Mike Archer’s 2005 book A Patch of Ground described the quixotic battle of Khe Sanh, which Archer experienced with his high school friend and fellow Marine, Thomas Mahoney, who vanished after the battle. Archer now follows up with The Long Goodbye, describing his subsequent effort to discover his friend’s fate, a quest made easier by the assistance of the Vietnamese. Sundance Books will host a book signing for Archer at 2 p.m. on Sat., March 26.
Tell me about your friend.
Tom was very popular in high school. … It elevated my self esteem that a guy like Tom would think that I could get through boot camp with him. … [H]e was the most popular person in the platoon. And as an example of that, almost every one of them—and I interviewed them all separately—almost every one of them said one version—a variation of, “He was always worried about everybody,” “He would do anything for his buddy.” And he would even tell me that when they would go out on patrols, get into firefights, he wouldn’t go to sleep until he counted heads of people coming back, to make sure everybody was back safely. That’s the way he was until the end.
What was his mindset like at the end?
He was very discouraged, as many of us were by then. … But he was mostly discouraged because the American military—Gen. [William] Westmoreland had put all of their chips, so to speak, on a victory at Khe Sanh that would end the war. And so huge numbers of Americans and Vietnamese were sacrificed there to that end. And in June of 1968 when Westmoreland left … his replacement Gen. Abrams immediately called for the closing of Khe Sanh base. And Tom had to sit on a hill nearby and witness that happening, knowing the sacrifices that had been made, and he was very discouraged. … [His girlfriend] had gotten involved with anti-Vietnam war activities and she was very, very passionate about that. She wrote him a letter, said she never wanted to see him again, and called him a baby killer and all these other epithets, right at the moment that Tom was experiencing this incredible feeling of disgust and discouragement about the situation at Khe Sanh.
You actually met the person who killed him.
Technically—there were five people there. … The very day, the very hour that they were leaving the hill, for some reason—still, which I guess is the gist of the story—Tom walked outside the barbed wire on that hill and was shot by North Vietnamese soldiers waiting there to actually shoot down the evacuation helicopter. There were two men there—Mr. Thanh and Mr. Luong. Mr. Luong was a team leader. He told Thanh, “Hold it.” He actually shot Tom, and Thanh ran up and dragged Tom’s body down. … So technically, he [Thanh] didn’t pull the trigger. But, yes, I met him and actually befriended him.
Was that difficult?
Dennis, that’s a really good question. … And I think I gave it a lot of thought. I interviewed Thanh three times [the last time by phone]. … And I told him, I said, “Mr. Thanh, I appreciate—I hope this didn’t bring up a lot of bad memories—but I appreciate your doing this.” And he said that, “I think this story has to be told, that our children and their children have to know about what happened.” And he said—and this really blew me away—he said, “I have a great respect for you for wanting to keep the memory of your friend alive.” And I was, you know, I was overwhelmed. I’d met some former NVA soldiers, and I knew that they were very decent people—much different than what I thought when I left Vietnam. I thought they were all, like, soulless automatons of, you know, totalitarianism. … But, anyway, to answer your question, there was a pause on the phone, and I thanked him. And then I asked myself, “What am I feeling?” And I wasn’t feeling anger. I wasn’t feeling anything at all. And that’s what I thought was probably the best, for the first time in probably 36 years, at that time. That was the best thing I could have been feeling. I wasn’t feeling anything. It’s hard to explain.