QUANG NGAI, Vietnam - For the 10 elderly farmers in the rice paddy, there was nowhere to hide.
The river stretched along one side, mountains on the other.
Approaching quickly in between were the soldiers - an elite U.S. Army unit known as Tiger Force.
Though the farmers were not carrying weapons, it didn't matter: No one was safe when the special force arrived on July 28, 1967.
With bullets flying, the farmers - slowed by the thick, green plants and muck - dropped one by one to the ground.
Within minutes, it was over. Four were dead, others wounded. Some survived by lying motionless in the mud.
Four soldiers later recalled the assault.
“We knew the farmers were not armed to begin with,” one said, “but we shot them anyway.”
The unprovoked attack was one of many carried out by the decorated unit in the Vietnam War, an eight-month investigation by The Blade shows.
The platoon - a small, highly trained unit of 45 paratroopers created to spy on enemy forces - violently lost control between May and November, 1967.
For seven months, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the Central Highlands, killing scores of unarmed civilians - in some cases torturing and mutilating them - in a spate of violence never revealed to the American public.
They dropped grenades into underground bunkers where women and children were hiding - creating mass graves - and shot unarmed civilians, in some cases as they begged for their lives.
They frequently tortured and shot prisoners, severing ears and scalps for souvenirs.
A review of thousands of classified Army documents, National Archives records, and radio logs reveals a fighting unit that carried out the longest series of atrocities in the Vietnam War - and commanders who looked the other way.
For 41/2 years, the Army investigated the platoon, finding numerous eyewitnesses and substantiating war crimes. But in the end, no one was prosecuted, the case buried in the archives for three decades.
No one knows how many unarmed men, women, and children were killed by platoon members 36 years ago.
At least 81 were fatally shot or stabbed, records show, but many others were killed in what were clear violations of U.S. military law and the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
Based on more than 100 interviews with The Blade of former Tiger Force soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, the platoon is estimated to have killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in those seven months.
“We weren't keeping count,” said former Pvt. Ken Kerney, a California firefighter. “I knew it was wrong, but it was an acceptable practice.”
Many details of the period in question are unknown: Records are missing from the National Archives, and several suspects and witnesses have died.
In many cases, the soldiers remember the atrocities and general locations, but not the precise dates.
What's clear is that nearly four decades later, many Vietnamese villagers and former Tiger Force soldiers are deeply troubled by the brutal killing of villagers.
“It was out of control,” said Rion Causey, 55, a former platoon medic and now a nuclear engineer. “I still wonder how some people can sleep 30 years later.”
Among the newspaper's findings:
To this day, the Army's Criminal Investigation Command refuses to release thousands of records that could explain what happened and why the case was dropped. Army spokesman Joe Burlas said last week it may have been difficult to press charges, but he couldn't explain flaws in the investigation.
The Army interviewed 137 witnesses and tracked down former Tiger Force members in more than 60 cities around the world.
But for the past three decades, the case has not even been a footnote in the annals of one of the nation's most divisive wars.
Thirty years after U.S. combat units left Vietnam, the elderly farmers of the Song Ve Valley live with memories of the platoon that passed through their hamlets so long ago.
Nguyen Dam, now 66, recalls running as the soldiers fired into the rice paddy that summer day in 1967. “I am still angry,” he said, waving his arms. “Our people didn't deserve to die that way. We were farmers. We were not soldiers. We didn't hurt anyone.”
But one former soldier offers no apologies for the platoon's actions.
William Doyle, a former Tiger Force sergeant now living in Missouri, said he killed so many civilians he lost count.
“We were living day to day. We didn't expect to live. Nobody out there with any brains expected to live,” he said in a recent interview. “So you did any goddamn thing you felt like doing - especially to stay alive. The way to live is to kill because you don't have to worry about anybody who's dead.”
To the villagers, it was revered, ancestral land that had been farmed for generations.
To the North Vietnamese, it was a major supply line to guerrillas fighting to reunite the country.
To the U.S. military, it was an area of jungles and river valleys that had to be controlled to stop the communist infiltration of South Vietnam. Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, created a special task force in 1967 to secure the province.
