|April 25, 2001 New
York Times Magazine
One Awful Night in Thanh Phong
By GREGORY L. VISTICA
Pulling the documents within inches of his eyes, he read intently about his time as a member of the Navy Seals and about a mission in 1969 that somehow went horribly wrong. As an inexperienced, 25-year-old lieutenant, Kerrey led a commando team on a raid of an isolated peasant hamlet called Thanh Phong in Vietnam's eastern Mekong Delta. While witnesses and official records give varying accounts of exactly what happened, one thing is certain: around midnight on Feb. 25, 1969, Kerrey and his men killed at least 13 unarmed women and children. The operation was brutal; for months afterward, Kerrey says, he feared going to sleep because of the terrible nightmares that haunted him.
The restless nights are mostly behind him now, his dreams about Vietnam more reflective. One of those, which he says recurs frequently, is about an uncle who disappeared in action during World War II. "In my dream I am about to leave for Vietnam," Kerrey wrote in an e-mail message last December. "He warns me that the greatest danger of war is not losing your life but the taking of others', and that human savagery is a very slippery slope."
Kerrey -- who left the Senate in January and is now president of the New School University in New York -- says he has spent the last three decades wondering if he could have done something different that night in Thanh Phong. "It's far more than guilt," he said that morning in 1998. "It's the shame. You can never, can never get away from it. It darkens your day. I thought dying for your country was the worst thing that could happen to you, and I don't think it is. I think killing for your country can be a lot worse. Because that's the memory that haunts."
Kerrey laid the documents down. He was clearly unsettled not just by their contents but also by the realization that four members of his Seals team had already spoken about the mission. I had heard about Thanh Phong indirectly from one of those men, Gerhard Klann. Klann, the most experienced member of Kerrey's Seals squad, had been so disturbed by his memories of that night that he confided in a commander who, many years later, told the story to me. That in turn spurred the search for the documents. Those were found after a three-month examination of thousands of pages of classified and unclassified Seals reports and communiqués that had been boxed up since the war in the Navy's archives.
The after-action reports provided the first concrete evidence of the terrible events, which Kerrey had hardly addressed even in private conversation, and he reacted testily when asked about it. "There's a part of me that wants to say to you all the memories that I've got are my memories, and I'm not going to talk about them," he said. "We thought we were going over there to fight for the American people. We come back, we find out that the American people didn't want us to do it. And ever since that time we've been poked, prodded, bent, spindled, mutilated, and I don't like it. Part of living with the memory, some of those memories, is to forget them. I've got a right to say to you it's none of your damned business. I carry memories of what I did, and I survive and live based upon lots of different mechanisms."
This first meeting came at a complicated time for Kerrey, who was just days from announcing whether he would make a second run for the presidency and challenge Vice President Al Gore for the 2000 Democratic nomination. Handsome and charismatic, a crafty politician with a keen intellect, Kerrey was widely regarded as an attractive candidate. He was an outspoken Democrat with a strong appeal for independents. There was the glamour of his much-publicized love affair while governor of Nebraska with Debra Winger, the actress. And he was a war hero. Though he rarely wore it, he was a recipient of the Medal of Honor -- awarded to him after he lost part of a leg during his last mission in Vietnam.
Kerrey knew that a race against an incumbent like Gore would be an uphill, nasty struggle. It was mostly this fact, he said, and doubts about his commitment to wage such a difficult campaign, that persuaded him to drop out, which he did just before Christmas. A little more than a year later, he would startle even his friends by announcing that he would not seek a third term in the Senate, despite overwhelmingly favorable poll numbers.
In an interview in January, Kerrey said that his actions in Vietnam had no bearing on his decision to drop out of elective politics, presidential or otherwise. He said he left politics simply because he wanted to pursue other challenges -- particularly in education -- while he was still relatively young.
Over the last two and a half years, Kerrey has spoken at length in three separate interviews -- as well as in numerous telephone calls and several e-mail messages and over dinners -- about what happened in Thanh Phong. After his initial reluctance, he talked willingly, and at times almost confessionally, about the events of Feb. 25, 1969. He did so "not because a public accounting will help me," he wrote in the December e-mail message, "but because it just might help someone else."
It became clear as he talked that he was still wrestling with the events of that night, fighting the vagaries of memory to reconstruct what happened in Thanh Phong and what he could have done to prevent it. He has spoken to very few people about the incident. As this article's publication neared, he began to talk to others, and first spoke publicly about his version of it 11 days ago in a speech to cadets at the Virginia Military Institute. He says the men in his Seals team have only recently begun to discuss Thanh Phong with one another.
