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Published: 10/26/2003

Vietnamese colonel to investigate Tiger Force

Thirty-six years after a U.S. Army platoon swept through the heart of Vietnam torturing and killing civilians, a Vietnamese military official is investigating the atrocities to determine how many people died in the rampage.

Provincial officials say they want to trace the movements of Tiger Force during the unit's seven-month campaign in the Central Highlands by interviewing villagers and searching local archives.

Col. Nguyen Thai is leading the investigation sparked by The Blade's series, “Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths,” his spokesman in Vietnam said last night.

The newspaper's findings - reported by television and newspapers in Vietnam - may answer questions about the fate of hundreds of civilians in Quang Ngai and Quang Nam provinces who disappeared in 1967.

“He has a lot of questions about what happened to the people, and about Tiger Force,” said spokesman Nguyen Minh Nguyet.

The Blade's eight-month investigation shows at least 81 civilians and prisoners were fatally shot or stabbed between May and November, 1967, according to classified U.S. Army records.

But based on more than 100 Blade interviews with former Tiger Force soldiers and civilians, the platoon is estimated to have killed hundreds of unarmed villagers in the longest series of atrocities by a U.S. fighting unit in the war.

Among the findings:

  • Women and children were blown up in underground bunkers, and prisoners were tortured and executed, their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs.

  • Commanders knew about the platoon's atrocities in 1967 and in some cases, encouraged the soldiers to continue the violence.

  • Four years after the atrocities, the Army began investigating war-crime allegations against Tiger Force. Investigators found that a total of 18 soldiers committed crimes including murder and assault. But no one was ever charged.

    The case reached the Pentagon and White House, but the investigation was closed in 1975, with the records buried in the military's archives for the last three decades, the newspaper found.

    The 45-man platoon was created in 1965 as a special force to spy on the enemy in the jungles.

    But when Tiger Force was sent to the Central Highlands, platoon members began to kill and mutilate unarmed civilians, records show.

    Colonel Nguyen will travel to tiny hamlets scattered in the two Vietnamese provinces to talk to villagers and look into the war crimes from 36 years ago, said Ms. Nguyen.

    Colonel Nguyen was appointed to carry out the investigation by officials in Quang Nam province as part of a local effort to help account for thousands of people missing since the war.

    In a recent interview in Vietnam, the colonel explained an inquiry was critical to the Vietnamese people to find out what happened to their family members.

    “These people have no where to look to find answers anymore. They've lived with this [uncertainty] for a long time,” he said.

    “We want to know more about this platoon, and what they did. Why did they operate this way. We have never heard of this before.”

    He said he would look into several cases mentioned in The Blade's series, published Oct. 19 through 22, including the death of 68-year-old Dao Hue, a carpenter who was shot in the head by a Tiger Force lieutenant in the Song Ve Valley. He said he would also investigate the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy taken away by the platoon after two companions were fatally shot.

    But there are many others he wants to investigate. “I want to find out everything I can, and I will,” he said. “I will do this every day if I have to. This is not something that we take lightly. This is not something we should forget.”

    Joe Burlas, a U.S. Army spokesman, could not be reached yesterday. In an earlier interview, he said top Pentagon officials were not going to reopen the case, “absent new and compelling evidence.”

    The Army has refused to release records of its Tiger Force investigation, which took place between 1971 to 1975 - the longest war-crimes inquiry of the Vietnam conflict.

    The Blade obtained thousands of classified and declassified documents of the Army investigation, including maps and coordinate grids showing the locations of some atrocities.

    The newspaper's series detailed dozens of war crimes during the platoon's sweep through more than 40 villages, including an assault on 10 elderly farmers in the Song Ve Valley on July 28, 1967 and a grenade attack on women and children in bunkers near Chu Lai in August, 1967.

    Vo Thanh Tien, a provincial official who oversees the Song Ve Valley, said in a recent interview the U.S. Army should provide records that could help Vietnamese officials find out about the “missing people” who never returned to the valley after the war ended in 1975.

    The Blade series showed that an untold number of people in the valley were killed when Tiger Force tried to force them into relocation centers between June 15 and August 9, 1967.

    “The U.S. government should take some responsibility and look back on what happened,” said Mr. Vo.

    Though the Vietnamese colonel has started an inquiry, the government officially said it will not press for criminal charges against the former Tiger Force soldiers who killed unarmed civilians.

    After reading The Blade's series, Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung issued a statement Tuesday saying the war caused “much suffering and losses to the Vietnamese people.” But he said relations between his country and the United States would be better served by “strengthening mutual understanding through cooperation.”

    His comments were made as Vietnamese officials began preparations to travel to the United States in two weeks to discuss increased trade and other issues. Vietnam Defense Minister Pham Van Tra is to join the delegation.

    Since The Blade's series was published last week, dozens of Vietnamese historians and reporters have descended on the two provinces to gather more information about the war crimes.

    Reporters and photographers from Associated Press, Reuters, and the Vietnamese News Agency have been interviewing villagers and local officials about the killings reported in The Blade's series. Some recalled the death of Dao Hue and the assault on the elderly farmers that left four dead and others wounded.

    Several people interviewed by the reporters said they were disappointed in Hanoi's response to not seek charges against the former Tiger Force soldiers or compensation from the U.S. government.

    Colonel Nguyen said it was “more important to answer questions about the dead'' than to seek justice years later against the soldiers.

    “If they want to prosecute anyone, it should be the leaders of the country,'' he said. The colonel may ask the U.S. military for assistance in trying to detail the platoon's actions.

    Dr. Gary Hess, a Bowling Green State University historian and author of Vietnam and the United States: Origins and Legacy of War, said the U.S. government should assist the Vietnamese.

    “If anything, we can learn from what happened,'' said Dr. Hess. “The government needs to take responsibility.''

    Edwin Moise, a Clemson University professor who edited an anthology on the Vietnam War, cautioned that the Pentagon “has already made a mess of this” and may not be the best entity to assist the Vietnamese. “The Pentagon had its shot and dropped the ball.”

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