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Ashe County Veterans History Project: Tom Northrop

Tom Northrup's name on blue background with red stars

Tom Northrop's Photos

Tom Northrup's Story

Tom “Tugboat” Northrop, knowing that he would probably soon be drafted anyway, enlisted in the Marines during the fall of 1966 at the age of 21. By November 1967, he began his overseas duty in the hottest part of Vietnam, Con Thien on the DMZ, taking 400 to 700 rounds of enemy artillery every day. In December 1967, he went to Quang Tri and started working in villages as a MEDCAP, even spending nights with the Vietnamese people to protect them.

Along with the dangers of enemy attack, environmental hazards were a constant battle. There were tigers feeding on battle casualties, apes throwing rocks as soldiers moved in on their territory, leeches attaching to exposed skin when passing through the jungle. Soldiers had to keep guard for everything from water buffalo to giant centipedes, and not to mention very large rats that swarmed their bunkers at night.

Tom worked on perimeter watch at Marine Corps camp Phu Bi, a base near the city Hue. There he was involved in heavy warfare during the Tet Offensive of 1968. Fighting was very intense with house-to-house and hand-to-hand combat. The enemy was hard to identify at times, since they were taking helmets and jackets off deceased Marines to use as a disguise, even talking in English. After being there for about ten days, Tom returned home to attend his father’s funeral.

When he returned to Vietnam, he attended a small weapons repair school in Okinawa. Here he was able to spend time with his brother Clarence, who was serving there in the Air Force. At the end of April 1968, he reunited with his unit to help protect hills that surrounded the Khe Sanh Base. On Memorial Day, they were ambushed while heading to assist another Marine unit that was under attack from a large force of the North Vietnam Army. During this battle, thirteen Marines where lost (one soldier, Gatewood, is still MIA) and thirty-two others were wounded.

When orders came to evacuate, everything that could not be carried out had to be destroyed ... bunkers, sh!tters ... trenches caved in. He recalls they had very few supplies and were left for two weeks while waiting for reinforcements. A fellow soldier, Tom Mahoney, was first to be shot when he ventured outside the wire to relieve himself. Napalm and tear gas were dropped when rescue finally came. During the siege of Khe Sanh, Tom (Tugboat) was blown out of a trench line and had to be evacuated with an injury to his hand. He was awarded a silver star for his distinguished combat service.

There were many good men that laid down their lives for us during the Vietnam War, they will be remembered for their bravery and sacrifices. In June of 2016, Tom participated in an investigative trip to Vietnam meant to recover LCpl Mahoney’s remains and bring him home for a proper burial. On returning to those battle hills 48 years later, the entire terrain was different. Jungle forests had grown-up, and climbing to the top of the hill was difficult. After tracing trench lines on each side of the hill, soon a depression in the ground was identified as a bomb crater where the fallen hero’s body lay. The area was marked and after a day of exploration the discoveries made presented strong leads to finding LCpl Mahoney’s body.

Tom Northrup, a.k.a Tugboat, plans to return at a future date when the Vietnamese authorities give permission for further excavation of the area.