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Testimony given in Detroit, Michigan, on January 31, 1971, February 1 and 2, 1971
82ND AND 101ST AIRBORNE DIVISIONS AND 173RD AIRBORNE BRIGADE
MODERATOR. Will everyone get out their 214s. What we have here right now is testimony of the 101st, the 82nd and the 173rd Airborne units in Vietnam. We also have one Marine that will be testifying with us. The first gentleman that will be testifying on atrocities in Vietnam will be a former E-3, Leffler, Marine.
LEFFLER. My name is Charles Leffler. I live in Detroit and I was formerly with Battalion 226, Golf Company, the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade in Vietnam. I'm not going to recount any atrocities here because what I would say would just be repetition of what has gone on in the past two days. But I do want to comment on two things which I was involved with in Vietnam. One was in January of 1969. I was in Vietnam from September 1968 to September 1969. In January 1969 we were on a sweep. We were on line through a series of rice paddies and villages in Quang Nam Province, which is just southwest of Da Nang. We'd received a battalion order at that time and the order stated that this order would take effect from that day forward until a rescinding order would come through. It never came through in the next eight months, until after I returned, so the battalion order was always in effect. If while sweeping on line and passing by friendly villages, which we did, you received one round of any sort from a friendly village, the entire battalion was to turn on line and level that village. The exact wording was to kill every man, woman, child, dog and cat in the village.
This was one round from any known friendly village. The second thing I'd like to comment on deals with a speech made by Defense Secretary Melvin Laird two weeks ago. In that speech he stated that our combat troops have not operated outside of Vietnam. Now in the past two and a half days you have heard testimony that combat troops have operated in Cambodia. This was other than the Cambodian operation that I guess was okayed by Secretary Laird. When I arrived in Vietnam at the end of September, my next sixty days were spent with battalion in either the Demilitarized Zone or in North Vietnam. This was an entire 226 Battalion in the DMZ and North Vietnam. When I arrived in country, I spent two days getting supplied and getting all my gear. I was then helicoptered out to where battalion was. I was very new in country, and being only a Pfc., I was never told where this was; we were just helicoptered out. We came to the landing zone and I joined up with my unit, which was 2nd Platoon, Golf Co., 226. The next day we went on a platoon-size patrol. This consisted of about 30 people. I went on this patrol and we went for about four hours in a northerly direction. I did not know where we went since I did not have a map. But after proceeding for about 33,000 meters and crossing a river which I later found out was the Ben Hai River (which runs exactly through the middle of the DMZ) the lieutenant turned to me and said, "Well, Leffler, you have something to write home about now." and I said, "What do you mean, sir?" He said, "We just crossed over into North Vietnam." We spent about the entire afternoon there, looking or checking along this road that they had found, which was covered over by a canopy which the Vietnamese had ingeniously carved so that jets or anybody from the air couldn't see it. We made no contact that day and we came back that evening. About three days later, we went in the same general direction. We again crossed over. This time it was a company patrol and we crossed over again, checked on the road, and again made no contact. We spent about a total of about sixty days in the DMZ, moving around every week--the entire battalion. I would say at least every two days there were patrols anywhere from platoon size to company size into North Vietnam. I can't give any data on the locations since I was only a Pfc. and I was never told. But I was told that we were in North Vietnam. I was pointed out the river which was recognized as the Ben Hai, and if you check a map, the Ben Hai runs through the center of North Vietnam.
MODERATOR. Our next speaker giving testimony will be Fred Bernath, former 1st Lt., 101st MP Co., 101st Airborne Division.
