Villagers Dispute Kerrey's Account
Vietnamese Witnesses Say U.S. Squad Initiated Killing in '69 Raid
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 7, 2001; Page A01
THANH PHONG, Vietnam -- The underground bunker, once wide and long enough to
sleep two dozen people, has collapsed and filled with dirt. A copse of
banana trees and the household debris from two nearby huts cover the
Hula-Hoop-size hole through which peasants in this tiny Mekong Delta village
would slither to hide from U.S. or South Vietnamese troops.
No sign or plaque notes the carnage that occurred here on a February night
32 years ago, when a seven-member Navy SEAL team, led by Lt. Bob Kerrey,
crept into Thanh Phong to raid a meeting of local Viet Cong leaders. They
never found the meeting, but by the time the elite commandos left the
hamlet, more than a dozen unarmed women and children lay dead near the
entrance to the bunker. More dead fell nearby.
Former senator Kerrey, who was awarded a Bronze Star on the basis of a false
report that his squad killed 21 Viet Cong in the attack, has recently
acknowledged that his unit killed women and children that night in a
confluence of events he has called "an atrocity." Kerrey and five of his
team members have maintained, however, that they shot at the villagers, who
were about 100 yards away, only after receiving enemy fire. A former Viet
Cong fighter who lives in the village told The Washington Post on Saturday
that there were Communist officials in Thanh Phong that night, including a
local leader who presumably was the target of the SEAL mission.
But the former fighter, and two women who claim to have witnessed portions
of the operation, described in interviews on Saturday a version of events
very different from Kerrey's, although their stories have some
inconsistencies. One of the witnesses, Bui Thi Luom, who was 12 at the time,
said the Americans ordered her and the 15 other people who were in the
bunker to crawl out and sit together on the ground. Then, after admonishing
a woman not to cough, the commandos opened fire from close range on the
group, which included her grandmother, a pregnant aunt and three younger
siblings, Luom said.
"I thought they would let us go after they saw we were only women and
children," said Luom, who said she managed to slip back into the bunker just
as the shooting began. "But they shot at us like animals."
Luom said nobody fired on the Americans before they initiated the fatal
barrage. She and another woman in the village who said they saw part of the
attack insisted that there was no Viet Cong activity in Thanh Phong that
The former Viet Cong guerrilla, Tran Van Rung, said in a separate interview
that about five local Viet Cong officials were there, gathered in a bunker
about a quarter-mile from Luom's. Rung said the members of the group, which
included the senior Viet Cong leader in Thanh Phong who likely was the
target of Kerrey's mission, were sleeping when they heard gunfire.
Rung, 53, who spoke to a foreign journalist for the first time on Saturday,
said he was one of 11 guerrillas assigned to protect the leaders. He
insisted that all the Viet Cong fighters in the village were stationed in
and around the leader's bunker and that none of them fired on the SEALs.
"We didn't leave the bunker," he said, sipping green tea in front of a
neighbor's house. "We didn't provoke the Americans."
Armed only with bolt-action rifles and a few grenades, Rung said, the 11
fighters did not attempt to respond to the gunfire because they believed
they would have been "no match for the Americans."
A spokesman for Kerrey, Michael Powell, said yesterday that "the fact that
he said there were Viet Cong in that village that night merely confirms what
Kerrey and his SEAL teammates have been saying all along: that this was a
dangerous mission. Their intent was to take out those Viet Cong, not the
people who were ultimately killed."
The killing of civilians by Kerrey's unit was first reported by the New York
Times and the CBS News program "60 Minutes II," which jointly conducted a 2
1/2-year investigation into the incident. The Times and CBS interviewed a
member of Kerrey's team, Gerhard Klann, whose recollection of the raid is
similar to the accounts of the two Vietnamese women.
Kerrey, 57, a Nebraska Democrat who left the Senate in January after two
terms and now is president of the New School University in New York, has
vehemently denied Klann's description. "No one else in the squad has that
memory," Kerrey said.
In response to questions from The Post yesterday, Powell added that "Bob
never gave an order to round up villagers and execute them. That would have
been a war crime."
In a speech to ROTC candidates at Virginia Military Institute last month,
however, Kerrey acknowledged using "lethal procedures when there was doubt."
"It was a tragedy, and I had ordered it," he said. "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."
