In a major, four-part series of articles based on US Military documents and eyewitness reports, the Toledo, Ohio (U.S.) "Blade" newspaper has exposed massive evidence of widespread war crimes committed during the Vietnam War by an elite US military unit known as "Tiger Force".
The "Blade"'s report began on 19 October 2003 and will run through this Wednesday. Here are excerpts from one of the first stories, entitled "Rogue GIs unleashed wave of terror in Central Highlands" by Michael D. Sallah and Mitch Weiss (Copyright The Blade 2003):
"QUANG NGAI, Vietnam - For the 10 elderly farmers in the rice paddy, there was nowhere to hide.
The river stretched along one side, mountains on the other.
Approaching quickly in between were the soldiers - an elite U.S. Army unit known as Tiger Force.
Though the farmers were not carrying weapons, it didn't matter: No one was safe when the special force arrived on July 28, 1967.
With bullets flying, the farmers - slowed by the thick, green plants and muck - dropped one by one to the ground.
Within minutes, it was over. Four were dead, others wounded. Some survived by lying motionless in the mud.
Four soldiers later recalled the assault.
'We knew the farmers were not armed to begin with,' one said, 'but we shot them anyway.'
The unprovoked attack was one of many carried out by the decorated unit in the Vietnam War, an eight-month investigation by The Blade shows.
The platoon - a small, highly trained unit of 45 paratroopers created to spy on enemy forces - violently lost control between May and November, 1967.
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.
They dropped grenades into underground bunkers where women and children were hiding - creating mass graves - and shot unarmed civilians, in some cases as they begged for their lives.
They frequently tortured and shot prisoners, severing ears and scalps for souvenirs.
A review of thousands of classified Army documents, National Archives records, and radio logs reveals a fighting unit that carried out the longest series of atrocities in the Vietnam War - and commanders who
looked the other way.
For 41/2 years, the Army investigated the platoon, finding numerous eyewitnesses and substantiating war crimes. But in the end, no one was prosecuted, the case buried in the archives for three decades.
No one knows how many unarmed men, women, and children were killed by platoon members 36 years ago.
At least 81 were fatally shot or stabbed, records show, but many others were killed in what were clear violations of U.S. military law and the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
Based on more than 100 interviews with The Blade of former Tiger Force soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, the platoon is estimated to have killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in those seven months.
'We weren't keeping count,' said former Pvt. Ken Kerney, a California firefighter. 'I knew it was wrong, but it was an acceptable practice.'.......
"Among the newspaper's findings:
_Commanders knew about the platoon's atrocities in 1967, and in some cases, encouraged the soldiers to continue the violence.
_Two soldiers who tried to stop the atrocities were warned by their commanders to remain quiet before transferring to other units.
_The Army investigated 30 war-crime allegations against Tiger Force between February, 1971, and June, 1975, finding a total of 18 soldiers committed crimes, including murder and assault. But no one was ever charged.
_Six platoon soldiers suspected of war crimes - including an officer - were allowed to resign during the investigation, escaping military prosecution.
_The findings of the investigation were sent to the offices of the secretary of the Army and the secretary of defense, records show, but no action was taken.
_Top White House officials, including John Dean, former chief counsel to President Richard Nixon, repeatedly were sent reports on the progress of the investigation.
To this day, the Army's Criminal Investigation Command refuses to release thousands of records that could explain what happened and why the case was dropped. Army spokesman Joe Burlas said last week it may have been difficult to press charges, but he couldn't explain flaws in the investigation.
The Army interviewed 137 witnesses and tracked down former Tiger Force members in more than 60 cities around the world.
But for the past three decades, the case has not even been a footnote in the annals of one of the nation's most divisive wars.
Thirty years after U.S. combat units left Vietnam, the elderly farmers of the Song Ve Valley live with memories of the platoon that passed through their hamlets so long ago.
Nguyen Dam, now 66, recalls running as the soldiers fired into the rice paddy that summer day in 1967. 'I am still angry,' he said, waving his arms. 'Our people didn't deserve to die that way. We were farmers. We
were not soldiers. We didn't hurt anyone.'
But one former soldier offers no apologies for the platoon's actions.
William Doyle, a former Tiger Force sergeant now living in Missouri, said he killed so many civilians he lost count.
'We were living day to day. We didn't expect to live. Nobody out there with any brains expected to live,' he said in a recent interview. 'So you did any goddamn thing you felt like doing - especially to stay alive. The way to live is to kill because you don't have to worry about anybody who's dead.'........
"The Quang Ngai province stretches eastward from the lush, green mountains to the sweeping white beaches of the South China Sea.
To the villagers, it was revered, ancestral land that had been farmed for generations.
To the North Vietnamese, it was a major supply line to guerrillas fighting to reunite the country.
