A Senator's Effort Helps Bring Home The Last Marines Killed In Vietnam In honor of the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, WBUR's Bob Oakes tells the story of Charles McMahon, one of the last Marines to die in Vietnam.
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A Senator's Effort Helps Bring Home The Last Marines Killed In Vietnam

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A Senator's Effort Helps Bring Home The Last Marines Killed In Vietnam

A Senator's Effort Helps Bring Home The Last Marines Killed In Vietnam

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Forty years ago today - April 29, 1975 - two American Marines were killed. They were among the lasting U.S. service members to die in the Vietnam War. One was from Iowa - 19-year-old Darwin Judge. The other was 21-year-old Charles McMahon, who was from Massachusetts.

This week, Bob Oakes of member station WBUR in Boston is in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. And he brings us this story about Cpl. McMahon's life and death, how he was left behind and what it took to bring his remains home.

BOB OAKES, BYLINE: Charlie McMahon and Darwin Judge were part of a security detail at Tan Son Nhut air base, a few miles outside of downtown Saigon. It was before dawn when a North Vietnamese rocket struck their position. It was a direct hit.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: From a hotel rooftop, we saw columns of black smoke rising from the airport area. There were occasional loud explosions, too.

OAKES: The war was supposed to have been over almost two years before. But the North Vietnamese, set to complete their takeover of the South, were firing rockets and artillery to disrupt the evacuation of the last U.S. personnel and their South Vietnamese supporters out of Vietnam. Charlie McMahon had been in Vietnam for just 11 days when he was killed days short of his 22nd birthday.

GEORGE HOLLAND: Charlie was an absolute normal kid.

OAKES: George Holland grew up with Charlie McMahon in Woburn, Mass.

HOLLAND: He had a bike and a dog and a tree house. And in '64 when the club opened, is when I actually met him. We were both 10. And the pool was the main attraction, so we swam together and just became best friends at that time.

OAKES: The pool at the Woburn Boys Club was the center of their lives. McMahon was so good in the pool he became a coach and mentored younger kids. It's also where McMahon met the man who would mentor him; retired Marine, the club's director, Charles Gardner.

CHARLES GARDNER: We were absolutely glued to his stories and just admired his contribution to the country and, you know, the patriotism.

OAKES: Both boys joined up. Holland recalled McMahon was a natural.

HOLLAND: Whenever he came home, he would always tell me bring your dress blues home because we're going out to dinner, you know, in our uniform. His parents would take us out to a nice restaurant. And this was '74ish when being in the military maybe wasn't all that popular at the time. Didn't care - he was so proud to be a Marine and it was obvious, you know, to other Marines that he was.

OAKES: In the Corps, McMahon became a Marine security guard and was assigned to Saigon. He arrived on April 18, 1975, and as a newbie was sent to what was thought to be a relatively safe place - Tan Son Nhut air base. Marine Cpl. John Ghilain was in the same unit stationed at the U.S. embassy a few miles away.

JOHN GHILAIN: My thought process is that they were put in an area where we thought they would be out of harm's way.

OAKES: On the day that McMahon and Judge died, you knew there was trouble out there that day, because I read that you could hear the rocket fire.

GHILAIN: Yes.

OAKES: And when you...

GHILAIN: Oh, you could - from where we were, you could see - you could see the explosions.

OAKES: It's believed Charlie McMahon and Darwin Judge were killed instantly at 3:30 in the morning when a rocket exploded at their post. Judge was badly burned. McMahon's body was shattered. Their remains were taken to a nearby church.

After the North Vietnamese attacked the air base, U.S. evacuation plans changed. Helicopters were forced to fly out of the embassy. And in the confusion, the bodies of the two Marines were left behind. McMahon's family was devastated. Within weeks, they phoned their senator, Edward Kennedy, and asked for help.

PAUL KIRK: I think that was something that came to him almost innately, I would say.

OAKES: That's long-time Kennedy aide Paul Kirk, who would later serve in the Senate himself.

KIRK: Charlie McMahon was obviously a Massachusetts constituent. I think Sen. Kennedy felt he had a special obligation to the family and also I would say that persistence was very much a part of his own constitution.

OAKES: For months, Kennedy barraged officials in South Vietnam, North Vietnam and the U.N. Dale DeHaan worked for Kennedy back then. He says getting the bodies back became almost an obsession for the senator.

DALE DEHAAN: Any channel we had to communicate the need for the repatriation of these Marines was important, and we spent an awful lot of time on pursuing this very important issue for him.

OAKES: Months went by. Then, at the end of 1975, officials in Vietnam informed DeHaan and Kennedy that the remains had been located. Two months later, DeHaan took an Air France charter to Vietnam to collect the bodies. There were two sets of dog tags inside two wooden boxes holding the remains of Darwin Judge and Charlie McMahon. It was February 22, 1976 - by chance, Ted Kennedy's birthday.

DEHAAN: One of the things and that the senator insisted on was he insisted on flags for the caskets. And before we left, the Marine Commandant gave us the flags to use on the caskets before they were put on the plane, so that when they were taken off the Air France they would be draped in the American flag.

OAKES: A few weeks later in early March, Darwin Judge was buried in his hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa. Charlie McMahon, with Kennedy in attendance, was laid to rest in a cemetery just a mile away from what's now the Boys and Girls Club in Woburn, Mass.

In the club, there's a memorial wall in McMahon's memory. It holds the U.S. flag that draped his coffin, his Purple Heart, and what his best friend, George Holland, thinks would be his most prized possession, Charlie McMahon's 1964 Boy's Club membership card. For NPR News, I'm Bob Oakes.

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