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Testimony given in Detroit, Michigan, on January 31, 1971, February 1 and 2, 1971
25TH INFANTRY DIVISION AND PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICE
MODERATOR. We feel that particularly after the actions of the last two days in Indochina, and the reaction of Senator McGovern yesterday to information which we brought out on Sunday about a Marine combat regiment operating in Laos in 1969, that we should open today's panel with someone else who has been in Laos, Ron Podlaski.
PODLASKI. My name is Ron Podlaski. I'm from New York. I was a Sergeant in the United States Army Special Forces. I served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. My testimony will consist of cross-border operations into Laos, Cambodia, using Thailand as launch bases for Laotian targets, and our involvement in Laos and Cambodia.
MODERATOR. How many times have you been in Laos?
PODLASKI. I couldn't give you an exact figure of how many times I've been to Laos, but I spent one year in Vietnam and that entire year was devoted to running cross-border operations.
MODERATOR. Would you say a half-dozen times or more?
PODLASKI. I'd say at least that many times, not to mention the times that we attempted to get in and were not successful in infiltrating.
MODERATOR. What was the nature of your sort of group?
PODLASKI. We were running long-range reconnaissance patrols. They consisted of two Americans and four indigenous personnel. Our particular team was Chinese Nungs. We were going into Laos, Cambodia, for intelligence reasons.
MODERATOR. Ron, would you explain what a Nung is?
PODLASKI. Well, Chinese Nungs, our particular team, they came from North Vietnam and their families had fled to the South and they were mostly Catholics. They were mercenary soldiers, is what they were. They were higher paid than the ARVN army and whoever gave them the most money, that's who they fought for.
MODERATOR. Was yours the only team going into Laos?
PODLASKI. Negative. I belonged to C & C North, which was located up around Da Nang, and it was their base camp. We had FOBs in Khe Sanh, Phu Bail, Kontum. There was also C & C South, which had two or three FOBs. I'm not exactly sure. I ran missions for them, TDY, into Cambodia.
MODERATOR. An FOB is a Forward Operating Base?
MODERATOR. What do you know about hatchet forces?
PODLASKI. Hatchet forces are company-size, consisting of American advisers with a majority of Vietnamese, possibly Montagnards, possibly Chinese Nungs. They would run company-size operations, cross-border.
PODLASKI. My last three months in Vietnam were spent in Kontum, it was the old FOB-2 which was changed to C & C Central (Command Control Central), and they were running hatchet force operations into Laos on quite a heavy basis those last three months.
MODERATOR. Would you explain what C & C North, Central, and South is?
PODLASKI. C & C North stands for Command Control North. It consisted of Special Forces. However, we took commands from Saigon and we had nothing to do with actual Special Forces Command in Nha Trang. We answered to Saigon.
MODERATOR. Where were these operations to take place?
PODLASKI. These operations well, you would launch from different launch sites near the border, and you'd be infiltrated into Laos wherever they felt there was heavy troop movement. We would take pictures, tell the strength of the troops, their morale, their physical fitness, if they were young, if they were hard-core North Vietnamese or if they were just grabbing anybody, and this intelligence was supposedly fed to conventional units. They could cut these people off as they crossed the border into South Vietnam. However, I don't know of any incident where we were ever listened to. Whatever intelligence we would give to them never seemed to be followed through.
MODERATOR. Ron, the President and other members of the government have said we have never had ground forces fighting in Laos.
PODLASKI. Well, all I can say about that is that the administration has been lying. They've been lying to the President and together they've been lying to you people.
MODERATOR. Ron will be available for further questions. We'd like to go along with the combat veterans of the 25 Infantry Division, who will introduce themselves.
KEYS. My name is Sonny Keys. I was in the Third Squadron, Fourth Cavalry of the 25th Division. I'll be talking about forced relocation of civilians and a convoy of approximately fifty trucks filled with American dead, which the Stars and Stripes reported as "light" casualties.