To the U.S. military, it was an area of jungles and river valleys that had to be controlled to stop the communist infiltration of South Vietnam. Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, created a special task force in 1967 to secure the province.
In a conflict marked by fierce guerrilla warfare, the task force needed a special unit to move quickly through the jungles, find the enemy, and set up ambushes. That role fell to Tiger Force.
Considered an elite arm of the 101st Airborne Division, the platoon - formed in 1965 - often broke into small teams to scout the enemy, creeping into the jungle in tiger-striped fatigues, soft-brimmed hats,
with rations to last 30 days.
Not everyone could join the platoon: Soldiers had to volunteer, needed combat experience, and were subjected to a battery of questions - some about their willingness to kill.....
"No one knows what set off the events that led to the deaths of untold numbers of civilians and prisoners.
But less than a week after setting up camp in the province, Tiger Force members began to break the rules of war.
It started with prisoners.
During a morning patrol on May 8, the soldiers spotted two suspected Viet Cong - the local militia opposed to U.S. intervention - along the Song Tra Cau River. One jumped into the water and escaped through an underwater tunnel, but the other was captured.
Taller and more muscular than most Vietnamese, the soldier was believed to be Chinese.
Over the next two days, he was repeatedly beaten and tortured. At one point, his captors debated whether to blow him up with explosives, according to sworn witness statements.
One former soldier, Spec. William Carpenter, told The Blade he tried to keep the prisoner alive, 'but I knew his time was up.'
After he was ordered to run - and told he was free - he was shot by several unidentified soldiers.
The platoon's treatment of the detainee - his beating and execution - became the unit's operating procedure in the ensuing months.
Time and again, Tiger Force soldiers talked about the executions of captured soldiers - so many, investigators were hard pressed to place a
number on the toll.
In June, Pvt. Sam Ybarra slit the throat of a prisoner with a hunting knife before scalping him - placing the scalp on the end of a rifle, soldiers said in sworn statements. Ybarra refused to talk to Army investigators about the case.
Another prisoner was ordered to dig bunkers, then beaten with a shovel before he was shot to death, records state.
The killing prompted a medic to talk to a chaplain. 'It upset me so much to watch him die,' Barry Bowman said in a recent interview.
One Tiger Force soldier, Sgt. Forrest Miller, told investigators the killing of prisoners was 'an unwritten law.'
But platoon members weren't just executing prisoners: They began to target unarmed civilians.
In June, an elderly man in black robes and believed to be a Buddhist monk was shot to death after he complained to soldiers about the treatment of villagers. A grenade was placed on his body to disguise him as an enemy soldier, platoon members told investigators.
That same month, Ybarra shot and killed a 15-year-old boy near the village of Duc Pho, reports state. He later told soldiers he shot the youth because he wanted the teenager's tennis shoes.
The shoes didn't fit, but Ybarra ended up carrying out what became a ritual among platoon members: He cut off the teenager's ears and placed them in a ration bag, Specialist Carpenter told investigators.
During the Army's investigation of Tiger Force, 27 soldiers said the severing of ears from dead Vietnamese became an accepted practice. One
reason: to scare the Vietnamese.
Platoon members strung the ears on shoe laces to wear around their necks, reports state.
Former platoon medic Larry Cottingham told investigators: 'There was a period when just about everyone had a necklace of ears.'
Records show soldiers began another gruesome practice: Kicking out the teeth of dead civilians for their gold fillings....
"The Army's plan was to force the villagers to move to refugee centers to keep them from growing rice that could feed the enemy. But it wouldn't be an easy assignment.
Many villagers refused to go to the centers, which the U.S. State Department criticized in 1967 for lacking food and shelter. Surrounded by concrete walls and barbed wire, the camps resembled prisons.
Though the Army dropped leaflets from helicopters ordering the 5,000 inhabitants to the centers, many ignored the orders. 'They wanted to stay on their land. They took no side in the war,' Lu Thuan, 67, a farmer, recently recalled.
Unlike most of the province, the valley - removed from the populated coast by narrow dirt roads - was not a center of rebellion, say villagers and historians. 'We just wanted to be left alone,' said Mr. Lu.
Lieutenant executed unarmed, elderly man
But no one was left alone.
The Song Ve Valley - four miles wide by six miles long - became the center of operations for Tiger Force over the next two months.
In clearing the land, the soldiers began burning villages to force the people to leave.
It didn't always go as planned.
At times, villagers would simply flee to another hamlet. Other times, they would hide.
For the soldiers, the valley became a frustrating place.
During the day, they would round up people to send to relocation camps.
At night, platoon members huddled in camps on the valley floor, dodging grenades hurled from enemy soldiers in the mountains.
