And it was sometimes difficult, Kerrey admits, to tell the difference between civilians and soldiers. Even so, Kerrey says, the killing of civilians in Thanh Phong was an accident.
Gerhard Klann remembers it differently. Although Klann didn't know about another eyewitness, Pham Tri Lanh, when he talked to 60 Minutes II, it turns out his recollection also matches hers about what happened at the second set of hooches. Klann says the unit knew there were women and children before they opened fire.
Klann 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 Lt. Kerrey's unit in Thanh Phong.
Recently, he described his memory of the night: "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.
"It was completely a free-fire zone," he says.
How Klann Remembers It
The SEAL unit was working in the Thanh Phong area with a Vietnamese district chief, who is "mentioned in a 1969 naval communiqué. 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 the base. Klann says the district chief pressured them to return with these instructions.
"No matter who you came across, bring back anybody if you think they're gonna be of any intelligence worth or eliminate 'em," Klann remembers, adding that they were also supposed to capture a Viet Cong chief.
When the squad learned that the Viet Cong chief was expected back in Thanh Phong on Feb. 25, 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.
He says Kerrey gave the order to kill them, because he was worried that they would sound the alarm.
Klann says his job was to kill the old man. He says the man put up a fight, and he asked Kerrey to hold him down while he cut his throat. At the time, Klann says, he didn't question the order: "It was war, we were in a war zone. And that's not a time tquestion orders. We got a chain of command, he gave the order and we obeyed."
After killing the people in the first hooch, Klann says the unit went to the main hamlet, where they thought the Viet Cong chief might be.
At this point, Kerrey says his unit came under attack. Klann, however, says the unit took no fire at all. At this point, they gathered together everyone they found. Most of this group were women and children. None appeared to have any weapons, Klann says.
The unit decided that the Viet Cong leader was not there, Klann says. "We got together and we were, 'hey, the guy ain't here. Now we got these people, what do we do now?' "
Then, Klann says, the SEALs killed the prisoners. It was not spontaneous, he says. "I don't think we would have acted spontaneously on something like that," he says. "There was an order given."
Why? "Cause we'd already compromised ourselves by killing the other group."
Klann says the decision was Kerrey's. "I don't remember his exact words, but he was the officer in charge. The call was his. We lined up, and we opened fire. We, we just slaughtered them. It was automatic weapons fire. Rifle fire." The shooters were about six to 10 feet from the prisoners.
Baby Was The Last To Die
Then, Klann says, the shooting stopped. "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."
There was some moaning, he says. "I remember one baby still crying. That baby was probably the last one alive." The baby, he says, was "shot like the rest of 'em."
When told about Klann's account of the events at Thanh Phong, and the fact that much of Klann's story is supported by a woman who says she was an eyewitness in the village, Kerrey seemed stunned. Then he conceded that what happened at Thanh Phong may have been worse than he remembers.
"I don't believe that's true," Kerrey says of Klann's account. "When your reporters provided that information to me a couple of days ago, this came as a big surprise to me. Because that's not my memory of it.
"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."
Kerrey's unit had been warned that a lot of the enemy in this guerrilla war didn't wear uniforms and that other Americans had been attacked by women and children. Thanh Phong and the area around the hamlet were controlled by the Communists. But Mrs. Lanh's account is supported to a remarkable degree by Klann.
Kerrey says he did not help Klann kill the old man in the first hooch. "That is not my memory of it... I'm just, I'm not gonna et 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?"
If it occurred as Klann says, was it a military necessity to kill those people? "I don't have any doubt that the people that we killed were at the very least sympathetic to the Viet Cong," Kerrey says. "And at the very most, were supporting their efforts to kill us.
"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."
Kerrey also disagrees with Klann on what happened after they left the first hooch. He says that he and his unit did not shoot people at close range: "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. "
The official battle report on Thanh Phong says Kerrey's unit came under attack and returned fire, up to 12,000 rounds, and used some heavy weapons, including M-79's, grenades, and armor-piercing rockets.
"Now it may be that there were people still alive as we came up close, but we didn't go into a village and round people up and shoot them in cold blood," he says.
"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. Because I've not had the opportunity to talk to other men who were there that evening. And until unless we do that I don't think that we can even get close to, all of us feeling confident that we know what happened.
"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 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."
Kerrey says that Klann was a loyal member of the unit, and that he actually sought him out to be part of his squad. "I am surprised by his story," he says. "But I'm not, I'm not angered by it."
Both Kerrey and Klann say they admire the other, and bear each other no ill will.
Kerrey Meets With Others
There were five other SEALs with Bob Kerrey and Gerhard Klann that night in Thanh Phong. Four 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 thaKerrey 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.
This past weekend, 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." The statement concluded: "We were young men then and did what we thought was right and necessary."
"It's not impossible that some version of what Gerhard is talking about happened," Kerrey says. "But it's not my memory."
A military cable supports a crucial part of Klann's story - that Lt. Kerry's unit visited Thanh Phong two weeks before the attack, and found only women and children there.
"None of us remembers that," Kerrey says of the earlier visit. "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."
Kerrey admits that as a SEAL, his orders were to get the job done, and forget about taking prisoners. If Klann's story is true, would those actions have been permissible under military rules of engagement?
"I can't go that far," Kerrey says. "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 - within the rules as I understood them."
Military and civilian lawyers who are war crimes specialists disagree with that interpretation. They say that any order to kill civilians or unarmed prisoners is illegal. But Kerrey's actions apparently were not challenged in 1969, even though, according to an army radio log 60 Minutes II found, a resident of Thanh Phong did make a formal complaint about atrocities committed the night of Kerrey's operation.
Kerrey says the events of that night should not be investigated as a war crime. "I certainly wouldn't have been afraid of an investigation at that time," he says.
"To describe it as a war crime, I think is wrong," he says. "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."
Read Part III: Kerrey calls the events in Thanh Phong an atrocity.
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