Vietnamese Recall 'Kerrey's Raiders' With Terror
by Richard C. Paddock Los Angeles Times Service
Monday, April 30, 2001
THANH PHONG, Vietnam Until Saturday, Bui Thi Luom had never heard the name
Bob Kerrey. She had no idea that he had served as governor of Nebraska and
U.S. senator and once ran for president.
But she did know that 32 years ago, seven American commandos sneaked into
her village in the Mekong Delta and killed 15 members of her family, all
women and children.
Mrs. Luom, wounded in the knee, was the only one to escape.
She was 12.
"They killed people in cold blood," she said Saturday as she recounted the
incident to journalists for the first time. And she said she still would
like vengeance for those killings.
Mr. Kerrey, now 57, was the leader of an elite Navy Seal unit that attacked
Thanh Phong on Feb. 25, 1969. After three decades of silence, the former
senator recently admitted that his team killed innocent women and children
during the raid.
Mrs. Luom and another witness from the village, Pham Thi Lanh, said the
Americans had killed 20 civilians, including 13 children and a pregnant
woman, during the two-stage attack. Mrs. Lanh contended that three of the
children had been stabbed to death.
Mr. Kerrey, then a lieutenant, was awarded a Bronze Star after his squad
falsely reported that it had killed 21 Viet Cong in the attack.
Mr. Kerrey, president of the New School University in New York, maintained
on Saturday that most of the civilians were killed after his unit was fired on.
And he has said that if someone wants him to return the medal he would be
glad to do so because he has never worn it and he does not have any
interest in keeping it.
"It was not a military victory. It was a tragedy, and I had ordered it," he
said this month in a speech at a Virginia military academy. "Though it
could be justified militarily, I could never make my own peace with what
happened that night. I have been haunted by it for 32 years."
Both sides in the Vietnam War committed atrocities against civilians, but
few of the perpetrators have been called to account for them.
While the United States favors war crimes trials for the slaughter of
civilians in East Timor, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia and
Nazi-occupied Europe, it has never advocated the same action for Vietnam.
The killing of civilians by Kerrey's Raiders, as his squad was known, came
to light as a result of a joint two-and-a-half-year investigation by The
New York Times and the CBS-TV show "60 Minutes II."
"To describe it as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to being
right, because that's how it felt, and that's why I feel guilt and shame
for it," Mr. Kerrey said during an interview for the television program,
which is scheduled to be broadcast Tuesday.
In an article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, one member of Mr.
Kerrey's unit, Gerhard Klann, gives a version of the raid similar to the
accounts of the two Vietnamese women. Mrs. Lanh, now 62, also is quoted in
Mrs. Luom, a mother of four, said she was ignorant of the controversy over
the killings until she met with journalists Saturday. She works on a
fishing boat and returned only Friday from a monthlong voyage, she said.
The Vietnamese government allowed journalists to visit Thanh Phong on
Saturday and to interview both women.
Thanh Phong, a hamlet of about 200 people on the South China Sea, has
changed little since the war. Farmers still eke out a living growing rice.
Many live in thatched huts, which Americans called hooches during the war.
In 1969, the Americans believed that a Viet Cong leader was operating in
the village and Mr. Kerrey's unit planned to take him out.
Late at night, the team arrived by boat and attempted to slip into the village.
Things began to go wrong when the commandos came across a hooch they had
not expected. There were five people inside.
According to both Mr. Klann and Mrs. Lanh, the commandos slit the throats
of a man and woman, Bui Van Vat and Luu Thi Canh.
Then the Seals allegedly stabbed the couple's young grandchildren, the
three remaining inhabitants.
Mrs. Lanh says she hid behind a banana tree and watched as the commandos
killed the two adults. She has said that she witnessed all the killings but
Saturday she said that she had seen only the first two.
According to Mr. Kerrey, someone fired and the commandos returned fire,
shooting off 1,200 rounds. In the darkness and confusion, Mr. Kerrey said,
the commandos killed women and children 100 yards away.
Mrs. Luom, now 44, gave this account: She and her relatives, including her
grandmother, four aunts and 10 cousins, were asleep in an earthen shelter
used at the time to avoid gunfire.
The commandos, she said, woke them and ordered them to go outside and to
sit on the ground. Mrs. Luom, 12, was the oldest; the youngest was about 3.
The soldiers talked among themselves, she recalled, and then opened fire at
She said she happened to be sitting close to the shelter door and scrambled
inside when the shooting started. She was struck in the knee by a bullet or
a grenade fragment, she is not sure which. Today, she has a scar nearly
the size of a U.S. half-dollar on her left knee.
"Everyone was screaming and very frightened when they began shooting," she
recalled. "All of them were killed except me."
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