The native of Lakeview, Oregon, recorded 103 confirmed kills in Vietnam over the span of 16 months in 1968 and 1969. By the time he returned home he had also been credited with another 216 “probable kills” — classification for incidents in which confirming a kill jeopardized safety — a lofty number that included 16 headshots in a single day near the An Hoa base outside Da Nang.
Despite the prowess he consistently displayed looking through the reticle pattern of his Remington M40 sniper rifle, the hunter from the backwoods of Oregon almost never became a Marine. Mawhinney originally had designs on joining the Navy, but changed his mind only when a Marine recruiter promised him he could hold off on enlisting until after deer hunting season.
Once he signed on the dotted line, the marksmanship came naturally.
“My father was a Marine during World War II,” Mawhinney told American Rifleman in 2012. “I started shooting at a very young age, and he taught me to shoot like the Marines taught him, so there wasn’t any big transition from hunting in Oregon to becoming a sniper.”
Soon after enlisting, Mawhinney deployed to Vietnam during the tumultuous period following the Tet Offensive. It took very little time for the Marine to get acclimated.
“It was the ultimate hunting trip: a man hunting another man who was hunting me,” Mawhinney told the LA Times in 2000. “Don’t talk to me about hunting lions or elephants; they don’t fight back with rifles and scopes. I just loved it.”
Mawhinney quickly became known among his unit for exhibiting a mastery of stalking the enemy. Covered and concealed, he and his partner would remain motionless, sometimes for hours at a time, in the thick brush and heat of the Vietnam jungle while tracking enemy movements.
“You get to the point where you start living like an animal. You act like an animal, you work like an animal, you are an animal. All you think about is killing," he told the LA Times.
“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.”
Mawhinney’s legendary status among his Marines, however, did not extend to those outside of his deployment’s inner circle. In fact, very few people, including his closest friends back home, knew anything about Mawhinney’s exploits in Vietnam. That all changed when a friend and fellow Marine sniper, Joseph Ward, published a book in 1991 that briefly mentioned the surgical precision of Mawhinney’s marksmanship.
After more than two decades in the shadows, the Corps’ deadliest sniper who had enjoyed total anonymity was suddenly in the public eye. And yet his exposure did not come without its own controversy. In his book, Ward listed his close friend’s confirmed kill count as 101, a number that aggravated record-keepers who insisted Hathcock’s 93 confirmed kills were tops in the service.
The uncertainty of Ward’s claims led to the investigation of Marine Corps records that, by then, were nearly 25 years old. The unearthed records confirmed that the number of kills written about by Ward was indeed incorrect — it was two shy of the real number.
In the aftermath of being publicly outed, Mawhinney gradually told friends and family the real story. Each had a hard time believing their calm, unassuming neighbor could be capable of the things being said about him.
Still, it was not a lust for combat that compelled Mawhinney to become one of the deadliest Marines ever, he told the LA Times. Saving his Marines meant accomplishing his mission. And if killing one enemy could crush the fighting spirit of the 10 other combatants who watched him crumple to the ground, then Mawhinney was doing his job.
He just happened to be damned good at it.