Memories Of A Massacre: Part I

Varying Accounts Of A Night In 1969

There are few, if any, stories 60 Minutes II has done that have created as much controversy and debate as our "Memories of a Massacre." It first aired in the spring of last year.

It is the story of a military operation in the Vietnam War under the command of Bob Kerrey, a former Senator, governor and Presidential candidate. It was a secret until Senator Kerrey agreed to talk to us and the New York Times Magazine about the 1969 operation, when his Navy SEAL unit killed more than 20 unarmed civilians - one old man, the rest women and children.

Since our story first aired, there have been calls for a war crimes investigation. And there was criticism we were smearing an American hero. Senator Kerrey, who was awarded the Medal of Honor after a later battle in Vietnam, originally told us it was all a horrible accident of war.

But a very experienced Navy SEAL who was at Kerrey's side that night, Gerhard Klann, a man who later helped save Kerrey's life, told us it was no accident - that in the chaos women and children were rounded up and shot at point-blank range for what was considered to be necessary reasons.

To this day, Gerhard Klann stands by his story. As for Senator Kerrey, in his recently published autobiography, he now avoids many of the questions about what happened that night. He does acknowledge that his own version has changed and may in fact no longer be accurate.

Two men with contradicting memories - both haunted by the events of a single night. We begin again with Bob Kerrey's memories.

Rather
You gave the order to fire?

Kerrey
Oh, absolutely.

Rather
You let 'em have it?

Kerrey
Well a bit more than let them have it, I mean we fired in lavs, we fired in M-79's, M-60's, we stood back and we just emptied everything we could into this place and we were taking fire. And we came into the village and it wasn't a big village, it was, you know, four or five hooches. There was a cluster of women and children, they were all dead. So that's the outcome.

Rather
Was this the worst thing that you ever did in your life?

Kerrey
Oh, nothing, there is no second place. Yes, yeah. I mean, this is where, I mean, I lost something more important than losing, if I'd lost both arms and both legs and my sight and my hearing it wouldn't have been as much as I lost that night.

Narration
It was early in 1969 when Lieutenant Kerrey arrived in Vietnam. The Communists were intensifying their attacks against U-S forces and their South Vietnamese allies. Thirty thousand Americans had already died in the war. Nearly ten thousand more would be killed by the end of the year . Kerrey was a highly skilled Navy SEAL leader, trained in demolition, infiltration and the arts of assassination and kidnapping behind enemy lines. Trained to go to places like the Mekong Delta, a place infested with the Viet Cong. Kerrey was eager to serve, as he put it, "with a knife in my teeth."

Kerrey
You're trained to kill somebody with a knife, you're trained to kill somebody with small arms, you're trained to kill somebody in tight.

Rather
You were team leader in Delta Platoon.

Kerrey
Mm-hm.

Rather
Fair or unfair to say they were young and green?

Kerrey
Fair to say that we are youg and green, right. Yeah.

Rather
Including yourself?

Kerrey
Oh, I would say most especially myself, yeah.

Narration
Kerrey's first big mission - on the night of February 25th, 1969 - just a few weeks after his green platoon arrived in Vietnam – was to kidnap a local political chief in his hooch, or thatch-roofed house, in a tiny Mekong Delta hamlet called Thanh Phong.


Rather
Take your time, take me to the start, tell me what happened.

Kerrey
We went in at night. And we found men in a hooch and the people who were running out in front of me said we've got people, we've found men and we're gonna take care of them. Which I understood and I would authorize without saying so meant they were going to kill them.

Narration
Kerrey says his squad used their knives to kill all five men.

Rather
Did you personally kill any of them?

Kerrey
No, I did not, but in my mind, I personally killed all of them, I take full responsibility for them, so, and then I'm in charge of this platoon, I'm in charge of the squad, actually.

Rather
Why not take them prisoner?

Kerrey
Because of where we're operating, our belief is that they could break free and we could be at risk.

Rather
They could compromise the mission?

Kerrey
Compromise the mission, we end up being dead.

Narration
Then, shortly after Kerrey says five men were killed, the mission spiraled out of control.

Kerrey
We moved out to the right and we started moving probably down, you know, criss-crossing a little bit along canals on the rice paddy on the dikes of these rice paddies. And we took fire and we returned the fire from an area that we were going.

Rather
Small arms fire?

Kerrey
Small arms fire. It was a fair distance away. I mean we just put down a field of fire and moved in on those hooches and stayed firing all the way through.

Narration
And when the firing stopped, Kerrey says he was stunned when he walked up to his victims.

Rather
How many were women and children?

Kerrey
All.

Rather
About how many were dead?

Kerrey
15, 12

Rather
At that moment, what did you think to yourself at that time?

Kerrey
I just killed my own family. I just did something really bad. I mean, I thought, this shouldn't have happened.

Narration
Kerrey says he and his men did not find any weapons. The unit was evacuated quickly by boat, and apparently the men did not talk much that night… or in the 30 years since… about what had happened. But one member of the unit did file a battle report the next morning – a report we managed to unearth - and we read it to Kerrey.

Rather
It says, "two hooches destroyed, 14 VC KIA." Translation: 14 Viet Cong killed in action. No mention of women and children.

Kerrey
No, we would not have sepaated out and mentioned them as women and children.

Rather
Why not?

Kerrey
It just didn't. We, sex, age, nothing would have been reported on in that fashion. We considered everybody in that area to be VC and that's how we would report it.

Rather
I think this is gonna surprise a lot of people. But that's the way it was.

Kerrey
That's the way it was.

Narration
For more than thirty years, Kerrey talked about Thanh Phong only with family members and his minister. He agreed to talk to us and the New York Times Magazine only after Gregory Vistica, an author and journalist, discovered previously classified military documents which suggested that women and children had been killed at Thanh Phong.

