Coming to Terms with a Tragedy: Three Decades Ago, on a Dark Night in Vietnam, Bob Kerrey and His Squad of SEALs Killed Unarmed Civilians in the Village of Thanh Phong. the Chilling Story of a Memory That Would Not Die, and Its Complicated Journey to Public Light

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Sen. Bob Kerrey, Vietnam War hero, Medal of Honor winner, often came across as a brooding figure. His friends attributed Kerrey's melancholy streak to his long suffering in a veterans' hospital after part of his leg was blown off by a Viet Cong grenade in 1969. But it turns out that Kerrey was dwelling as well on a darker story. He was haunted by the night of Feb. 25, 1969, when he and his squad of six Navy commandos, on a mission to ambush a Viet Cong chieftain, killed about a score of unarmed civilians, most of them women and children, in the South Vietnamese hamlet of Thanh Phong. From time to time, and with increasing urgency as the years passed, Kerrey contemplated going public with the story. But, he told NEWSWEEK last week, "I was never able to muster the courage to do it."

Kerrey finally told his agonizing tale last week, submitting to interviews by a number of national news organizations. He was, by his own admission, trying to get ahead of a damaging account in The New York Times Magazine and on "60 Minutes II" this week. In that story, by former NEWSWEEK reporter Gregory Vistica, Gerhard Klann, one of Kerrey's squad mates, claims that Kerrey ordered the civilians rounded up and shot at point-blank range. Klann also described how Kerrey helped hold down an old man while Klann cut his throat. Kerrey denies Klann's version of events. He insists that while his team was sneaking up on the hamlet in the dark, "we took fire. Everyone in the squad except Klann remembers that..." The SEALs opened up with M-16s, a heavy machine gun, and phosphorus grenades. When they approached the burned-out hooch, they found no weapons among the bodies of the women and children.

Late last week the veterans of the squad, except Klann, issued a joint statement saying, "We will never know all the details of that night but we do know these for certain. At an enemy outpost we used lethal methods to keep our presence from being detected. At the village we received fire and we returned fire." The statement says that Klann's version "simply is not true... No order was given or received to execute innocent women, old men and children... Our actions were in response to a dangerous situation that we know for certain could have resulted in our deaths... We were young men then and did what we thought was right and necessary."

Under the wide-open rules of engagement of that time and place, Kerrey's actions--as he describes them--were almost certainly justifiable. Kerrey was operating in a "free fire zone," meaning that anyone living there was presumed to be Viet Cong. A report on the action filed by Kerrey's commander notes that "District Chief" (a local South Vietnamese official) "advised that area is total free fire zone. He said that if people weren't GVN [government of Vietnam] he didn't want them alive." Kerrey said that his men would not routinely fire on women and children, even if they were presumed to be the enemy. All Kerrey saw that night, he says, were tracer rounds coming out of the dark.

For years, Kerrey says, he bitterly relived his split-second decision, made on his first night of combat, to open fire. In the years afterward, he talked about the incident with his first wife, his parents and a few fellow vets. As his sense of guilt and shame welled up, he sometimes felt the need to make a public confession. His fellow veterans, he recalled, "told me I was going soft in the head, that what we did was militarily justified."

Kerrey's story, while grim, is hardly unique. Soldiers must do terrible things in battle and have for centuries. Kerrey had to fight a war in which civilians were often combatants. The Viet Cong included old women with grenades in their hats. The rules of war were murky and sometimes stretched by officers trying to protect their men.

When Kerrey arrived at the U.S. Navy base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam in January 1969, he was not really prepared for this kind of guerrilla warfare. …