The Story Of The Man Who Fought In His Friend's Place In Vietnam

A member of the 25th division “Wolfhounds” fires a machine gun at Viet Cong positions near Cu Chi, some 25 miles northwest of Saigon in Vietnam on Feb. 27, 1966.
AP Photo

What started as a simple plan between old friends to help one get out of deploying to Vietnam resulted in a case of mistaken identity that took decades to unravel. When Paul Mahar switched places with his drafted friend Frank Clouse, Jr., they hoped it would result in a quick discharge. Instead, Mahar was shipped off to Vietnam as Clouse, where he spent more than a year impersonating an Army soldier.

The story of one man’s sacrifice and service for his friend offers an unseen narrative into contentious national service during Vietnam, showing the deep bonds of friendship and upending the storyline about draft-dodgers versus patriots.

The two men grew up together in North Newark, New Jersey, enjoying a childhood history of youthful scrapes, including a wrestling match that left Mahar with a metal pin in this arm. That pin would prove decisive for both of them later.

After their families moved, the two drifted apart, though they still kept tabs on each other. Mahar eventually dropped out of high school and tried to enlist in the Army in 1965, even though the Vietnam War was starting to involve large numbers of American troops in bloody combat. He was rejected because of the pin in his arm.

He bounced around various jobs in Pittsburgh and New Jersey, while attending his old friend Clouse’s wedding along the way. In 1966, Clouse was drafted, and things took a surreal turn.

“I knew he would eventually come to see me,” Mahar wrote in 1993 in his short autobiography “Scattered Shots.”

Related: 3 fathers and their sons who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Vietnam War.

“It was Frank's way, and the nature of our friendship, and he was still my friend. Frank was usually the one with the ideas, and he usually started to make plans, at least in his mind.”

Clouse showed up at Mahar’s boarding house in New Jersey in uniform, informing him that he was AWOL. He couldn’t bring himself to leave his wife and was scared about what would happen to him in Vietnam. The two of them came up with a plan that seemed ingeniously simple.

After altering Clouse’s records to have Mahar’s height and weight recorded, Mahar would report to Fort Dix pretending to be Clouse and say he had lost his military identification. He would then draw attention to the metal pin in his arm and use that to get a medical discharge. Clouse would be off the hook.

At first all went well. Mahar was accepted at in-processing as Clouse and given a new identification card. But then Mahar found himself being shuffled onto a C-141 on the tarmac of McGuire Air Force Base after being handed a pack of cigarettes. So began his journey to Vietnam, a journey that would last 406 days, without the slightest bit of military training.

Mahar continued to play along, however terrified he must have been. After being assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, he attended a short five-day field orientation course with other replacements.

Mahar knew how important it was that he learn everything he could, watching other soldiers in the field and reading the small handbook for U.S. forces in Vietnam religiously. After the course, he was assigned to Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion 27th Infantry Regiment, or the “Wolfhounds,” which had seen ferocious fighting ultimately leading to the award of two Medals of Honor. His platoon was known as the “dead man’s platoon” because of the casualties it suffered.

Mahar leaned heavily on his squad leader and fellow soldiers to learn everything he was supposed to already have known. Mahar noted his squad leader thought very little of him.

His unit was soon sent to the Iron Triangle, northeast of Cu Chi, enemy territory infested with booby traps and tunnels hidden in the dense jungle. Soldier after soldier he knew fell victim to landmines and improvised explosives.

Mahar proved adept as a tunnel rat. Later, in his memoirs, he wrote: “The words are easy enough to remember. 'the lieutenant wants someone to go down into the tunnel.' The platoon had plenty of volunteers. I was just one of many. But why did I choose to go? I wondered. My self-imposed new identity wouldn't accept ignoring the Lt.'s invitation.”

One such claustrophobic excursion rapidly descended into farce. Worming his way into a tunnel with a .45 and a flashlight, expecting booby traps at every turn, Mahar nearly soiled himself at a “god awful noise.”

“Charlie must have heard me entering his home; He left me a little surprise to slow me down.”

Two feet in front of him was a very upset chicken.

Mahar performed very well as a soldier despite his unorthodox beginnings, being promoted to sergeant in the fastest time possible. He ended up extending his time in the field, so he could be discharged as soon as his tour was over.

After Mahar made it back to New Jersey, he met with Clouse to begin reassuming his identity.

“We reversed ourselves. In 1966 Frank taught me all he knew about the Army of Fort Dix, New Jersey and Fort Polk, Louisiana. I was now teaching him about the Army of Vietnam in 1967.”

The gulf between the two friends had become too big to bridge, and after the switch, they swiftly drifted apart. In 1981, Mahar became nostalgic for his old unit and identity as a soldier, and attempted to contact the media for help in clearing up the mess with the Army. This was to take over a decade of frustration.

After several media appearances, he was told his claim would be investigated by the Board of Correction of Military Records in 1991, a slow process in an Army bureaucracy already notorious for its inertia.

After waiting for two years, the Army confirmed that he had indeed served in Vietnam as somebody else. On Nov. 24, 1993, a board met and determined that Mahar should be given an official military file and an honorable discharge. As a Vietnam veteran, he was official.

Mahar continued to meet with old members of his unit who had supported him in his quest, until his death on Sept. 21, 2004 --- exactly 10 years ago in Coeur d' Alene, Idaho.

It was not unusual during the Vietnam era for people to hire others to take their place in the military, but Mahar had done it as a favor to a friend, and what was supposed to be a quick road to discharge turned into over a year in the mountainous jungles of Vietnam. Their friendship never recovered.

But Mahar had found in that experience a new group of friends with a bond he cherished for the rest of his life. Though he may have fought as Sgt. Clouse, for everyone afterward he was Sgt. Paul Mahar.

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