Memories Of A Massacre: Part II

Klann Tells His Version Of The Story

Bob Kerrey says the pressure was on in Vietnam from his superior officers: destroy as many hooches and bunkers as possible, and keep the body count up.

Don't come back from an operation, his commanding officer said, and tell me there were men there and you didn't capture or kill them.

And it was some times difficult, Senator Kerrey points out, to tell the difference between civilians and soldiers. Even so, Kerrey says, the killing of civilians in Thanh Phong was an accident, a mistake.

As we reported, however, the people who live in the hamlet sat they have different memories about what happened that night. And so does Gerhard Klann, who served in the SEALs for nearly 19 years, and was hand-picked for an elite counter-terrorism team, Seal Team Six, after the Vietnam War. Klann is currently a steel worker in Pennsylvania. In 1969, he was one of the seven SEALS in Lieutenant Kerrey's unit in Thanh Phong.

Klann
It was completely a free-fire zone. Total free fire zone.

Rather
Which means, anything moves, you can shoot it?

Klann
Anything. At our discretion. We had the right to choose to let them live or die. That was up to us.

Narration
The SEAL unit was working in the Thanh Phong area with a Vietnamese district chief, who's mentioned in a 1969 naval communiqué we managed to uncover. According to the document, "The District chief.. said that if people weren't GVN (meaning supporters of the American-backed South Vietnamese government) he didn't want them alive." Days before the main operation, Klann says the SEALs went into Thanh Phong and found only women and children in the hamlet. They let them go and returned to base. Klann says the district chief pressured them to return with these instructions.

Klann
No matter who you came across, bring back anybody if you think they're gonna be of any intelligence worth or eliminate them.

Rather
Was it or was it not also part of the mission to try to capture the Viet Cong chief of the district?

Klann
It was.

Narration
When the squad learned that the Viet Cong chief was expected back in Thanh Phong on February 25th, Gerhard Klann says the decision was made to return. That night, he says, he and the others approached the first hooch - the hooch Kerrey says was filled with men. Klann disagrees, and his story matches what we heard in the eyewitness account in Vietnam - that there was an old man, a woman, and three young children.

Klann
We were virtually standing inside the door before they even knew that we were there. And there was a few, a few of them were in a bunker.

Rather
And then what happened?

Klann
Well the decision was made and we dispatched of those people.

Rather
Three of whom were children?

Klann
Yes.

Rather
Who was in command?

Klann
Bob Kerrey

Rather
Did he give he order?

Klann
Yes.

Rather
And what was the order?

Klann
Kill them.

Rather
Because?

Klann
We were going to continue on with the op and head toward the main village.

Rather
And the concern was that they might sound an alarm?

Klann
Absolutely.

Narration
Klann says his job was to kill the old man.

Klann
He put up a fight and I called over one of the guys to hold him down there.

Rather
Do you remember who came over to help you?

Klann
Bob Kerrey. I think he kneeled on his chest and so I put his head back and cut this throat.

Rather
At the time, did you think it was the thing to do?

Klann
I did.

Rather
Because?

Klann
I didn't question it.

Rather
Didn't question it?

Klann
It was war, we were in a war zone. And that's not a time to question orders. We got a chain of command, he gave the order and we obeyed.

Rather
And what happened to the others in the hooch?

Klann
They all met a similar fate right about the same time.

Rather
And in much the same way?

Klann
Much the same.

Rather
So these people are now dead in the first hooch. Did you immediately move on toward what we call the main hamlet area?

Klann
Yes.

Rather
This is where you think the Viet Cong chief might be?

Klann
Yes.

Narration
This is also where Bob Kerrey says his unit came under attack.

Rather
Did you take fire coming in?

Klann
No.

Rather
Gunfire of any kind?

Klann
No.

Rather
Anything even remotely sounding like gunfire?

Klann
No, not that I can recall. No.

Rather
What'd you do this time?

Klann
We gathered everybody up, searched the place, searched everything.

Rather
What was the make-up of this group?