Kerrey says he isn't afraid to accept responsibility for the incident or to own up to his role in it. "The only motivating fear I have is that someday I will face my maker. The opinion of other human beings matters, but the less it motivates me the better." He is under no illusions about the repercussions. "It's going to be very interesting to see the reactions to the story. I mean, because basically you're talking about a man who killed innocent civilians."
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n the winter of 1969, a couple of days after the New York Jets won the Super Bowl, a military plane lifted off from the sprawling North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado, Calif. Crammed inside were Kerrey and his gung-ho team, on their way to do battle in Vietnam.
Seals (the name stands for Sea-Air-Land units) commandos began as underwater demolition teams in the Second World War. During the Vietnam era, they evolved into special forces units, trained to operate behind enemy lines, collect intelligence and carry out assassinations. Officially, Kerrey's group was called Delta Platoon, Seals Team One, Fire Team Bravo. Unofficially, they would be dubbed Kerrey's Raiders, in honor of their enthusiastic commanding officer, who was ready to take on Hanoi, as he has said many times, with "a knife in my teeth." Only two of the men, Mike Ambrose and Gerhard Klann, had previous experience on Seals teams in Vietnam. The others -- William H. Tucker III, Gene Peterson, Rick Knepper, a medic named Lloyd Schreier and Kerrey himself -- were flying into the unknown.
Delta Platoon was assigned to the Navy's Task Force 115, based at Cam Ranh Bay and commanded by Capt. Roy Hoffmann, a favorite of Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr., the Navy's top man in Vietnam. Hoffmann was a cigar-chomping officer who brandished an M-16 assault rifle and wore a revolver when he visited troops in the field. "He was the classic body-count guy," Kerrey says. "Bunkers destroyed, hooches destroyed, sort of scorekeeper."
For several weeks, Kerrey and his team operated in the relatively safe environs of Cam Ranh Bay, the Navy's largest base in what was then South Vietnam, about midway up the coast. Then they began looking for a true war mission. They moved south to Cat Lo, a regional Navy command post where one of Hoffmann's senior deputies, Paul Connolly, would oversee their missions. The Navy kept a fleet of "swift boats" a few miles away, in the port of Vung Tau -- 50-foot, aluminum-skinned crafts equipped with two .50-caliber machine guns and twin 480-horsepower Detroit Diesels -- that moved Kerrey's squad on missions in the Mekong Delta.
Vung Tau was the stepping-off point for operations in the "Thanh Phu Secret Zone," a remote section of the Mekong Delta, about 75 miles southeast of Saigon. A lush, tropical region of palm and banana trees, rice paddies and mangrove swamps, it was considered among the most dangerous parts of Vietnam. Five of its eight villages -- including Thanh Phong -- were said to be under the control of the rebel Vietcong forces, according to David Marion, then an Army captain who occupied one of the more sensitive posts in the region.
Marion was the senior American military adviser to Tiet Lun Duc, who, as the Thanh Phu district chief, was the top Vietnamese official in the area. Duc, a 45-year-old military officer trained at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, arrived three months before Kerrey did, determined to drive out the Vietcong by almost any means. Marion says that Duc, whose predecessors had been far more relaxed, came in with the attitude " 'If you are my friend, you will do fine. You support me and the government of Vietnam, we get along O.K. You do not, you're Vietcong, you die.' And those were the rules."
Duc wasn't the only one who wanted to get tough with the Vietcong. In the summer of 1968, Hoffmann complained to his superiors in Pearl Harbor that the prevailing rules of engagement were too constrictive. "This was war," Hoffmann said in an interview last month. "This wasn't Sunday school." He made what he said was a pro forma request for looser rules, which was granted.
Previously, Hoffmann said, military personnel had not been permitted to fire unless they were fired upon. Under the new rules, he said, they could attack if they felt threatened. "I told them you not only have authority, I damned well expect action," Hoffmann recalled. "If there were men there and they didn't kill them or capture them, you'd hear from me."
Duc also re-established much of the Thanh Phu district as a "free-fire zone," which allowed combat pilots and Navy warships to attack any "targets of opportunity," including people and villages, without prior command authority. Peasants in free-fire zones were urged to relocate to government refugee centers, called "strategic hamlets." It was a difficult task, Marion said last month, because "they had been there for generations. They weren't going to leave, and basically they didn't care who was in charge." Those who didn't move to the strategic hamlets were labeled as Vietcong or as enemy sympathizers.
ypically, Navy seals undertook kidnap or assassination missions, looking to eliminate Vietcong leaders from among the local population. These were called "takeouts," Marion says, as in, "come out with me, or you die." Within weeks of Kerrey's arrival in Cat Lo, American and Vietnamese intelligence reported that the senior Vietcong leader in Thanh Phong, the "village secretary," was planning a meeting in the area. Effectively the mayor of the hamlet, the village secretary was a prime target, and Kerrey's squad began planning a "takeout" mission -- their first real action.