CHILES. My name is David Chiles. I'm a student at Kent State and I live in Atwater, Ohio. I'm going to be discussing some operations in the Iron Triangle, the use of American soldiers as guinea pigs to give a squadron colonel a better body count, and an incident I had with some civilians in Saigon. I believe it was June or July we were sent to the Iron Triangle and we took very heavy casualties. We found these ten graves, or what we took to be graves. One day A-Troop called in and used them as body count. The next day, B-Troop called in and used the same graves as body count. So meanwhile, the people that buried these definitely called them in, so you have ten graves that are worth thirty body counts. Vietnam was a very strange war, for the simple reason that the only way your unit was judged was by the number of bodies in relationship to your casualties.
One instance I remember, we joined with the 4/23 Mechanized Infantry (oh, by the way, I was with the 3/4 Cav. in all of 1967). They were dragging two Viet Cong behind their tracks, which isn't really unusual. They came in at night and we had a rendezvous. At this time two GIs went over and cut the ears off and put them across the track to dry. And then I noticed two GIs were fighting over these bodies, so I went over to take a closer look and there was a lieutenant observing this. One of them had a pair of pliers, and to my dismay, they were fighting over the rights to the gold teeth of the Viet Cong they had killed. This was kind of a status for them, to see who got the most gold teeth. As I said, we had taken very heavy casualties. I think the only thing that we found there was about fifty bags of rice. It was from New York City and Houston, Texas, is where this rice had originated from. Around September or October our colonel got this fantastic idea to start running convoys at night, from Cu Chi to Tay Ninh, then from Tay Ninh to Dau Tieng. The sole purpose of this was to be ambushed; this is a mechanized unit at night, when you can hear them miles away. His theory was, our fire power was much more superior than theirs. What he forgot to think about is three Viet Cong with RPG-2s and a well placed mine could kill ten GIs and destroy three or four tracks. Meanwhile, while all this is going on, he's riding around in a helicopter and observing this. Now this went on for two or three months, and I think the division finally told him to get himself together, because we were just getting ripped up.
MODERATOR. I understand you have some slides.
CHILES. Yes, I'm going to show those.
MODERATOR. Could we go through the other two fellows' testimony and then come back to your slides?
ROTTMANN. Just a point of clarification. RPG-2 is a recoilless projectile round, sort of a crude bazooka, that the VC uses, a shoulder-held weapon that will penetrate eight or ten inches or armored plate. One man can fire one projectile.
OSTRENGA. My name's Patrick Ostrenga and I am currently a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I was a medic with the 25th Division, Second Battalion, Twelfth Infantry, and attached to "D" Company. My unit operated around Dau Tieng, which is about forty miles north of Saigon. My testimony concerns mistreatment of Vietnamese civilians, mistreatment of prisoners, and murder of Vietnamese civilians.
MODERATOR. Sonny, could you amplify a little on what you were talking about?
KEYS. The relocation of civilians? Okay. We were in an operation in Ho Bo Woods, I believe it was Cedar Falls or Junction City in January of 1967. We came across a village of women, young kids, and old men--no young men. We surrounded the village, then we forced all the civilians out to an open field and we called in a Chinook, a large helicopter. At gunpoint we held these people until the Chinook arrived. Then we forced all of them onto the chopper to be taken to Saigon, I believe, and then we destroyed all of their hootches, we dumped all the rice down in their wells, killed all the fowl and the livestock, and left the place a real scorched earth. Prior to that, in December, we were running convoys day and night for Operation Attleborough up at Tay Ninh. One night we ran approximately fifty trucks back down to Cu Chi. We got there. You could tell that these trucks were heavily laden; they were really weighted down. We got there and my squad leader went over and talked to a lieutenant. He came back and said that the lieutenant had told him that these trucks were weighted down with American bodies. I didn't see inside the trucks, so it is hearsay, but I do know that Stars and Stripes reported about a week later that we had taken light casualties, light casualties and fifty trucks loaded with American dead is more than light casualties.
