BAKER CITY, ORE. — BAKER CITY, Ore. -- "I just did what I was trained to do," Chuck Mawhinney 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, 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. Yet for more than two decades after he left the Marine Corps in 1970, nobody except 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.
On the wall of the Marine sniper school at Camp Pendleton is a Chinese proverb: "Kill one man, terrorize a thousand."
Mawhinney is now in heavy demand within military circles to describe his techniques, his emotions, his assessment of what he accomplished from ambush. For two years he has been the top speaker at an international symposium on sniping, held near Washington. He has been a guest of honor at sniper-shooting competitions 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.
"I give them Chuck Mawhinney's three rules of becoming a good sniper," he says: "Practice, practice and more practice."
He is 51 now and retired from a desk job with the U.S. Forest Service. "Once I had a [Viet Cong] in my scope," he says, "it was my job to kill him before he killed me. 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 says. "Don't talk to me about hunting lions or elephants; they don't fight back with rifles and scopes. I just loved it. I ate it up."
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.
Most combat is fought with automatic or semiautomatic weapons capable of spraying bullets. 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 to fire into his temple rather than be captured.
Although his father had been a combat Marine in World War II, Mawhinney planned to join the Navy after graduation 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.
Mawhinney learned to hunt early. "When I was a kid, anything that crawled or flew was fair game," he said.
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 distance, I wasn't worried," Mawhinney says. "I would shoot and then [lie] 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. 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. They 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 says. 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."
Not every Marine appreciated the snipers. Some troops hated them because snipers seemed drenched in death. That only added to the relentless pressure on Mawhinney. 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 says.
After having been in combat, life in a training battalion, with its spit-and-polish emphasis, 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'm not a guy who looks back," he says. "Vietnam was something I had to do in that part of my life. I try to do everything 100 percent. If you're a sniper, that's the only way to do it, if you want to stay alive."