On May 6, “60 Minutes” aired a segment titled “Back to My Lai,” in which Mike Wallace showed two heroes of that tragic atrocity, helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson and his gunner Larry Colburn, revisiting the Vietnamese village where American soldiers massacred a large number of Vietnamese civilians on March 16, 1968. The numbers reported range from 128 (the number of Viet Cong the Americal Division reported killing that day) to 500 (the number often used by the Vietnamese). It was not until November, 1969 that the truth emerged, thanks to Robert Ridenhour, who exposed it in letters he wrote, and Seymour Hersh, who got the story published.
Thompson and his crew were horrified when they saw that women and children were being slaughtered. They landed their helicopter and confronted those doing the killing. Thompson warned them that if they didn’t stop he would turn his chopper’s guns on them. They stopped. Larry Colburn said that Thompson had risked his own life by taking that action, that anything could have happened. But the heroism of Hugh Thompson and his crew did not end there. They proceeded to rescue victims who were wounded and fly them to have their wounds cared for. In touching scenes, “60 Minutes” showed Thompson and Colburn being thanked by two Vietnamese women whose lives they had saved.
Bad Leaders Blamed
They blamed what had happened at My Lai on “inept” leadership, people who put no value on human life. A 1969 Mike Wallace interview with Pvt. Paul Meadlo, one of the soldiers who participated in the massacre, was shown. Meadlo acknowledged having killed 10 or 15 men, women and children, including babies. He said he felt like he was ordered to do it and at the time he thought he was doing the right thing. He also felt that losing his foot the next day when he stepped on a mine was retribution for what he had done the day before.
When the story of My Lai was broken by Seymour Hersh, many supporters of the Vietnam War defended what Meadlo and other soldiers had done. Investigations resulted in the court-martial of Lt. William Calley, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Thompson and Colburn testified against him, but Calley spent only three days in the stockade.
Public sympathy for Calley was so high that President Nixon ordered that his time be served under house arrest, and he was paroled after only three years. Mike Wallace pointed out that after his release, Calley was treated like a hero by many Americans. Capt. Ernest Medina was also court-martialed. In his 1969 interview with Mike Wallace, Medina denied that he had seen any killing of women and children. Hugh Thompson told Mike Wallace that when he had called for help for a wounded girl Capt. Medina came up, “touched her with his foot, stepped back and blew her away.” Despite Thompson’s testimony against him, Medina was acquitted on all charges.
It Was A War Crime
Larry Colburn commented, “There is a big difference between killing in war and murder, cold-blooded murder.” Thompson said, “What do you call it when you march 100 or 200 people down in a ditch and line up on the side with machine guns and start firing into it. It reminds me of another story that happened in World War II, like the Nazis.” Mike Wallace observed, “There is no doubt about it that it was a war crime.” “No doubt in my mind,” Thompson replied.
“Back to My Lai” was aired five days after “60 Minutes II” had devoted its entire hour to a special program about former Senator Bob Kerrey’s role in the killing of women and children in Vietnam in February 1969, nine months before the story of My Lai broke. The timing was not coincidental. CBS knew that there would be a lot of sympathy for Bob Kerrey, and that it would be criticized for airing the story. They had people on their own staff who apparently felt that way.
Bob Schieffer, host of the CBS Sunday talk show, “Face the Nation,” led off his commentary on the story published in The New York Times Magazine on April 29, reminding viewers that Kerrey lost his foot and was awarded the Medal of Honor. Schieffer said the former senator had confessed to an awful and tragic mistake. “His small group of men,” he said, “was fired on in the dark and they fired back only to discover they had killed innocent women and children. The confession came as another member of the unit said the innocents were shot on purpose. For the record, I choose to believe Kerrey because I have known him to be an honorable person.”
Andy Rooney, in his comments after “Back to My Lai” was aired by “60 Minutes” on May 6, also made it clear that his sympathies were with Kerrey. Like many of those who defended Lt. Calley, he said that those who had never been in a war could not imagine the position Kerrey and his men were in that night. “The possibility of their being killed was everywhere, every minute,” Rooney said.
Seymour Hersh, whose story on the My Lai massacre evoked similar comments from supporters of the Vietnam War, told AIM that you have to distinguish between actions taken because of fear of an ambush, and rounding up people and killing them. The latter, he said, was a war crime. Noting suggestions that Kerrey should return the Bronze Star he won for an operation in which he admits that his team killed only women and children and one old man, Rooney said that if Kerrey returned his Bronze Star, he would send him his own to replace it.
