting new ones and this resulted in constant turbulence, he noted.

Right away, the mission got off to a bad start, he said. Nui Yon Hill was "hot," meaning that they were taking heavy enemy ground fire. As a result, the helicopter pilots couldn't land because they'd be sitting ducks for enemy fire.

Instead, the helicopters swooped in at about 10 feet off the ground or higher and the men jumped. A number got injured in the process, McCloughan said, because they were carrying full packs plus weapons and ammunition. He said his own pack weighed about 135 pounds, but he was one of the lucky ones who made it in without injury.

Despite the precaution of not landing, two helicopters were shot down and a squad was sent out to rescue them.


As the rescuers returned with the crew, McCloughan said he noticed that one of the Soldiers, about 75 yards from him, was limping and using his M-16 rifle as a crutch. He fell behind the others then he toppled over and didn't get up. McCloughan said he presumed that the Soldier had been shot.

McCloughan said his training kicked in and he dashed out, running in a zig-zag pattern to dodge bullets and retrieve the Soldier. He slung the Soldier over him in a fireman's carry and dashed back.

If he hadn't retrieved the Soldier, the enemy, who were closing in fast, would have surely killed him or taken him prisoner, he said.

After a cursory examination, McCloughan said he noticed that the Soldier, who was in much pain, hadn't been shot. Instead, he had injured his knee after his Huey helicopter had crashed.

Spc. 4 Bill Arnold, who was that Soldier, had a knee swelling to the size of a softball, but he participated in the rescue to bring back Soldiers from the second Huey that had crashed.

He ran on adrenaline, Arnold said, until the pain got to be too much and that's when he fell and passed out for a time until McCloughan came to his rescue, saving his life.

Arnold said he was going in and out of shock and everything was a haze, but he does recall the "doc" slinging him over his shoulder.

Before dusting him off, McCloughan said he told Arnold he was lucky because he'd be out of the fight.

To this day, Arnold said, his knee hurts and is arthritic, but he admits that he was one of the very lucky ones to have made it back alive from Nui Yon Hill. He said that he was "blessed" that day.

McCloughan said he always had words of encouragement for the injured or wounded and oftentimes he was the only one around to listen to the last words of the mortally wounded.

One of the wounded Soldiers was his mentor, Middendorf. He was hit by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade in the forehead and leg but refused to be evacuated, despite entreaties from McCloughan.

"Doc bandaged me up and we kept on fighting," Middendorf said.

The enemy was so close that you could hear them talking, Middendorf said. Also, they were almost completely surrounded, so the enemy had some difficulty firing their RPGs without hitting their own men.

Because Middendorf didn't get evacuated to a hospital, he never received a Purple Heart until just this month. Middendorf credits McCloughan with submitting the necessary paperwork needed to make that happen.

Later that day they received close-air support from Cobra gunships. The enemy backed off and there was a brief reprieve from the fighting. This ebb and flow of fighting was common in the jungle, McCloughan said.

There was very little respite for McCloughan, however.

When he wasn't caring for the wounded, he said he had his hands full treating heat casualties, cuts, bruises, rashes, boils and a host of other ailments, as well as removing leeches stuck on the Soldiers.

Other duties included handing each man his daily malaria pill. McCloughan said he could have distributed a week's worth of pills to each Soldier with instructions to take one a day, but he instead preferred to meet daily with Soldiers to conduct a brief wellness check.


About 4 p.m., May 13, word came down from battalion that a platoon was to move out to find and destroy the enemy.

They were astonished at the news because the enemy could sometimes be seen in the distance swarming like a colony of ants, he observed. Clearly they were outnumbered and outgunned and their own movements could easily be observed from across the openness of the rice paddies.

So with more than a little apprehension, the platoon moved out.

The lead squad got across the paddies to a bushy area where there was a trench, probably dug by the French who fought there in the 1950s in what was then known as French Indochina.

The squad filed along inside the trench, followed by McCloughan. About 100 yards to the right, McCloughan said he noticed two NVA soldiers stringing barbed wire.

McCloughan plugged one with his M-16, then Hatten and Middendorf felled the other with their M-60s.

"Then all hell broke loose," he said. The enemy opened up, instantly killing Jerome Lucas, a new guy from Caledonia, Michigan, who had been walking point. McCloughan said that just that morning Lucas had showed him a photo of his new baby boy that he was eager to see.

