Mon, Dec 29, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Report stirs memories of US atrocities

Stories by `The Toledo Blade' have triggered a steady flow of recriminations and finger-pointing over atrocities committed by American soldiers throughout the Vietnam war that were never prosecuted

By John Kifner  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A monument in My Lai, Vietnam, depicts villagers killed during the 1968 massacre by US troops. The massacre, according to many historians and veterans who are now speaking about their actions in the war, was not an exception, but rather was characteristic of the killing of civilians condoned and often ordered by top US commanders.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

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, American troops 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.

"Can you imagine Dodge City without a sheriff?" Kerney asked. "It's just nuts. 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 once again raised questions about the conduct of American troops in Vietnam.

The report, published in October and titled "Rogue G.I.'s 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."

"For seven months, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the Central Highlands, killing scores of unarmed civilians -- in some cases torturing and mutilating them -- in a spate of violence never revealed to the American public," the newspaper said, at other points describing the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians.

"Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers," The Blade said. "Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed -- their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings."

In 1971, the newspaper said, the Army began a criminal investigation that lasted four and a half years. 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.

"The story that I'm not sure is getting out," said Causey, then a medic with the unit, "is that while they're saying this was a ruthless band ravaging the countryside, we were under orders to do it."

Burning huts and villages, shooting civilians and throwing grenades into protective shelters were common tactics for American ground forces throughout Vietnam, they said. That contention is backed up by accounts of journalists, historians and disillusioned troops.

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