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Vietnam Horrors: Darker Yet

Declassified papers show U.S. atrocities went far beyond My Lai.

August 06, 2006|Nick Turse and Deborah Nelson | Special to The Times

The men of B Company were in a dangerous state of mind. They had lost five men in a firefight the day before. The morning of Feb. 8, 1968, brought unwelcome orders to resume their sweep of the countryside, a green patchwork of rice paddies along Vietnam's central coast.

They met no resistance as they entered a nondescript settlement in Quang Nam province. So Jamie Henry, a 20-year-old medic, set his rifle down in a hut, unfastened his bandoliers and lighted a cigarette.

Just then, the voice of a lieutenant crackled across the radio. He reported that he had rounded up 19 civilians, and wanted to know what to do with them. Henry later recalled the company commander's response:

Kill anything that moves.

Henry stepped outside the hut and saw a small crowd of women and children. Then the shooting began.

Moments later, the 19 villagers lay dead or dying.

Back home in California, Henry published an account of the slaughter and held a news conference to air his allegations. Yet he and other Vietnam veterans who spoke out about war crimes were branded traitors and fabricators. No one was ever prosecuted for the massacre.

Now, nearly 40 years later, declassified Army files show that Henry was telling the truth -- about the Feb. 8 killings and a series of other atrocities by the men of B Company.

The files are part of a once-secret archive, assembled by a Pentagon task force in the early 1970s, that shows that confirmed atrocities by U.S. forces in Vietnam were more extensive than was previously known.

The documents detail 320 alleged incidents that were substantiated by Army investigators -- not including the most notorious U.S. atrocity, the 1968 My Lai massacre.

Though not a complete accounting of Vietnam war crimes, the archive is the largest such collection to surface to date. About 9,000 pages, it includes investigative files, sworn statements by witnesses and status reports for top military brass.

The records describe recurrent attacks on ordinary Vietnamese -- families in their homes, farmers in rice paddies, teenagers out fishing. Hundreds of soldiers, in interviews with investigators and letters to commanders, described a violent minority who murdered, raped and tortured with impunity.

Abuses were not confined to a few rogue units, a Times review of the files found. They were uncovered in every Army division that operated in Vietnam.

Retired Brig. Gen. John H. Johns, a Vietnam veteran who served on the task force, says he once supported keeping the records secret but now believes they deserve wide attention in light of alleged attacks on civilians and abuse of prisoners in Iraq.

"We can't change current practices unless we acknowledge the past," says Johns, 78.

Among the substantiated cases in the archive:

* Seven massacres from 1967 through 1971 in which at least 137 civilians died.

* Seventy-eight other attacks on noncombatants in which at least 57 were killed, 56 wounded and 15 sexually assaulted.

* One hundred forty-one instances in which U.S. soldiers tortured civilian detainees or prisoners of war with fists, sticks, bats, water or electric shock.

Investigators determined that evidence against 203 soldiers accused of harming Vietnamese civilians or prisoners was strong enough to warrant formal charges. These "founded" cases were referred to the soldiers' superiors for action.

Ultimately, 57 of them were court-martialed and just 23 convicted, the records show.

Fourteen received prison sentences ranging from six months to 20 years, but most won significant reductions on appeal. The stiffest sentence went to a military intelligence interrogator convicted of committing indecent acts on a 13-year-old girl in an interrogation hut in 1967.

He served seven months of a 20-year term, the records show.

Many substantiated cases were closed with a letter of reprimand, a fine or, in more than half the cases, no action at all.

There was little interest in prosecuting Vietnam war crimes, says Steven Chucala, who in the early 1970s was legal advisor to the commanding officer of the Army's Criminal Investigation Division. He says he disagreed with the attitude but understood it.

"Everyone wanted Vietnam to go away," says Chucala, now a civilian attorney for the Army at Ft. Belvoir in Virginia.

In many cases, suspects had left the service. The Army did not attempt to pursue them, despite a written opinion in 1969 by Robert E. Jordan III, then the Army's general counsel, that ex-soldiers could be prosecuted through courts-martial, military commissions or tribunals.

"I don't remember why it didn't go anywhere," says Jordan, now a lawyer in Washington.

Top Army brass should have demanded a tougher response, says retired Lt. Gen. Robert G. Gard, who oversaw the task force as a brigadier general at the Pentagon in the early 1970s.

"We could have court-martialed them but didn't," Gard says of soldiers accused of war crimes. "The whole thing is terribly disturbing."

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