February 25th, 2013 Headsman
Late this night in 1969, a platoon of seven Navy SEALs slipped into the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong.*
At their head was a 25-year-old lieutenant, the future United States Senator Bob Kerrey.
Thanh Phong was reportedly an official U.S. Army free fire zone. That meant that any Vietnamese civilians within it were presumptively enemies and could be slain at will — according to the U.S. Army, if not to any recognizable law of war.
In Thanh Phong, they were slain. Nearly every single person in the town.
Kerrey’s Raiders — the commando team’s comradely self-designation — were hunting a local National Liberation Front “general secretary” purported to be in Thanh Phong. By “hunting,” we mean they intended to murder him; given the nature and timing of the operation, it was presumably part of the brute-force assassination program Operation Speedy Express and/or its equally sinister CIA-run cousin, the Phoenix Program.
On this particular mission, Lt. Kerrey’s team first encountered an unexpected hut, not on their map. Fearing the people inhabiting it would blow their cover, they entered and killed the five inhabitants: quietly, intimately, at close quarters with their knives. It was an old man, a woman, and three young children. It’s a nasty business but it’s not what qualifies Thanh Phong as a potential execution … though it may explain the execution that followed.
After these unfortunate villagers were disposed of, the SEALs moved on towards the doomed hamlet. This same platoon had been to Thanh Phong two weeks before, and reported then that it held nothing but a few women. On February 25, they found much the same scene: no “general secretary.” Just 16 women and children.
Gerhard Klann, one of Kerrey’s men, described the SEALs’ actions that night in this interview with 60 Minutes’ Dan Rather:
Rather: What’d you do this time?
Klann: We gathered everybody up, searched the place, searched everything.
Rather: What was the make-up of this group?
Klann: Probably a majority of em were kids. And women. And some younger women.
Rather: So you got all the people out of there.
Klann: We herded them together and in a group.
Rather: Were any of these people armed?
Klann: I don’t believe so.
Rather: Fair to say you didn’t see any weapons?
Klann: I didn’t see any.
Rather: Did you decide pretty quickly or not that the target of your mission, the Viet Cong leader, was not among them?
Klann: Yeah, we got together and we were, hey the guy ain’t here. Now we got these people, what do we do now?
Rather: What did you do then?
Klann: We killed them.
Rather: What do you mean, you killed em?
Klann: We shot them all.
Rather: Was an order given for that or was it more or less spontaneous?
Klann: I don’t think we would have acted spontaneously on something like that. There was an order given.
Rather: What was the order?
Klann: To kill them.
Klann: Cause we’d already compromised ourselves by killing the other group.
Rather: Whose responsibility, whose obligation as it to say that?
Klann: The ultimate responsibility fell on Bob Kerrey.
Rather: Do you remember him saying that?
Klann: I don’t remember his exact words, but he was the officer in charge. The call was his.
Rather: And then what happened?
Klann: We lined up, and we opened fire.
Rather: Individually or raked them with automatic weapons fire?
Klann: No. We, we just slaughtered them. It was automatic weapons fire. Rifle fire.
Rather: At roughly what range?
Klann: Six feet, ten feet, very close.
Rather: Then did the shooting stop?
Klann: Yeah, for a little bit.
Rather: Was it quiet?
Klann: It was dead quiet. It was dead quiet. Then you could just hear certain people, hear their moaning. So we would just fire into that area until it was silent there. And that was it. And, and until, we were sure that everybody was dead.
Rather: You said certain people were moaning or making noises. Were all those adults?
Klann: A few. I remember one baby still crying. That baby was probably the last one alive.
Rather: What happened to that baby?
Klann: Shot like the rest of em.
Klann’s testimony of a summary execution comports with that of a Vietnamese woman who says she hid on the outskirts of the tiny village and witnessed the slaughter.
Bob Kerrey has a different version of these events. The reader is invited to peruse the evidence available and conclude as desired; for me, Kerrey’s version is not very persuasive especially given the witness testimony to the contrary and the known normalization of atrocities in Indochina.
