A. THE SON MY VILLAGE INCIDENT
During the period 16-19 March 1968, a tactical operation was conducted into Son My Village, Son Tinh District, Quang Ngai Province, Republic of Vietnam, by Task Force (TF) Barker, a battalion-size unit of the Americal Division.
TF Barker was an interim organization of the llth Brigade, created to fill a tactical void resulting from the withdrawal of a Republic of Korea Marine Brigade from the Quang Ngai area. The Task Force was composed of a rifle company from each of the llth Brigade's three organic infantry battalions - A/3-1 Inf, B/4-3 Inf, C/1-20 Inf. The commander was LTC Frank A. Barker (now deceased).
The plans for the operation were never reduced to writing but it was reportedly aimed at destroying the 48th VC Local Force (LF) Battalion, thought to be located in Son MY Village, which also served as a VC staging and logistical support base. On two previous operations in the area, units of TF Barker had received casualties from enemy fire, mines, and boobytraps, been able to close effectively with the enemy. and had not
On 15 March 1968, the new llth Brigade commander, COL Oran K. Henderson, visited the TF Barker command post at Landing Zone (LZ) Dottie and talked to the assembled staff and commanders. He urged them to press forward aggressively and eliminate the 48th LF Battlion. Following these remarks, LTC Barker and his staff gave an intelligence briefing and issued an operations order. The company commanders were told that most of the Population of Son My were "VC or VC sympathizers" and were advised that most of the civilian inhabitants would be away from Son My and on their way to market by 0700 hours. The operation was to commence at 0725 hours on 16 March 1968 with a short artillery preparation, following which C/1-20 Inf was to combat assault into an LZ immediately west of My Lai (4) and then sweep east through the subhamlet. Following C Company's landing, B/4-3 Inf was to reinforce C/1-20 Inf, or to conduct a second combat assault to the east of My Lai (4) into an LZ south of the subhamlet of My Lai (1) or "Pinkville." A/3-1 Inf was to move from its field location to blocking positions north of Son My.
During or subsequent to the briefing, LTC Barker ordered the commanders of C/1-20 Inf, and possibly B/4-3 Inf, to burn the houses, kill the livestock, destroy foodstuffs and perhaps to close the wells. No instructions were issued as to the safeguarding of noncombatants found there.
During a subsequent briefing by CPT Medina to his men, LTC Barker's orders were embellished, a revenge element was added, and the men of C/1-20 Inf, were given to understand that only the enemy would be present in My Lai (4) on 16 March and that the enemy was to be destroyed. In CPT Michles' briefing to his platoon leaders, mention was also apparently made of the burning of dwellings.
On the morning of 16 March 1968, the operation began as planned. A/3-1 inf was reported in blocking positions at 0725 hours. At about that same time the artillery preparation and fires of the supporting helicopter gunship were placed on the C/1-20 Inf LZ and a part of My Lai (4). LTC Barker controlled the artillery preparation and combat assault from his helicopter. COL Henderson and his command group also arrived overhead at approximately this time.
By 0750 hours all elements of C/1-20 Inf were on the ground. Before entering My Lai (4), they killed several Vietnamese fleeing the area in the rice paddies around the subhamlet and along Route 521 to the south of the subhamlet. No resistance was encountered at this time or later in the day.
The infantry assault on My Lai (4) began a few minutes before 0800 hours. During the lst Platoon's movement through the southern half of the subhamlet, its members were involved in widespread killing of Vietnamese inhabitants (comprised almost exclusively of old men, women, and children) and also in property destruction. Most of the inhabitants who were not killed immediately were rounded up into two groups. The first group, consisting of about 70-80 Vietnamese, was taken to a large ditch east of My Lai (4) and later shot. A second group, consisting of 20-50 Vietnamese, was taken south of the hamlet and shot there on a trail. Similar killings of smaller groups took place within the subhamlet.
Members of the 2d Platoon killed at least 60-70 Vietnamese ment women, and children, as they swept through the northern half of My Lai (4) and through Binh Tay, a small subhamlet about 400 meters north of My Lai (4). They also committed several rapes.
The 3d Platoon, having secured the LZ, followed behind the lst and 2d and burned and destroyed what remained of the houses in My Lai (4) and killed most of the remaining livestock. Its members also rounded up and killed a group of 7-12 women and children.
