Pentagon archive lists Vietnam atrocities

Once-secret documents from 1970s detail 320 alleged incidents involving U.S. forces

August 06, 2006|By NICK TURSE AND DEBORAH NELSON | NICK TURSE AND DEBORAH NELSON,LOS ANGELES 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 and lit a cigarette.

Just then, the voice of a lieutenant crackled across the radio. He said he had rounded up 19 civilians and wanted to know what to do with them. Henry 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. 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.

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 in all, it includes investigative files, sworn statements by witnesses and status reports for top military brass.

The records describe recurrent attacks on ordinary Vietnamese. Hundreds of soldiers, in interviews with investigators and letters to commanders, described a violent minority who murdered, raped and tortured.

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

Ret. Brig. Gen. John H. Johns, a Vietnam veteran who served on the task force, said 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," said 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.

Investigators determined that evidence against 203 soldiers accused of harming Vietnamese civilians or prisoners was strong enough to warrant formal charges. Fifty-seven of them were court-martialed and 22 convicted, the records show.

Fourteen received prison sentences ranging from six months to 20 years, but most won significant reductions on appeal. 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, said Steven Chucala, who in the early '70s was legal adviser to the commanding officer of the Army's Criminal Investigation Division.

"Everyone wanted Vietnam to go away," said Chucala, now a civilian attorney for the Army at Fort 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 former soldiers could be prosecuted through courts-martial, military commissions or tribunals.

Top Army brass should have demanded a tougher response, said retired Lt. Gen. Robert G. Gard, the highest-ranking member of the Pentagon task force in the early 1970s.

In March 1968, members of the 23rd Infantry Division slaughtered about 500 Vietnamese civilians in the hamlet of My Lai. Reporter Seymour Hersh exposed the massacre the next year.

By then, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam at the time of My Lai, had become Army chief of staff. A task force was assembled from his staff to monitor war crimes allegations.

Over the next few years, members of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group reviewed Army investigations and wrote reports and summaries for military brass and the White House.

The records were declassified in 1994, after 20 years as required by law, and moved to the National Archives in College Park, Md.

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