In a conflict marked by fierce guerrilla warfare, the task force needed a special unit to move quickly through the jungles, find the enemy, and set up ambushes. That role fell to Tiger Force.
Considered an elite arm of the 101st Airborne Division, the platoon - formed in 1965 - often broke into small teams to scout the enemy, creeping into the jungle in tiger-striped fatigues, soft-brimmed hats, with rations to last 30 days.
Not everyone could join the platoon: Soldiers had to volunteer, needed combat experience, and were subjected to a battery of questions - some about their willingness to kill.
The majority of those men were enlistees who came from small towns such as Rayland, Ohio, Globe, Ariz., and Loretto, Tenn.
By the time Tiger Force arrived in the province on May 3, 1967, the unit already had fought in fierce battles farther south in My Cahn and Dak To.
But this was a different place.
With deep ties to the land, the people of Quang Ngai province were fiercely independent.
In this unfamiliar setting, things began to go wrong.
No one knows what set off the events that led to the deaths of untold numbers of civilians and prisoners.
But less than a week after setting up camp in the province, Tiger Force members began to break the rules of war.
It started with prisoners.
During a morning patrol on May 8, the soldiers spotted two suspected Viet Cong - the local militia opposed to U.S. intervention - along the Song Tra Cau River. One jumped into the water and escaped through an underwater tunnel, but the other was captured.
Taller and more muscular than most Vietnamese, the soldier was believed to be Chinese.
Over the next two days, he was repeatedly beaten and tortured. At one point, his captors debated whether to blow him up with explosives, according to sworn witness statements.
One former soldier, Spec. William Carpenter, told The Blade he tried to keep the prisoner alive, “but I knew his time was up.”
After he was ordered to run - and told he was free - he was shot by several unidentified soldiers.
The platoon's treatment of the detainee - his beating and execution - became the unit's operating procedure in the ensuing months.
Time and again, Tiger Force soldiers talked about the executions of captured soldiers - so many, investigators were hard pressed to place a number on the toll.
In June, Pvt. Sam Ybarra slit the throat of a prisoner with a hunting knife before scalping him - placing the scalp on the end of a rifle, soldiers said in sworn statements. Ybarra refused to talk to Army investigators about the case.
Another prisoner was ordered to dig bunkers, then beaten with a shovel before he was shot to death, records state.
The killing prompted a medic to talk to a chaplain. “It upset me so much to watch him die,” Barry Bowman said in a recent interview.
One Tiger Force soldier, Sgt. Forrest Miller, told investigators the killing of prisoners was “an unwritten law.”
But platoon members weren't just executing prisoners: They began to target unarmed civilians.
In June, an elderly man in black robes and believed to be a Buddhist monk was shot to death after he complained to soldiers about the treatment of villagers. A grenade was placed on his body to disguise him as an enemy soldier, platoon members told investigators.
That same month, Ybarra shot and killed a 15-year-old boy near the village of Duc Pho, reports state. He later told soldiers he shot the youth because he wanted the teenager's tennis shoes.
The shoes didn't fit, but Ybarra ended up carrying out what became a ritual among platoon members: He cut off the teenager's ears and placed them in a ration bag, Specialist Carpenter told investigators.
During the Army's investigation of Tiger Force, 27 soldiers said the severing of ears from dead Vietnamese became an accepted practice. One reason: to scare the Vietnamese.
Platoon members strung the ears on shoe laces to wear around their necks, reports state.
Former platoon medic Larry Cottingham told investigators: “There was a period when just about everyone had a necklace of ears.”
Records show soldiers began another gruesome practice: Kicking out the teeth of dead civilians for their gold fillings.
For Tiger Force, the fighting was unpredictable in Quang Ngai.
In the first three weeks of May, platoon soldiers were under frequent sniper fire as they walked unfamiliar trails.
Booby traps covered the rolling hills and beaches.
On May 15, the unit was ambushed by a North Vietnamese battalion in what became known as the Mother's Day Massacre. From 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., the out-manned platoon became trapped in a valley under intense fire.