Harmful Truth vs. Useful Lies
Former Senator Kerrey spent only two months in Vietnam, but he won two medals, the aforementioned Bronze Star and the Medal of Honor for another operation in which the lower part of his right leg was blown off by a grenade. He told Newsweek editor Evan Thomas that the citation for that action was written for another Bronze Star, but it was upgraded to the Medal of Honor because the Navy desperately wanted one for the Seals. Kerrey’s conscience has, by his own admission, been heavily burdened since February 25, 1969 with the terrible things he and six Navy Seals did that night. That burden could be lightened if he would heed the statement that the great writer, Arthur Koestler, made when he broke with the Communist Party. He said that he had come to realize that “a harmful truth is better than a useful lie.”
Gerhard Klann, one of Kerrey’s six men, has eased his conscience by telling the harmful truth, painful as it was for him to do so. After meeting with Bob Kerrey at his New York residence, the other five joined Kerrey in issuing a statement on April 30, that, in effect, accused Gerhard Klann of lying, even though Kerrey insists that he has the highest respect for Klann and doesn’t want to say anything bad about him. Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who halted the My Lai massacre in Vietnam by threatening to use his chopper’s guns on the U.S. soldiers who were mowing down Vietnamese women and children, said on “The O’Reilly Factor” that the question of who is telling the truth might be resolved by asking all seven of them to submit to a lie detector test.
The evidence that Kerrey has covered up what happened on that night 32 years ago and more recently has lied about it has been documented in an 8,000-word article by Gregory Vistica in the April 29 issue of The New York Times Magazine and by “60 Minutes II” in its May 1 broadcast. We have relied heavily on Vistica’s information and the “60 Minutes II” broadcast in writing this report. On May 7 the Washington Post published a long story that included an account by a second Vietnamese eyewitness confirming Gerhard Klann’s report of how the women and children were shot. In addition, the Post interviewed a former Viet Cong guerrilla named Tran Van Rung, one of 11 guards assigned to protect some five Viet Cong leaders who were sleeping in a bunker about a quarter of a mile away.
Bob Kerrey’s Story
A month after arriving in Vietnam in late January 1969, Lieutenant (junior grade) Kerrey led six Navy Seals in an attack on a hamlet in the Mekong Delta called Thanh Phong. Their mission was to “take out” a Vietcong military leader and the village secretary, who, according to intelligence reports, were going to have a meeting there on the night of February 25.
Kerrey’s after-action report radioed from the Navy Swift boat that was returning his team to their base said that they had killed 21 Viet Cong. This became the basis for the citation for the Bronze Star awarded to Kerrey. He says that he told his commanding officer, Capt. Roy Hoffmann, that they had killed civilians, but Greg Vistica says Hoffmann told him that if he had known Kerrey had killed women and children he would have court-martialed him. Vistica found nothing in the written record that shows any repudiation by Kerrey of the report radioed from the Swift boat that they had killed 21 Viet Cong.
When interviewed by “60 Minutes II,” Kerrey said that he had been shocked to find that he and his men had killed “14 or so women and children clustered together.” He said his team had been fired upon and they responded by firing a barrage of bullets in the direction of the hamlet from about 100 yards away. When interviewed in 1998, he told Vistica they had taken fire, but later he said he wasn’t sure about that, saying that maybe it was only “noise.” He changed his mind again after meeting with the five members of his team that have joined him in disputing Gerhard Klann’s account of what happened. Their joint statement issued on April 30 said, among other things, that as they approached the village they received and returned fire.
Most of those “14 or so” dead women and children were boys and girls, ranging in age from a baby to 12 years old. This body count does not include the first five Vietnamese that the Seals killed. As they approached Thanh Phong, they came across a hooch that they had not noticed when they visited there two weeks earlier and questioned some of the inhabitants. Kerrey says that they thought this hooch was a Vietcong outpost. He says that Gerhard Klann and Mike Ambrose, the only two Seals on his team with previous experience in Vietnam, told him that there were five men in the hooch that had to be taken care of. He said he left that task to Ambrose and Klann and that they killed all five, using only knives. They didn’t use guns because that would have alerted the enemy. He claims he personally never saw any of those who were killed. Mike Ambrose claimed to recall seeing three men and two women in the hooch.
Gerhard Klann’s Story
Gerhard Klann tells a very different story. He told Vistica that the only man in the hooch was an elderly grandfather. The others, he said, were the grandmother and three grandchildren, the oldest of whom was about 12 years old. He said that he took the grandfather out of sight of the children and stabbed him twice, but the old man kept on struggling. He claims he asked Kerrey for help and that Kerrey held the old man down, planting his knee on his chest, while Klann slit his throat. He said the other Seals killed the grandmother and the three children.
