Memories Of A Massacre: Part III

What Happened In Thanh Phong?

For more than 30 years, Bob Kerrey says he has been tormented by what happened at Thanh Phong.

Though he insists that what he and his men did was permissible under the rules of engagement. But back in 1969, the mission was gnawing away at him, so much so that he says he changed the way his men operated in their next mission.

Two weeks after Thanh Phong, Bob Kerrey had another mission, on an island off the coast of Nha Trang. The target: a group of hard-core Viet Cong soldiers. Lieutenant Kerrey's unit scaled these 300-foot cliffs at night. And after what happened at Thanh Phong, Kerrey says he wanted to take the enemy soldiers prisoner. This time, he split up his unit, there was crossfire, Kerrey was wounded, and he lost his leg. After he got out of the hospital, he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Nixon. Kerrey's men got together in Washington on the 30th anniversary of his receiving that Medal. They didn't talk much, if at all, about Thanh Phong, and from what we've been told, Kerrey never told them he had received a separate award - a Bronze Star - for the operation in Thanh Phong, the operation he now calls an atrocity.

Rather
Bob Kerrey later received a Congressional Medal of Honor. But for this operation, he received a Bronze Star.

Klann
I wasn't aware of that.

Rather
You didn't know that?

Klann
No.

Rather
Well, it's been a long time ago. But what do you think of that?

Klann
No, there was nothing warranted on that whole night that anybody should have received a decoration, let alone accepted it.

Rather
You said you feel shame and guilt. Did you feel it at the time? And if so, why accept the Bronze Star for this operation? Something completely different from the Congressional.

Kerrey
I didn't, I mean, I didn't send it back. But I've never worn it. I've no idea where it is. Send me a bronze, I didn't wear a Congressional medal of honor, for almost 20 years afterward. Don't presume that because I'm wearing a medal, that I'm a perfect hero. Introduce me as a hero if you want to, but understand not only am I a hero one night and a coward the next, but we're trained to do horrible things.

Narration
The Bronze Star citation credits Kerrey and his men with killing 21 Viet Cong.

Rather
Did you think then, do you think now, if you give it back, the Bronze Star.

Kerrey
I don't, I didn't think nor do I think now that I had to give it back, to feel like it was inappropriately awarded.

Rather
Do you think it was inappropriately awarded?

Kerrey
I think it's inappropriately awarded, yeah.

Narration
Bob Kerrey was obviously uncomfortable with this line of questioning and off camera he told us he thought we were cross-examining him. But we did think it was necessary to ask him once again about Gerhard Klann.

Rather
We've been in touch with Gerhard Klann recently and he says you were trying to convince him to change his story. Is that true?

Kerrey
That is not true. God bless Gerhard, that is not, if I was gonna change Gerhard's story, I would have contacted him three years ago.

Rather
Did he tell you that he thought you were trying to get him to change his story?

Kerrey
I don't think so. He may have.

Narration
But Kerrey says he wants to get together with Klann so they can reconcile their stories. They owe it to each other, he thinks.

Kerrey
We haven't been intimate for 31 years, but I mean on the night I was injured on the little island off Nha Trang and Gerhard Klann put the morphine in my thigh. Gerhard Klann held me in his arms like a baby. While I smoked a cigarette and waited for the Medivac helicopter to come and pick me up I can't presume anything bad about him. I can't anything but to do little, big, small, whatever to try to help him do what I've been trying to do, which is to live with this horror.

Narration
Living with that horror, Kerrey firmly believes, has been so difficult because Vietnam veterans have been treated differently from vets of other wars, wars that weren't questioned, wars the United States didn't lose.

Rather
Senator, if this had happened in World War Two, would we be talking about it? Would anybody be writing about it?

Kerrey
Curtis Lemay said in his memoirs that if after having designed a firebombing campaign in Japan that killed 100,000 civilians in Tokyo, in a single night, he said, If we lost the war, that he would have been tried and executed as a war criminal. And that may be true. No, we would not be talking about it in the same way, had this been in World War Two.

Narration
For three decades now, their Vietnam experience has haunted Bob Kerrey and his men. Kerrey says he has lived and re-lived what happened on that night in February in 1969.

Rather
Did you have nightmares?

Kerrey
Oh, yeah. I mean, I couldn't shut my eyes without seeing red for quite a while after I got him. So yeah, I was afraid to go to sleep. It was just violent horrible things happening to me and to others I mean that's what hell is. You know, when, when you think about hell and you imagine what hell is, you imagine horrible things happening. Well, hell's not an imaginary thing. It's a, it's a real place and you can experience it on earth and I experienced it on that night.

Rather
You've been there?

Kerrey
I have been there.

Rather
What you have seen and heard tonight is some of what the Vietnam War was like, what it was really like. Some of the war, but not all. Most Americans who served in Vietnam never did or saw anything remotely ressembling what Bob Kerrey and Gerard Klann went through.

Kerrey and Klann were young commandos, trained to do what the enemy had been doing for years: terrorize key people, kill them if necessary, in hopes of winning the war. They went into Thanh Phong that night in 1969 to do what they were ordered to do. Whatever the precise details - which we may never know for certain - it turned into a nightmare. Think of it what you will, but know this: it is what some of war is like, what it's really like a nightmare of unimaginable horror and savagery, the full depths of which only those who live through it can know.

Part I || Part II || Part III



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  • David Kohn

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