An Elusive Enemy
Kerrey, who arrived in Vietnam as a 25-year-old lieutenant, was fond of
telling people that he wanted to serve with "a knife in my teeth." His SEAL
team, unofficially dubbed Kerrey's Raiders, was inexperienced but eager,
embarking on the Thanh Phong raid after just a month in the country.
SEALs (which stands for Sea, Air and Land units) are the Navy's best of the
best, the toughest of the toughest, trained to spend hours underwater and
operate covertly behind enemy lines. In Vietnam in the late 1960s, the
commandos' task was to skulk through the rice paddies and dense woodlands of
the Mekong Delta to kidnap and kill leaders of the National Liberation
Front -- known as the Viet Cong -- the communist insurgency that sought to
overthrow the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government.
Although SEAL teams were small -- seven men were about average -- they
carried an arsenal of firepower. Kerrey's unit, for instance, was armed with
M-16 assault rifles, knives, 9mm handguns, grenades and grenade launchers,
and disposable rocket launchers similar to bazookas. They used all those
weapons that night in 1969.
The Viet Cong were an elusive enemy. They wore the same black pajama-like
garments as farmers. Their ranks included women and children. During the
day, they would join other peasants toiling in rice paddies. At night, they
would silently troll through the jungle, hiding in an extensive network of
tunnels and bunkers from where they would launch pinprick attacks on U.S.
and South Vietnamese forces.
For the SEALs in particular, gathering intelligence about the location of
Viet Cong leaders they hoped to kill proved an extremely frustrating
experience, with a high failure rate. "It was literally pin the tail on the
donkey," said a former SEAL who served in the Mekong just before Kerrey
arrived. "Half the time you ended up in the wrong place. And even if you got
to the right place, it might have been the wrong time."
Located about a mile from the South China Sea and even closer to one of the
delta fingers of the mighty Mekong River, Thanh Phong was a strategic
outpost for the Viet Cong. Beginning in 1964, it was a key delivery point
for weapons and supplies from North Vietnam that were distributed along
rivers and jungle trails to guerrillas across the South.
The poor farmers and fishermen who lived in Thanh Phong, about 60 miles
south of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, were mostly Viet Cong, according to
residents here. The Americans and South Vietnamese made the entire area a
"free fire zone," where U.S. and South Vietnamese troops were authorized to
fire on anyone they encountered. This created a Wild West-like shooting
gallery, which prompted many villagers, even those who were not active in
the guerrilla movement, to dig bunkers near their bamboo-and-palm-frond
Kerrey's unit first came here on Feb. 13, 1969, to look for the senior Viet
Cong leader in the area, known as the village secretary. At the time, the
surrounding area was part of the U.S. 9th Infantry's Division's "Operation
Speedy Express," designed to eliminate the entrenched Viet Cong. According
to a 1972 investigation by Newsweek, thousands of civilians were killed in
On that visit, Kerrey's team interrogated several residents about the
secretary's whereabouts, but departed without gleaning much information. The
squad returned on the night of the 25th, prompted by new intelligence
reports indicating the secretary would be there.
Arriving on a swift 50-foot, aluminum-sided boat from their base at the port
of Vung Tau shortly before midnight, the SEALs crept toward the village. But
as they neared Thanh Phong, they encountered a "hooch" -- a peasant hut --
that wasn't included in their intelligence report.
Pham Thi Lanh said she climbed out of her bunker as soon as she heard the
first scream. Lanh, who was 30, thought the noise came from an elderly
couple's hut nearby. She said she gingerly approached and hid behind a clump
of banana trees. From there, she said, she saw "the American troops" nearly
decapitate the couple, Bui Van Vat and his wife, Luu Thi Canh. According to
the headstones on their graves in the village cemetery, he was 65 and she
"I saw the troops cut their necks," Lanh said. "They cut almost all the way
Lanh said she then ran back to her bunker, where her four children were
sleeping. She said she stuffed their mouths with cloth to keep them quiet.
The elderly couple had been living with three young grandchildren, whom
villagers found stabbed to death the next morning. Although Lanh earlier
said she witnessed all five killings, she said on Saturday that she had seen
only the first two. She contended, however, that she heard the grandchildren
Lanh, who cuts wood for a living, told "60 Minutes II" that her late husband
was a Viet Cong fighter, but she recanted that assertion in subsequent
Government officials arranged the interviews with Lanh and others in Thanh
Phong. They were attended by a provincial officer and a Foreign Ministry
representative, who served as an interpreter. Lanh and Luom provided a
similar account to a group of foreign journalists who were allowed to visit
the village on April 28.