Navy Seals are tough, but Kerrey’s claim that he left it up to Klann and Ambrose to kill five men, using only knives, and didn’t even watch to see if they needed any help, strains credulity beyond the breaking point. Klann’s admission that he needed help to kill the grandfather shows how implausible Kerrey’s version is. If there were five Vietnamese men in the hooch, ordering only two Seals to subdue and kill them would make no sense. It would make the task more difficult, more time-consuming and more risky. Unwilling to admit that he knowingly sanctioned and participated in the killing of women, children and an old man, Kerrey appears to have concocted a story that erases the memory of the grandparents and grandchildren.
The Eyewitnesses’ Stories
Klann’s version is supported by a Vietnamese eyewitness who told “60 Minutes” that she had seen what happened that night. Her description of the victims was identical to Klann’s?two grandparents and three young grandchildren. Pham Tri Lanh, the wife of a deceased Viet Cong fighter, was shown on “60 Minutes II” saying that she was attracted to the scene by cries from the hooch. She claims to have hidden behind a banana tree to see what was going on. She said the Americans dragged the old man out of the hooch and killed him by cutting his neck on each side. They then killed his wife and the three grandchildren, stabbing them with their knives.
Pham Tri Lanh could not possibly have known that Gerhard Klann had told essentially the same story. “60 Minutes” had hired a British cameraman based in Bangkok to go to Thanh Phong to get some B-roll footage, scenes that could be shown as background as the story was being narrated. Vistica says the Vietnamese had no idea why he was there. He was approached by several villagers who told him about the 1969 massacre, and he informed CBS that there were some eyewitnesses that they should interview. They sent producer Tom Anderson to do it.
Klann had told his story of the massacre of women and children at Thanh Phong 18 years ago to at least one close friend. Col David Hackworth said in a recent column on WorldNetDaily that nine years ago, when he was a columnist for Newsweek, he received an anonymous phone call about the massacre from someone who evidently described himself as a participant. Hackworth did not pursue the story. He gave two reasons: (1) the allegations couldn’t be backed up; and (2) the caller didn’t explain why he didn’t protest and stop the killing at the time or report it immediately, since military law was on his side. Klann’s story was known only to a handful of people in this country, and not to anyone in Thanh Phong.
The only way Pham Tri Lanh, the Vietnamese eyewitness, could have corroborated Gerhard Klann’s account of what happened so precisely is because either she was describing what she had seen or what she had been told by someone who had seen it, or because ’60 Minutes II” had told her what Klann had said and urged her to tell the same story. That would be an unthinkable violation of journalistic standards and certainly not one that Tom Anderson, the producer of the “60 Minutes II” program, who interviewed her through an interpreter, would commit. He evidently did tell her what Kerrey had said about there being five men in the hooch, because she said that anyone who said that was lying. She said it was occupied by the two grandparents and three young grandchildren. She showed Anderson the graves where they were buried. Ten years ago, what appear to be two cement sarcophagi for the grandparents, were placed there. Alongside was a rectangular cement block with three half-globes on top symbolizing the three children.
Time magazine reported that when they interviewed Mrs. Lanh, she first told them what she had told “60 Minutes,” but that she later said that she had only heard screams and had later seen the bodies of the grandparents and their grandchildren “with their heads nearly cut off.” Terrified, she returned to her hut and laid low. Hearing gunfire she stayed put for an hour before daring to go out. When she did, she found 16 more bodies, some piled on top of each other. She believed they had been shot at close range. Eight of them were her close relatives. They were buried in a mass grave the next day. “60 Minutes” acknowledged reports that Mrs. Lanh had changed her story, but they also said that another self-described eyewitness supports what Mrs. Lanh had told them.
Bui Thi Luom, then 12 years old, said she was in a bunker with 15 others when the Americans ordered them to get out and sit on the ground. She said she managed to slip back into the bunker just as the shooting started. She said that was the first gunfire she had heard that night. The changes in Mrs. Lanh’s story do not detract from the fact that she corroborates Gerhard Klann’s account of what happened that night, as does Bui Thi Luom. She made minor changes in her story. Kerrey has made major changes in his.
Collected And Killed
Klann said that they rousted the women and children from the bunkers where they had taken shelter. He said Kerrey gave the order to kill all of them. They lined them up and mowed them down with their automatic weapons from a distance of five to ten feet, close enough, Klann said, that the shooters were splattered with bits of flesh and blood. If they heard anyone moaning, they finished them off. He said the last one to die was a crying baby. The one thing that doesn’t make sense is Klann’s claim that they decided they had to kill all the women and children because if they didn’t do so, their chances of getting away safely would be “slim to zero.” That decision, he said, was made by Kerrey, the commanding officer.
