JEFFERSON-Tom Northrop traveled more than a third of the way around the planet, some 8,900 miles, last month to finally solve a nearly five decade old mystery.
He’d spent months this spring researching the events surrounding the Battle of Khe Sanh and the fight for Hill 881, where he and his fellow Marines battled the North Vietnamese Army in the summer of 1968.
Armed with memories, intelligence reports and the latest technology, he returned to the country in early June with his old Platoon Commander Frank Ahearn and an international team of specialists to find the remains of a Marine they’d inadvertently left behind during a fierce firefight with NVA forces 48 years ago.
He said he was confident the team would be able to determine the spot where Tom Mahoney, at the time a 20-year old Marine from Oakland, CA, was killed on July 6, 1968.
“That’s right up until we got to the base of the hill,” Northrop said. “Some of the ridges were under cloud cover and everything, I mean everything, was covered in vegetation that wasn’t there 50 years ago. Frank and I looked at each other and said, ‘Here we go.”
The last time Northrop and Ahearn were combing over the same patch of ground was when both were assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion 1st Marines (1/1). The group 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.
The 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.
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. At some point, Tom Mahoney, 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 in previous interviews. “And sometimes that’s all it takes.”
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. By 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 – especially Ahearn – 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.
Return to Vietnam
Northrop said the realization of leaving a man behind is the stuff nightmares are made of.
At least two previous searches for Mahoney’s remains have been attempted over the years but both came up short.
When the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency – that’s the U.S. government group that continually searches for and returns the remains of servicemen the world over – reached out to him to help with the search for Mahoney earlier this year, he said he jumped at the chance.
“I said I’d never go back to Vietnam,” Northrop said. “You don’t know how you’ll react until you get there, and that’s something you worry about. But if I could help find Mahoney, in any way, it was something I had to do.”
He rendezvoused with Ahearn and a group of American and Vietnamese investigators in Vietnam – a glitzy, modern country that he said was nothing like the war torn region he’d remembered – the second week of June.
“And the people – they were so gracious and you can tell that helping with these kinds of efforts are important to them,” Northrop said.
The international group later traveled to Hill 881 and climbed its now thickly wooded slopes.
“Mahoney fell just beyond the gate, just outside the wire,” Northrop said. “So if we could follow the trench line and find the gate, we thought we’d have a pretty good chance of finding, roughly, the spot where he was killed.”
The only problem? Hill 881 is now covered in densely packed trees, shrubs and vegetation that obscured landmarks and made climbing the battle site slow going.
The team later stumbled over giant impact craters left by the 1,000 pound bomb U.S. forces had dropped after they’d left the hill, along with a belt of 50 caliber round, bomb fragments and both halves of a rocket.
“We found a caved in bunker followed that around…and ultimately found the other side of the trench line,” Northrop said. “And Frank ended up reaching this spot, the same spot where he’d crawled on his hands and knees trying to reach out to Mahoney, and he said this is it right here.”
No digging – at least not yet
Northrop said he understands – but is still disappointed – with what happened next.
“We were told we were witnesses and it was our job to lead the team to the site we thought was going to be the spot,” Northrop said. “And that was as far as it was going to go, at least for a while.”
Northrop said the DPAA has active investigations in multiple countries around the globe, but the agency simply cannot begin digging on a whim.
“We’re still guests in these countries and they go out of their way to help us any way they can,” Northrop said. “But there is still a process you have to follow. It’s frustrating, yes, but you can also understand it.”
Northrop said investigators will now consider a recommendation to further investigate the area identified by Ahearn and Northrop. If that gets the OK, then the dig will be authorized at some time in the future, which could be 2-3 years depending on the number of active investigations, he said.
Northrop said he was encouraged by a talk with a DPAA anthropologist who said while Mahoney’s bones likely haven’t survived this long, his teeth, boots and dogtags probably have.
“And they have his sister’s DNA, so if they find his teeth they will be able to conclusively say this is Mahoney or it’s not,” Northrop said.
Now that he’s back in the United States and has had time to reflect on what he’s learned in recent weeks, Northrop said he is more confident than ever that Mahoney will be returned to his homeland. It’ll just take a little longer than he first anticipated.
“It was a learning experience but it’s a trip I’m glad I took,” Northrop said. “I had a lot of guys tell me before I left that they’d never go back, and I felt that way for a lot of years. But man, I’m telling you, if it’s something you’ve been worried about, go. It’s a different place and it was good for me to get over there again.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058.