One Awful Night in Than Phong, Vietnam

Gregory L. Vistica, One Awful Night in Thanh Phong. The New York Times Magazine, 25 April 2001. “Senator Bob Kerrey’s hands trembled slightly as he began to read six pages of documents that had just been handed to him. It was late 1998; the papers were nearly 30 years old. On the face of it, they were routine “after action” combat reports of the sort filed by the thousands during the Vietnam War. But Kerrey knew the pages held a personal secret — of an event so traumatic that he says it once prompted fleeting thoughts of suicide.

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.

Excerpts from story:

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.”…

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….

Gerhard Klann [a member of Kerrey’s Navy Seals team] 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’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….

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.