Presumably, that decision was made because they thought the women would tell the Viet Cong that the Americans had paid a late night visit to the village, and that the VC would attack them before they could get back to their boat. But if the VC were anywhere nearby, they would be alerted to the Seals’ presence much faster by the gunfire than by any message the women might send. Klann gave a more credible explanation on “60 Minutes” when he said they killed the women and children because they had already been compromised by what they had done at the first hooch.
The Viet Cong Were Asleep
Klann and the two female eyewitnesses all agree that the Kerrey team was not fired upon by the Viet Cong. The Washington Post reported on May 7 that there were armed Viet Cong near the site where the women and children were killed. The Post interviewed one of them, Tran Van Rung, who was one of eleven men guarding the Viet Cong leaders sleeping in a bunker about a quarter of a mile away. He said they were aroused by the noise of the gunfire, but they did not respond because they had only bolt-action rifles and grenades. They knew they could not match the firepower of the Americans. Those leaders were the real target of the Kerrey mission. If they had spared the lives of the women and children they might have been able to take them by surprise and accomplish their goal.
That refutes Kerrey’s logic-defying claim that the heavy barrage of bullets that his team fired when they were about a hundred yards away was in response to shots fired at them. When they were a hundred yards away, the women and children were safely in their bunkers. But even if they had been standing out in the open at midnight, there is no way that every single one of them would have been shot and killed by bullets fired in the dark from a distance of 100 yards. In battle, it is rare for everyone to be killed, and the wounded tend to outnumber the dead by two to one.
No weapons or documents that would have verified the intelligence on which the operation was based were found, but Tran Van Rung’s statement to the Washington Post confirms that there was a meeting in Thanh Phong between the village secretary and the Viet Cong leadership. That should put to rest any suspicions that the attack was mounted for retribution, using the claim of a Viet Cong meeting as an excuse.
In the next few days, the Army received reports from local residents that 24 people, including 13 women and children, had been killed at Thanh Phong. By that time, Kerrey and his men were back at Cam Ranh Bay. No formal investigation was made of the massacre charges, and Kerrey’s team was not questioned about what happened that night.
The Media Reactions
Greg Vistica researched and wrote up this story in 1998-99, when he was a correspondent for Newsweek and Bob Kerrey was a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. Newsweek decided against running the story. Evan Thomas, a Newsweek editor who appears regularly on PBS’s “Washington Week,” has claimed that he was largely responsible for killing the story. He has said that he opposed dredging up an old story that would ruin Sen. Kerrey’s reputation when it was known that he had decided not to run for president.
Editor Mark Whitaker gave a different story on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”saying, “What Vistica had two years ago was a got-you story, essentially. We had the allegations from Gerhard Klann, who was in Kerrey’s unit, that there had been something akin to a My Lai massacre. But we had a lot of evidence that it was a lot more murky than that…. We had talked to Kerrey, but it was clear that he really didn’t want to talk to us. He told us, essentially, it was none of our business and that he didn’t have a very clear recollection. He admitted that civilians had been killed, but he couldn’t remember much else from that night.”
Reminded that Kerrey’s decision not to run for president at about that same time was said to have been an important factor in Newsweek’s decision, Whitaker said, “We felt that in order to tell this story and run the risk of damaging Kerrey’s reputation, perhaps irreparably, we needed to get his full version of the story. And although he had talked to us, he wasn’t really prepared to give us that version.”
It took two years for Kerrey to talk openly to Greg Vistica about this story. Perhaps he realized that the story was not going to go away and that it would be wise to put his spin on it and try to stay ahead of the curve. It has paid off because much of the comment in the media by both liberals and conservatives has been favorable to him. Most of it has been lacking any critical analysis of Bob Kerrey’s description of what happened.
For example, on “Meet the Press,” historian Doris Kearns Good-win said the media were unfair because “it was a confusing situation.” She said it was hard to distinguish civilians from Viet Cong and “the fact that it later turned out that civilians were killed does not mean that they knew that at the time when this happened.” Bill Safire said, “I completely agree with that point.”
Do Doris Goodwin and Bill Safire actually believe that 1,200 rounds fired from a distance of 100 yards into the darkness, aimed at no particular target, would have fatally wounded every one of a group of 15 women and children gathered together near a bunker that offered them immediate protection? Why were they outside the bunker late at night when the shooting started? Why didn’t they get into the bunker immediately? The assumptions implicit in Kerrey’s version have zero credibility when compared with Gerhard Klann’s claim that these women and children were rousted out of the bunker and sprayed with bullets fired from automatic weapons at close range until every single one of them was dead.
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