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Secret vietnam files show coverup of atrocities { August 8 2006 }

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Formerly secret files show coverup of Vietnam atrocities
Tuesday, August 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:19 AM

By Nick Turse and Deborah Nelson
Los Angeles Times

First of two parts

B Company had lost five men in a firefight the previous day. The morning of Feb. 8, 1968, brought unwelcome orders to resume a sweep of a green patchwork of rice paddies along Vietnam's central coast.

The men met no resistance as they entered a nondescript settlement in Quang Nam province. So medic Jamie Henry, 20, set his rifle down in a hut, unfastened his bandoliers and lighted a cigarette.

The voice of a lieutenant crackled across the radio. He had rounded up 19 civilians and wanted to know what to do. 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 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 by the men of B Company.

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 during the war were more extensive than previously was known.

The documents detail 320 alleged incidents substantiated by Army investigators not including the most notorious U.S. atrocity, the 1968 My Lai massacre.

Although not a complete accounting of Vietnam War crimes, the roughly 9,000-page archive is the largest such collection to surface to date. Investigative files, sworn statements by witnesses and status reports for top military brass are included.

Abuses were not confined to a few rogue units, a Los Angeles Times review of the files found. They were uncovered in every Army division that operated there. Retired Brig. Gen. John Johns, a Vietnam veteran who served on the task force, said he once supported keeping the records secret but now believes 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:

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. These "founded" cases were referred to the soldiers' superiors for action.

Ultimately, 57 were court-martialed and 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.

In many cases, suspects had left the service. The Army did not attempt to pursue them, despite a written opinion in 1969 by Robert Jordan III, then the Army's general counsel, that ex-soldiers could be prosecuted through courts-martial, military commissions or tribunals.

"I don't remember why it didn't go anywhere," said Jordan, now a lawyer in Washington, D.C.

The records were declassified in 1994, after 20 years as required by law, and moved to the National Archives, where they largely went unnoticed.

The Los Angeles Times examined most of the files and obtained copies of about 3,000 pages before government officials removed them from the public shelves, saying they contained personal information that was exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

In addition to the 320 substantiated incidents, the records contain material related to more than 500 alleged atrocities that Army investigators discounted or could not prove.

Johns said many war crimes did not make it into the archive. Some were prosecuted without being identified as war crimes, as required. Others never were reported.

Nick Turse is a freelance journalist living in New Jersey. Deborah Nelson is a staff writer in the Los Angeles Times' Washington, D.C., bureau. Researcher Janet Lundblad contributed to this report.

Copyright 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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