As the lead squad came under full attack, they fell back -- except for John Folger and Larry Aiken.

McCloughan said he handed his weapon to Hatten and sprinted forward to provide medical assistance, despite grave risk to himself.

On his way to rescue the two, an RPG landed near him, sending shrapnel into his head and several other places, but he kept going.

At first, McCloughan said he thought the pair had been hit, but upon closer examination, he noted that they were weaponless and motionless on a berm above the trench, apparently too scared to move.

Because they were paralyzed with fear, McCloughan said he had to drag them about 20 meters into the trench. But the enemy was closing in fast and was now about 10 yards away, so McCloughan yelled "follow me."

He sprinted down the trench away from the enemy. "It was the fastest I'd ever run in my life," he noted.

Folger followed but was struck and killed by enemy fire, he said. Aiken ran in the wrong direction and was taken prisoner. Much later Aiken would be rescued by the Americans, but when they found him he was in a coma. His head was bashed in from being severely beaten during his captivity. He'd later die from those injuries.

McCloughan said he ran through the trench and then moved out of it zig-zagging to avoid getting hit by the many rounds he could hear plunking all around him.

By this time, the company was under full attack and cries for "medic" could be heard everywhere, he said.

Throughout the day McCloughan sprinted with his medical kit through enemy crossfire to aid the wounded, who were often in positions exposed to enemy fire.

When he wasn't treating the wounded, McCloughan said he was shooting at the enemy.

"I'm a pretty good shot," he mentioned, adding he'd earned an expert rifle badge in basic. As a youth, he had hunted pheasant, squirrel and rabbit in rural Michigan with his dad.

At one point during the battle, McCloughan said he told Hatten to cover him because he was going to dash over to a tree with three trunks growing out of the ground. It looked like a good firing position to take against the enemy.

Hatten said sternly: "Don't go there," McCloughan said.

Just 15 seconds after the admonishment, a Cobra swooped low, hovered with its nose pointing down and sent rounds into that tree, splintering it into countless toothpicks, he said.

"Hatten gave me that 'I told you not to go there look,'" he related. Hatten had a gut instinct that proved correct a number of times, McCloughan recalled.

At one point, his company commander, 1st Lt. Carrier, ordered him to join them to be evacuated. It was only then that McCloughan appreciated the fact that he'd received extensive wounds from the RPG explosion, as well as from small-arms fire.

Despite his own injuries, he said he looked the lieutenant in the eyes and said: "I'm not going. You're going to need me."


On May 14, at about 4 p.m., the company was told to move out so the enemy wouldn't pinpoint their position. The platoon was immediately hit, he said.

Two particular casualties stand out in McCloughan's mind: a Soldier with a serious stomach wound and a Soldier with a shoulder wound.

As he went to get the Soldier with the stomach wound, he got hit with an AK-47 bullet in the arm.

Since the wound was too severe to move him in a fireman's carry, "I picked him up like you would a baby, and carried him into a trench," he said.

In the brief instance that McCloughan was moving the Soldier, he said he had a heart-to-heart conversation with God. "I bargained with Him that if He allowed me to live, I'd become the best coach and teacher and dad that I could be and I also promised that I'd hug my dad and tell him I love him."

His own generation didn't show emotions like hugging and telling family members you loved them. It was just understood, he said.

The first thing that McCloughan said he did once he landed at the airport in Chicago was to hug his father and tell him how much he loved him. McCloughan said he has done that with his kids as well over the years and has kept his promise to God to coach and teach and be the best dad that he could be.

McCloughan checked periodically with the Soldier with the stomach wound as the battle continued to rage, using water from his canteen to keep the pressure bandage over his stomach moist. The Soldier survived the war, he noted.

While McCloughan was still busy engaging the enemy and tending the wounded, the other medic in the company, Pfc. Daniel J. Shea, was similarly dashing out from his defensive position to assist the wounded with complete disregard for his own safety.

Shea wasn't so fortunate, however. After rescuing the fifth Soldier, he fell mortally wounded.

With the other medic dead, McCloughan was the only medic left and was much needed as he continued to treat the wounded, including his own wounds.