Kerrey
For a long time, I felt guilty. Guilty is to me a more trivial and also more destructive feeling. Remorse is what I feel today. And the difference is very, very important. I mean, let the other people judge whether or not what I did was militarily allowable or morally ethical or inside the rules of war. Let them figure that out. I mean, I can make a case that it was. But it's still a dead woman, it's still a dead child. It's still a dead man. It's still a dead person. It's still death.

Narration
After we interviewed Bob Kerrey, we wanted to find out more about what happened in Thanh Phong, so we sent a team to Vietnam. They drove six hours south of Saigon, now officially called Ho Chi Minh City… crossed the mighty Mekong River by ferry boat, and then took two more ferries to Than Phu province. Government officials told us this may be the poorest district in Vietnam, and Thanh Phong may be the poorest village,.lying at the end of a 15-kilometer-long dirt road. The villagers eke out a subsistence living, fishing, crabbing and growing water coconuts, and some say they have a lasting memory of the night in 1969 when the Americans attacked their hamlet. They remember it in horrifying detail. This man, the grandson of two of the people who died that night, showed us where the attack began.

(Vietnamese being spoken)

Rather Translation
Where the sugar cane is growing, he said. That's where they died.

Narration
We were told members of the American unit came down this river to get to the village, and are believed to have gone ashore here. There was more jungle back then, and the hooches they attacked have disappeared. But 62-year-old Pham Tri Lanh is still here. And she says she was watching as the Americans attacked the first hooch.

Mrs. Lanh
I was hiding behind the banana tree and I saw them cut the man's neck, first here and then there. His head was still just barely attacked at the back.

Narration
The Americans killed everyone in the first hooch, Mrs. Lanh said. And contrary to what Bob Kerrey told us, Mrs. Lanh says, the five victims were not all men.

Mrs. Lanh
No, that is not true. Ther was an old woman, an old man , two girls and a boy and they were all young. They were the grandchildren.

Narration
Anyone who says there were five men there is lying, Mrs. Lanh told 60 Minutes II producer Tom Anderson and a translator. More than 30 years later, Mrs. Lanh said she is certain of what she saw.

Mrs. Lanh
The three children were scared and they crawled into a ditch. The old man and the old woman were lying down inside a house like the houses here. There was a water pump. He was sleeping inside the house and they went in and grabbed him and dragged him out to the water pump and that is where they cut his throat. Then they stabbed the three children.

Q: Did you see the Americans kill the children?
A: (nods head yes) After they cut the throat of the old man, they went out and stabbed the three children.

Narration
Mrs. Lanh, the only person we found who claims to be an eyewitness to the attack, said the soldiers also stabbed the woman in the hooch to death. Nearby, villagers showed us the grave of the old man, named Bui Van Vat. Next to him is the grave of the woman -- his wife, Luu Thi Canh. Next to them are their three grandchildren, buried without headstones under mounds of cement -- a boy who was eight or nine, and two girls, one of them about ten, the other a year or two older. After killing the children and their grandparents, Mrs. Lanh told us, the Americans walked further into the hamlet and discovered several more hooches, and more villagers.

Mrs. Lanh
It was very crowded so it wasn't possible for them to cut everybody's throats one by one. (edit) Two women came out and kneeled down. (edit) They shot these two old women and they fell forward and they rolled over. And then they ordered everybody out from the bunker and they lined them up and they shot all of them from behind.

Q and A with Mrs. Lanh
Q: Were there any men in the second bunker?
A: Just three little boys
Q: How big were the boys?
A: Little, like that. They were about eight, nine, ten years old.

Narration
Mrs. Lanh says five or six girls were also gunned down, and five women, one of them pregnant. She says She managed to escape by hiding in an underground bunker. The story Mrs. Lanh lived to tell is very different from Bob Kerrey's. Keep in mind, however, that Mrs. Lanh was a Communist revolutionary during the war. But her story is remarkably similar to what another eyewitness later told us. His name is Gerhard Klann. He was also in Thanh Phong that night, as the most experienced member of Lieutenant Kerrey's unit. We asked Klann about the first hooch, the hooch Kerrey says was filled with men.

Rather
Do you remember how many there were?

Klann
Five or six that I recall. Five I think.

Rather
All males or a mixture of males and females?

Klann
No it was a mixture.

Rather
When you say a mixturewere there children?

Klann
Yeah, three.

Rather
Any of them small children?

Klann
I'd say I don't think any of them coulda been older than twelve years old.

Narration
That is precisely what Mrs. Lanh told us in Vietnam. Journalists who went to the village more recently reported that Mrs. Lanh now says she heard Rather than saw some of the killings. They also reported that another self-described eyewitness supports what Mrs. Lanh told us. We never told Gerhard Klann about Mrs. Lanh. But his recollection also matches hers, and contradicts Bob Kerrey, about what happened at the second set of hooches. Klann says the unit knew there were women and children before they opened fire.

Rather
As best as you can remember, describe that scene for me.

Klann
That's, I can see it. I relive it often enough but I can't describe it.. It was, it was carnage. It was, we just virtually slaughtered those people. I mean, there was blood flying up, bits and pieces of flesh hitting us.

Outside of family and friends, Gerhard Klann, like Bob Kerrey, did not talk about that night for more than 30 years. When we come back, you will hear for the first time his troubling story - a story which directly contradicts Bob Kerrey about what happened in Thanh Phong in 1969.

Part I || Part II || Part III


© MMII Viacom Internet Services Inc. All Rights Reserved
  • David Kohn

60 Minutes App

New Look. New Season. The 60 Minutes app for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch!

More from 60 Minutes

Comments