Thanh Phong was a village of between 75 and 150 people on the South China Sea. Too small to have a well-defined center, or even a school, it consisted of groups of four or five hooches -- the thatch huts peasants lived in -- strung out over about a third of a mile of shoreline. On Feb. 13, 1969, according to Seals after-action reports, Kerrey's team entered a section of Thanh Phong, searched two hooches and "interrogated 14 women and small children," looking for the village secretary. They departed on a swift boat the next day, then returned to the general area later that night only to abort because of a malfunctioning radio.
In interviews this year, Kerrey says he can't recall going to Thanh Phong that first time, about two weeks before the night of the killings. Yet the after-action reports from these two visits contain Kerrey's name, the date and the location. And in the 1998 conversation, Kerrey clearly recalled this earlier mission to Thanh Phong, when his Seals team found villagers "asleep with no men in the area." If the reports and Kerrey's first recollections are correct, then they must have had a pretty good idea of the situation they would face when they went back.
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Kerrey's squad would not return until Feb. 25, when intelligence sources again indicated that the village secretary would be holding a meeting, this time with a Vietcong military leader. A day or two before the fatal mission, Kerrey says, he flew over Thanh Phong with a naval intelligence officer and saw no women or children.
On Feb. 25, the district chief, Tiet Lun Duc, issued a blunt warning to the area's villagers. This was in response to an atrocity, Marion says, in which two Vietcong were said to have thrown a grenade into a hooch at 2 a.m., killing a 5-year-old and wounding a number of others. Reading from an official daily log he kept while in Vietnam, Marion quotes Duc as saying: "We want people to be government of Vietnam. Come out with us, and we will take this area back. You who do not come out, we will consider you to be Vietcong. You are the enemy. You will die."
n exact reconstruction of the events surrounding Kerrey's mission that night, 32 years after the fact, may not be entirely possible. Memories can be vague, and the trauma of such an intense episode can cause the mind to block out or alter major details. "It's entirely possible that I'm blacking a lot of it out," Kerrey said in an interview this month. Even so, official Navy records, Army radio logs found at the National Archives and interviews with some of Kerrey's team members leave no doubt that sometime close to midnight on Feb. 25, 1969, the tiny hamlet of Thanh Phong was visited with terrible and indiscriminate killing by Fire Team Bravo.
There are starkly different versions of what happened on the raid. In Kerrey's, the killings were by and large carried out in self-defense. By his own admission, however, his memory is faulty. "Please understand," he said in an e-mail message last December, "that my memory of this event is clouded by the fog of the evening, age and desire."
Another version, given by Kerrey's most experienced commando, Gerhard Klann, is far more troubling. It is consistent with the accounts given in interviews with one Vietnamese woman who claims to have witnessed the whole tragedy and with two people who say they are relatives of the victims. The interviews in Vietnam were conducted by producers for "60 Minutes II."
Mike Ambrose, today an executive with a Texas deep-sea-diving firm, offers another account, one that alternately supports Kerrey and Klann (who now lives in Pennsylvania, where he works in a steel mill). None of the others on the team would speak in any detail about the incident. Gene Peterson, who is retired from the Los Angeles Police Department, where he was a detective, and Lloyd Schreier, who runs a ranch in eastern Oregon, said simply that they did nothing wrong. William Tucker, who works on a ground crew for American Airlines in Dallas, didn't want to talk, either. He did say that as they were leaving Thanh Phong on the swift boat after the killings, he turned to Kerrey and said, "I don't like this stuff." Kerrey, he says, replied, "I don't like it, either." Rick Knepper, who retired after 30 years with the Seals, also declined to comment, saying: "My time in Vietnam was too hard to talk about. Please leave me alone."
errey says it was a moonless night when his raiders quietly took up positions on the shore not far from Thanh Phong. After being dropped off by swift boat, they sat motionless for a while, adjusting to the darkness and listening for possible enemy fighters. The blackness of the night gave them good cover.
As they moved out, Kerrey says, they followed their regular patrol routine. Ambrose, as "point man," went first, with Schreier, Kerrey and Klann close behind, followed by Knepper and Peterson. Tucker brought up the rear. They were armed with M-16 rifles, 9-millimeter side arms, knives, phosphorous grenades, disposable rocket launchers and a heavy machine gun that Klann carried, called a stoner.