Klann
Probably a majority of em were kids. And women. And some younger women.

Rather
So you got all the people out of there.

Klann
We herded them together and in a group.

Rather
Were any of these people armed?

Klann
I don't believe so.

Rather
Fair to say you didn't see any weapons?

Klann
I didn't see any.

Rather
Did you decide pretty quickly or not that the target of your mission, the Viet Cong leader, was not among them?

Klann
Yeah, we got together and we were, hey the guy ain't here. Now we got these people, what do we do now?

Rather
What did you do then?

Klann
We killed them.

Rather
What do you mean, you killed em?

Klann
We shot them all.

Rather
Was an order given for that or was it more or less spontaneous?

Klann
I don't think we would have acted spontaneously on something like that. There was an order given.

Rather
What was the order?

Klann
To kill them.

Rather
Why?

Klann
Cause we'd already compromised ourselves by killing the other group.

Rather
Whose responsibility, whose obligation as it to say that?

Klann
The ultimate responsibility fell on Bob Kerrey.

Rather
Do you remember him saying that?

Klann
I don't remember his exact words, but he was the officer in charge. The call was his.

Rather
And then what happened?

Klann
We lined up, and we opened fire.

Rather
Individually or raked them with automatic weapons fire?

Klann
No. We, we just slaughtered them. It was automatic weapons fire. Rifle fire.

Rather
At roughly what range?

Klann
Six feet, ten feet, very close.

Rather
Then did the shooting stop?

Klann
Yeah, for a little bit.

Rather
Was it quiet?

Klann
It was dead quiet. It was dead quiet. Then you could just hear certain people, hear their moaning. So we would just fire into that area until it was silent there. And that was it. And, and until, we were sure that everybody was dead.

Rather
You said certain people were moaning or making noises. Were all those adults?

Klann
A few. I remember one baby still crying. That baby was probably the last one alive.

Rather
What happened to that baby?

Klann
Shot like the rest of em.

Narration
We told Bob Kerrey about Gerhard Klann's account of the events at Thanh Phong, and also revealed to him that much of Klann's story is supported by a woman who says she was an eyewitness in the village. Senator Kerrey seemed stunned, but then conceded that what happened at Thanh Phong may have been worse than he remembers. Gerhard Klann's story of a massacre there is so radically different from Kerrey's story that we asked Kerrey to do a second interview with us. He agreed and we started our second interview by asking him again about the very beginning of the operation.

Rather
There was a hut, a hooch and you said people were killed there. (Kerrey nods.) You said you thought it was, that they were all adults. Now Gerhard Klann says and a person who says that they were there at the time in Vietnam, they say that it was in fact an elderly man, an elderly woman and three children. Is that true?

Kerrey
That's not my memory of it.

Rather
We have a discrepancy. You've given us your memory and said, look, maybe my memory is faulty. But my memory is this way.

Kerrey
Gerhard I will not contradict. I will not contradict the memory of any of the six people that were on the operation that night. So if that's his view, I don't contradict it, it's not my memory of it. And as to the eyewitness is at the very least, sympathetic to the Viet Cong. At the absolute very least.

Rather
And at most might be what?

Kerrey
Might be Viet Cong themselves. Might have been an eyewitness, yes, but might have participated enough as to kill Americans who were operating in that area.

Narration
Kerrey's unit had been warned that a lot of the enemy in this guerrilla war ddn't wear uniforms and that other Americans had been attacked by women and, yes, children. Thanh Phong and the area around the hamlet were controlled by the Communists. But the eyewitness account we heard in Vietnam is supported to a remarkable degree by Gerhard Klann. And Klann says Lt. Kerrey helped him kill an old man at the first hooch.

Rather
Did you or did you not come over and help him kill this older man?

Kerrey
That is not my memory of it. But that's as far as I will go, Dan. I'm just, I'm not gonna get into a Gerhard for 30 years has been living with this memory as well. And so part of what we're gonna have to do is not just reconcile the memory. Reconciling the memory is just the smallest part of it. But reconciling the pain that is felt. Reconciling the guilt that is still there. The feeling that somehow we did something horrible and how do you go on living? What would we do now?