By the time it ended, two Tiger Force soldiers were killed and 25 wounded.
Over the next few weeks, the platoon would change.
A new field commander, Lt. James Hawkins, joined the unit, along with two dozen replacements.
The newcomers arrived as the platoon was about to move into the Song Ve Valley.
The Army's plan was to force the villagers to move to refugee centers to keep them from growing rice that could feed the enemy. But it wouldn't be an easy assignment.
Many villagers refused to go to the centers, which the U.S. State Department criticized in 1967 for lacking food and shelter. Surrounded by concrete walls and barbed wire, the camps resembled prisons.
Though the Army dropped leaflets from helicopters ordering the 5,000 inhabitants to the centers, many ignored the orders. “They wanted to stay on their land. They took no side in the war,” Lu Thuan, 67, a farmer, recently recalled.
Unlike most of the province, the valley - removed from the populated coast by narrow dirt roads - was not a center of rebellion, say villagers and historians. “We just wanted to be left alone,” said Mr. Lu.
But no one was left alone.
The Song Ve Valley - four miles wide by six miles long - became the center of operations for Tiger Force over the next two months.
In clearing the land, the soldiers began burning villages to force the people to leave.
It didn't always go as planned.
At times, villagers would simply flee to another hamlet. Other times, they would hide.
For the soldiers, the valley became a frustrating place.
During the day, they would round up people to send to relocation camps. At night, platoon members huddled in camps on the valley floor, dodging grenades hurled from enemy soldiers in the mountains.
The lines between civilians refusing to leave and the enemy became increasingly blurred.
One night, the platoon ran into an elderly carpenter who had just crossed the shallow Song Ve River. Dao Hue, as he was known, had lived in the valley his entire life.
He was walking to his village along the banks of the river on a dirt trail he knew by heart.
On this night, he wouldn't make it home.
His shooting death on July 23 as he pleaded for his life would be remembered by five soldiers during the Army's investigation.
It would also send a message to the people of the valley that no one was safe, leading hundreds to flee.
The platoon had been patrolling the valley and set up camp in an abandoned village, where they began drinking beer delivered by helicopter. By dusk, several soldiers were drunk, reports state.
At nightfall, the platoon received an unexpected order: Move across the river, and set up an ambush. What followed was a shooting that would be questioned by soldiers long after they left Vietnam.
When Mr. Dao crossed the river, he ran into Sgt. Leo Heaney, who grabbed the elderly Vietnamese man with the gray beard.
Immediately, the 68-year-old carpenter dropped his shoulder pole with baskets on each end filled with geese.
“He was terrified and folded his hands and started what appeared to me as praying for mercy in a loud high-pitched tone,” Mr. Heaney told Army investigators.
He said he realized the man posed no threat.
Sergeant Heaney said he escorted Mr. Dao to the platoon leaders, Lieutenant Hawkins and Sgt. Harold Trout. Trembling, the man continued to babble loudly, witnesses said.
Immediately, Lieutenant Hawkins began shaking the old man and cursing at him, witnesses recalled. Without warning, Sergeant Trout clubbed Mr. Dao with the barrel of his M-16 rifle.
He fell to the ground, covered with blood.
In a sworn statement to investigators, Specialist Carpenter said he told Lieutenant Hawkins the man “was just a farmer, and was unarmed.”
But as medic Barry Bowman tried to treat the villager's head wound, Lieutenant Hawkins lifted the man up from where he was kneeling and shot him in the face with a Carbine-15 rifle.
“The old man fell backwards on the ground, and Hawkins shot him again,” Specialist Carpenter said in a sworn statement. “I just knew he was dead as half of his head was blown off.”
Lieutenant Hawkins denied the allegations in an interview with Army investigators on March 16, 1973. But in a recent interview with The Blade, he admitted killing the elderly man, claiming his voice was loud enough to draw enemy attention.
“I eliminated that right there.”
But four soldiers told investigators there were other ways to silence him. In fact, the shots ultimately gave their position away, which led to a firefight.