They were closing in on the village when they came upon a hooch that hadn't shown up on their intelligence reports. Kerrey says he remembers Ambrose and Klann coming back to him and one of them saying, "We've got some men here, we have to take care of them."
In an interview this month, Kerrey, while taking responsibility for the killings, says he did not specifically order them. "Standard operating procedure was to dispose of the people we made contact with," he said. "Kill the people we made contact with, or we have to abort the mission." Kerrey said he viewed the Vietnamese, who he thought were men, as "security, as outposts. It does not work to merely bind and gag people, because they're going to get away." They used knives, Kerrey says, evidently to avoid betraying their presence with gunshots. Kerrey says he never saw who was inside the hooch and denies doing any of the killing himself. He also doesn't recall finding any weapons.
With the first hooch taken care of, the team then began moving along a dike that would take them into Thanh Phong. They crept along for about 15 minutes until they arrived at a group of four or five hooches, Kerrey says, identifiable only by the faint yellow light flickering inside.
At this point, Kerrey said in the 1998 interview, "we took fire from the target." An after-action report says the team "received several rounds from about 100 yards." Speaking this month, Kerrey said he couldn't be absolutely certain that shots were fired. "I don't know if it's noise," he said. "In fact, there is some dispute. Ambrose is certain we took fire." And in the fog of war, it's often hard to tell what is happening. "I was thinking there were a thousand guys over there," he said in January. "What do I know? The first thing I do is direct Knepper to return fire with a LAW," a disposable launcher designed to shoot rockets that pierce armor and explode. Then, Kerrey says, he gave the order for his men to open fire as they advanced on the hooches. Before the firing stopped, according to one of the Seals' after-action reports, the commandos had expended 1,200 rounds of ammunition.
The barrage lasted for only a few minutes as they made their way into the cluster of hooches. "The thing that I will remember until the day I die is walking in and finding, I don't know, 14 or so, I don't even know what the number was, women and children who were dead," Kerrey said in 1998. "I was expecting to find Vietcong soldiers with weapons, dead. Instead I found women and children." Sometime later, Kerrey says, they saw several people running away and took them out as well; according to one after-action report, there were seven killed. In the dark, they could not see if the dead were men or women.
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It was not only a grisly scene but also a confusing one. It was no secret in Vietnam that hooches had earthen bunkers beneath them or nearby. At the first sign of trouble, the peasants would roll into the bunkers and hide. Often, they would just sleep in them.
Kerrey remembers finding the bodies in a group, though he doesn't know why they were clustered together. Maybe, he suggests, somebody had rounded them up. "Maybe there were guys in there that made them get into that position then got out themselves," Kerrey says. "But I don't know. It's significant that there are no men in the village. It's not a small item."
If Kerrey's story is accurate, then someone would have to have roused the women and children, gathered them into a group in the middle of the village, retreated to safety and then fired a few shots at Kerrey's squad. Another possibility is that upon hearing rifle fire the villagers did not dive into their bunkers -- as they were trained to do -- but for some reason ran into open ground and gathered together in a group.
In either case, it is hard to imagine that gunfire from 100 yards -- no matter how intense -- could kill every single member of a group of 14 or 15 people. Some would be expected to survive, particularly when the squad was shooting in the dark and in apparent panic.
But, as Kerrey says, memory is always a liar. That is what happened on Feb. 25, 1969, as he remembers it.
erhard Klann tells a much different story. Klann has long been haunted by memories of that night and confided in a former Seals captain in the 1980's in hopes of getting the killings off his chest. But Klann was reluctant to discuss the incident with me, ignoring two letters and numerous telephone calls over a period of about six months. After I drove out to his home in western Pennsylvania, however, he relented and began to tell his story, providing key information that helped to unearth the documents in the naval archives.
Klann, who immigrated to this country from Germany as a child, comes from a long line of German military men. He says he has come forward now to "cleanse my soul" of a deed that goes against his "moral fiber" as a soldier. He served with distinction in a 20-year Seals career and was among the first to be handpicked for an elite counterterrorism team known as Seal Team Six, which was established in 1980 while Americans were being held hostage in Iran.
Klann was known as a brawling, hard-drinking sort -- he was demoted once for fighting. (His former classification was later restored.) People who know him say they have never detected any animus for Kerrey, and he is repeatedly described by associates in positive terms, though two did mention alcohol. "He coped with the memory of that night with excessive drinking," says his former commanding officer, who adds, "I never saw alcohol interfere with Gerhard's duty."
