Report details atrocities by U.S. in Vietnam

Former soldiers claim they acted under orders

December 28, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Quang Ngai and Quang Nam are provinces in central Vietnam, between the mountains and the sea. Ken Kerney, William Doyle and Rion Causey tell horrific stories about what they saw and did there as soldiers in 1967.

That spring and fall, U.S. soldiers conducted operations there to engage the enemy and drive peasants out of villages and into heavily guarded "strategic hamlets." The goal was to deny the Viet Cong support, shelter and food.

The fighting was intense, and the results, the former soldiers say, were especially brutal. Villages were bombed, burned and destroyed. As the ground troops swept through, in many cases they gunned down men, women and children, sometimes mutilating bodies - cutting off ears to wear on necklaces.

They threw hand grenades into dugout shelters, often killing entire families.

"It's just nuts," Kerney said. "You never had a safe zone. It's shoot too quick or get shot. You're scared all the time, you're humping all the time. You're scared. These things happen."

Doyle said he lost count of the people he killed: "You had to have a strong will to survive. I wanted to live at all costs. That was my primary thing, and I developed it to an instinct."

The two are among a handful of soldiers at the heart of a series of investigative articles by The Toledo Blade that has again raised questions about the conduct of U.S. forces in Vietnam.

The report, published in October and titled "Rogue GIs Unleashed Wave of Terror in Central Highlands," said that in 1967, an elite unit, a reconnaissance platoon in the 101st Airborne Division, went on a rampage that the newspaper described as "the longest series of atrocities in the Vietnam War."

In 1971, the newspaper said, the Army began a criminal investigation that lasted 4 1/2 years, "the longest known war-crime investigation of the Vietnam conflict." Ultimately, the investigators forwarded conclusions that 18 men might face charges, but no courts-martial were brought.

In recent telephone interviews with The New York Times, three of the former soldiers quoted by The Blade confirmed that the articles had accurately described their unit's actions.

But they wanted to make another point: that Tiger Force had not been a "rogue" unit. Its members had done only what they were told, and their superiors knew what they were doing.

Causey, now a nuclear engineer in California, said: "It wasn't like it was hidden. This was open and public behavior. A lot of guys in the 101st were cutting ears. It was a unique time period."

Kerney, now a firefighter in California, agreed that the responsibility went higher.

"I'm talking about the guys with the eagles," he said, referring to the rank insignia of a full colonel. "It was always about the body count. They were saying, `You guys have the green light to do what's right.'"

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