A galloglass was a professional warrior hired by an Irish chief. The practice of employing such men became common in the decades following the Norman invasion, when it became obvious that heavily armed and mail-clad fighters were needed to contest the battlefield. One Irish contemporary described how the Gaels of Ireland had gone into battle “clad in fine linen garments, the foreigners in one mass of iron.”
Several Irish families became famous for their work as galloglasses. One was the MacSuibhne family, an irony because Suibhne is a Gaelic word meaning pleasant. The surname was most often Anglicized as MacSweeney or MacSwiney, but occasionally as MacWhinney and, later, Mawhinney. Carrying whichever form of the surname, hundreds of these folks washed up on American shores during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Charles Mawhinney was born in Lake view, Oregon, a pleasant town of some 2,500 souls that sits astride Highway 395 about a dozen miles north of the California line. The nearly mile-high community is the commercial center for a surrounding area devoted to hay farming, cattle ranching, and timber harvesting. It was here that Mawhinney grew up, hunting and trapping in his free time. His father, a Marine sniper in World War II, trained him to shoot at an early age. The young Mawhinney became a deadeye.
Upon graduation from high school in 1967 Mawhinney went to the nearest recruiting office to enlist. When he asked a Marine recruiter if he was in the right line to sign up for the Navy, the recruiter told him to get out of the Marine line, because he clearly didn’t have what it took to become a Marine. Minutes later, Mawhinney was enlisting in the Corps.
Sent to Vietnam in 1968, Mawhinney was soon in action as a sniper. He killed the enemy so they would not be alive to kill his buddies. As he put it, “Thou shall not kill my Marines.” In the An Hoa basin, he found enemy combatants everywhere in strength, and they were usually well-trained NVA regulars. Much of the time he thought there was no way he would ever get home. He also thought he would make the enemy pay a terrible price to kill the lanky lad from Lakeview.
As a sniper Mawhinney was on his own for days—occasionally weeks—at a time. He liked it that way. He felt confident in his abilities and chafed under restrictions and anything that demanded spit and polish. His skill at hunting and killing the enemy was exceptional. He never seemed to miss.
His most successful mission was one his CO had argued against. Word had come that a large NVA force was approaching the area occupied by Mawhinney’s company, which was at only half strength. Thunderclouds filled the night sky, occasionally illuminated by flashes of lightning. The Thu-Bôn River, swollen by recent rains, separated the Marines from the approaching enemy, and Mawhinney knew well the one spot that would be shallow enough to allow a crossing. He could pick off the NVA soldiers as they waded through the water. His CO called the mission suicidal, but eventually gave Mawhinney a green light.
A master of camouflage and concealment, Mawhinney had soon positioned himself at the ford. Presently, a lone scout arrived, studied the opposite bank, and waded across. For several minutes he gazed intently at all around him and listened. At one point he was staring directly at Mawhinney, who had him in his sights, but after some seconds the scout turned and recrossed the river. Mawhinney didn’t know whether the scout had seen him but hoped for the best and remained in position.
Some minutes later the scout was back, followed by a long line of troops. One by one they entered the river, each holding his rifle high overhead. After a few steps they were up to their necks in water. Mawhinney waited until more than a dozen NVA were in the river and then opened fire with an M-14 rather than his regular, single-shot, bolt-action sniper rifle. He knew this would have to be rapid-fire if he was to stand any chance of success. He squeezed off 16 rounds, and each blew a hole through an enemy’s head. “Evidently, that intimidated the rest of the unit,” said Mawhinney, “and they all pulled out during the night.”
Before Mawhinney left Vietnam he was credited with 103 confirmed kills and 216 probables, making him the most prolific Marine sniper in history—yet the general public knows nothing of his existence. Moreover, with the high-tech equipment in use today many, if not most, of those probables would have been confirmed, and it is likely that Mawhinney would have far exceeded the total of 160 recorded by the now-famous Chris Kyle. When discharged, Mawhinney returned to Oregon and went to work for the U.S. Forest Service. He married and had three children. He lived quietly and sought neither fame nor fortune. Most of those who worked with him didn’t even know he had been in the service.
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