In 1999 Klann was stopped by a trooper for alcohol-related reasons, which Klann says was an isolated incident following the death of a close friend. Klann objected vehemently to The Times's publishing this fact, which is in the public record. In anger, Klann said that if it was published, he would disavow his version of the Thanh Phong killings, despite his having described it in numerous interviews with The Times and with "60 Minutes II."
Klann's version of events in Thanh Phong was independently supported by an interview with a Vietnamese woman, Pham Tri Lanh, that was conducted by a "60 Minutes II" cameraman who was not familiar with Klann's account. Klann and Lanh -- who repeated her account in subsequent interviews with producers for "60 Minutes II" -- tell a story that agrees on the basic sequence of events and several of the critical details. The divergence from Kerrey's account begins with the first hooch, the one that hadn't shown up on the intelligence reports.
Klann says that at the first hooch -- where, in Kerrey's recollection, he was told there were only men -- were an older man, a woman about his age and three children under 12. Ambrose says that he saw an older man near the entrance and two women and two men inside. "I motioned for Klann to take him out," Ambrose says of the older man. Klann, in an interview with "60 Minutes II," says Kerrey gave the order to kill.
Klann says he grabbed the man, placed his hand over his mouth and took him away from the children so they couldn't see what he was about to do. "I stuck him here," he says, pointing to a spot just below his rib cage. "Then I did it again," pointing to his upper back. The man turned and grabbed Klann's forearm, the one with the knife, and pushed it away. "He wouldn't die. He kept moving, fighting back." Klann says he signaled for assistance and, as Ambrose watched, Kerrey came over and helped push the man to the ground. Kerrey put his knee on the man's chest, Klann says, as Klann drew his knife across his neck.
Klann says he doesn't remember exactly what happened next. He says that while he was taking out the man, some of the other squad members killed the rest -- the woman and the three children.
Kerrey, in all his interviews until this month, said he had no memory whatsoever of the killing of the old man. But when told about the recollections of Klann and Ambrose, Kerrey added to his account. He now says he remembers Klann having trouble with someone but insists he had no role in the violent death. "He was having difficulty killing one of the people that he was trying to kill."
Kerrey says he thinks he knows who came to Klann's assistance but refuses to "finger" him. "We were all near the first hooch, but I'm not killing these people. I'm 100 percent positive," Kerrey said in the interview this month. "I don't want to lay anything off on anybody. I'm a lieutenant in charge of this platoon, and I take responsibility."
Klann was adamant that it was Kerrey who held the old man down; and Ambrose, in an interview in 1998, was certain of it, too. But this month, Ambrose had second thoughts. "Maybe it was Bob," he now says.
As for the four others killed that night at the first hooch, Kerrey says that it was Klann and Ambrose who did the killing. The rest of the men "were back with me," he said in a telephone call this month. Ambrose refused to return repeated calls for comment on this aspect of Kerrey's account.
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The Vietnamese woman, Pham Tri Lanh, says that she witnessed all the killings. Then 30 years old and the wife of a Vietcong fighter, she says that she quickly snuck up on the scene at the first hooch after hearing cries. "I was hiding behind a banana tree, and I saw them cut the man's neck, first here and then there," she says. "His head was still attached at the back." She says that she also saw the commandos kill what she remembers as a woman and three children with their knives.
Lanh says the man and woman were the grandparents of the three young children. A woman claiming to be a relative of these victims took the "60 Minutes II" producers to a graveyard where a man named Bui Van Vat, his wife, Luu Thi Canh, and, in three small graves, their grandchildren -- two girls and a boy -- are buried. The date on the adults' gravestones, which were erected 10 years after the fact, is Feb. 24, 1969. (There is no further evidence that these five were in fact killed by Kerrey's squad.)
When the killing in the first hooch was done, Ambrose says, "me, Klann and Bob talked. 'Do we abort or do we go on?' There was plenty of noise in the first location. I felt compromised." The noise, apparently, was the screaming of the victims. Ambrose says that he recommended turning back to the extraction point but was overruled by the other team members, who wanted to get the village secretary.
About 15 minutes later, the team arrived at the cluster of hooches. But here, again, Klann's and Kerrey's versions diverge markedly. Kerrey says that they were shot at and returned fire from a distance of 100 yards or more. But Klann says that the squad rounded up women and children from a group of hooches on the fringes of the village. Klann says that they questioned them about the whereabouts of the village secretary. A quick search of the hooches turned up nothing.
Klann says that the commandos were in a quandary over their captives. They were deep in enemy territory with 15 or so people they felt they could not take prisoner. Yet, if they let the people go, they might alert enemy soldiers. "Our chances would have been slim to none to get out alive," Klann says.