Lanh's version of the killings at the hooch is similar to the one Klann
provided to the Times, in which he said an older man, a woman about the same
age and three children under 12 were stabbed to death.
Kerrey, who has said that he did not look inside the hooch or participate in
those first killings, said his team told him that there were five men in the
hut -- all of whom were killed. He and his supporters question Lanh's
account, noting her shifting story and the fact she initially said she was
married to a Viet Cong fighter.
Kerrey and the other squad members besides Klann issued a statement in which
they said they worried that the hooch may have been a warning post, so they
resorted to "lethal methods to keep our presence from being detected."
After dispensing with the first hooch, the squad made its way to the center
of the village. Everyone, including Kerrey, has given inconsistent accounts
about what happened from then on.
In the statement, Kerrey and the five other SEALs said they "took fire" from
enemy forces. Kerrey has estimated that the team was about 100 yards from
the hooches, at the village center, when the shooting started.
But in one of his interviews with the Times, Kerrey said he could not be
absolutely certain that shots were fired. "I don't know if it's noise," he
According to an "after-action report" kept by the Naval Historical Office,
presumably based on a report filed by Kerrey when he returned to base, the
commandos returned fire, blasting 1,200 rounds from their M-16s, 12
rocket-propelled grenades and two bazooka shells in the direction from which
the shots seemed to come.
In his interview with the Times, Kerrey said he and his squad eventually
made their way to the cluster of hooches. "I was expecting to find Viet Cong
soldiers with weapons, dead," he said. "Instead I found women and children."
But in the statement, the members of the group provided a different account,
saying that they "withdrew" from the village "while continuing to fire."
Kerrey has described the night as black and moonless, but witnesses said
they remember dim moonlight that allowed for limited visibility. According
to records kept by the U.S. Naval Observatory, a partial moon -- a 60
percent disk -- was out until 1:30 that morning, an hour after the squad
reported leaving the village.
The descriptions provided by Luom and Klann about how the women and children
died are different, and both are markedly at odds with Kerrey's. Klann
contends that the team rounded up women and children from a group of hooches
on the fringes of the village and interrogated them about the whereabouts of
the village secretary. Luom, however, said all the women and children who
were killed came from one bunker. She said the SEALs ordered everyone to
exit the shelter and sit in a tightly packed group near the entrance.
Seeing that the SEALs were not about to let the villagers go, Luom said her
grandmother began pleading for mercy. A few seconds later, she said, the
firing began. The Americans were about three feet away when they started
shooting, she said.
Klann said Kerrey gave the order to shoot the women and children, and that
the firing began with the soldiers standing between six and 10 feet away.
Klann said the squad decided to kill the villagers because they felt they
could not take them as prisoners and they worried that if they let them go,
they might alert Viet Cong fighters before the team was safely on the boat.
Kerrey and the other members of the unit have disputed Klann's account.
Kerrey's spokesman, Powell, said yesterday that the team started shooting
only after receiving fire from the village.
Luom said she escaped being killed by jumping back into the bunker just
before the shooting started. "I have no idea how I got down into the bunker
so fast," she said. "Maybe God blessed me to be a survivor."
Luom, who now lives in a nearby village, said she had not heard about the
controversy over the killings until a week ago, when she met with foreign
journalists. She said she does not read newspapers because she is illiterate
and does not watch television because she spends most of her time working on
a fishing boat. As a condition of the interview, the Vietnamese government
required The Washington Post and the Associated Press to jointly pay for
Luom's travel costs from her offshore fishing boat to Thanh Phong -- about
Today, this village is home to about 350 families, and is surrounded by
verdant rice paddies, palms and banana trees. Most people grow rice or work
on shrimp farms. Electricity came a few years ago, allowing a few prosperous
families to install television sets.
Until a week ago, nobody talked much about what happened in February 1969.
"This sort of thing was very common during the war," said Vo Ngoc Chau, a
fisherman and former Viet Cong guerrilla who still walks around with a green
military helmet. "There were so many innocent people who were killed."
No one here spoke angrily about the United States. "There was a time when I
wanted to take revenge on Americans," Luom said. "I bore a lot of hatred
toward them." Now, she said, she would just like an acknowledgment of
responsibility. "They should admit what they did," she said. "And they
should apologize to us."
Staff writers Robert G. Kaiser and Michael Grunwald in Washington
contributed to this report.
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