Rather
If in fact it did happen. If there was an old man, an old woman and three children being killed. Was it or was it not within the rules of engagement for you and your men as you understood it, if necessary, to kill those people?

Kerrey
Yes, Again, I don't know how you're gonna cut this tape, but I don't have any doubt that the people that we killed were at the very least sympathetic to the Viet Cong. And at the very most, were supporting their efforts to kill us.

Rather
Old men, women and children

Kerrey
Yes, I mean, the Viet Cong, in a guerrilla war, the people that get caught in the middle are the civilians. And the Viet Cong were a thousand per cent more ruthless than any standard operating procedure that any American GI or Navy SEAL had.

Rather
Let's move from the first hooch. The hut on what we'll call the outer edge of the main section.

Kerrey
Mmm-hmm.

Rather
You told me that you and your men shot from a distance that you estimated at maybe 100 yards. And you did not know until you stopped shooting that all of the people shotwere women and children.

Kerrey
That's correct, that is my memory.

Rather
Gerhard Klann told me that you and your men rounded them up and shot them at close range. His story is that you shot them at very close range. He estimated at five to ten feet.

Kerrey
I don't have any doubt about it, this part. We engaged from a distance. We fired light anti-tank weapons, into this area. We fired M79s into this area, we fired automatic weapons into this area, and we advanced on the area to finish the job.

Narration
The official battle report on Thanh Phong says Lieutenant Kerrey's unit came under attack and returned fire up to 12-hundred rounds and used some heavy weapons, including M-79's, grenades, and LAWs, or armor-piercing rockets.

Kerrey
Now it may be that there were people still alivas we came up close, but we didn't go into a village and round people up and shoot them in cold blood.

Rather
That is exactly Gerhard Klann's story.

Kerrey
That is not what happened that night. And I love Gerhard Klann dearly and I do not want anything in this story to hurt him, but that is not what happened that night.

Rather
No doubt about that.

Kerrey
No doubt about it. I mean it, it is certainly possible that some of Gerhard's memory, memory happened towards the end, I don't, I don't want to go down that road.

Rather
You have no memory of the inhabitants of the main part of the village being lined up.

Kerrey
No.

Rather
And being shot at point blank range.

Kerrey
No.

Rather
Repeatedly with automatic weapons?

Kerrey
No.

Rather
And forgive this reference, but it was literally blood and guts splattering all over everybody.

Kerrey
No

Rather
You have no memory of that?

Kerrey
I have seared into my memory the sight of the dead women and children as we came up upon them. That's what I have seared into my memory. And I to me it's as bad as if it had happened the way Gerhard, you see dramatic differences and I don't I mean and I just don't see dramatic differences. Because I feel no moral or military justifications for their deaths.

Rather
What do you think of Gerhard Klann?

Kerrey
Oh, I sought him out for the platoon. I was the administrative officer for the SEAL team and he had experience and I did not.

Rather
Was he a loyal, strong member of the team?

Kerrey
Yes.

Rather
Are you surprised by his story?

Kerrey
Yes, I am surprised by his story. But I'm not, I'm not angered by it.

Rather
Does he have a grudge against you as far as you know?

Kerrey
No.

Narration
And if Bob Kerrey is full of admiration for Gerhard Klann and his military experience… Klann also seems to have high regard for his former unit leader.

Rather
Do you like Bob Kerrey?

Klann
Yeah, absolutely, I've been good friends with him for ever since then.

Rather
My only point here, do you have any grudge against him?

Klann
No, none whatsoever.

Narration
There were five other SEALs with Bob Kerrey and Gerhard Klann that night in Thanh Phong. Four of them will not talk about the operation in any detail. The fifth man supports parts of both Kerrey and Klann's stories. Michael Ambrose agrees with Klann that Kerrey helped Klann kill the old man at the first hooch. But he emphatically disagrees with Klann that the other villagers were rounded up and shot. Ambrose does say, however, that they were shot at close range - 20 to 50 feet, he says - much closer than Kerrey contends.

