ASHE COUNTY-This month Jefferson’s Tom Northrop will head back to Vietnam for the first time since he left the country nearly five decades ago – when he was just a young Marine.
It’s a trip he’s vowed for years he’d never make but he now has a chance to help solve a decades old mystery and, hopefully, return the remains of a friend to the United States.
Here’s what you need to know.
Five decades ago…
The world was a different place and Tom Northrop was just 21-years old when he joined the United States Marine Corps in 1966. He became an infantry Marine and rotated for combat duty in Vietnam as a Lance Corporal in October or early November of 1967. He said he was just a “scared kid,” stepping out into a foreign world.
Northrop and his brother Marines in Bravo Company, 1st Battalion 1st Marines (1/1), saw action at Con Thien, a fire base just south of the demilitarized zone, and they were at Phu Bai when the North Vietnamese regulars and guerrilla forces launched the Tet Offensive on Jan. 30, 1968. Northrop was also among the Marines assigned to Khe Sanh in May 1968, and it was in the bush around that base where he earned his Silver Star, the nation’s third highest award for valor.
A Hill named 881
Northrop and his fellow Marines later dug in atop Hill 881 – overlooking Khe Sanh – following heavy fighting in May and June 1968. Along with other rifle companies on surrounding hilltops, the men found themselves under relentless attack from an enemy that literally surrounded them on all sides.
Retreat and chaos
In late June, Northrop said the Marines were informed by their superiors they were to abandon the base, so the men set about dismantling and destroying their fortifications in advance of pulling out. What happened next, Northrop said, remains a mystery to this day.
Mahoney walks through the gate
Tom Mahoney, a 20-year old Marine from Oakland, CA, walked just beyond the perimeter of the Marines’ position on Hill 881. Mahoney had grabbed some toilet paper and was likely searching for privacy – in their haste to evacuate the hilltop the Marines had destroyed all but one of their latrines – but Northrop said Mahoney may also have dropped his guard for a minute. He’d received a ‘Dear John’ letter the day before that may have rattled the young Californian. “The letter had some pretty vile stuff in it and look, you’re in a combat zone under constant stress – that stuff can affect you,” Northrop said. “And sometimes that’s all it takes.”
And he may have saved his friends
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. And by potentially tripping that ambush, Mahoney alerted the other Marines to the threat. The remainder were able to use the hill’s secondary LZ to escape the fighting. Northrop said several Marines came close to retrieving Mahoney’s body from outside the wire, but the group ultimately were forced to leave their friend behind as the fighting intensified.
Guilt that stays with you
Northrop said he’s never been able to really come to terms with the guilt he’s felt in leaving Mahoney behind. He said other moments of his time in Vietnam trouble him, but the thought of leaving Mahoney behind haunts Northrop. Mahoney’s childhood friend and fellow Marine Michael Archer has since launched a campaign for Mahoney’s remains – that’s chronicled in Archer’s book The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited which was published in April – but at least two previous searches for Mahoney have come up empty.
But this month, Northrop gets his chance
He’s returning to Vietnam in early June to search for LCpl Thomas Patrick Mahoney, III, and Northrop said he’s hopeful the team will be able to locate and bring their friend home. Though much of the surrounding hills look nothing like they did in 1968, Northrop believes he’ll have a chance to pinpoint where the camp’s main gate stood, which could allow him to find where Mahoney fell. And this time, they’ll be helped by the Vietnamese.
It’s about closure
Northrop has spent much time over the last few months preparing for his journey and coming to terms with the idea that he’ll be back in Vietnam again. It’s been a cathartic experience for the old warrior, Northrop said. “You also get the sense that the Vietnamese have put a lot into these searches,” Northrop said. “They’re doing what they can to help us bring guys home that were left behind, and that’s important.”
Most important mission of his life
Northrop said fellow Marines and service members have pitched in to help offset some of the expenses that come from traveling halfway around the world. “I’ve heard a lot of guys say, ‘Hey man. I ain’t going back, but I hope you find him,” Northrop said. “The bottom line is Semper Fidelis. Once a Marine, always a Marine and we don’t leave anybody behind…I really fell like this is the most important mission of my life.”
The Jefferson Post will update with details of Northrop’s trip when he returns later this month. Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058.