The lines between civilians refusing to leave and the enemy became increasingly blurred.
One night, the platoon ran into an elderly carpenter who had just crossed the shallow Song Ve River. Dao Hue, as he was known, had lived in the valley his entire life.
He was walking to his village along the banks of the river on a dirt trail he knew by heart.
On this night, he wouldn't make it home.
His shooting death on July 23 as he pleaded for his life would be remembered by five soldiers during the Army's investigation.
It would also send a message to the people of the valley that no one was safe, leading hundreds to flee.
The platoon had been patrolling the valley and set up camp in an abandoned village, where they began drinking beer delivered by helicopter. By dusk, several soldiers were drunk, reports state.
At nightfall, the platoon received an unexpected order: Move across the river, and set up an ambush. What followed was a shooting that would be questioned by soldiers long after they left Vietnam.
When Mr. Dao crossed the river, he ran into Sgt. Leo Heaney, who grabbed the elderly Vietnamese man with the gray beard.
Immediately, the 68-year-old carpenter dropped his shoulder pole with baskets on each end filled with geese.
'He was terrified and folded his hands and started what appeared to me as praying for mercy in a loud high-pitched tone,' Mr. Heaney told Army investigators.
He said he realized the man posed no threat.
Sergeant Heaney said he escorted Mr. Dao to the platoon leaders, Lieutenant Hawkins and Sgt. Harold Trout. Trembling, the man continued to babble loudly, witnesses said.
Immediately, Lieutenant Hawkins began shaking the old man and cursing at him, witnesses recalled. Without warning, Sergeant Trout clubbed Mr. Dao with the barrel of his M-16 rifle.
He fell to the ground, covered with blood.
In a sworn statement to investigators, Specialist Carpenter said he told Lieutenant Hawkins the man "was just a farmer, and was unarmed."
But as medic Barry Bowman tried to treat the villager's head wound, Lieutenant Hawkins lifted the man up from where he was kneeling and shot him in the face with a Carbine-15 rifle.
'The old man fell backwards on the ground, and Hawkins shot him again,' Specialist Carpenter said in a sworn statement. 'I just knew he was dead as half of his head was blown off.'
Lieutenant Hawkins denied the allegations in an interview with Army investigators on March 16, 1973. But in a recent interview with The Blade, he admitted killing the elderly man, claiming his voice was loud
enough to draw enemy attention.
'I eliminated that right there.'
But four soldiers told investigators there were other ways to silence him. In fact, the shots ultimately gave their position away, which led to a firefight.
Said Mr. Bowman: 'There was no justifiable reason that the old man had to be killed.'
Nearly four decades later, the villagers who found Mr. Dao's remains said they knew he was killed by U.S. soldiers.
His niece, Tam Hau, now 70, was one of the first to see her uncle's body by the river the next day.
She and another relative, Bui Quang Truong, dragged their uncle's remains to their village. 'He was shot all over his body,' she recalled. 'It was very sad - sad for all of us.'"
The "Blade"'s report includes mp3s of soldiers recounting the atrocities, photos of the unit in action and more chilling details of what counterinsurgency warfare is really all about.
Note: It is interesting to analyse the title of this first article: "Rogue GIs unleashed wave of terror in Central Highlands". This is intentionally misleading; the series of articles points out that the soldiers were urged by the unit commanders to kill as many people as possible... the atrocities later committed were reported to senior officers by dissenting members of the unit... those officers covered up the atrocity reports... members of the unit were subsequently awarded medals for their actions by senior commanders... and the Pentagon's own officers charged with the responsibility for investigating the "possible" war crimes committed by "Tiger Force" urged the soldier-witnesses to lie about what they had seen!
In fact, the Pentagon was involved in a desperate attempt to create a "buffer zone" between North and South Vietnam in which the entire civilian population was either removed or destroyed in order to deny the Viet Cong any possible means of subsistence in that area. The village of My Lai sits right in the middle of the area in which "Tiger Force" was operating; check out the maps of the region on the "Blade"'s "Tiger Force Homepage". These war crimes weren't the action of "rogue GIs", but were in fact carried out with the consent and guidance of senior commanders in the field.
You can be sure that everywhere the Pentagon deploys troops for combat activities, there are certain units which are given "carte blanche" to commit acts of sabotage, torture, murder and assassination. "Elite" military units like the "Green Berets", NAVY SEALS, various units of the Marines and the like are highly trained death squads. They are capable of anything and more than willing to commit incredible atrocities. That's why the Pentagon wishes its forces to be explicitly excluded from any future prosecutions by the International War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague!
It would not surprise me at all to find out that the bombing of the UN's headquarters in Iraq was carried out by one of these units!
You can find the entire series' homepage at: http://www.toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=SRTIGERFORCE
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