Said Mr. Bowman: “There was no justifiable reason that the old man had to be killed.”
Nearly four decades later, the villagers who found Mr. Dao's remains said they knew he was killed by U.S. soldiers.
His niece, Tam Hau, now 70, was one of the first to see her uncle's body by the river the next day.
She and another relative, Bui Quang Truong, dragged their uncle's remains to their village. “He was shot all over his body,” she recalled. “It was very sad - sad for all of us.”
The platoon struck back.
Over the next 10 days, the soldiers led a rampage through the valley.
The area was declared a free-fire zone - a special designation that meant troops didn't have to seek approval from commanders and South Vietnamese officials before attacking enemy soldiers.
But Tiger Force soldiers took the words - free-fire zone - literally. They began to fire on men, women, and children, former platoon members said.
Two partially blind men found wandering in the valley were escorted to a bend in the Song Ve River and shot to death, records show. Two villagers, including a teenager, were executed because they were not in relocation camps.
While approaching a rice paddy on July 28, platoon members opened fire on 10 elderly farmers.
The image of the bodies scattered across the green expanse has long been remembered by Tiger Force soldiers and the people of Van Xuan village.
By all accounts, the farmers thought they were safe.
They were too old to serve in the military and not openly aligned with either side in the conflict, according to their relatives.
In the end, four were killed and others wounded in what several soldiers told investigators was an unjustified attack.
The order to shoot came from Lieutenant Hawkins, the officer leading the patrol, records state.
One villager recently recalled the farmers were surprised when the soldiers began firing. Kieu Trac, now 72, said he watched helplessly as his father fell in the rice field with the others.
He said he waited for hours before crawling into the field in the darkness to look for his father's body. He recalled turning over the corpses - one by one - until he found Kieu Cong, 60.
The son and his wife, Mai Thi Tai, carried his remains back to the village for burial.
The bodies of three others, Le Muc, Phung Giang, and an elderly female member of the Trang family, were later buried by relatives.
“The farmers didn't do anything … we didn't hurt the soldiers. All they were doing was working in the fields,” said Mr. Kieu, pointing to the spot where his father and the others were killed. “They thought the soldiers would leave them alone.”
Another villager, Lu Thuan, who watched the attack from a nearby mountain, said he doesn't remember how many were wounded.
“Some were injured,” said Mr. Lu, now 67. “They couldn't run fast enough. Others acted like they died.”
Mr. Carpenter, one of the soldiers in the patrol, insists he did not fire his weapon. “It was wrong,” he said in a recent interview. “There was no way I was going to shoot. Those people weren't bothering anybody.”
He told Army investigators he was afraid to express his opinion. A culture had developed in the unit that promoted the shooting of civilians - with team leaders enforcing a code of silence.
Four former soldiers told investigators they didn't report atrocities because they were warned to keep quiet by team leaders.
Ken Kerney, the former private, recalled in a recent interview the briefing he received before joining Tiger Force.
“The commanders told me that ‘What goes on here, stays here. You never tell anyone about what goes on here. If we find out you did, you won't like it.' They didn't tell me what they would do, but I knew. So you're afraid to say anything.''
Villagers recently interviewed said they dug dozens of mass graves after the soldiers moved through the valley.
Nguyen Dam, 66, recalled the grim task of burying neighbors and friends whose bodies were left in the fields.
“We wouldn't even have meals because of the smell,” the rice farmer said. “I couldn't breathe the air sometimes. There were so many villagers who died, we couldn't bury them one by one. We had to bury them all in one grave.”
Days after the attack on the farmers, U.S. planes flew over the valley, dumping thousands of gallons of defoliants to ensure no one would grow rice there during the war.
For Tiger Force, the Song Ve campaign was over.
On Aug. 10, platoon soldiers - armed with new supplies and reinforcements - rode a truck convoy into a new area 30 miles north.
Known as the Quang Nam province, the vast landscape was covered by triple-canopy jungles and intricate, enemy tunnels.
The mission was to control the province, but not in the traditional way of winning territory.