BERNATH. I was the platoon leader of the 2nd MP Platoon which supported the 2nd Brigade of the 101st at LZ Sally. One of our jobs was security of the base. LZ Sally had a garbage dump which was located about 200 yards outside of the perimeter. It wasn't a part of LZ Sally, but it was surrounded by wire and it was open from the hours of about nine in the morning to about five in the evening. There was an NCO who was in charge of the operations out there. This was the area where people from LZ Sally would take their trash. The stuff consisted of sometimes wood, old machine parts, food wastes, and things like that. During the day when it was operating, it was continuously surrounded by Vietnamese women and children. And also prostitutes and people who were interested in dealing narcotics to the GIs. This was the main area where people got to prostitutes or got to dope. But the majority of these people were interested in getting at what we were throwing away. At the end of the day, usually after it closed down, about 200 civilians, mostly women and children, would just swarm over the dump. It was kind of a sorry sight to see, but the brigade XO who was in charge of LZ Sally was interested in keeping these people away from LZ Sally for security reasons, since they were only 200 yards outside of the perimeter. Actually, they had a right to be out there until seven o'clock in the evening, at which point the entire area around Sally became free fire zone. So they called the MP platoon leader, who was my predecessor, and they decided that one way to get rid of the civilians was to try to scare them away. They would drive out there with their jeeps, drive outside the wire of the garbage dump, and start chasing them with their jeeps. When they got them running, they'd take M-79 CS rounds and fire it at them. To my knowledge they never hit anybody with the rounds, but they would completely surround them with CS and scare the _____ out of them. This action started under the command of my predecessor and was continued under me from November '68 through October 1969. Rather than work out a program whereby Vietnamese civilians could obtain access to what we threw away, we just chased them away. It didn't work, 'cause they always came back the next day. But we still did the same thing. There wasn't any other kind of program worked out. The second incident that I have to relate consists of treatment of detainees. Another one of our jobs was to process detainees who were sent in by the infantry companies of the Second Brigade. We lived in the same area as the military intelligence detachment. Our job was to fill out paperwork, guard them and transport them. The MI [Military Intelligence] Detachment interrogated them and classified them. While I was there, we mostly got innocent civilians. I was getting kind of concerned with the fact that we were getting so many civilians, because I considered that just bringing them back from wherever their home area was and putting them through this was a form of harassment.
But in addition to this, the ones who were suspicious for one reason or another, would be given forms of physical harassment. One type which was the most shocking to me, was the shocking of suspicious detainees with a field telephone. You can generate electricity with a field telephone and you can zap somebody with it. I had heard the interrogators talking about this many times when they were sitting around playing cards and drinking at night. And I, in fact, observed it on one occasion. The Military Police platoon leader was there (he was a 1st Lt.), and a Military Intelligence platoon leader (a 1st Lt.). They never said anything about it. It was just kind of tacitly approved.
MODERATOR. Fred, did you treat detainees who were not known to be VC or NVA in the same manner as you treated those who were known to be?
BERNATH. Well, the standard procedure was to treat them all the same way until they were classified. You didn't know who they were until they were interrogated. Some of them would be suspicious because they were confused. They didn't know what was going on and that might be a reason for the interrogator to be suspicious of them because they wouldn't answer questions right away. These people would get the same kind of harassment that someone who was actually suspected of being a VC would get. They couldn't tell, really.
MODERATOR. Before introducing our next former Vietnam war veteran, I'd like for all the vets up at the table to raise the form DD-214, please. Those forms that you see in the middle are the new DD-214s that are being handed out by the Army and the units they are discharging now. The reason I asked these people to show these forms is because a few press releases came out and said that we did not have valid proof that the people up here testifying are Vietnam veterans. I'm sure now that they have no reason to doubt it. The next veteran that will be speaking is Bill Perry, a former Pfc. of the U.S. Army, 101st Airborne.
PERRY. I served in Vietnam from '67 to '68. I wouldn't like to go too far into the horror stories you've been hearing about the last few days, but I would like to relate a few incidents. On March 5, 1968, in the province of Phuc Long, village of Song Be, a platoon of us, twenty-nine of us, were on a search and destroy mission. A few of us, who were considered expendable, were told to walk point.
As we came up out of a bamboo thicket into a clearing, a woman with whom I and one of the other two people had previously had what you might call business transactions with concerning marijuana, informed us of an imminent ambush on the part of the local forces. Myself and two others ran into her home with her. We weren't sure whether she was _____ us or what, but we were scared so we ran into her home. The rest of the platoon came up out of the valley into the clearing and was ambushed. We were isolated pretty well from the rest of the platoon while they were getting shot up. And when an NCO came up to look into the house where we were kind of looking out the door with the woman, the NCO automatically figured that we must be VC prisoners and he shot her up. She had a very young child inside her bomb shelter. Every Vietnamese home has to have a bomb shelter. The ambush actually lasted about two or three minutes, and the platoon got pretty well shot up. For about five hours they called in artillery and air strikes and pretty well demolished the town of Song Be. Finally when enough reinforcements came, they went out to sweep the area. They decided to throw fragmentation, or white phosphorus grenades, inside of each bunker regardless of what was going down in any bunker. We tried to stop them from fragging other bunkers where we could hear screams or moans or whatever, but they were really into it.