They debated their options, Klann says, and finally decided to "kill them and get out of there." Lanh, who had been checking to see that her children were safe, says she crept close enough to witness what happened next. Klann says that Kerrey gave the order and the team, standing between 6 and 10 feet away, started shooting -- raking the group with automatic-weapons fire for about 30 seconds. They heard moans, Klann says, and began firing again, for another 30 seconds.
There was one final cry, from a baby. "The baby was the last one alive," Klann says, fighting back tears. "There were blood and guts splattering everywhere." Klann does not recall the men firing at the people who, in Kerrey's memory and the after-action reports, tried to run away after the initial massacre.
Klann, a large man at 6-foot-2 and about 230 pounds, pauses a moment, once again reliving the night's events. Pointing to his heart, he says: "I have to live with this in here. I still can't get it out of my mind. I'd take it back if I could, everybody would."
While Klann's version accounts for why the women and children died in a group, it, too, suffers from inconsistencies. It is not clear, for example, why the squad thought that noisily gunning down 13 people in a settled area would improve their prospects of making their retreat undetected. It also isn't clear why, having questioned the villagers two weeks before, releasing them and retreating without incident, they this time felt that releasing the captives would pose a danger.
Klann provides one clue to the Seals team's thinking on the second point. The first time in Thanh Phong, they were just asking questions. On the second visit, they had already killed the people at the first hooch and may have been concerned about leaving witnesses who could place them in the vicinity that night. "We had already compromised ourselves by killing the other people," Klann says.
When asked in 1998 about Klann's account of the events of that night, Kerrey said, "It's not my recollection of how it happened." But, he added: "I'm not going to make this worse by questioning somebody else's memory of it. But you would operate independently in this kind of situation. I mean, it would not surprise me if things were going on away from my line of sight that were different than what I was doing."
When asked again earlier this month, and after reassessing his memories, Kerrey began to qualify his original story. "It's possible that a slight version of that happened," Kerrey says, responding to Klann's account. "It's possible that some additional firing occurred after the main firing. Yeah, that's possible. But, boy, it's not my memory of it."
(Later, after that interview and as we were departing, Kerrey attacked Klann's credibility. He said that Klann was angry that Kerrey hadn't helped him get a Medal of Honor for his mission in Iran. "It's every man for himself now," Kerrey said. Klann, who says he harbors no ill will, says Kerrey urged him this month not to talk about Thanh Phong. Kerrey denies it.)
Ambrose, in a recent interview, "wholeheartedly" denied Klann's contention that the team rounded up the villagers and slaughtered them. Though he says his memory of the night has dimmed, he remembers bursting into one of the hooches to find only women. When he left the hooch, he says he remembers that "we took a round somewhere near the back by Knepper and Peterson. Somebody yelled incoming. Once we received fire, we immediately fired."
Then, he says, things got out of hand. "It got ridiculous pretty much once the guns got going. I was in survival mode. It was dark, you're not seeing much but movement and shadows. You couldn't tell if they were women or men." He says they were shooting from 20 to 50 feet, and when they stopped, he realized the dead were women and children.
nce the squad had been extracted from Thanh Phong, says William Garlow, the swift boat's commander, he and one of the squad, possibly Kerrey, each radioed an after-action report to Connolly, their operational commander in Cat Lo. The message from Kerrey's squad made no mention of civilians, saying only that they had killed 21 Vietcong. This report was sent to Hoffmann and to various other commanders. Within a day of the mission, however, reports from villagers about "alleged atrocities" in Thanh Phong began to surface in the radio communications at Marion's Army headquarters, and Marion's office began a preliminary investigation.
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Army radio logs found at the National Archives include a transmission from 8 p.m. on Feb. 27, 1969: "Be advised an old man from Thanh Phong presented himself to the district chief's headquarters with claims for retribution for alleged atrocities committed the night of 25 and 26 February 69. Thus far it appears 24 people were killed. 13 were women and children and one old man. 11 were unidentified and assumed to be VC. Navy Seals operating in the area. Investigation continues." This is just a message, not an official report, so the number of dead varies from other totals.
Connolly says he responded to Army inquiries that the killings were accidental, that Kerrey's team shot people who were running and that they couldn't tell gender or age in the darkness. Connolly says, however, that he never asked Kerrey about the killings. His response, he says, was based on conversations with various naval personnel, though he couldn't recall who.
