Fifty years after a decision he still ponders, Doug Towslee will finally meet the family of a soldier who died in his arms on a Vietnam War battlefield.
Mr. Towslee made the 530-mile journey from Monclova to Clifton Heights, Pa., about 10 minutes west of Philadelphia. On Saturday, he will tell the story of 1st Lt. John C. Martin, who never got the chance to tell his own.
“It’s going to be emotional for his family I’m sure, and for me,” Mr. Towslee said. “It’s closure for both of us.”
It seems fitting this reunion takes place in the Philly area, a place Mr. Towslee has visited before. Just days after Lieutenant Martin died, Mr. Towslee was hit and severely injured by friendly fire. He spent a year recuperating at a Philadelphia hospital.
The two men didn’t spend much time together in Vietnam before Lieutenant Martin’s death, but the events of Feb. 24, 1968, have weighed on Mr. Towslee. He made it a priority five decades later to find his fallen comrade’s family.
‘I felt that was best for him’
Mr. Towslee was a student at the University of Toledo when he was drafted in the fall of 1966. He joined the Army, where he learned he would become a combat medic.
After receiving medical training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, he landed in Vietnam with the First Air Calvary in November, 1967.
Lieutenant Martin was drafted in January, 1966. He was quickly identified as a natural leader and completed Officer Candidate School a year later. He was assigned to combat in Vietnam on May 26, 1967.
Environmental dangers and other health risks were rampant in the country, and the tropical climate was ripe for mosquitoes. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 40,000 cases of malaria were reported in Army troops between 1965 and 1970. Mr. Towslee handed out malaria pills on the first day of every month.
“It was either hot and rainy … or hot and rainy,” Mr. Towslee said in jest. “There were times like in Forrest Gump where it just rained and rained, and then all of a sudden, the sun came out. And then it really got hot and muggy.”
Mr. Towslee usually hung back with the officers, ready to spring into action if anyone in front of them went down. There were several days where the unit dug in and heard bullets zipping over their heads.
U.S. forces were lucky if they managed to catch a glimpse of the North Vietnamese Communist soldiers firing at them. The Vietcong were notorious for using guerrilla tactics and hiding in trees and bushes. They often performed sneak attacks, then quickly retreated to avoid the risk of capture.
On Feb. 24, 1968 — just 10 days after joining Mr. Towslee’s company — Lieutenant Martin and his battalion came under enemy fire in a jungle northwest of Hoi An in South Vietnam. Lieutenant Martin and his men charged forward and destroyed several camouflaged bunkers before Lieutenant Martin called in an airstrike.
Lieutenant Martin saw two of his men lying wounded and raced back to rescue them. He was shot after returning to the first injured solider, but refused medical attention. Instead, he dodged more bullets to get to the other wounded.
Lieutenant Martin again refused medical attention and pressed on, rallying his men for another assault. Then, Mr. Towslee heard an explosion.
“I got up and started running and heard the rounds coming over our heads,” he said. “They asked me to get down, but I didn’t hear them, and I kept running up to the front. I found Lieutenant Martin on the ground … and he was screaming.”
Lieutenant Martin suffered a catastrophic head wound. The training Mr. Towslee received told him not to administer morphine for a wound to the head because it could have an adverse effect on blood pressure.
Mr. Towslee did what he felt was necessary: allow Lieutenant Martin to die comfortably.
“I knew he was at a point where he was not going to live,” Mr. Towslee said. “So I gave him a shot of morphine just to settle him down. He passed away within a minute in my arms.
“I’ve talked to a number of doctors and they said the morphine did not have anything to do with his death. But that had been on my mind for 50 years. But in war, you have a moment to make that decision. I felt that was best for him.”
Lieutenant Martin was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest honor given to U.S. military.
Mr. Towslee was injured two weeks later after his own helicopter misfired and sent a round through his left cheek, tore out his upper jaw and both sinus cavities, then hit both legs. His yearlong recovery took place at a hospital about 20 minutes away from Lieutenant Martin’s burial site.
Locating Lieutenant Martin’s family turned out to be easier than Mr. Towslee thought.
In February, he began searching for Lieutenant Martin on the Internet. He knew he was from the Ocean City, N.J., area, and called an area funeral home looking for information. The director didn’t find any records initially, but later found Lieutenant Martin’s name on a Vietnam memorial in town.
The search led to SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery in Springfield, Pa., where Lieutenant Martin now rests. Mr. Towslee called around on Memorial Day and spoke to someone at the cemetery who grew up with Lieutenant Martin’s nephew — also named John C. Martin.
Mr. Towslee was put in touch with Lieutenant Martin’s older brother. They’ve stayed in contact ever since.
“Doug really wanted to meet us and come tell his story to the family,” Mr. Martin said. “We were more than appreciative that he would be willing to do that, especially growing up in the shadow of John and hearing little bits and pieces. Being his namesake, I always wondered what he was like.”
Mr. Martin was born the same year his uncle died and was named in his honor. His 9-year-old son also bears the same name, and Mr. Martin is sure to remind him of the legacy they now carry forward.
They visit the cemetery each Memorial Day to pay their respects. Whenever they take a short drive out to the ocean, they make a stop to see the monument bearing Lieutenant Martin’s name.
Mr. Martin’s son was born Feb. 24 — the same date his father’s uncle was killed.
“He’s always been a hero to me and I try to instill that in my son,” Mr. Martin said. “From everything I’ve read and the accounts I’ve heard, he was such a genuine person. He was very motivated to help everyone else and do whatever he could for them.
“You almost carry a guilt and wonder if you’re making him proud by carrying his name forward,” Mr. Martin said. “I’m a sergeant in the police department, so I hope he’s looking down and saying, ‘You did good.'”
Mr. Towslee said Saturday’s gathering has garnered so much interest from family and friends, the event was moved to the American Legion post in Clifton Heights. A mass invitation was sent out, and Lieutenant Martin’s brothers and their families will be among those in attendance.
“It’s going to be a tough meeting for myself, but it’s closure,” Mr. Towslee said. “And hopefully it’s closure for the family too for me to be able to explain what happened.”
© 2018 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)
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