MODERATOR. Pat, would you amplify a little on your testimony?
OSTRENGA. I was working as a medic in Vietnam and there are quite a few things I can talk about. Well, one of the things I saw was one Vietnamese civilian, a pretty old man, was riding down a road with a bicycle. The lieutenant that was with us took out his M-16 and aimed it at the guy and shot one round and well, killed the guy. We went up to the guy, and he had a South Vietnamese ID card. Common practice in my unit was, if you killed a civilian with an ID card, you take his ID card and tear it up. The lieutenant's comment on this was, "Well, I guess I'm still a pretty good shot." We took some prisoners one time, and one of them was wounded. The guy had a pretty big gash in his arm, some frag from some artillery. I went up to treat him, and as I was putting on the bandage, the guy was pulled away from me and the commanding officer, a captain, told me not to waste anything on the gooks except bullets. And there were also some civilians that were wounded another time from some of our own artillery fire. I tried to treat some of them but I was told not to waste anything on them because they're not worth anything: they're just gooks. It's a very racist war.
MODERATOR. Dave, could you show your slides now and explain them?
CHILES. First, let me explain this slide. The first one's a 45 caliber, the second one's an M-16, the third one's an M-14, which is a NATO round. This is supposedly the largest round to be used as anti-personnel. The large one beside the pack of cigarettes is called a 50 caliber, which is to be used as anti-aircraft.
(Next Slide) This is a Vietnamese that has been hit with a 50 caliber, which is supposed to be used for anti-aircraft, but all our tracks have them, and since the Vietnamese don't have a good Air Force, I could never see the logic behind it.
(Next Slide) This picture was taken by my lieutenant on the way to the Iron Triangle. This isn't my unit; I don't know what unit it is, but it's with the 25th. I just asked them what the reason for burning the village was, and I believe the quote was, "It's a hostile village."
(Next Slide) There's many people back here that for some reason think an armored unit is invincible, and this is one of the reasons for having us run the night convoys to be ambushed. I think the next few slides will show you what a couple of Viet Cong with the RPG and mines can do. This is a track that has been hit by an RPG and burnt up.
(Next Slide) This is an RPG that hit a track. An RPG is a heat round. It looks like a very primitive weapon.
(Next Slide) This is another picture of an armored personnel carrier that has hit a mine and totally destroyed. I believe there was four or five American deaths.
MODERATOR. Thank you.
OSTRENGA. I think something should be mentioned about how in Japan there are many acres covered with totally destroyed APCs that they're just sitting there, waiting to cannibalize. And I've seen this on Okinawa too.
MODERATOR. We're going to take questions from the press at this time for the 25th Infantry Division combat veterans and for Ron Podlaski, who has been in Laos over a half-dozen times, and then we're going into a second part of the panel that of former PIO Information Specialists, many of whom were with the 25th Infantry Division, who will explain what happens to news. Are there any questions from the press to the veterans who have just testified? Are there any questions from the audience?
QUESTION. Mr. Podlaski, when were you in Laos?
PODLASKI. I served in Vietnam from April '68 to April '69. I can't tell you the exact days I was in Laos. It was between '68 and '69. Also it wasn't just Laos, it was Cambodia and Laos; we would go to Thailand and launch from Thailand into Laos with Vietnamese personnel. We would go on these missions, also I forgot to mention, with no American markings, no American dog tags, these are the tags you wear around your neck to identify yourself if you're killed. If we were killed over there we were deserters--not to tie in our government. A lot of teams a lot of times would go out with North Vietnamese uniforms or carrying North Vietnamese weapons: AK-47s. Just so it didn't look as if Americans were involved in this.
QUESTION. What were the various ranks of the American personnel on your missions?
PODLASKI. That's a good question. There were Spec. 4s running teams. There were E-5s running teams. There was one E-7 and he was a very young E-7 and he was killed. He was the last high-ranking NCO that worked on a team. We had one or two lieutenants who went out with teams so they could get an idea of the way operations went. Therefore, they became launch officers. However, any of these officers who had any feelings for the men who went on these missions were relieved of their job.