The platoon became dragged into a battle that became a mantra of the war: body count.
The success of a battle would be measured by the number of people killed - not by whether a village was taken, according to the sworn statements of 11 former officers.
In what became one of the bloodiest periods of 1967, the Army launched a campaign on Sept. 11 known as Operation Wheeler.
The battalion commander who would lead Tiger Force and three other units was Lt. Col. Gerald Morse, who had taken over the previous month.
The 38-year-old officer was described as an aggressive, hands-on commander who rode in helicopters and kept in frequent radio contact with his units in the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry.
Within days of taking over, Colonel Morse changed the names of the battalion's three companies - an action questioned by investigators years later.
Instead of companies A, B, and C, they were now known as Assassins, Barbarians, and Cutthroats - with a sign hoisted over battalion headquarters bearing the new names. And Colonel Morse would go by the name “Ghost Rider.”
Under his command, Tiger Force was encouraged to forcefully patrol the dozens of hamlets in the province.
But the soldiers soon learned this was different from the Song Ve Valley.
It was not only home to the Viet Cong, but a far more trained and disciplined adversary: the 2nd Division of the North Vietnamese Army.
Though these enemy forces previously hid in the nearby Annamese Mountains, they were now moving toward Chu Lai, the sprawling U.S. air base that was home to Tiger Force and other units.
By early September, the enemy soldiers were setting ambushes for troops, including Tiger Force.
“We soon found ourselves face to face with the enemy,” recalled William Carpenter, the former platoon specialist who now lives in eastern Ohio. “It seemed like every day we were getting hit.”
Within 18 days of arriving in the new operations area, five Tiger Force soldiers died and 12 were wounded in fighting that left the remaining platoon members bitter and angry.
The platoon - broken into groups of four to six soldiers - began attacking villages with a vengeance, according to former soldiers.
“Everybody was blood thirsty at the time, saying ‘We're going to get them back. We're going to go back there. We're going to even the score,'” former medic Rion Causey said in a recent interview.
He said he watched as soldiers took out their aggressions on unarmed civilians who refused to leave their homes.
“I've never seen anything like it. We just came in and cleared out the civilian population,” said Mr. Causey, 55, now a nuclear engineer in California. “It was a day by day by day thing.”
In some cases, the Army dropped leaflets into villages warning people to go to relocation centers.
If the people didn't leave, “they would be killed,” Mr. Causey said.
To cover up the shootings, platoon leaders began counting dead civilians as enemy soldiers, five former soldiers told The Blade.
A review of Army logs supports their accounts.
For 10 days beginning Nov. 11, entries show that platoon members were claiming to be killing Viet Cong - a total of 49. But no weapons were found in 46 deaths, records show.
Mr. Causey recalls a report to commanders.
“We would call in on the radio - ‘seven VC running from hut. Shot and killed' - Hell, they weren't running. We didn't know if they were VC.”
Sgt. James Barnett told investigators he once raised concerns to Lieutenant Hawkins that Tiger Force soldiers were killing people who weren't carrying weapons.
“Hawkins told me not to worry about it,” he said. “We can always get the weapons later.”
During the rampage, the soldiers committed some of their most brutal atrocities, Army records show.
A 13-year-old girl's throat was slashed after she was sexually assaulted, and a young mother was shot to death after soldiers torched her hut.
An unarmed teenager was shot in the back after a platoon sergeant ordered the youth to leave a village, and a baby was decapitated so that a soldier could remove a necklace.
During the Army's investigation, former Pvt. Joseph Evans - another Tiger Force soldier - refused to be interrogated. But in a recent interview, he said many people who were running from soldiers during that period were not a threat to troops.
“They were just running because they were afraid. They were in fear. We killed a lot of people who shouldn't have been killed.”
In every hamlet, there were shelters, supported by bamboo and brick and covered by leaves and brush.
To the civilians, it didn't matter whether the soldiers were American or North Vietnamese. They went to the bunkers when either approached.
When Tiger Force appeared on a path leading to a village 20 miles west of Tam Ky, the people scurried for cover.