By the time of the first Army messages about something dire happening in Thanh Phong, Kerrey and his Seals team were already hundreds of miles away. Garlow's boat had transferred them to the Coast Guard cutter PT Comfort, which whisked them out of the area and back up the coast to Hoffmann's headquarters.
Though Hoffmann sent reports about the incident to his bosses, he says he cannot recall anything about what happened or even that it occurred. His messages, however, generated an "attaboy" letter of congratulation to Kerrey's Raiders from a senior Navy officer. Apparently, the matter ended there, without further investigations. For the mission, the Navy awarded Kerrey a Bronze Star. "I certainly have never bragged that I won a Bronze Star on that evening," Kerrey says. "I don't feel like I did anything heroic that evening. Quite the contrary."
ine months later, news broke about the slaughter of at least 350 innocent villagers at My Lai by forces under the command of Lt. William L. Calley Jr. Calley, who would ultimately be convicted of the premeditated murder of 22 unarmed civilians, was sentenced to life at hard labor but served only three years under house arrest at Fort Benning. My Lai was a watershed, an event that finally convinced great segments of the American public that the Vietnam War was immoral, if not unwinnable. And in February 1970, about a year after Thanh Phong, a five-man Marine patrol entered the hamlet of Son Thang, about 20 miles south of Danang, and killed 16 women and children. The marines were charged with murder and prosecuted. Two of the accused, including the leader, were acquitted; one was given immunity and two were convicted of murder. Neither served more than 10 months in jail.
Gary Solis, a war-crimes expert at the United States Military Academy at West Point who wrote a book on Son Thang, says that atrocities were more common in Vietnam than we knew. While there were 122 convictions for war crimes in Vietnam, he says, "In my opinion, war crimes occurred that were never reported."
Did Kerrey and his men commit crimes of war, or were they just applying the basic rules of a dirty war as best they understood them? "Let the other people judge whether or not what I did was militarily allowable or morally ethical or inside the rules of war," Kerrey says. "Let them figure that out. I mean, I can make a case that it was."
The Army's Field Manual is explicit. Though it is an Army instruction, it represents United States policy regarding the law of armed conflict and is applicable to all the services. According to the manual: "A commander may not put his prisoners to death because their presence retards his movements or diminishes his power of resistance by necessitating a large guard, or by reason of their consuming supplies, or because it appears certain that they will regain their liberty through the impending success of their forces. It is likewise unlawful for a commander to kill his prisoners on grounds of self-preservation, even in the case of airborne or commando operations, although the circumstances of the operation may make necessary rigorous supervision of and restraint upon the movement of prisoners of war."
While there may be some room for interpretation in the policy, Walter Rockler, a semiretired lawyer in Washington who was a prosecutor at Nuremberg, says, "The basic rule is that in enemy territory you don't kill civilians, particularly unarmed civilians."
Kerrey insists that no matter what version is correct, his squad's actions would have been permitted under the rules then in effect. "Under the unwritten rules of Vietnam, we would have been justified had we not been fired upon," he said in 1998. "You were authorized to kill if you thought that it would be better. If you thought it would be better to bring them out, you were authorized to bring them out." This month Kerrey said flatly, "We were instructed not to take prisoners."
"Standard operating procedure" was widely understood to mean that, in a free-fire zone, any man was considered a "target of opportunity" and could be killed. Yet, there were other considerations. "It was quite clear what he wanted," Kerrey says of his commanding officer, Hoffmann. "He wanted hooches destroyed and people killed." Hoffmann agrees but says he never intended for his men to kill innocent women or children. But in Vietnam, he adds, it was hard to distinguish between guerrillas and noncombatants. Kerrey underscores that point. "There are people on the wall," he says, referring to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, which lists the names of all the Americans who died in Vietnam, "because they didn't realize a woman or a child could be carrying a gun."
Kerrey has spoken generally about the practical problems officers face in these situations. The commander's first consideration, he said, is the safety of his men. "With seven men operating, one goes down and you've got two carrying him," he says. "It doesn't take much in the way of casualties to put you in considerable risk of losing everybody."
Several officers, even some under Hoffmann's command, said the rules then in effect allowed for too much violence. William Garlow says he and his fellow swift-boat commanders were ordered to shoot up villages almost at random. "We burned their hooches and killed their livestock," he says. Even one of Hoffmann's senior commanders in Cat Lo says the killing became indiscriminate. "I hated it," says the former officer, who requested anonymity.
