Today’s guest blogger, Mike Archer, is an author, Marine and survivor of the Siege of Khe Sanh. Mike shares information on his books, his friend Tom Mahoney and efforts to find Tom’s remains forty-eight years after Tom disappeared at Khe Sanh.
IN THE CLOSING HOURS of the fight to hold the Khe Sanh Combat Base, after the longest and bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War, Tom Mahoney inexplicably walked away from his platoon, unarmed, and was shot to death by enemy soldiers hiding nearby. His fellow Marines made several desperate attempts to recover their well-liked comrade from under an intense enemy ambush, but were finally forced to leave him behind―though never forgotten.
Tom and I were high school friends who joined the Marines together in June 1967. My latest book, The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited, released in April 2016, and a sequel to my first, A Patch of Ground: Khe Sanh Remembered, chronicles my exhaustive search for answers to his mysterious July 6, 1968 stroll into oblivion. This quest eventually led me though an improbable series of connections: from Tom’s childhood friends and fellow Marines, past the frustration of ineffective attempts by the U.S. government to locate his remains, and eventually teaming up with a Vietnamese psychic intent on communicating with Tom’s “wandering soul.”
Along the way, I discovered the unexpected compassion of former mortal enemies from that battlefield, now wishing to help honor the memory of a lone American among the tens of thousands on both sides who were sacrificed in the great meat grinder of Khe Sanh. Swept up in this increasingly bizarre pursuit of clues, I was drawn back to that infamous battleground and eventually tracked down and interviewed the last remaining eyewitness to Tom Mahoney’s death―one of those who killed him.
In June 2016, the Defense POW-MIA Accountability Agency (DPAA) will be taking three former members of Tom’s unit back to where he was killed on Hill 881 South in an effort to identify the exact site and excavate. It is not the first time the DPAA has searched for Tom’s remains, but it is the first time they have taken witnesses who were on the scene moments after hearing the gunshots that killed him.
An excavation in August 2014 was unsuccessful because the DPAA was looking on the wrong hill. But the expectation of success is higher now, as one of these three Marine veterans of that fight had worked his way to within just a few yards of reaching Tom’s body from under an intense enemy ambush, when darkness fell forcing the men to call off the effort.
Another reason for optimism is a series of successful identifications of remains from the Khe Sanh area by the DPAA over the last eleven months. These three American soldiers were killed at different locations just a few months, and a few miles, from where Tom fell. Vietnamese and Laotians, dealing in the illegal, but booming, bone trade, provided these partial remains; two of the sets confiscated in 1989 and turned over to U.S. officials, where they became part of over one thousand sets of human remains backlogged and being warehoused in the Central Identification Laboratory near Honolulu.
But is there evidence of bones being found on Hill 881 South?
In January 2007, U.S. and Vietnamese MIA researchers met at Khe Sanh with two elders from the village of Lang Ruon, located down a steep slope on the north side of Hill 881 South, about five hundred yards from where Tom’s body was last seen. They told the researchers that after their return to Ruon in the early 1970s, they’d heard nothing about the discovery of remains or the personal effects of an American soldier. However, as the villagers began forays up the hill to collect metal to sell, they regularly saw bones. “Many buffaloes died,” one elder explained, “and when people saw the bones, they were unsure what kind of bones they were.” Perhaps some were collected and sold to bone traders and, although it is a slim possibility, Tom’s remains may already be at the Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu.
But, more likely, they are still on the hill which, unlike the highly acidic deep, rust-colored volcanic soil in the lowlands surrounding it, is comprised of metamorphic rock, like schist, thus giving hope they have been better preserved. Everyone involved in this upcoming mission back to Hill 881 South in a few weeks is very excited and hopeful. I will keep you in the loop as things progress and thanks to so many of you for your interest in The Long Goodbye.
April 13, 2016
MICHAEL ARCHER grew up in northern California and served as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam during 1967-1968. His books include A Patch of Ground: Khe Sanh Remembered, an acclaimed first-person account of the infamous seventy-seven-day siege of that American combat base; A Man of His Word: The Life and Times of Nevada’s Senator William J. Raggio, about one of Nevada’s most courageous, honorable and admired citizens; and The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited, chronicling the author’s search for answers to a friend’s mysterious death at Khe Sanh. Michael lives in Reno and, in addition to his writing, is a staff member with the Senate Committee on Finance at the Nevada State Legislature. You can find out more about Mike Archer and his books at www.michaelarcher.net.
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