Thanh Phong: Massacre or firefight?
Did former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey order the massacre of 21 Vietnamese civilians or were the dead actually armed Viet Cong who fired on Kerry’s Navy SEAL team?
Trying to evaluate a 32-year-old event is difficult. But key questions need to be asked.
Yet, unlike Bill Clinton, Bob Kerrey didn’t shirk. He not only went to Vietnam, he was part of the 15 percent of Vietnam veterans who saw actual combat.
Despite media hype to the contrary, the killing of innocent civilians was extremely rare. What makes the My Lai Massacre so memorable is that such deplorable behavior was so rare. Granted, accidental civilian deaths occurred. U.S. troops were killed by “friendly artillery fire or tripped their own booby traps. Once was too often, but thank God it didn’t happen often.
Now, Bob Kerrey needs to face some precise questions. If his team was fired on by armed Viet Cong, how come only two enemy weapons were found among 21 dead women, children and old men? Consider this: Because command pressure against the killing of civilians was so great, it was common practice for U.S. units to carry along some previously captured enemy weapons like the AK-47. Did Kerry’s team plant weapons on two of the dead to cover either a mistake or an atrocity? A ratio of 21 dead civilians to two weapons is suspiciously low.
Was Thanh Phong really in a free-fire zone? Unlike the Central Highlands, the Mekong Delta was so densely populated that free-fire zones were rare. Needs to be checked.
Did Kerrey’s troops act on their own and commit these killings? Kerrey’s men were older than the average GI because SEAL training takes much longer than the time it takes for the Army to put an infantry soldier into combat. More highly trained and more mature, one would expect a SEAL team’s fire discipline to be excellent. In other words, each team member would probably obey the rules of engagement to the letter and would not fire unless specifically ordered to do so by Lt. Kerrey.
Lt. Kerrey’s mission on February 25, 1969 was to assassinate the party secretary of the Viet Cong cell in the village of Thanh Phong. But between Lt. Kerrey and his target was an outlying hooch occupied by an old man, his wife, a boy and two young girls – all unarmed.
No one disputes that all five civilians were killed. Who gave the order the silence them? Clearly, those civilian deaths were in violation of the Rules of Land Warfare.
Moving on toward the target, Kerrey claims his team received fire and he ordered it returned. Fair enough.
But more women, children and old men were killed. Now, SEAL team member, Gerhard Klann, claims all 21 civilians were not killed in combat. He claims Kerrey had some rounded up and executed.
A few weeks later, Kerrey’s team got involved in what was clearly a firefight. Later, Kerrey admitted that he led his team into the ambush where he lost his foot and was given the Medal of Honor.
At the time, no Navy person had won the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. No doubt the wounded Kerrey deserved the Silver Star for sticking with his men and for which he was recommended. Even though downgrades of medal recommendations were the norm, the Navy brass upgraded the Silver Star to the Medal of Honor. Kerrey himself questioned the receipt of the nations highest medal.
Now, Bob Kerrey ponders returning the Bronze Star he received for Thanh Phong. Virtually every foot soldier completing a year of honorable service in Vietnam got a Bronze Star for Meritorious Service. Get into a firefight and the Bronze Star for Valor was almost automatic.
But if Gerhard Klann’s story is correct, then whether or not to return his Bronze Star would be the least of Bob Kerrey’s problems. And, the Navy might think about swapping that Medal of Honor for a Silver Star.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist, served two years in the Central Highlands with the famed 1st Air Cavalry Division.
©2001. William Hamilton.