There was another incident in mid-July 1968 in the vicinity of Nui Ba Den where we had been in about two days of steady combat. We had found a lot of bodies, some killed by air strikes and some killed by small arms fire. And the military fear, you know, came through once again in their mutilation of bodies. They were very much into cutting patches and numbers on dead bodies in this particular incident. I could go on with more horror stories, but like we all know what happens. You can hear it from the other GIs and when the rest of the people on the panel finish, I'd like to go into a little of what causes people to act this way, why people act this way, and what we can do to combat people acting this way. Thank you.
MODERATOR. Perry, before we go on to the next one, you mentioned something before about an order received by the higher up and crossing across the national borders. Could you mention something on that?
PERRY. It was very well known that we were within two klicks of Cambodia which is about a mile and two-tenths. Very often we went on search and destroy missions directly west as far as 8-10 klicks and back. We were definitely going into Cambodia.
MODERATOR. Did you ever make contact in Cambodia? Did you ever make contact when you crossed the border?
PERRY. No, I didn't.
MODERATOR. Sam Bunge, a former 1st Lt. with the 101st Airborne Division.
BUNGE. I served in Vietnam for one year between July of '68 and June of '69. During that time I had a succession of jobs. First I was a rifle platoon leader, a grunt, for three or four months. Then I was a battalion staff officer and my final five months in country I was in charge of the brigade security platoon. My unit operated in the vicinity of Cu Chi, which is between Saigon and Cambodia. Then we were transferred up to I Corps and operations were conducted west of Phu Bai in the mountains. The incidents I have to recount are just in random order. Camp Evans, which is the next base camp up the country from Sally, also had trash dumps outside the wire. This was standard procedure all over Vietnam because I heard other people complaining about the practice. Civilians would get into our trash dump, too, and we routinely used CS to disperse the civilians. They kept coming back, of course. I observed many instances of H & I (harassing and interdicting fire) which is artillery fire popped out at irregular intervals at indiscriminate targets around the fire base just with the idea of keeping the enemy off guard in case he's coming up.
When I first took over my platoon, we were on a sweep operation and we received a couple of rounds of sniper fire from a village in an area that we knew had a lot of VC. The civilians weren't terribly sympathetic to them or to us. So we went over to the village to check it out, to look for weapons, to see what was in there. We'd been there several times before and after we'd reached the center of the hamlet (it wasn't a very big place) I noticed that a couple of haystacks were on fire in an area that we'd already come through. I asked the squad leader of the third squad back there why that was and he said, "Well, that's SOP." And I said, "No, it's not." He said, "Well, the other lieutenant (referring to my predecessor) said that if we ever get sniper fire from a village we were supposed to burn it down." So after we got the village secure, I called all the squad leaders together and changed the policy. The point here is that in a war like Vietnam where small unit commanders have such autonomy (lieutenants and captains to a large degree run the show) an individual can make a big difference. If a man wants to burn villages, he can do it. Quite a bit later as I said, when I had the security platoon north, we had a problem with civilians in the trash dump. One day we picked up about a dozen kids; they were all boys ranging in age from twelve down to about six. I got an order from the Brigade commander through Headquarters Company commander to hold the kids in the POW cage for 48 hours without food or water to teach them a lesson. I didn't want to do this. I argued a little bit and I said, "You know, prisoners are the responsibility of the MPs. Why don't you give it to them?" We had an MP platoon stationed at Camp Evans, and finally, he admitted that the MPs wouldn't do it because they realized it was illegal too.
So I went away, thought about it for a while, then went back to my company commander, and said, "Sir, I can't do this. It's illegal. How about backing me up? We'll go tell the colonel that we can't do it." And he says, "No, I won't." So I went looking for the brigade executive officer to try to get his backing and I couldn't find him. Finally I decided what I should do. They probably wouldn't check on me, so I just disobeyed the order without telling anybody. When I got up to the cage to tell the platoon to feed 'em, but to be discreet about it, the kids were already eating. So the problem was circumvented. Several times while flying back and forth between the mountains and Camp Evans, I observed an operation on the ground called "Rome Plowing" which I don't think has come out before. A Rome Plow is a very large tractor; the driver sits inside a heavy reinforced cage, and if you can imagine a giant snowplow on the front, it's very similar to clearing snow except that it clears ground. As it drives along, it uproots and pushes aside all vegetation so what you're left with is an area that looks like a bulldozed area. A Rome Plow is good because it can push over trees; it can do a large area in a very short time. This was being used to clear a patch about 500-1,000 meters wide down the base of the mountains so that it would be easy for air observers to detect anybody coming in and out of the mountains.
