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He survived ‘hell on earth’ in Vietnam. Today, this Medal of Honor recipient develops leaders
May 09, 2023
As a boy growing up in southwest Michigan in the 1950s, Jim McCloughan was taught to do everything to the best of his ability. Never do anything halfway, his father told him.
So, despite entering high school at 4 foot 10, McCloughan would star on the basketball team and earn 11 varsity letters. He would earn seven more at Olivet College. And go on to become a successful public-school teacher, coach, referee and community leader.
But it was in the rice paddies of Vietnam where Army Pfc. McCloughan, a combat medic, truly learned what it means to give it your all. To risk your life — and take multiple rounds of shrapnel — for a group of comrades who had quickly become “closer than brothers.”
In the battle for Nui Yon Hill, from May 13-15, 1969, his company was outnumbered 30 to 1. They would lose 13 men during two ferocious days of fighting, yet somehow prevail. And McCloughan would get the Medal of Honor — the military’s highest honor — hung around his neck by the president of the United States for his heroic efforts to treat and save his fellow soldiers.
“We walked out of there on the morning of May 15 as blood brothers,” McCloughan said. “The love we had for each other had conquered the enemy. They moved out, and we were still standing.”
“48 brutal hours”
McCloughan, who was drafted in 1968, spoke about character and leadership at the Michigan Veterans Leadership Summit May 4 in Traverse City. He has taught students and adults about character development for years.
What attributes make a good leader? Courage, for one. And sacrifice. A perfect example of both came from McCloughan’s company commander, who was ordered by the battalion commander to attack Nui Yon Hill without any significant intel on the enemy.
“The company commander was right when he said this was a flawed mission,” McCloughan said.
But it was either lead the mission or face a court martial, and the company commander chose to be there for his men. McCloughan said he wouldn’t be standing here today if the company commander hadn’t made that call. “He was that skilled as a warrior and a leader,” he said.
What followed for the 89 men of Charlie Company was “48 brutal hours,” McCloughan said. The soldiers were air assaulted into an area near Tam Ky and Nui Yon Hill on May 13 and directly faced an attack. They would later learn the enemy force consisted of 2,700 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers.
Almost immediately, McCloughan found himself running 100 yards in an open field through heavy fire to rescue an injured comrade and carry him to safety. Later that day he led two soldiers into the safety of a trench while being wounded by shrapnel from a rocket propelled grenade (RPG). He ignored an order to stay back and ran into the kill zone four more times to extract wounded soldiers.
McCloughan, who was called “Doc” by his fellow soldiers, refused to be evacuated. On May 14, the Americans were again ordered to move out towards Nui Yon Hill and he was wounded a second time by small arms fire and shrapnel while rendering aid to two soldiers in an open rice paddy.
In the final phases of the battle, the Vietnamese descended upon Charlie Company’s position on three sides. McCloughan ran into the crossfire many times to pull out wounded soldiers while also fighting the enemy. His actions inspired his comrades to fight for their survival. When supplies ran low, McCloughan volunteered to hold a blinking strobe light in an open area as a marker for a night supply drop. Then, in the morning darkness of May 15, he knocked out an RPG position with a grenade, fought and eliminated enemy soldiers, treated numerous casualties, kept two critically wounded soldiers alive during the night, and organized the dead and wounded for evacuation at daylight.
In all, he would treat 40 to 50 soldiers and is credited for saving at least 10 lives.
A man of integrity
Speaking to a group of sixth graders in Zeeland, McCloughan remembered a girl standing up in the back of the room and asking, very seriously, “Have you ever killed anyone and how did it make you feel?”
He knew he had to tell the truth — a person of good character is honest and authentic, after all — but he also wanted to leave her with a positive note.
“Well, that’s the worst part about war,” McCloughan told the student. “Sometimes you have to take someone else’s life so they won’t take yours. But I never have been proud of it. I am bothered that I took somebody’s son, somebody’s dad, somebody’s husband, somebody’s brother, somebody’s uncle, somebody’s friend. But I was a medic, and every once in a while, we would wound the enemy and I got to patch them up.”
People of character honor their commitments, he said. And perhaps most importantly, they act with integrity. That means doing the right thing and standing up for what you believe in — not just in war, but in everyday situations.
He challenges everyone to remember those who were most influential in their lives and to reach out to them and thank them. During the second day of the battle on Nui Yon Hill, McCloughan recalled, he sprinted to an American soldier with a bad stomach wound and got him patched up, but then wondered how he was going to extract the soldier from the kill zone without hurting him worse — or getting killed himself.
“Then a thought came over me,” McCloughan said. “It had been since I was a small boy that I told my father I loved him. We just didn’t do that in the ’50s and ’60s. So I had a conversation with the Lord and I said, ‘Lord, if you get me out of this hell on earth so I can tell my father that I love him just one more time, I’ll be the best dad, I’ll be the best teacher and I’ll be the best coach that I can be.’"
When a young McCloughan returned to the states, he ran up to his father at Chicago O’Hare Airport, threw his arms around him and told him that he loved him. His father did the same thing back, he said, “just like we had been doing that for 24 years.”
James C. McCloughan, 77, of South Haven, was presented with the Medal of Honor by then-President Donald Trump on July 31, 2017. Read more about his story at army.mil and the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s website.