April 25, 2001
WHAT HAPPENED IN THANH PHONG
By GREGORY L. VISTICA
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
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
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 communiqus
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
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
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."
In 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
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
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.
Typically, 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.
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."
An 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
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
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."
Kerrey 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.
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
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.
Gerhard 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
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
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
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
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
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.
Once 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.
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
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
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
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."
Nine 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
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
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
Bob 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
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
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
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
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 Dickinson.
Remorse is Memory awake,
Her companies astir, -
A presence of departed acts
At window and at door.
Its past set down before the soul,
And lighted with a match,
Perusal to facilitate
Of its condensed despatch.
Remorse is cureless, -- the disease
Not even God can heal;
For 'tis His institution, --
The complement of Hell.
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.
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