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Published: 10/31/2003


Ex-officer may face justice for atrocities

Three decades after an Army platoon repeatedly executed unarmed civilians and prisoners in Vietnam, a military lawyer has recommended the unit's former commander be brought up on a war-crime charge.

In what would be an unprecedented event, retired Maj. James Hawkins could face a military court-martial regarding his actions commanding a platoon known as Tiger Force that killed hundreds of unarmed men, women, and children 37 years ago, The Blade has learned.

As the scope of war crimes in Vietnam becomes a key question in the presidential election, the military lawyer recommended this spring that Army officials charge Mr. Hawkins, who led Tiger Force between July and November, 1967.

The recommendation came during a broader Army review of Tiger Force prompted by a four-part series in The Blade in October. The series revealed the platoon's seven-month rampage through Vietnam's Central Highlands in 1967.

Already steeped in investigations of abuse by U.S. soldiers of Iraqi prisoners, the Army has not yet decided whether to prosecute Mr. Hawkins. Questions remain over whether Army lawyers have the legal power to charge the 63-year-old former officer.

Mr. Hawkins was among 18 former Tiger Force soldiers accused by Army investigators of crimes ranging from murder and assault to dereliction of duty during a 4 1/2-year Army investigation between 1971 and 1975. But the case was dropped by the Pentagon and concealed from the public until revealed in The Blade series, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Sources familiar with the review did not offer details of the charge recommended against Mr. Hawkins. The most serious allegation he faced in 1975 was the fatal shooting of an elderly carpenter in the Song Ve Valley in July, 1967 - for which Army investigators in 1975 recommended he be charged with murder. The former officer was accused by fellow soldiers of ordering the shootings of more than a dozen other unarmed civilians, but investigators in 1975 did not recommend charges in those cases.

Mr. Hawkins, who lives in the Orlando, Fla., area, declined to comment Friday. But in an extensive interview with The Blade in 2003, he admitted killing the elderly man on the edge of the Song Ve River because "he was making too much noise."

Based on classified records and interviews with former soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, The Blade series described the 45-member unit's rampage through two provinces between May and November, 1967 - the longest-known series of atrocities committed by a U.S. battle unit in the war.

Soldiers hurled grenades into underground bunkers full of women and children. They shot elderly farmers toiling in their fields. They severed the ears of the dead to fashion into necklaces. One former unit medic told The Blade that soldiers "would go into villages and just shoot everybody. We didn't need an excuse. If they were there, they were dead."

Records show that two soldiers in the platoon, Lt. Donald Wood of Findlay, and Sgt. Gerald Bruner of Colon, Mich., tried to stop the atrocities but were transferred from the platoon after they complained to superiors.

As a result of the Army's investigation completed 29 years ago, murder charges were recommended against Mr. Hawkins and another high-ranking platoon member, Sgt. Harold Trout. After avoiding charges in 1975, the pair were promoted and eventually retired with full military pensions.

Although Mr. Hawkins and Mr. Trout have long been out of the Army, the fact they have pensions qualifies them to be recalled to duty, under a rarely used but widely accepted military law.

On behalf of the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, Army Reserve lawyer Michael Walther reviewed the original case and The Blade series, according to sources familiar with the current review. Mr. Walther concluded this spring that the evidence was strong enough to return Mr. Hawkins to duty for an Article 32 hearing - the equivalent of a military grand jury - for his actions in 1967.

There is no statute of limitations on murder. If charged in a court-martial and convicted, the former officer could face punishment ranging from a reduced pension to imprisonment.

At the same time, Mr. Walther, who also works for the Department of Justice, recommended Mr. Trout not be recalled to duty, citing insufficient evidence.

Army investigators in 1975 had recommended that Mr. Trout be charged with murder after two soldiers witnessed the sergeant executing a wounded Vietnamese man, according to their sworn statements. Four other witnesses during the investigation accused Mr. Trout of ordering the killing of at least three other unarmed civilians, including a young mother whose hut had been burned by troops, but investigators in 1975 did not recommend charges on those allegations.

Mr. Walther did not return a phone call for comment last week.