Tiger Force soldiers told investigators they remembered seeing women and children crawl through the openings.
No one knows how many were inside, but it didn't matter.
When the soldiers reached the bunker entrances, they “knew what to do,” Pvt. Ken Kerney told investigators.
Without trying to talk to the people below, the soldiers pulled the clips on their grenades, and dropped the explosives through the holes.
Setting up camp nearby, soldiers heard human cries coming from the underground shelters throughout the night.
But no one bothered to help.
For platoon member Charles Fulton, the night dragged on.
“We kept hearing human sounds which came from the direction of the bunkers,'' he told investigators. “They were the sounds of people that had been hurt and trying to get someone's attention to get help. Although faint, they were clear.”
The bodies eventually were removed by villagers, former soldiers told investigators. No weapons were found in the bunkers, nor was there any evidence the villagers were a threat to U.S. forces, according to witness statements.
The next day, soldiers approaching the hamlet saw the bodies of women and children lining the roadway.
An order was given via radio one day that would be remembered by seven soldiers years later.
A voice came over the airwaves with a goal for the battalion: We want a body count of 327. The number was significant because it was the same as the battalion's infantry designation: the 327th.
Three former soldiers swore under oath the order came from a man who identified himself as “Ghost Rider” - the radio name used by Colonel Morse.
Army radio logs show the goal was achieved: Tiger Force reported the 327th kill on Nov. 19.
In a recent interview, Colonel Morse, who retired in 1979, denied giving such an order, saying it was “ridiculous ... I would never have done anything like that.”
During questioning by Army investigators, former Pvt. John Colligan said the order indeed was given.
In fact, he said the soldier who reached that goal “was to receive some type of reward.”
Sergeant Barnett told investigators he heard the same order over the airwaves by someone who identified himself as Ghost Rider.
Three former soldiers said in recent interviews the goal was achieved in part through the killing of villagers.
Soldiers from the platoon killed 120 villagers in one month alone, former medic Rion Causey said in a recent interview.
Former medic Harold Fischer recalled that most of the platoon were “shooting people left and right.”
“We would go into villages and just shoot everybody. We didn't need an excuse. If they were there, they were dead.”
While the Army substantiated 20 war crimes against 18 Tiger Force soldiers during their seven-month sweep across the Central Highlands, former soldiers described 11 more in recent interviews with The Blade, including:
“We killed a bunch of them. I don't remember how many,” he said. “But I remember when it was over, we just said the dead gooks were VC. But we knew they weren't all VC.”
And most soldiers just kept quiet, even if they didn't participate.
“Remember, out in the jungle, there were no police officers. No judges. No law and order,” Mr. Kerney said in a recent interview. “Whenever somebody felt like doing something, they did it. There was no one to stop them.
“So we watched and didn't say anything. We turned the other way. Looking back, it's terrible. We should have said something. But at the time, everybody's mindset was, ‘It's OK.' But it wasn't OK. It's very sad.”
By the end of November, the long campaign was over.
In a story in the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes, Tiger Force's Sam Ybarra was praised for the 1,000th kill of Operation Wheeler.
At a ceremony at the Phan Rang base on Nov. 27, 1967, medals were pinned on the chests of Tiger Force soldiers, including Sergeant Doyle, who ordered the execution of a farmer during the operation.
In the ensuing weeks, Tiger Force would leave the Central Highlands. By early 1968, the war was changing.
North Vietnam began its own campaign - the Tet Offensive - attacking 100 villages and cities in the south.
Tiger Force was sent to defend a base near Cambodia.
For medic Rion Causey, the war was no longer about killing civilians but defending American strongholds as the enemy moved toward Saigon.
As the base camp was overrun and soldiers were dying, he came to a grim conclusion:
“The only way out of Tiger Force was to be injured or killed.”
He was right.
On March 6, 1968, he was injured, and as he was lifted by the helicopter, he recalled looking at the Tiger Force soldiers below.
“I remember just kind of saying to myself: ‘God help you guys for what you did. God help you.'”
(Story was published on Oct. 19, 2003)