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Published: 10/20/2003


2 officers clashed over the treatment of noncombatants

The two elderly Vietnamese women were walking toward the soldiers when Tiger Force platoon Lt. James Hawkins ordered his men to shoot.

Quickly, another lieutenant, Donald Wood, told the men not to fire.

But the soldiers obeyed the senior ranking officer, spraying bullets at the two who were walking to their home.

It was another clash between Tiger Force's top lieutenants.

They fought over battle strategy. They fought over troop maneuvers. They even fought over enemy strength estimates.

But their loudest disputes were over the treatment of Vietnamese civilians, according to Army records and interviews.

Lieutenant Wood argued that villagers were not the same as enemy soldiers, while his counterpart believed civilians were not to be trusted, and those refusing to leave designated areas could be shot.

More than three decades later, their battles are still remembered by the former soldiers who served with them between May and August, 1967, as Tiger Force was moving deeper into the Central Highlands.

“They were like night and day - always fighting,” former Spec. William Carpenter said recently.

To Mr. Carpenter, Lieutenant Wood was a soldier who “cared about people” but in the end, didn't have the power to stop the violence.

Twice, the lanky artillery observer from Findlay attempted to halt attacks on villagers in 1967, complaining to another officer and an executive officer of another battalion, he told Army investigators.

He even complained to an inspector general about the platoon, he said. But in each case, no action was taken.

In frustration, he transferred from the unit in August, 1967, as the platoon went on to kill scores of villagers over the next three months, records show.

Hawkins: The Orlando, Fla., resident offers no apologies for the killings. Hawkins: The Orlando, Fla., resident offers no apologies for the killings.
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The first altercation between the two men led to the shooting death of an elderly carpenter in the Song Ve Valley that's still remembered by villagers and soldiers.

After weeks of evacuating the valley, platoon members set up camp near an abandoned hamlet along the Song Ve River. A helicopter dropped a special supply of hot food and beer.

For most of the afternoon, Lieutenant Hawkins - a tall, burly career soldier who was known for arguing with senior officers - was drinking with his men, and by evening, they were drunk, five other soldiers swore in statements.

By nightfall, the platoon leader ordered his men to set up an ambush across the river.

That's when Lieutenant Wood tried to stop the order, arguing the soldiers had been drinking and were in no condition to meet the enemy.

But Lieutenant Hawkins ignored him.

Shortly after wading across the river, the troops encountered the unarmed elderly man who prayed for his life as he was shot and killed by Lieutenant Hawkins, soldiers told investigators. The man was later identified by villagers as Dao Hue, a carpenter who was born in the valley.

Mr. Hawkins said in a recent interview he was justified in shooting the man, saying he was “making a lot of noise” that could have given the platoon's position away.

Two other soldiers who witnessed the killing later told investigators there were other ways to quiet the man and that shooting him ended up alerting the enemy to their position.

Two weeks later, another confrontation took place between the men that led to Lieutenant Wood leaving the unit.

Shortly after the officers arrived on the outskirts of a hamlet, a Tiger Force soldier spotted two women approaching the village.

Immediately, Lieutenant Hawkins gave the order to open fire, records state.

Joyce Wood, with her late husband's medals, says he was 'very disturbed' by his experiences in Vietnam. Joyce Wood, with her late husband's medals, says he was 'very disturbed' by his experiences in Vietnam.
MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

Lieutenant Wood protested the order, saying the people were simply walking toward the soldiers. It didn't matter: The platoon leader and others fired their weapons, wounding one.

The two turned out to be unarmed, elderly Vietnamese women who were later carried away in a helicopter, reports state.

During the Army's investigation of Tiger Force six years later, Mr. Wood said he protested to the executive officer of his artillery battalion about the way Lieutenant Hawkins was treating civilians. But he said the officer told him to return to the platoon.

He also complained to Lt. Stephen Naughton, a former Tiger Force platoon leader who had been promoted.

Lieutenant Naughton, who was interviewed by Army investigators in 1974, said he received the complaint and passed it on to a colonel in the inspector general's office at Fort Bragg, N.C.

He described the call: “He told me to forget about it, that I would just be stirring things up, and hung up on me,” the lieutenant told investigators.

To make sure the Army took action, Lieutenant Wood said he filed a formal statement with the same office in 1968.

But six years later, Army investigators said they couldn't find any records of the two officers' complaints nor could they track down the identities of the commanders who received them.

By the time the Army investigation was under way, Lieutenants Wood and Hawkins had left Vietnam.

While Mr. Wood was never a suspect, records show Mr. Hawkins was under investigation for murder, dereliction of duty, and conduct unbecoming an officer.

A map from Donald Wood's war memorabilia outlines his movements in Vietnam in the late 1960s, including the several months he served as an officer in Tiger Force. A map from Donald Wood's war memorabilia outlines his movements in Vietnam in the late 1960s, including the several months he served as an officer in Tiger Force.
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In addition to the attacks on civilians described by Lieutenant Wood, Army investigators turned up other atrocities involving Lieutenant Hawkins, including a shooting assault on 10 farmers in the Song Ve Valley, leaving four dead.

Despite the results of the investigation, no charges were filed.

In the years to follow, the two officers from Tiger Force would pursue vastly different careers.

Mr. Wood, the son of a Whirlpool engineer, became a defense lawyer in Findlay, known for driving sports cars and jumping from airplanes at community events. Married with two children, he died of a brain aneurysm in 1983 at 36.

His wife, Joyce, said he rarely talked about Vietnam, but often woke up at night “with the sweats.”

“He would have these dreams. I know he was very disturbed by his years in Vietnam,” she said.

Her husband refused to talk to her about the atrocities, but his son, John, now 32, said his father “went to his grave bothered by what he witnessed.”

One of Mr. Wood's friends, Dr. Henry Benz, said the former lieutenant often talked to him about the people of Vietnam and how Mr. Wood tried to take the time to “really understand the people in Vietnam. He clearly took an interest.”

Mr. Hawkins recalled his differences with Mr. Wood but said he still believes he had a right to fire on unarmed civilians.

“I tell you what, in any war, civilians, innocent people, get killed. Yes I can say I have seen people, farmers, whatever, getting killed,” said Mr. Hawkins, who retired from the military in 1978 as a major.

As a civilian, he was rehired at Fort Rucker, Ala., as an aviation instructor to begin a second Army career, retiring in May, 2001.

He said he doesn't dwell on the past and believes everything he did was justified. “I don't regret nothing. There's nothing that I know of that I saw personally that I can say I regretted.”

(Story was published on Oct. 20, 2003)