They wouldn't be hidden by the foliage. A mechanical sort of defoliation rather than the chemical sort. I used, several times, chemical Agent Orange around the perimeter of Camp Evans in an effort to clear the underbrush. They gave us about ten 55-gallon barrels of it, and we sprayed the stuff all around. There were two villages adjacent to the area and we didn't spray these villages intentionally, of course, but we got pretty close. When I was a grunt platoon leader, we were moving across a rice paddy and were reconning by fire in a tree line on the other side. When we got there, there was a village right there, a lady came out and told us that her mother had been wounded by a frag from one of our M-79 rounds. So I told the medic to patch her up and stopped the platoon to provide him with security. It took about fifteen minutes to dress her wound and give her some antibiotic. The whole time the company commander was hassling me about why didn't I just leave her alone and hurry and catch up with the rest of the company. He didn't want me to stay back there. Another time, the company was together and we were moving in on an area to reinforce another company that was in contact. We were back in the staging area waiting for the battalion CO to tell us exactly where to go. I happened to be up talking to the CO and his headquarters group spotted a farmer plowing, or doing something, with a buffalo in his fields-- maybe 500 meters away--a considerable distance.
Some of the EM in the headquarters section got the idea that they'd get some target practice on this individual. My memory is not clear whether the CO participated--I know he actively participated as a spectator and sort of encouraged this--but I can't tell you whether he pulled any triggers himself or not. But they fired on this man. The farmer had been doing nothing hostile, just minding his own business, just walking across the dike or something. But they fired on him single shot with an M-60 machine gun and they were obviously doing it just for sport because they did it shoulder fire, which is extremely inaccurate. If they'd felt it had a military necessity, they would've put the gun down on a bipod and done it accurately. And when they didn't hit the fellow, and evidently he didn't notice because he kept going, they set up the 81 Mike-Mike mortar and popped out a few high explosive rounds at him. He went down and my suspicion is that he went down just to get us to leave him alone, but we never did go and check.
At one point we were going into a village which we had reason to believe had a lot of weapons in it. As a matter of fact, we did find a few weapons. But we didn't find nearly as many as we expected. So we found a grave, an old grave, obviously an old grave, an old tombstone in the red-pitted rock that they make tombstones out of, and the CO said, "Gee, there might be something buried in that grave because the VC sometimes do that. So let's dig down a little bit." We dug down about two feet and obviously the ground hadn't been disturbed for years because it was the same color and the same density that the ground always was. But something had caught the CO's imagination, so he made us keep going and eventually we got down to the casket. He told us to break it open, so we broke it open. There was nothing inside. Evidently, his whole motivation for disinterring this grave and disturbing the corpse was simple morbid curiosity. When I was back with the brigade again, my platoon was given the assignment one month to implant a series of six sensor fields out in the mountains in an uninhabited area. The area was literally uninhabited. I flew over the area many times and there were no traces of anybody ever having lived there. These are electronic devices that you bury in the ground to detect through various means. One means is seismic, one is infrared, and another is magnetic. If anybody passes near them, they send out a signal. A man on the fire base reads the signal and tells the fire direction control center. They fire artillery on the target and what's bad about it is they don't know who it is they're firing on. It's done without any positive identification. You just pick up the impression of somebody out there, check with the infantry TOC to make sure it's nobody friendly, assume it's enemy, and fire 'em up. That's the way these things are intended to be used.
MODERATOR. Okay, Sam, I want you to evaluate this. It was a fact then that the battalion CO gave the order to have the children put into battalion stockade which is directly against American policy. He also gave the order not to feed them, give them water or anything for a period of 48 hours. But the fact is you did give them water and they were put in prison or in that little Connex for that amount of time, right?
BUNGE. Well, no. It turned out that the order wasn't executed as intended. The headquarters company commander, my immediate superior, told me that this was what the colonel wanted, and I pointed out to him in so many words that it's illegal, it's against the law. He said, "Well, you better do it anyway." Then, after my effort at getting the order changed failed, I decided to disobey it. So the kids weren't actually kept 48 hours. We let 'em go after about 36. They spent the night there. The place we kept them in was actually a decent place; it was a plywood building reinforced with wire so they couldn't get out. So, the mistreatment of prisoners was not done, but it was intended to be done.
MODERATOR. By a colonel in brigade headquarters.
