Wreaths Across America Honors MOH Recipient and His Family
It was a sunny, brisk Maine morning in March. The America flag whipped and clinked against the pole at the center of a memorial circle at the Thomas J. McMahon Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. Young students bundled up against the wind, holding American flags, lined the driveway and recited the Pledge of Allegiance along with the adults who gathered for the service.
The students and adults were there to honor and remember Thomas J. McMahon on the 50th anniversary of the day he was killed in action in the Quang Tin Province in South Vietnam. Among those present were McMahon’s brothers and their families, school officials and students, as well other Vietnam veterans, some of whom who served with Thomas McMahon in Alpha Company 2nd Battalion, First Infantry, 196th Infantry.
Thomas J. McMahon had been drafted and served as a U.S. Army Medic. On March 19, 1969, under heavy enemy fire, McMahon was able to render aid to two of his platoon mates and pull them to safety. Despite being wounded himself in a mortar attack, McMahon attempted to reach a third fallen soldier when he succumbed to his injuries just before reaching him.
Retired Lt. Col. John Isely, Jr. traveled from Wisconsin for the anniversary observance, and he served with Thomas. He recalled the battle in the surrounding area of the village of Tien Phuoc.
“I was an enlisted man back then,” he shared. “There was a company-sized action the day he was killed. All the things we were in were company-sized actions. There were other companies from the battalion in the area in different locations, but we were kind of alone. We took a lot of causalities. I’m not sure how many were wounded, but all together we had ten killed, the last one on the 29th of March but most of them on the 19th.”
Retired Lt. Col. Richard Rinaldo, who traveled from Virginia to attend the memorial ceremony, was Thom’s Company Commander. During the service, he said the names out loud of the others killed in action. They were: Brad Chriss, Johnnie Hanson, Gary Hosko, Joe Huston, Walter Moses Jr., Jesus Oleta, Jr., William Overstreet, Jackie Webb, Richard Fiffe, and Charles Walker.
He also shared fond memories of Thomas McMahon.
“Well as his brothers would say, he was sort of a prankster,” Richard chuckled. “But everyone in the unit liked him, and if you needed a volunteer, he was always one of the first to step up.”
Lt. Col. Rinaldo was pleased to see the school’s involvement and effort in keeping Thomas’ name and legacy preserved.
“It is important to teach because at some point in time they may be called to go do what’s needed to be done on behalf of their country,” he explained. “More importantly, it gives them a sense of pride and realization that there are people who made great sacrifices in order for them to enjoy what they have today.”
Other Vietnam veterans traveled a great distance to attend the McMahon service to pay their respects.
“I was an infantryman, and infantrymen loved their medics because they saved our lives,” explained Vietnam veteran Bryant Peterson of Minnesota. “Thomas wasn’t thinking about himself out there. He saw people wounded and he acted on it. He wasn’t thinking about protecting himself.” Bryant explained he only knew Thomas McMahon for a short time, but felt it was important to attend the service to honor him and meet his family.
Part of the anniversary memorial service included a ceremonial wreath presentation at the school, and a wreath was placed at Thomas McMahon’s graveside in Lewiston by fellow Vietnam veteran and Wreaths Across America Board member, Lt. Col (ret.) Wayne Merritt.
For his courage and selflessness in serving his brothers in arms, Thomas J. McMahon received three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and in 1972, the Congressional Medal of Honor.