One Awful Night in Thanh Phong
(Page 7 of 7)
Clearly, the official rules of war were abstract for a terrified Seals squad operating in the anarchy of the Vietnam War. We "were given a hell of a lot more latitude than we should have been. . . . " Kerrey said in 1998. "It was generally believed that you did what you had to do to protect your men. We were basically writing the rules as we went. My hope going in was that everything was fair game. Going out I did not believe that."
ob Kerrey was a more cautious commander when he went on his next big operation. On March 14, 1969, Kerrey's Raiders were sent on another abduction mission, this time to snatch a small group of Vietcong on Hon Tam Island in Cam Ranh Bay. Kerrey says he had already decided that anybody they came upon would be taken prisoner. After scaling a 350-foot, near-vertical cliff, the men prepared their attack. But things went wrong almost from the start, partly because of Kerrey's determination to avoid a situation in which he would have to choose between killing and taking prisoners. Eventually the Vietcong realized the Seals were closing in and opened fire. In the ensuing intense battle, a grenade exploded at Kerrey's feet.
Lloyd Schreier, the Seals medic, dressed Kerrey's wounds as best he could and pumped him full of morphine. Kerrey was then flown by helicopter to the 26th Field Hospital at Cam Ranh Bay, then on to a Navy hospital in Philadelphia.
When Bob Kerrey awoke from surgery, he saw his mother and father sitting at the end of the bed. The surgeons had removed the lower part of his right leg below the knee. Kerrey had joined the Navy Seals, an elite corps that required irrefutable physical strength. Now he was disabled, physically and emotionally. And he was lost, confused and angry at his country.
He told the excruciating story of Thanh Phong to his mother, then to a minister and, later, to his first wife. His mother cried as she held her son, telling him that he would be O.K. And he would be, eventually. Yet, "I cannot be what I once was," he says. "Carefree, no nightmares, no pain, no remorse, no regrets, feeling in church like God was smiling warmly down upon me as if I was the most special thing on earth. That's what it was before, and that's not the way it is now."
When Kerrey learned that he would be awarded the Medal of Honor, he says he had severe doubts about accepting it. He didn't think he deserved it, he says, and he felt like a pawn in Nixon's war. "The medal was given to me within days of the invasion of Cambodia. . . . I felt like I was being used, . . . flagged. You know, to take the edge off the horrible experiences." But he accepted it, he says, for the sake of all members of the Seals.
After recovering from his wounds, he drifted for a bit in California, taking courses at Berkeley. Within a year he was home in Nebraska, getting involved in antiwar protests. He married, had two children, tried his hand at the restaurant business and, later, opened a health club. Before long he was a wealthy man. Then he surprised most everyone by running for governor of Nebraska. In 1982, as a political novice who supported gay rights in conservative Nebraska, he narrowly beat the incumbent, Gov. Charles Thone. But in 1985, with his poll numbers above 70 percent, he decided to step down after one term.
He returned to California and assisted Walter Capps, a fellow Nebraskan who was teaching a course on the Vietnam War at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The course became a gathering place where prominent veterans would come to talk about the war. Kerrey was still bitter about Vietnam and haunted by Thanh Phong. In a speech Kerrey gave to the class that was later published in a book that Capps edited, Kerrey compared life on the farm to his actions in Vietnam. "Around the farm, there is an activity that no one likes to do. Yet it is sometimes necessary. When a cat gives birth to kittens that aren't needed, the kittens must be destroyed. And there is a moment when you are holding the kitten under the water when you know that if you bring that kitten back above the water it will live, and if you don't bring it back above in that instant the kitten will be dead. This, for me, is a perfect metaphor for those dreadful moments in war when you do not quite do what you previously thought you would do."
In Santa Barbara Kerrey made another spur-of-the-moment decision, this time to run for the U.S. Senate from Nebraska. The incumbent had died, leaving the seat open to challenge in November 1988. Kerrey put together a series of patriotic, Reagan-style, morning-in-America-type commercials and stuck to positive themes. He won easily.
In the Senate, Kerrey had a reputation as a maverick whom few of
his colleagues truly understood. For his entire political career, he
held his secret. In his Capitol Hill office, he kept an easel where he
sometimes made collages using newspaper pictures of people in agony.
He wrote poetry and painted in watercolors. In the center of one
landscape watercolor, Kerrey wrote in black marker the words of Emily
Remorse is Memory awake,
Its past set down before the soul,
Remorse is cureless, -- the disease
Gregory L. Vistica is the author of "Fall From Glory: The Men Who Sank the U.S. Navy" and was formerly the national security correspondent for Newsweek. He is co-producing a segment on Bob Kerrey and Thanh Phong for "60 Minutes II." The New York Times Magazine and "60 Minutes II" have coordinated reporting efforts on this story. "60 Minutes II" plans to air its segment May 1.