MODERATOR. Okay, the next speaker is Kevin F. Byrne, a former sergeant in the 101st Airborne. Kevin?
BYRNE. I was a sergeant in a Scout Dog Unit in the 1st Brigade of the 101st. I've always worked in a free fire zone, and the policy was if we found any villages, hootches, houses or any animals, we were to destroy the houses and destroy all structures. We would kill water buffaloes, the pigs and we'd cook the chickens. I worked with units of the 1st Brigade and I worked with units of the 2nd Brigade. I worked with ARVNs, Marines, Capteams, proper forces and regional forces and this is a policy of all these units. I was down in Tam Ky area in May, June, July and August of '69. I was with the unit of the 101st. We received fire and we returned fire. It was sniper fire. We went on a sweep, found a hootch and we, you know, burned it down. We found an NVA officer inside and, like, he was immobile. His arms and legs were all torn up. So they drug him out and like before they drug him out, the day like, I call it tunnel rat. You emptied a magazine of .45 ammunition into the officer and we drug him out. It was getting late at night and so rather than calling in the medivac to take this officer back and try to save him, we just lifted him up and stuck a fragmentation grenade underneath him. We went back to our MDP and the next morning came out and, like, I was the first man. I was like a hundred meters from this area. We were going back to see if he was still alive and then maybe call in the medivac. About a hundred meters from where he was, the grenade went off. I got really spooked about this.
We went back; we didn't find the officer, like, you know, we didn't find anything. Just where the house was. The whole company was really spooked about this. They were all mad that they didn't kill him the night before. Kill him or send him in. Like, you know, this guy's running around like he, he really had everybody scared by the way he looked at us. Like he looked really hard. He was all torn up and he was waiting for somebody to try to mess with him. In all the areas I worked whenever my dog would give me an alert, I would request recon by fire. Normally this would be coming from the company commander. And I would request recon by fire. I would always be leading the companies with the first lieutenant behind me. He would just tell the commander that the dog wants a recon by fire and you know he would just let it ride. I'd call for a 60 machine gun or an M-79 up there and there was never any higher ups knowing about this. This was unwritten policy, what they used, because nobody ever questioned a dog handler's judgment. Like I'd develop like a sixth sense where I know danger's gonna come. Usually my dog wouldn't alert me and I'd stop and I'd say, "My dog's got something up here. Just want to get the 60 up here, just to ease my mind." A couple of times my dog would alert me and I'd see a house or like a complex up ahead and I'd tell them, "Recon by fire, get the 79 up here, a 60." 'Cause I don't wanna put my life on the line like that. Going up there acting like John Wayne or anything. Nor do I wanna put the men behind me, their life on the line. So like I felt really responsible if anything happened to them. Like sometimes when I'd call the recon by fire. If it was a long distance, I'd tell them to do it with mortars and they'd radio back to the nearest fire base and have mortars laying in this area where I'd call. And nobody would check out these areas really because like, they didn't want to go out of our planned route. In one spot, in a place called Lanco, near the end of the 101st AO in I Corps, my dog had an alert. We wrote it down as around a thousand meter alert. And on the bridge they didn't have anything that could fire this far. Like I was on a listening post and I was about a klick from the bridge myself. So I radioed back. We had to dump something in this area. So they called a destroyer in off the coast and like it pumped a few rounds in the area where I requested it and nobody checked the area out at all. There is this H & I fire that you've been hearing about in the Phu Loc district. They would have this H & I going out and be laying in certain trails designed at our so-called local VCs trails at night.
MODERATOR. Before I ask you this question, let me explain one thing. My brothers here are giving testimony and we all are extremely uptight because it's no easy thing to sit up here and rap about what happened. In a way we're kind of ashamed of what we did. I'd appreciate it if you'd help them out a bit because they are extremely nervous and I'm extremely nervous. So how about giving them a big hand? Kevin, what was the SOP on prisoners while you were out there? When you took prisoners? When you detained civilians? How were they treated? How were the enemy treated when you captured them?
BYRNE. If we had any prisoners or detainees, we'd round them up and then we'd send them in by chopper. If we were in the lowlands, we'd have the national police, or the white mice, come out and check them out there and then take them to the district headquarters or detention areas. If we had cordons, we'd have the village chief come out and he'd get all the people together. Then we'd have the national police and the interpreters interrogate these people, you know, one by one. Anybody suspicious in any way, anybody new in the area, or anybody that didn't have the proper ID, they'd be taken away by the ARVN police. They'd be taken to district headquarters or to detention areas.