(This article was published on Dec. 30, 2003)
WASHINGTON - The Army is unable to find crucial records of some of the worst atrocities by an elite platoon in Vietnam, casting doubts on whether the American public will ever know the extent of the unit s actions 36 years ago.
Officials have searched U.S. record centers for documents about Tiger Force s killing of women and children in a remote farming valley in June and July, 1967. But officials can t explain why the documents are missing.
“At this time, we don t know what happened [to the records],” said Chris Grey, a spokesman for the Army s Criminal Investigation Command.
Questions over the whereabouts of the reports are being raised as the Army carries out a review of the Tiger Force s activities in the Central Highlands of Vietnam between May and November, 1967.
A recent Blade series, “Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths,” revealed the 45-man platoon killed and mutilated scores of villagers refusing to leave their homes in the longest series of war crimes carried out by a fighting unit in the war.
Some villagers were executed as they pleaded for their lives - in some cases their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs - and others were blown up in underground bunkers.
The missing records include the first formal complaint filed against the platoon in 1969 and sworn witness statements by more than 100 soldiers, according to National Archives indexes.
Several war-crime experts said the missing documents are troubling at a time the Army is trying to account for all of the unit s activities.
“When key documents like this go missing, it raises a whole host of questions,” said Curt Goering, senior deputy director of Amnesty International, a group that monitors human rights violations.
Researchers at the National Archives in suburban Washington and Army crime records center at Fort Belvoir, Va., said last week they searched unsuccessfully for the reports. But two members of Congress are urging officials to continue to look for records that could shed more light on the platoon.
U.S. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland) have written letters this month to government officials urging them to keep searching.
The Army began reviewing the platoon s activities after The Blade series was published Oct. 19-22.
The newspaper s findings showed the Army secretly investigated Tiger Force three decades ago, substantiating 20 atrocities involving 18 soldiers. But the case was quietly closed in 1975 without charges filed, the investigation concealed in military archives for 28 years.
Army agents are now sifting through hundreds of records of that investigation, comparing the reports to information in the newspaper s series. Officials said they are looking for new evidence that could ultimately lead to charges against some of the former soldiers.
But missing from those records are specific war crimes carried out by the special force in the early summer - events that included the slaughter of 35 women and children in a rice paddy, according to National Archives inventory reports.
It was during the platoon s patrols through the Song Ve Valley in June and July when soldiers began indiscriminately killing civilians, records and interviews show.
One witness whose sworn statements are now missing said he provided the Army with details about eight atrocities, including the execution of villagers by Tiger Force in a rice paddy.
Former Army journalist Dennis Stout said he s angry his complaints are no longer on file.
“How do you just lose records? I don t understand it,” said the Phoenix contractor, who was a reporter for the Army s Screaming Eagle newspaper in Vietnam. “I met with Army investigators three times. They took my statements.”
National Archive records show Mr. Stout filed eight complaints, beginning on Dec. 16, 1969, leading investigators to interview soldiers over the next two years.
One of those witnesses eventually provided details of a war crime that sparked a separate investigation of Tiger Force in 1971 - one that would last 4 1/2 years.
While those records exist - the basis of The Blade s four-part series - the reports stemming from Mr. Stout s allegations can no longer be found, despite inventory lists showing the Stout records were filed in the National Archives in 1972.
Mr. Stout, 58, said he did not know what happened to his complaints until he read The Blade s series.
He has since contacted Senator McCain, who wrote a letter on Dec. 10 to Mr. Stout saying the Army has been put on alert to find the reports. “As soon as I receive an answer to my inquiry, you will be notified,” the senator wrote.
Mr. Kucinich, a Democratic presidential candidate, said he wrote to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week after reading The Blade s series.
He said he wants to know the status of the missing records and why the case was never taken to a military court. “First of all, why do records like those just disappear? It makes no sense,” said the congressman.
Army investigators continue to examine the Tiger Force case, including sworn statements and Army radio logs, but are refusing to comment on the status of the review. Officials said they re looking for new evidence and the reasons why no one was prosecuted, despite witness statements of civilians being executed.
Army spokesman Joe Burlas said last month there s no statute of limitations for murder.
While investigators found that numerous atrocities took place 36 years ago, they may never know the scope of the rampage.
Mr. Stout said his job as an Army reporter allowed him to travel among fighting units in the Song Ve Valley, where he witnessed mass executions. “Hundreds were killed, and I m talking women and kids. It didn t matter. It was murder, and I will say that until the day I die. It was murder.”
In one case, a medic pumped swamp water into the body of a prisoner who was later fatally shot. Another incident centered on a young Vietnamese woman who was raped by 22 soldiers and then executed, according to an inventory of the records at the National Archives.
Gerald Pollock, a lawyer representing Mr. Stout, said he was with his client in 1969 when he filed his first complaints with the Army s Criminal Investigation Command. He said Mr. Stout has remained consistent in his statements about the attacks on civilians.
“He is just as strong about it today as he was back then,” he said. “This has always bothered him.”
What s unknown is what happened as a result of Mr. Stout s complaints and the 100 witnesses subsequently interviewed.
Experts question why the records are no longer on file with the National Archives and the Army s crime records center. When the probe was completed in 1972, Army regulations banned the destruction of criminal investigative records for 40 years. The documents should have been stored at the Army s war crimes center, with duplicates at the National Archives, according to federal law.
Mr. Goering of Amnesty International said the Army needs to explain the missing reports.
“Naturally, it gives rise to the suspicion of whether it was something different than an honest mistake,” he said.
Mr. Goering, whose group plans to talk to U.S. Defense Department officials next year about the Tiger Force case, said the Army should keep searching for the documents.
“Even though this happened years ago, the significance of what happened didn t end when these events ended, when the war ended. It goes to the larger question of accountability for human rights crimes within the armed forces.”