JEFFERSON — Tom Northrop has held firm to one nearly unshakable promise following his time in the jungles of Vietnam — that he would never return.
For nearly fifty years, the decorated Marine Corps combat veteran has maintained that vow even as the United States and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam — countries who fought a brutal conflict for more than a decade — have normalized relations.
“You go through a lot and you see other guys go through a lot,” the North Carolina man said in a recent interview. “I came back, and I think a lot of men came back, and you carry around this tremendous guilt for years. I was never going to go back.”
Despite his own feelings, Northrop said he’ll make a trip to Vietnam this summer as part of a diplomatic mission that will, hopefully, put to rest a 48-year old mystery and return the remains of a friend, Tom Mahoney, Northrop and his fellow Marines inadvertently left behind.
Mahoney, an affable young Marine from Oakland, Califorinia, was 20 years old when he was killed in the closing days of the battle for Khe Sanh in 1968.
“The bottom line is Semper Fidelis. Once a Marine, always a Marine and we don’t leave anybody behind,” Northrop said. “This isn’t for me, this is for Tom Mahoney and his family and I truly believe this is the most important mission of my life.”
Just another hill
Along with four friends, Northrop joined the Marine Corps in 1966 when he was 21 years old.
Just before Christmas 1966, Northrop graduated from nine weeks of basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, and, after completing follow-on training in early 1967, was assigned to duty as an infantry Marine.
It was late October or early November 1967 before Northrop, then a lance corporal, rotated for duty in Vietnam and, despite his training, was still a “scared kid” reporting for combat duty, he said.
Assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion 1st Marines (1/1), Northrop was plunged into combat almost immediately at Con Thien, a fire base just south of the demilitarized zone, and he was at Phu Bai when the North Vietnamese regulars and guerrilla forces launched the Tet Offensive on Jan. 30, 1968.
That well-coordinated assault included nearly 80,000 North Vietnamese personnel launching strikes at strategic and political targets throughout South Vietnam, and was a major turning point in the way the American public viewed the conflict, Northrop said in previous published interviews.
And Northrop was also among the Marines assigned to duty at Khe Sanh in May 1968, following an overland expedition that helped relieve the beleaguered Marines who had held off NVA forces between January and April 1968.
It was in fighting in the bush around Khe Sanh that Northrop earned his Silver Star, the nation’s third highest award for valor, and it was on the hills overlooking the same base where Mahoney was killed.
Chaos at Khe Sanh
Northrop, Mahoney and the other Marines of Bravo Company had dug in atop Hill 881 following heavy fighting in May and June 1968. The men were literally surrounded on all sides by NVA soldiers, but at least three other rifle companies were dug in along similar high points around Khe Sanh, Northrop said.
Despite relatively strong fighting positions and ample artillery and air support, Northrop said the Marines were informed in late June they would abandon the base.
So the men set about dismantling and destroying their fortifications in advance of pulling out.
Northrop said neither he, nor anyone else, is exactly sure what happened next.
“We know that Mahoney had received a ‘Dear John’ letter the day before,” Northrop said. “So that may have had something to do with his state of mind.”
In the haste to evacuate the hilltop, the Marines had also destroyed all but one of their latrines. So Northrop said Mahoney had grabbed some toilet paper on July 6, walked just beyond the Marines’ perimeter and into some elephant grass near the outpost’s gate, likely for a little more privacy.
“We don’t know that’s exactly how it happened,” Northrop said. “But that’s what I’ve come to believe over the years.”
Mahoney apparently triggered a planned NVA ambush, Northrop said, and was quickly killed by automatic weapons fire as the enemy began to shell and assault the hill’s main helicopter landing zone.
He said several Marines came close to retrieving Mahoney’s body from outside the wire, but the group was ultimately forced to leave their friend behind as the fighting intensified.
‘Guilt stays with you’
Northrop was moved to nearby Hill 689 where he was injured and ultimately evacuated from Vietnam, but he said leaving Mahoney’s body that day has been the source of much guilt for Bravo Company Marines in the years since.
The men believed at one point that a four-man team had recovered Mahoney’s body after the fighting, but there are conflicting reports — both from U.S. forces and the North Vietnamese Army — about the final resting place of LCpl Thomas Patrick Mahoney III.
Mahoney’s childhood friend and fellow Marine Michael Archer has since launched a search for Mahoney’s remains – which is chronicled in Archer’s book The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited which will publish nationally April 15 — but at least two previous searches have come up empty.
“There was literally nothing left on those hills when we left,” Northrop said. “Now, they look completely different. They’re covered over in trees, there are new roads and paths.”
That’s the situation Northrop said he’ll step into when he returns to Vietnam with two other members of Bravo Company this summer. Northrop said he believes when he and his fellow Marines walk atop the same hill they shared in 1968, they’ll be able to pinpoint the location of the outpost’s second gate which should give them a good idea of where Mahoney fell.
And this time, they’ll be helped by the Vietnamese who will bring their records, equipment — and memories — into the search for Mahoney.
Northrop said he’s warmed to the idea of returning to Vietnam, if only through a sense of duty to Mahoney and his sister, who remains alive and would be thrilled at the return of her older brother to his homeland.
The prospect that Mahoney could remain lost despite the search also weighs heavy on Northrop’s mind.
“How will I handle that? I don’t exactly know,” Northrop said. “But I do know that this guilt stays with you, so we have to try.”
The worst scenario for Northrop is finding Mahoney’s remains, but not being able to accompany the body back stateside.
“There’s a time lag and our Visas might run out,” Northrop said. “But we are going to do everything we can to bring him home. It could be the most important thing we ever do.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr.