Chuck Mawhinney attempts a disclaimer.
“I just did what I was trained to do,” he says in a tone that is neither defensive nor boastful. “I was in-country a long time in a very hot area. I didn’t do anything special.”
The numbers suggest otherwise.
By all accounts other than his own, Mawhinney is a master of one of the most dangerous, deadly and misunderstood roles in the military.
In 16 months as a Marine Corps sniper in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, he killed 103 of the enemy. Another 216 kills were listed only as probables because it was too risky to take time to search the bodies for weapons and documents.
No other Marine sniper in Vietnam had more confirmed kills of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army regulars than Mawhinney.
Yet for more than two decades after he left the Marine Corps in 1970, nobody except for a few fellow Marines knew of his assignment.
Other snipers have written books or had books written about them. Mawhinney always figured war stories were for wannabes and bores. At home in Oregon, he never told even his closest friends about what he did in Vietnam.
But a tell-all paperback by a friend and fellow Marine sniper--"Dear Mom: A Sniper’s Vietnam,” by Joseph Ward--finally flushed him out.
Even in an age of million-dollar, computer-driven missiles, the ability of one man to kill another with a 20-cent bullet is a much prized skill among military forces. In the ugliness of war making, the sniper is assigned to harass, intimidate and demoralize the enemy, make him afraid to venture into the open, and deny him the chance to rest and regroup.
Mawhinney is now in heavy demand within military circles to describe his techniques, his emotions, his assessment of what he accomplished from ambush.
At first embarrassed and annoyed at losing his privacy, Mawhinney reluctantly decided to tell a cold tale of killing in service to country.
The ‘Ultimate Hunting Trip’
“Once I had a Charlie [slang for Viet Cong] in my scope, it was my job to kill him before he killed me,” said Mawhinney, now 51 and retired from a desk job with the U.S. Forest Service. “I never looked in their eyes, I never stopped to think about whether the guy had a wife or kids.”
A routinely deadly shot from a distance of 300 to 800 yards, Mawhinney had confirmed kills at more than 1,000 yards.
“It was the ultimate hunting trip: a man hunting another man who was hunting me,” he said. “Don’t talk to me about hunting lions or elephants; they don’t fight back with rifles and scopes. I just loved it.”
His manner is straightforward, his deep voice redolent of years of cigarette consumption.
He would much rather be talking sports or deer hunting with a few friends. But for two years in a row he has been the top speaker at an international symposium on sniping, held near Washington, D.C.
So what changed his mind about never rehashing Vietnam?
First, because anonymity was no longer an option, he decided he could help change the public image of snipers as bloodthirsty assassins. A good sniper, Mawhinney said, saves more lives than he takes because he undercuts the enemy’s will or ability to fight.
Second, going public offered a chance to say something that might help some other scared serviceman stay alive someday.
Mawhinney has been a guest of honor at sniper shooting competitions around the country attended by military personnel and members of police SWAT squads. He went to the Czech Republic to meet with soldiers and police from newly emerging democracies.
He was invited last year to talk to snipers in training at the Marines’ Camp Pendleton and the Army’s Ft. Carson in Colorado.
“I give them Chuck Mawhinney’s three rules of becoming a good sniper: Practice, practice and more practice,” he said.
Sniping has been a military tactic for centuries. Lore holds that 500 years ago Leonardo da Vinci, using a gun of his own design, was a sniper for the Florentines as they resisted an assault by forces of the Holy Roman Empire.
Some military thinkers say sniping may be more important than ever in the post-Cold War environment of brush-fire conflicts. The Army, Marines and Navy teach sniping techniques of marksmanship, camouflage and stalking to small groups of elite troops.
On the wall of the Marine sniper school at Camp Pendleton is a Chinese proverb: Kill one man, terrorize a thousand.
On another wall is a framed picture of Mawhinney as a teenage sniper in Vietnam, stripped to the waist in a mock-macho pose with the government-issued Remington M700 bolt-action rifle that he considered “my baby.”
“It’s good for the young Marines to see someone like Chuck who had the intangibles that you need to be a good sniper: heart, backbone, desire and discipline.” said Gunnery Sgt. William Skiles, who runs the 30-student sniper school.
Most combat is fought with automatic or semiautomatic weapons capable of spraying bullets in what the Army in Vietnam euphemistically called “mad minutes.”
Snipers generally fire one shot at a time from bolt-action weapons that provide greater accuracy and distance but leave them virtually defenseless against automatic weapons at close range.
In Vietnam, the enemy put a bounty on the head of U.S. snipers. Mawhinney carried a sidearm with a round he could fire into his temple rather than be captured.
Although he winces at comparisons, Mawhinney’s numbers place him in the same category as famed snipers of the past: Russians and Germans at the battle of Stalingrad, British and Germans during the trench warfare of World War I, Marines and their Japanese enemy during the savage island campaigns of World War II.
“Chuck was extremely aggressive,” said retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Mark Limpic, Mawhinney’s squad leader. “He could run a half-mile, stand straight up and shoot offhand and drop somebody at 700 yards. I had a lot of guys who did nothing but bellyache, but Chuck never complained.”
Learning to Hunt Early
Although his father had been a combat Marine in World War II, Mawhinney planned to join the Navy after graduating in June 1967 from high school in the backwoods town of Lakeview, Ore.
But the Marine recruiter made him an offer he could not resist: You can delay boot camp until after deer hunting season.
“Kind of ironic, given where I went and what I did,” Mawhinney said.
Mawhinney had learned to hunt early. “When I was a kid, anything that crawled or flew was fair game.”
An expert marksman in boot camp, he was sent to sniper school at Camp Pendleton. At graduation he received a little red book that purported to be the complete sniper’s manual. Inside was a single admonition: Thou Shalt Kill.
He shipped out to Vietnam during the heavy fighting that followed the Tet Offensive in early 1968. As a sniper, Mawhinney had an uncanny ability to gauge distance, moisture, weather and terrain--factors that determine how much a bullet will rise or drop during flight. He had the patience to wait hours for the right shot. He was scared but exhilarated.
“Normally I would shoot and run, but if I had them at a [long] distance, I wasn’t worried,” Mawhinney said. “I would shoot and then lay there and wait and wait and wait and pretty soon somebody else would start moving toward the body. Then I would shoot again.
“When you fire, your senses start going into overtime: eyes, ears, smell, everything,” he said. “Your vision widens out so you see everything, and you can smell things like you can’t at other times. My rules of engagement were simple: If they had a weapon, they were going down. Except for an NVA paymaster I hit at 900 yards, everyone I killed had a weapon.”
Near the An Hoa base outside Da Nang, he caught a platoon of North Vietnamese Army regulars crossing a stream. He hit 16 with head shots with an M-14, which he often carried in addition to his bolt-action.
The 16 were listed only as probable kills because no officer was there to see their lifeless bodies float by and there was no chance to search the bodies.
He retains an intimate knowledge of what people look like in the throes of death.
“Sometimes, depending on where they’re hit, they’ll just drop and not move,” Mawhinney said. “Nobody dies the same, and I’ve seen it all. I did a lot of mercy-shooting. I wounded people and then cranked another round into them. I didn’t want them crawling around out there.”
From the relative safety of the combat base, Mawhinney and his sniper team partner would venture forth daily into the bush.
Drenched by heat and humidity, sometimes they would stalk the enemy for hours until they could get into range for one or more shots. Other times, they would set up in areas where they knew the enemy would soon be traversing and then remain silent and motionless for hours.
“You get to the point where you start living like an animal,” Mawhinney said. “You act like an animal, you work like an animal, you are an animal. All you think about is killing.”
In the sniper teams an experienced marksman would be paired with a rookie, who manned the binoculars and an automatic weapon for cover fire. The sniper decided when the rookie was ready for his first kill.
Mawhinney trained half a dozen snipers and tried to make sure it was a “confidence shot,” an easy target from about 300 yards. He said he gave all of them the same lecture he had received after his first kill:
“That wasn’t a man you just killed; it was an enemy. This is our job. This is what war is all about. You screw up, you die.”
It was not, by any stretch, a game.
When an overeager platoon leader posted a “kill board” for snipers, Mawhinney objected.
“It started making a competition out of it,” he said. “Some of these young kids wanted to get kills so they were taking chances with their lives. We talked to the squad leader, the platoon sergeant and the [commanding officer], and said ‘This is B.S. Take this board down.’ ”
He eventually became disillusioned with American objectives in Vietnam. Still, he extended his tour of duty twice to help keep his fellow Marines alive.
Not every Marine appreciated the snipers. Some troops hated snipers because they seemed drenched in death. That only added to the relentless pressure on Mawhinney.
“I used to worry about him cracking up,” squad leader Limpic said. “Some guys would come back almost in tears. Chuck would be laughing as he described his kills. Maybe he was trying to cover up his feelings.”
After 16 months as a sniper, a chaplain thought he was suffering combat fatigue. His days of killing were over.
Assigned as a rifle instructor at Camp Pendleton, he had nightmares of being back in Vietnam, trapped in a foxhole and unable to return fire with his bolt-action as enemy rounds poured in. “I could feel the bullets hitting me,” Mawhinney said.
After having been in combat, life in a training battalion, with its emphasis on spit and polish, did not suit him. He left the Corps and returned to rural Oregon, determined to put the war behind.
Within three days of returning, he had a job with the Forest Service, working on a road maintenance crew. He never spoke of Vietnam; after a while, the nightmares went away.
“I felt I was finally home, not like when I would come home on leave from Vietnam and knew I had to go back to that hell,” he said. “I’m not a guy who looks back. Vietnam was something I had to do in that part of my life. I try to do everything 100%. If you’re a sniper, that’s the only way to do it, if you want to stay alive.”
Number of Kills Was Unknown
In the hurly-burly of military demobilization after the Vietnam War, the Marine Corps brass was unaware of Mawhinney’s numbers. Even Mawhinney, who mustered out as a sergeant, did not know his ranking.
It was widely believed in the Corps that the highest tally of confirmed kills was 93 and belonged to Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock, a legendary figure for his marksmanship, his bravery in saving seven Marines from a burning vehicle, and his efforts to establish Corps-wide sniper training.
Hathcock, who died last year at age 57 of multiple sclerosis, was lionized in a 1986 book by Charles Henderson that has an enormous following among younger Marines. The book states that Hathcock’s record of 93 “has never been matched.”
Meanwhile, Ward, without talking to Mawhinney, mentioned him briefly in his book. Relying on memory, Ward wrote that Mawhinney had 101 confirmed kills.
The keepers of the Hathcock legend reacted negatively. One freelance journalist dug into Marine Corps records in an effort to debunk the 101 figure.
The search was possible because snipers were required to provide written reports of their actions. The true number for Mawhinney, it turned out, was 103.
Word moved slowly through the cloistered world of military publications and did not immediately reach Mawhinney’s working-class, former Gold Rush town close to the Idaho border.
But knowing it eventually would, Mawhinney finally gathered a few friends one night and told them, by-the-by, there’s something about me that I’ve never told you before.
He let them spread the word among other friends.
For months afterward, Mawhinney and his wife, Robin, would walk into one of their haunts, a restaurant maybe, a neighborhood tavern or a school meeting, and their friends would fall silent and get guilty, uncomfortable looks.
“People were stunned,” said Mark Spurlock, a contractor.
“It just didn’t compute,” said Debbie Jorgensen, a graphic designer and bookkeeper. “Chuck is such a low-key and nice guy that people couldn’t believe that he was capable of this.”
Mawhinney thought of moving the family to the woods of Wisconsin.
Eventually, though, his friends drifted back, and today the family’s modest home is a hive of neighbors wanting to talk hunting, car repair, or what’s-new-with-you. The Mawhinneys’ Super Bowl party is a neighborhood favorite.
Two years ago Mawhinney retired from the Forest Service. He had worked his way to an administrative job overseeing the motor pool.
His wife is a secretary in the special education program at Baker High School and heavily involved in the Special Olympics for handicapped students. They met and married after he left the Marine Corps and returned to Oregon in 1970.
“You have to remember that Chuck never sought this attention,” said Robin. “It sought him.”
Life for the Mawhinney family--two boys are at home, a third just married--is fishing on the Snake River in the summer, ice-fishing in mountain lakes in winter, and hunting all sorts of game in season. The family has its own smokehouse.
Three decades later, he still associates the smell of gunpowder with shooting from ambush in Vietnam.
The One Who Got Away
Mawhinney’s sharpest memory is of the one who got away.
He had just returned from leave to his 5th Marine Regiment combat base at An Hoa.
The armorer--an enlisted man in charge of maintaining the unit’s rifles--swore that he had not allowed any adjustments to Mawhinney’s rifle in his absence.
Without test-firing the weapon, Mawhinney and his sniper team spotter went out in support of an infantry squad.
From a concealed spot several hundred yards from where a firefight was expected, Mawhinney’s job was to pick off stragglers, reinforcements or any Viet Cong or NVA regular who thought the area provided sanctuary.
About 300 yards away, Mawhinney saw a man in peasant pajamas walking along a rice paddy dike. He looked closer: The man had a rifle on a sling.
“I squeezed off a shot, and I missed,” Mawhinney said. “You talk about eyes--he turned around and looked directly at me in total disbelief. I’m thinking: Why is this s.o.b. still alive? Then I realized that the armorer had [messed] around with my scope, there’s no doubt.”
Mawhinney’s target began to run. Snipers take that as a challenge. They have a motto: Don’t bother to run, you’ll just die tired.
“I shot to the left, I shot to the right, I shot high and I shot low, but finally he turned a corner and disappeared,” Mawhinney said in a tone heavy with regret. “I never touched him. I’ll never forget that look he gave me. It’s one of the few things that bother me about Vietnam.
“I can’t help thinking about how many people that he may have killed later, how many of my friends, how many Marines. He [messed] up and he deserved to die. That still bothers me.”