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Army unit massacred hundreds 1967 { October 19 2003 }

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U.S. army unit massacred hundreds of Vietnamese in 1967, report says
Canadian Press
Sunday, October 19, 2003

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) - An elite unit of American soldiers mutilated and killed hundreds of unarmed villagers over seven months in 1967 during the Vietnam War, and an army investigation was closed with no charges filed, a newspaper reported.

Soldiers of the Tiger Force unit of the army's 101st Airborne Division dropped grenades into bunkers where villagers - including women and children - hid, and shot farmers without warning, the newspaper reported. Soldiers told The (Toledo) Blade that they severed ears from the dead and strung them on shoelaces to wear around their necks.

The army's 4-year investigation, never before made public, was initiated by a soldier outraged at the killings. The investigation substantiated 20 war crimes by 18 soldiers and reached the Pentagon and White House before it was closed in 1975, The Blade said in Sunday editions.

William Doyle, a former Tiger Force sergeant now living in Willow Springs, Miss., said he killed so many civilians in 1967 he lost count.

"We didn't expect to live. Nobody out there with any brains expected to live," he told the newspaper. "The way to live is to kill because you don't have to worry about anybody who's dead."

In an eight-month investigation, The Blade reviewed thousands of classified army documents, National Archive records and radio logs and interviewed former members of the unit and relatives of those who died.

Tiger Force, a unit of 45 volunteers, was created to spy on forces of North Vietnam in South Vietnam's central highlands.

The Blade said it is not known how many Vietnamese civilians were killed.

Records show at least 78 were shot or stabbed, the newspaper said. Based on interviews with former Tiger Force soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, it is estimated the unit killed hundreds of unarmed people, The Blade said.

Army spokesman Joe Burlas said Sunday that only three Tiger Force members were on active duty during the investigation. He said their commanders, acting on the advice of military lawyers, determined there was not enough evidence for successful prosecution.

The only way to prosecute the soldiers was under court-martial procedures, which apply only to active military members, Burlas said.

He also cited a lack of physical evidence and access to the crime scene, since a number of years had passed. He would not comment on why the military did not seek out the evidence sooner.

Investigators took 400 sworn statements from witnesses, Burlas said. Some supported each other and some conflicted, he said.

According to The Blade, the rampage began in May 1967. No one knows what set it off. Less than a week after setting up camp in the central highlands, soldiers began torturing and killing prisoners in violation of American military law and the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the newspaper said.

Sgt. Forrest Miller told army investigators the killing of prisoners was "an unwritten law."

Other soldiers said they sought revenge in the villages after unit members were killed and injured during sniper and grenade attacks.

"Everybody was bloodthirsty at the time, saying, 'We're going to get them back,' " former medic Rion Causey of Livermore, Calif., told The Blade.

Soldiers often cited conflicting views of commanders as a reason they killed unarmed people. Some commanders told investigators that civilians could be targeted in certain circumstances; others said they could never be attacked.

During the army's investigation, 27 soldiers said severing ears from dead Vietnamese became routine.

"There was a period when just about everyone had a necklace of ears," former platoon medic Larry Cottingham told investigators.

The atrocities carried out by the unit came just months before the killing of about 500 Vietnamese civilians by an army unit in 1968 at My Lai.

In the years after that, top military officials promised to take war crime accusations seriously. But records from the Tiger Force case show that didn't happen, The Blade said.

The newspaper found that commanders knew about the platoon's atrocities and in some cases encouraged the soldiers to continue the violence. Two soldiers who tried to stop the attacks were warned by their commanders to remain quiet before transferring to other units, according to military records.

The newspaper also said army investigators learned about the atrocities in 1971 but took a year to interview witnesses. Two investigators pretended to look into the allegations while encouraging soldiers to keep quiet, soldiers told The Blade.

Four military legal experts who reviewed the army's final report for the newspaper questioned the case's abrupt end.

"There should have been a (military grand jury) investigation of some kind done on this," said Wayne Elliott, a retired army officer who teaches military law at the University of Virginia. "I just can't believe this wasn't a pretty high-profile thing in the Pentagon."

Former platoon members still could be prosecuted or sanctioned by the army, but legal experts say that's unlikely because of the time that has elapsed.

Part of the unit's mission was to force villagers to move to refugee centres so they couldn't grow rice to feed the enemy. Many refused to go to the centres, which resembled prisons and lacked food.

"They wanted to stay on their land. They took no side in the war," recalled Lu Thuan, 67, a farmer, sitting in his home in the Song Ve Valley.

The soldiers began burning villages to force the people to leave, The Blade said.

One night, an elderly carpenter was beaten with a rifle before the unit's field commander, Lieut. James Hawkins, shot and killed him as he pleaded for his life.

Hawkins denied the allegations when questioned by army investigators in 1973. But he told The Blade he killed the man because his voice was loud enough to draw enemy attention.

"I eliminated that right there," said Hawkins, who retired from the army in 1978 and now lives in Orlando, Fla.

It didn't stop there.

Two partially blind men found wandering in the valley were shot to death, records show. While approaching a rice paddy July 28, 1967, platoon members opened fire on 10 elderly farmers. Four were killed.

Kieu Trac, now 72, recalled watching helplessly as his father fell.

"All they were doing was working in the fields," he said, pointing to the spot where his father and the others were killed. "They thought the soldiers would leave them alone."

William Carpenter, who lives just outside the town of Rayland near the Ohio-West Virginia border, told the newspaper he didn't fire his weapon.

"It was wrong," he said. "Those people weren't bothering anybody."

Villagers said they dug dozens of mass graves after the soldiers moved through the valley.

"We wouldn't even have meals because of the smell," said rice farmer Nguyen Dam, 66, interviewed in his home. "I couldn't breathe the air sometimes. There were so many villagers who died, we couldn't bury them one by one."

Of the 43 former platoon members interviewed by The Blade, a dozen expressed remorse for either committing or failing to stop the atrocities, and 10 have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Copyright 2003 The Canadian Press

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