QUESTION. What kind of information were you trying to get?
PODLASKI. Intelligence on the size, the shape they were in, the type of uniforms they were wearing, did they look well-fed, did they look tired, run down, beat? Were they hard-core veterans, were they young people just from the North, green? What type of weapons they were carrying.
QUESTION. Did you ever engage in combat?
PODLASKI. We were not extracted out of Laos unless we made physical contact, which is, anyone who knows anything about recon--once you're visually compromised your mission is supposedly aborted because you can gain no intelligence if they know you are in the area. When you've only got six men, you can't put up much of a fire fight. However, our policy was, you're in a fire fight or you don't come out.
QUESTION. Did you ever go on any search and destroy missions or do you know of any search and destroy missions into Laos or Cambodia?
PODLASKI. Negative. I didn't go on search and destroy missions. My last three months over there I was changed from recon to hatchet force. And I was scheduled to go out, but, fortunately, I caught malaria and I didn't have to do it.
QUESTION. Did you know about Operation Dewey Canyon? That was a Marine operation, but it was during the time you were there.
PODLASKI. I know about it like the public knows about it but...
QUESTION. You didn't know about Operation Dewey Canyon when you were in Vietnam?
PODLASKI. Negative. The only reason I am aware of it is because I have a cousin who doesn't walk today because of it.
QUESTION. Were there any special instructions about keeping your operations in Cambodia and Laos a secret?
PODLASKI. Yes there were.
QUESTION. Like what?
PODLASKI. We were told any information we gave on these operations--we were forced to sign papers before we left Vietnam--We were told that if we didn't sign these papers we wouldn't leave Vietnam. Telling us that we were subject to a ten thousand dollar fine and ten years in prison if we mentioned these operations. However, I think it's more important that the public knows, because, man, you've been lied to long enough!
MODERATOR. Ron will be available for further questioning. We'd like to move along. I'm sorry, there's another question right there.
QUESTION. Did you, was there a unit with you? I know there's one at C & C Central called the Earth Angels. Code name Earth Angels.
PODLASKI. I was in C & C Central my last three months in Vietnam and I went TDY to C & C Central a few times and I'm not familiar with that at all.
QUESTION. Was there ever a unit within C & C Central or C & C North that was more or less separate from the rest and engaged in, you know, assassination type operations?
PODLASKI. I have heard of these. It was not C & C North that had these type operations. I heard of them and I know they existed but for me to comment on them would be strictly hearsay.
QUESTION. Well, what did you hear?
PODLASKI. Well, that there are Americans working on special operations that are assassination teams.
QUESTION. Within C & C?
PODLASKI. Well, not in C & C North or C & C Central. It was in another area and I really don't like to comment on something that I don't know for sure. Because I wasn't involved in this, I heard about it. I know it exists; but I have no proof.
MODERATOR. We'll have to take this one more question.
QUESTION. Yes, this paper here says that Eugene Keys participated in operations in Cambodia back in December of '66. Can you comment on that?
KEYS. There is a town north of Cu Chi on Route 1 called Go Dau Ha. Now any time we ran a convoy, we would place an APC at a crossroads to make sure that the convoys went north to Cu Chi instead of crossing the bridge. We were told that this river was a border. Now, according to the map, it is not the border. I've talked to other people who have been there since I wrote that down. And they say it's not the border, so obviously they were just giving us a line.
MODERATOR. We'd like to move along to a panel on information specialists and on press censorship. Larry Rottmann.
