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Published: 4/6/2004


Blade wins Pulitzer: Series exposing Vietnam atrocities earns top honor

Three Blade reporters won the Pulitzer Prize - journalism's highest honor - yesterday for uncovering the atrocities of an elite U.S. Army fighting unit in the Vietnam War that killed unarmed civilians and children during a seven-month rampage.

Michael D. Sallah, Mitch Weiss, and Joe Mahr received the investigative reporting prize for their series - "Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths" - which detailed how the Army failed to stop the atrocities after commanders were told about them. The reporters also discovered that the Army failed to prosecute soldiers who killed unarmed civilians after an investigation found the platoon had committed war crimes .

It was The Blade's first Pulitzer Prize.

Publisher John Robinson Block, left, looks on as Executive Editor Ron Royhab, back to camera, congratulates Michael D. Sallah. Publisher John Robinson Block, left, looks on as Executive Editor Ron Royhab, back to camera, congratulates Michael D. Sallah.
FRASER / BLADE Enlarge

"We won!" Ron Royhab, The Blade's executive editor, shouted as the newsroom erupted in cheers and applause. Mr. Sallah, Mr. Weiss, and Mr. Mahr exchanged hugs with each other and their colleagues, then urged the crowd to remember the victims of the Army unit's actions.

"I'm glad we won, but it's really a somber victory," Mr. Weiss said. "Tiger Force killed innocent men, women, and children and the men who committed these acts continue to go unpunished."

Mr. Sallah agreed.

"What's important to me is the Army get to the bottom of who killed this investigation 29 years ago," he said.

The New York Times and The Washington Post were other finalists in the investigative reporting category.

John Robinson Block, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade, said the award was the result of a team effort by a newspaper with a tradition of producing quality journalism. He praised the other staff members who worked on the series.

"They had to live and breathe this story for most of last year," he said. "My father always said The Blade is a good newspaper every day it's published."

The Blade reporters scoured government records, interviewed 43 former Tiger Force members, and went to Vietnam to talk to family members of the victims to detail a pattern of violence by the unit during a seven-month period in 1967.

What the series found was that the highly trained reconnaissance unit killed unarmed civilians, including children, and that Army leadership knew of and in some cases encouraged the unit's actions.

Managing Editor Kurt Franck called the series "old-fashioned reporting," noting that the reporters dug up records that had been buried for more than 30 years and tracked down Vietnam War veterans to find out the truth about Tiger Force.

"We had a moral obligation to report this news," he said. "Where the government failed, The Blade closed that chapter."

The reporters went beyond detailing the violence and showed how the atrocities continue to haunt the veterans nearly 40 years after the killings. A dozen Tiger Force members expressed remorse for their actions - nine have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder - and several described vivid flashbacks or nightmares.

Even though the Army investigated the actions of Tiger Force for 4 1/2 years, finding that 18 soldiers committed war crimes ranging from murder and assault to dereliction of duty, the case never reached a military court and no one was ever charged.

Mr. Royhab, The Blade's executive editor, pointed out that the reporters did not know what they would find when they started digging through thousands of military records. It wasn't until the team made countless trips to Washington, scoured documents, and tracked down veterans that the truth about Tiger Force became clear.

"We proved to the world that we can expose a wrong that has been done and truly play in the major leagues," Mr. Royhab said.

A Vietnamese military official said in October that he plans to investigate the Tiger Force unit's actions to try to determine how many people died in the rampage. Since the series ran, the Army has begun interviewing former Tiger Force soldiers as part of a new review of the platoon's actions in Vietnam.

Rion Causey, an Army medic during the war who witnessed the Tiger Force unit's atrocities, said he hopes the prize brings more attention to what happened so many years ago. Former Army journalist Dennis Stout, another witness, said The Blade's series was the impetus for the investigations.

"There wouldn't have been anything happening without the series. It's the only reason the Army did anything," he said.

In the midst of the newsroom celebration, Allan Block, managing director of Block Communications, Inc, The Blade's parent company said: "I have never seen a day like this in The Blade newsroom."

"We have a lot more coming," John Robinson Block, his brother, replied.

Toledo Mayor Jack Ford and City Council President Louis Escobar presented proclamations honoring the three reporters yesterday.

"There were those who questioned this, but what you did was right. The public does always have the right to know," Mr. Ford told them. "This is going to define The Blade and Toledo."

Mr. Sallah, 47, is The Blade's national affairs reporter. He came to the paper in 1989 and has covered everything from the Florida presidential election controversy in 2000 to the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church. Mr. Sallah has twice been named the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists' reporter of the year.

Mr. Weiss, 44, came to The Blade in 1998 and has been the state editor. Before joining The Blade, he spent 12 years with the Associated Press. Mr. Weiss has reported on the subway World Series in New York in 2000 and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Mr. Mahr, 31, is a general assignment/special projects reporter. He came to The Blade in 2000 and won awards for his coverage of Toledo's 2001 mayoral race and northwest Ohio's decades-long economic slide.

The principal photographer for the series was Andy Morrison. Dave Murray edited the project. Graphic artist Wes Booher coordinated the graphics, and Doug Koerner was the project page designer and primary copy editor.

The investigative reporting prize comes with a cash award of $10,000.

In 2000, former Blade reporter Sam Roe was nominated as a Pulitzer finalist for investigative reporting for his Blade series detailing a pattern of misconduct by the government and the beryllium industry, which resulted in deaths and injuries to dozens of workers.

Ohio newspapers have won the Pulitzer Prize nine times in the past. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, also owned by Block Communications, won a Pulitzer prize in 1998 for spot news photography, and in 1992 a photographer for Block Newspapers won the feature photography prize. The Post-Gazette won a Pulitzer for reporting in 1938 for a series of articles by Raymond Sprigle exposing the one-time membership of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black in the Ku Klux Klan.

John Robinson Block told the crowd assembled in the newsroom that the prize reflects the work journalists have been doing at The Blade for decades.

"For many, many years it has been our objective to publish in Toledo a newspaper that would be respected and would have the highest ethics and the highest quality journalism that we can give people every day," he said. "This award belongs to all of you."

Contact Kelly Lecker at: klecker@theblade.com or 419-724-6168.