Last year, Senator Kerrey and those five other SEALs got together to talk about Thanh Phong, apparently for the first time in 32 years. They released a statement saying "We received fire and we returned fire." The memory "that we rounded up women and children and shot them at point blank range, is simply not true."

Rather
Is it possible that Gerhard Klann's version of what happened is correct and that it was so horrible that in the nightmare of memories that you have, that you've sealed it off. Is that possible?

Kerrey
No.

Rather
Is it probable?

Kerrey
It is neither possible nor probable. It's not impossible that some version of what Gerhard is talking about happened. But it's not my memory.

Narration
But a military cable we uncovered supports a crucial part of Gerhard Klann's story - that Lieutenant Kerry's unit visited Thanh Phong two weeks before the attack, and found only women and children there.

Rather
Did you make such a visit? Do you remember that visit?

Kerrey
None of us remembers that. It would have been a violation of SEAL team procedures to go back in. It would put us at considerable risk to go back, right to the same spot.

Rather
Then how do you explain the cable?

Kerrey
I do, I cannot explain the cable. I cannot explain the cable. I mean, I don't know, you've got a cable, I don't know.

Rather
I've been told that your orders, as a SEAL, and as a SEAL unit leader, was to get the job done. Forget about taking prisoners. Is that true?

Kerrey
That's true.

Rather
Those were your orders.

Kerrey
Those were orders.

Rather
Get it done.

Kerrey
Yeah, get it done.

Rather
Don't worry about taking prisoners or don't take any prisoners.

Kerrey
Don't take prisoners.

Rather
If and let me italicize that word, if the operation in Thanh Phong happened the way Gerhard Klann remembers it, if it happened that way, would that have been permissible under the rules of engagement, which you operate?

Kerrey
I can't go that far. No. I think it would not have been permissible. But it's, it's you know and the problem is, the truth of the matter is, it felt like it was permissible.

Rather
Within the rules of war as you understood them?

Kerrey
I would say yes, within the rules as I understood them.

Narration
Military and civilian lawyers who are war crimes specialists have told us they disagree with that interpretation. They say that any order to kill civilians or unarmed prisoners is illegal. But Lt. Kerrey's actions apparently were not challenged in 1969, even though according to an army radio log we found, a resident of Thanh Phong did make a formal complaint about atrocities committed the night of Kerrey's operation.

Rather
To your knowledge, has this operation in Thanh Phong ever been investigated.

Kerrey
No.

Rather
As a war crime.

Kerry
No.

Rather
Or atrocity case?

Kerrey
No.

Rather
Should it have been?

Kerrey
I would say no, under the circumstances of what we were doing, I would say no. I mean I certainly wouldn't have been afraid of an investigation at that time.

Rather
All but one of the victims were women and children. There was one man described as an older man. That being the case, why shouldn't it be considered a war crime? Or an atrocity? Or be an investigation?

Kerrey
I would not call it a war, but the people who were responsible for us at that time, if they wanted to do an investigation, they should have done an investigation. To describe it as a war crime, I think is wrong. Or to describe it as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to being right. Because that's how it felt and that's why I feel guilt and shame for it.

Rather
Are you concerned at all about the consequences of this becoming public?

Kerrey
Well am I, certainly, I'm that's a possibility. I've got to be prepared to tolerate any consequences of this. I understand that that are all kinds of potential consequences, up to and including somebody saying, this is a war crime. And let's investigate and charge him and put him in prison.

Rather
Are you sorry now that you agreed to talk about it?

Kerrey
No, not at all sorry.

Kerrey says he's lived with the shame and guilt of Thanh Phong since it happened. But military leaders decided to give Kerrey an award for the operation that night. Hear what Kerrey says about that when in Part III.

Part I || Part II || Part III





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  • David Kohn

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