ROTTMANN. My name is Larry Rottmann. I served as Assistant Information Officer for the 25th Infantry Division, based at Cu Chi, Vietnam from June 5th, 1967 till March 9th, 1968. My duties were to be officer in charge of the division newspaper, Tropic Lightning News, the Lightning Two Five monthly news magazine, and the Lightning Two Five ARVN radio program. I was also in charge of division press releases including photos, officer in charge of visiting newsmen including television network crews, and a frequent briefer of the division staff on all civilian news media and information matters. I'd like to introduce the rest of the members of the information panel: Mike McCusker, who was information specialist with the Marines; Larry Craig, who was information specialist at Brigade level in the 25th Division; Vernon Shibla, who was an information specialist on the Brigade level; Alex Primm, who was an information specialist at the 1st Logistical Command Headquarters. Those men will identify themselves and give you a little background. Mike, do you want to start out?
MCCUSKER. My name is Mike McCusker. I was a Sergeant in the Marine Corps and I served in Vietnam in 1966 and '67 with the 1st Marine Division as what they call an Infantry Combat Correspondent. This meant that I went out with every unit of the Infantry that was stationed, generally in Chu Lai, but I ended up all over the I Corps with almost every Marine infantry unit and also reconnaissance unit because I was also reconnaissance qualified. These things that the men from the 25th told you were covered up. None of these instances were generally reported. Most of the stories that we wrote generally appeared in such publications as Stars and Stripes, a paper we had in I Corps area called Sea Tiger, various other military news services, and the civilian press. They appeared in ways that we did not even write them. Information in them was either deleted or added. Quite often what we had written, what we had seen, what we had covered, just didn't come out in the stories. It was something entirely different. The general policy of being an Informational Services man (that's what the Marine Corps calls its reporters, the Informational Services Office). The only thing we had to do with information, I believe, is to cover it up, disguise it, or deny it. Some of the things that we could not write about, and if we did write about them they were always redlined from our stories, were the amount of American dead. Now they'd always go into light casualties, medium casualties, or heavy casualties. However, heavy casualties were never reported upon because when they got to Da Nang--and if they mention casualties in the Da Nang press center, if a platoon went out and got wiped out, they would measure platoon by battalion strength and that would, of course, be light casualties. And play those little games. Every Vietnamese dead was naturally a Viet Cong dead; even six month old babies, 99 year old men and women. If they are dead, they are Viet Cong, which is a misnomer, at any rate.
We could never really write about the Vietnamese life style, or how the Vietnamese viewed their life in their universe, because it's so contrary to how we viewed Vietnam and the purpose of Vietnam. And the dichotomy would be very apparent in any story. We could not write of taking souvenirs--souvenirs that we witnessed being taken such as ears and teeth. You can't help but notice it because it happens all the time and if you did write of it, it would be redlined and, of course, you'd be on the carpet if your Information Services Office could find you out on the field. You could not write of villages being burned, of crops destroyed. You could not write of defoliation, of the use of tear gas. The use of tear gas on at least three occasions--I witnessed tear gas pumped into caves and people running out and shot down as they run out of those caves. When the story of tear gas being used in 7th Marines in 1965 was exploded, through Colonel _____ _____ the regimental commander at the time said it was only for humane purposes. And I witnessed a few of those humane purposes and I did write it in the story, infuriated, and it was redlined. The use of napalm; you can't even use the term napalm any more. It's called incindergel, like Jello. You could not write of women guerrillas, women prisoners; especially the deaths of women, children, old men and women. You could not write of H & I fire which is harassment and interdiction. This was supposedly to keep the Viet Cong on their toes. What they would do is just throw rounds out in every direction every night. It didn't matter where. There was no set plan, just throw them out. Anything in the way, that's a shame. Also free fire zones; a setup. Free fire zones essentially means anything within that zone is dead. Anything moving is fair game. We could not write of these things. One particular instance of the free fire zone was a village that was supposedly pacified and I had to cover it for the division. This colonel went in with a bunch of newsmen--into this one particular village. The medical team that had preceded him has a chow team and they had set up hot chow. They passed out the Band Aids and the Kool-Aid and they only gave medical supplies enough for two days in any particular village because they figured if they gave these medical supplies to a village lasting longer than two days, the NLF would get to those supplies and use them. So, therefore, though the medical teams might not visit a particular village for a period of a month, maybe, they would only leave supplies for two days.