Files reveal coverup of Vietnam atrocities
Once-secret Pentagon archive shows that U.S. atrocities in Vietnam were more extensive than previously known.
By Nick Turse, Deborah Nelson
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Sunday, August 06, 2006
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 Pvt. Jamie Henry, a 20-year-old medic, set his rifle down in a hut, unfastened his bandoliers and lighted a cigarette.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Retired Brig. Gen. John Johns, a Vietnam veteran, says he backed secrecy at the time but now thinks records should be revealed. 'We can't change current practices unless we acknowledge the past,' he said.
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 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 he saw.
The files are part of a once-secret archive assembled by a Pentagon task force in the early 1970s. It shows that confirmed atrocities by U.S. forces in Vietnam were more extensive than previously was known publicly.
The documents detail 320 incidents that were substantiated by Army investigators, not including the most notorious U.S. atrocity, the 1968 My Lai massacre.
The records describe recurring 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 weren't 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.
Retired Brig. Gen. John Johns, a Vietnam veteran who served on the task force, said he once supported keeping the records secret but now thinks that 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 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.
Ultimately, 57 of them were court-martialed and just 22 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, said Steven Chucala, who in the early 1970s was legal adviser to the commanding officer of the Army's Criminal Investigation Division. He said he disagreed with the attitude but understood it.
"Everyone wanted Vietnam to go away," said Chucala, now a civilian attorney for the Army at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.
When Henry — who was a medic with B Company of the 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division — finished his tour and arrived at Fort Hood in September 1968, he went to see an Army legal officer to report the atrocities he'd witnessed.
The officer advised him to keep quiet, Henry said, but sent him to see a Criminal Investigation Division agent. The agent wasn't receptive, Henry recalled.
"He wanted to know what I was trying to pull, what I was trying to put over on people, and so I was just quiet. I told him I wouldn't tell him anything, and I wouldn't say anything until I got out of the Army, and I left," Henry said.
Honorably discharged in March 1969, Henry — who had earned a Bronze Star with a V for valor — wrote an account of the massacre for Scanlan's Monthly, a short-lived magazine, that was published Feb. 27, 1970. Henry held a news conference the same day in Los Angeles.
Army investigators interviewed Henry the day after the news conference. His sworn statement filled 10 single-spaced, typed pages. Henry was reinterviewed by an Army investigator in 1972, and he never heard from the Criminal Investigation Division again.
Unknown to Henry, Army investigators pursued his allegations, tracking down members of his old unit over the next 3 1/2 years.
An Army report completed in January 1974 said the evidence showed that the Feb. 8, 1968, massacre did occur. The investigation also confirmed all but one of the other killings that Henry had described. The evidence supported murder charges in five incidents against nine soldiers. But the war crimes records give no indication that action was taken against any of the men named in the report.
Henry said he had no idea he had been vindicated until the Times contacted him in 2005. Last fall, he read the case file.
"I was a wreck for a couple days," Henry, now 59, wrote later in an e-mail. "But it soon passed, and I decided to just keep going with this business. If it was right then, then it still is."