Mr. Trout refused to talk to investigators in 1973 and has declined to talk about the case to The Blade, except to say last year that "it was a long time ago."

Tiger Force was created in November, 1965, as a special reconnaissance/ combat unit that broke into small teams to hunt the enemy.

Within two years, the platoon had gained a reputation as an acclaimed unit before numerous platoon members began targeting prisoners and civilians throughout two provinces.

The atrocities began in May, 1967, near Duc Pho, and continued after the unit moved to the remote Song Ve Valley, just as the Army was starting to force civilians from the area into relocation camps.

The valley, which was supposed to be evacuated, is where the platoon ran into the elderly carpenter on July 23, 1967, as he was crossing a river.

The unit had been drinking beer most of the day, according to witnesses, and by the time they encountered the carpenter, many were drunk. Two of the soldiers escorted the man toward the rear of the element, where Mr. Hawkins and Mr. Trout were walking. With the carpenter babbling loudly, Mr. Trout clubbed the man with a rifle. As Tiger Force medic Barry Bowman began to treat the wounded villager, Mr. Hawkins lifted the carpenter up from where he was kneeling and shot him in the face with a Carbine 15 rifle, according to sworn statements to Army investigators in the early 1970s.

At least four witnesses said the carpenter was pleading for his life before he was shot by Mr. Hawkins.

In an interview with The Blade last year, Mr. Hawkins justified the killing by saying the carpenter's voice was loud enough to alert the enemy to the American unit's position: "I eliminated that right there." But four Tiger Force soldiers told Army investigators that there were other ways to silence the carpenter and said the shooting gave away the unit's position anyway.

Former soldiers complained to investigators of other incidents with Mr. Hawkins, including a time he ordered the platoon to open fire on 10 elderly farmers working in their field, records show. Four died.

Army investigators recommended in June, 1975, that Mr. Hawkins be charged with the murder of the carpenter, identified in The Blade series as Dao Hue.

Five months later, Mr. Hawkins was summoned to the Pentagon with his supervising general, William Maddox, and told the case would be closed, Mr. Hawkins has said. A note in his Army criminal file says that "no beneficial or constructive results would be derived from criminal prosecution."

Mr. Hawkins, by then a helicopter pilot, was promoted to major, retired in 1978, and began collecting his military pension. He was immediately rehired by the Army as a civilian flight instructor in Alabama, retired in 2001 to collect a second government pension, and moved to Florida.

Despite the pending recommendation for prosecution, questions remain whether the Army can recall Mr. Hawkins for punishment.

The military can't force the return of members who left the service before being eligible for retirement. Because of that, many of the 18 Tiger Force suspects who left the Army after Vietnam avoided any chance of prosecution. But for retired soldiers, case law dating to the Civil War allows the military to recall them to duty.

One question about Mr. Hawkins' case centers on his previous status in the Army as a "reserve" officer - a classification at the time given to most active-duty officers who didn't graduate from military service academies.

Military law historically has been less willing to allow the recall of members of "reserve" forces than those in the "regular" Army, although it's not unprecedented. A 1996 law permits the Army to recall a reserve officer who retired with 20 years active-duty service, and a military court in 1999 allowed the Air Force to recall a retired reserve officer for punishment.

Lt. Col. Tyler Harder, who taught about the recall concept for years at the Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School, said if Mr. Hawkins committed the accused crime while on active duty, "there is little doubt" he could be recalled for prosecution.

So far, Army officials won't say when their review of the Tiger Force case will be finished. All Army spokesman Dov Schwartz would say Friday was that the case remained open.

U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland), who pushed for the review, has said he was told it would be done by March. He sent a letter in May asking for an update on the case, and the Army hasn't responded.

An Army spokesman, Lt. Col. Pamela Hart, initially had indicated Aug. 12 that the case had been closed but later said she was misinformed and the Army had not yet decided what to do with the recommendation from the Criminal Investigation Command.

"It's still in the review process by our Staff Judge Advocate," she said. "There has been no ultimate, final conclusion."

Contact Joe Mahr at: jmahr@theblade.com or 419-724-6180.