By nightfall, supplies and ammunition were running low. McCloughan volunteered to hold a blinking light in an open area as a marker for a nighttime resupply drop. At the same time, enemy fire swept the area near him.

During the resupply drop, he said he was as much worried about the supplies landing on his head in the dark as he was worried about enemy fire.

It turned out, he said, that the LZ was too hot for the pilots to approach and the drop never did take place.

By this time, McCloughan had gone without food or water for two days and he was dehydrated and wounded three times, twice from RPGs and once in the right arm from small-arms fire.

Despite his weakened state, he managed to take out an enemy soldier with a grenade who was aiming an RPG at him. "I got him just in time," he said.


By the time the fighting subsided on May 15, the company size was down to 32, since 12 had been killed and the others wounded or injured.

McCloughan credits close-air support with saving the remainder from being totally annihilated.

Lack of sleep and sustenance finally took a toll. McCloughan passed out. He said when he woke up, he had intravenous needles stuck in both arms to rehydrate him.

It was later determined that McCloughan's company had been attacked on three sides by around 1,500 NVA and 700 Viet Cong.

Within a matter of just months, Shea would be awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. McCloughan's Medal of Honor for valorous actions, including risking his life to save at least 10 Soldiers in identical actions during the same battle, would be decades in coming, however.

After the battle for Nui Yon Hill, morale in the company was at an all-time low, McCloughan said. Soldiers, particularly those nearing the end of their tour of duty, were constantly worrying.

Then there were positive outlooks like Hatten, Carrier and Middendorf, he said. They weren't gung-ho, but they brought an honest perspective on things, kept going and helped others to keep going, and were very effective in the field.

McCloughan said he was upbeat as well and offered words of encouragement to the men whenever possible, following the example of his mentors.


That intense two-day battle was not the end of the fighting for McCloughan. He continued to go on search and clear missions with his men, participating in a number of firefights in the following days and weeks.

While on patrol once, McCloughan said he stopped in a village to deliver a baby. Besides that, he said his interaction with the locals usually revolved around giving kids chocolates from his C-rations that he'd saved. The kids loved chocolate, he said.

On June 10, McCloughan said he did something his father told him never to do in Vietnam: volunteer. He volunteered to accompany a squad on a mission to LZ East.

At 2:34 a.m., June 11, they came under intense enemy attack. The hill was overrun by sappers. They were firing AK-47s. They were throwing Chinese-made grenades and they were using flame throwers, the latter of which burned many a Soldier, he said.

The enemy then walked mortars up the hill where LZ East is situated, obliterating most of the bunkers as well as killing 17 Soldiers and wounding 34 others.

"It looked like the Fourth of July on that hill," he said, describing the explosions going off everywhere. The battle, though as intense and causing about as many casualties as the previous battle on Nui Yon Hill, lasted just 20 minutes.

As he was the only medic there that day on LZ East, he said the remainder of the morning was spent placing the dead in body bags, many of whom were badly burned or dismembered, and dusting off the wounded.

In August, McCloughan was transferred to the 91st Evacuation Hospital at Chu Lai to become the liaison for the Americal Division, reporting all dead and wounded to the Army's Casualty Branch as well as to the Red Cross.


On March 6, 1970, now-Spc. 5 McCloughan returned home.

That fall, McCloughan was reinstated at South Haven High School, where for the next 40 years he taught psychology, sociology and geography. He also coached football, wrestling, and baseball.

That McCloughan was successful is evidenced by his induction into the Michigan High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame, Michigan High School Football Association Coaches Hall of Fame, Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, Olivet College Athletic Hall of Fame, Bangor High School Hall of Fame and the South Haven High School Hall of Fame.

Now 71 and retired, McCloughan said that during his time teaching and coaching, he never talked about his Vietnam experiences in any great detail. He said many of those experiences were too painful to relate and he has only recently opened up about them.

And now, with the Medal of Honor, which will be presented to him by President Donald Trump at the White House, July 31, many will learn about some of the experiences the reluctant warrior had in Vietnam.

Still, McCloughan said he'd rather listen to veterans, young and old, share with him their own experiences and provide whatever comfort and solace he can to those who have bled and are still bleeding from wounds unseen.

(Follow David Vergun on Twitter: @vergunARNEWS)

Spc. 5 James McCloughan: 'They called me Doc'

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