Kerrey agrees with Klann that the entire village ended up slaughtered together in a heap; a complaint against this atrocity was officially filed with the Army by Vietnamese locals within days of the incident, so there’s not much scope to deny the outcome. But Kerrey claims this happened when the SEAL team received incoming fire as they approached the village, then started shooting back wildly in the dark. Only after the bullets stopped flying did they find the civilians 50 to 100 yards further on.
Improbably — but much more consistent with an intentional, close-range massacre — all these women and children chanced to be huddled together, and all of them were stone dead from the crossfire. Not a one of these people accidentally winged in the night was wounded but alive, says Kerrey.
Kerrey’s commentary in Vistica’s initial story and its follow-ups suggests the judicious politician he had by that time become. In 2001 he had just retired from the Senate and was an elder statesman in government; he was said to be weighing a 2004 presidential bid. (His actual next gig, not anticipated at the time the story broke, was the 9/11 Commission.)
In interviews with Vistica and subsequently, Kerrey waffled and qualified cagily — shifting from a flat denial, to a weird acknowledgment that “it’s possible a slight version of that happened.” He wouldn’t commit to asserting that there really was incoming fire. He moved the conversation wherever possible to the abiding torments of conscience and the slipperiness of memory and perspective, as if this could span the distance from “summary execution” to “accidentally killed in the crossfire.” He maintained that there were only men in the first hut — that hut, alone among the village — but that this was only an indirect recollection since he didn’t enter it or participate in the killings.
“Please understand,” Kerrey emailed to Vistica in 2000, “that my memory of this event is clouded by the fog of the evening, age and desire.” Desire is a striking word to select.
For all their plausible deniability, Kerrey’s remarks on this matter markedly lacked indignation at bearing such a monstrous charge. Kerrey’s great and unfeigned sense of personal guilt was oddly mirrored by his inability to own a specifically culpable act. The Senator expressly declined to deny Gerhard Klann’s “memory.” (Klann said Kerrey urged him not to talk about Thanh Phong.)
Kerrey won a Bronze Star for Thanh Phong. “The net result of his patrol,” according to a citation Kerrey has acknowledged is fanciful, “was 21 Viet Cong killed, two hooches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured.”
Seventeen days after Thanh Phong, Kerrey’s service career came to an end when a grenade exploded at his feet during another assassination mission. Kerrey earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for continuing to direct fire while crippled by wounds on that day; by accounts, he spent the several years following mired deep in depression.
“I went out on a mission and after it was over I was so ashamed I wanted to die,” he said of Thanh Phong in 2001. “This is killing me. I’m tired of people describing me as a hero and holding this inside.”
It goes without saying that war crimes in Vietnam remain much too sensitive for the U.S. to grapple with formally. The story is out there now, but it’s been effectively reburied as far as the American public memory goes — another everyday horror in a horrible conflict. More information might oneday surface, but the matter will only be adjudicated between Gerhard Klann, Bob Kerrey, their comrades that night, and their Maker.
Not so in Vietnam where — with all due respect to the pangs that conscience can exact — the real victims lie.
February 25, 1969 has a dedicated exhibit in Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum.
A display of the sewer pipe where the three children killed at the first hut tried to hide, along with photographs and an explanatory placard describing the Thanh Phong massacre, at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. (cc) images by Schwede66.
* The only other member of the team who has spoken publicly, Mike Ambrose, backs Klann’s version of the hut narrative, and (mostly) Kerrey’s version of the (non-)execution. As Vistica’s initial investigation was going public, Kerrey convened a meeting of the other Raiders, their first since Vietnam; the group issued a statement denying that they had committed an execution of prisoners.
Also on this date
- 1897: Henri-Osime Basset
- 1716: Four Jacobite rebels at Liverpool
- 1922: Henri Landru, French Bluebeard
- 1536: Jacob Hutter, Anabaptist leader
- 1879: Charles Peace, Victorian cat burglar
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Children,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Scandal,Shot,Summary Executions,U.S. Military,USA,Vietnam,War Crimes,Wartime Executions,Women