You may recognize the name, Bill Mahon. That’s because the Bellmead resident has been in the newspaper many times for his tireless work with veterans and veterans’ issues. He’s also written guest columns about veterans. And if you don’t recognize the man, you’re sure to recognize his car when you see it; it’s a memorial to every war fought by Americans and has a special tribute to Vietnam vets, because he was one.
While bits of his story have been published, the 64-year-old never told it all — until now. He prefers to concentrate on helping fellow veterans. There are some things he refuses to talk about, such as the loss of friends in Vietnam and the devastation he witnessed there. Perhaps that’s because he was so young during the Vietnam War. Mahon, a New Jersey native, was 17 when he signed up for the U.S. Army in November 1968.
As a kid, he played Army games with his brothers (Mahon had 15 brothers and sisters), building forts for his figures. It’s one reason it was prominent in his mind. Another is that his brother, Bob, was injured by an explosion in the battle of A Shau Valley in Vietnam. He survived, but it was the extra incentive Mahon needed to take action. The final reason the military was a clear choice includes his heritage. His father was in World War II, his grandfather in World War I; other relatives fought in various wars.
Re-enlisted as a photographer
Thus, Mahon was in good company. He joined the Cavalry in the Army’s infantry and trained to be a scout, someone who serves as the “ears and eyes” for commanders through reconnaissance and even enemy contact.
After basic training, he served with the 3rd Cavalry in Fort Lewis in Washington state, where he decided he wanted to be a photographer. After 16 weeks of training, he re-enlisted as a photographer and was sent to Vietnam, where he was told, “we don’t need people to shoot film, we need people to shoot bullets.” He went to the 23rd Infantry’s Americal Division of the I Corps as a ground scout with the 1st Squadron/1st Cavalry.
The squadron’s headquarters was based in Chu Lai, Vietnam, and Mahon served at Hawk Hill, a forward operating base. The men would go from Hawk Hill to the jungle and spend between 35 to 40 days in places like Pineapple Forest and Square Lake (soldier’s names for strategic locations) on missions gathering intelligence and participating in ambushes and attacks.
Running for cover
One mission near the Laos border at the Khe Sanh airstrip included protecting it and the area (also called a screening action, he said). They had to fend off artillery and recoilless fire: “We’d hear the guns go off in the distance and run for cover,” he said.
In all, he spent 363 days on his one tour to Vietnam. On his final day in combat, he had participated in an all-night ambush. When it was finally over, he was given his orders to return to the States. He went to Da Nang to catch a flight home, but in the middle of a traffic circle, he saw a Buddhist monk set himself on fire in protest over corrupt government. The event shut everything down, and Mahon missed his flight. He spent his last night in Da Nang in 1971.
It was his Vietnam experience that convinced him to make a career of the service. He went on to serve nearly 21 years, nine of which was in Germany over different time periods. He’s been throughout Germany and spent some time stationed at the east/west German border as a scout with the 11th Cavalry on border patrol.
Mahon also traveled throughout the U.S. with the service, retiring from Fort Sill in Oklahoma as an E-7 sergeant first class in 1989. But his service to veterans was really just beginning. After a stint as a deputy sheriff, he became the McLennan County Veterans Services director. He’s been involved with numerous veterans issues, including leading a fight to keep the Waco Veterans hospital opened.
He’s still active today. He is a member of the VFW 6008 in Hewitt and post commander of the American Legion Post 121 in Elm Mott. He’s an American Legion rider, escorting military funerals, and has managed Veteran Day parades and Memorial Day activities.
He was recently interviewed and involved with an upcoming KWTX Channel 10 special documentary, “We Can’t Forget: Vietnam.” It will include, a helicopter pilot, a medic, a four-star general and survivors of loved ones who died in Vietnam. The documentary is designed to give people a real look at Vietnam veterans.
A screening of the documentary will be held at the Grand Theater in Belton at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 9. A limited number of seats are available: you must have a reservation. Contact Ruthie at KWTX-TV, (254) 776-1130 to make a reservation or for more information.
“Voices of Valor,” which features stories about Central Texas veterans, runs on Sundays. To suggest a story about a Central Texas veteran, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.