There was considerable testimony that orders to stop the killing were issued two or three times during the morning. The 2d Platoon received such an order around 0920 hours and promptly complied. The lst Platoon continued the killings until perhaps 1030 hours, when the order was repeated. By this time the 1st Platoon had completed its sweep through the subhamlet.
By the time C/1-20 Inf departed My Lai (4) in the early afternoon, moving to the northeast for link-up with B/4-3 Inf, its members had killed at least 175-200 Vietnamese men, women, and children.* The evidence indicates that only 3 or 4 were confirmed as Viet Cong although there were undoubtedly several unarmed VC (men, women, and children) among them and many more active supporters and sympathizers. One man from the company was reported as wounded from the accidental discharge of his weapon.
Since C Company had encountered no enemy Opposition, B/4-3 Inf was air landed in its LZ between 0815 and 0830 hours, following a short artillery preparation. Little if any resistance was encountered, although the 2nd Platoon suffered 1 KIA and 7 WIA from mines and/or boobytraps. The lst Platoon moved eastward separately from the rest of B Company to cross and secure a bridge over the Song My Khe (My Khe River). After crossing the bridge and approaching the outskirts of the subhamlet Of My Khe (4), elements of the platoon opened fire on the subhamlet with an M-60 machinegun and M-16 rifles. The fire continued for approximately 5 minutes, during which time some inhabitants of My Khe (4), mostly women and children, were killed. The lead elements of the platoon then entered the subhamlet, firing into the houses and throwing demolitions into shelters. Many noncombatants apparently were killed in the process.
* Casualty figures cited for My Lai (4) were developed by this Inquiry solely on the basis of statements and testimony of US personnel. Separate estimates by the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) agency together with other evidence, indicate the number of Vietnamese killed in the overall area of Son My Village may have exceeded 400.
It is believed that only ten men in B/4-3 Inf directly participated in the killings and destruction in My Ly (4); two of these are dead and the remaining eight have either refused to testify or claim no recollection of the event. As a result, it has not been possible to reconstruct the events with certainty. It appears, however, that the number of noncombatants killed by B/4-3 Inf on 16 March 1968 may have been as high as 90. The company reported a total of 38 VC KIA on 16 March, but it is likely that few if any were Viet Cong.
On the evening of 16 March 1968, after C/1-20 Inf and B/4-3 Inf had linked up in a night defensive position, a Viet Cong suspect was apparently tortured and maimed by a US officer. He was subsequently killed along with some additional suspects by Vietnamese National Police in the presence of US personnel.
During the period 17-19 March 1968 both C/1-20 Inf and B/4-3 Inf were
involved in additional burning and destruction of dwellings, and in the
mistreatment of Vietnamese detainees.
B. REPORTS OF THE INCIDENT
1. Reports of Civilian Casualties
Commencing early in the operation, commanders began receiving reports of civilian casualties in My Lai (4). At about 0930 hours, MG Koster was advised by COL Henderson that he had observed 6 to 8 such casualties. The figure was increased when LTC Barker reported to Henderson during the afternoon that the total was 12 to 14, and was further increased to 20 in a report Barker made that evening. This last report was relayed to MG Koster at about 1900 hours. None of these reports was entered in unit journals or reported outside the Americal Division.
2. Observations and Complaints by Aviation Personnel
One element which provided combat support to TF Barker on 16 March was an aero-scout team from Company B, 123d Aviation Battalion. A pilot of this team, W01 (now lLT) Hugh Thompson, had been flying at a low altitude over My Lai (4) during the morning hours and had observed the actions of C/1-20 Inf. He became greatly concerned over the "needless and unnecessary killings" he had witnessed. He landed his helicopter several times to aid the inhabitants and in an attempt to stop the killing.
Shortly before noon, W01 Thompson returned to LZ Dottie and reported
his observations to his company commander, MAJ Frederic Watke. The
complaints of WO1 Thompson were confirmed by other pilots and crewmen who
had also been over My Lai (4). The complaints were expressed in most
serious terms; those who were present heard the terms "killing" and "murder"
used freely with estimates of the dead in My Lai (4) running over 100.
Upon receipt of this report, MAJ Watke went to the commander of TF Barker
and advised him of the allegations. Watke stated that Barker then
left for his helicopter, presumably to visit C/1-20 Inf. Watke considered
the matter was "in the hands of the man who could do something about it"
and took no further action at that time. Later that day, he again
encountered Barker who advised him that he could find nothing to substantiate
Thompson's allegations. while Watke testified that he was convinced at
the time that LTC Barker was lying, he took no further action until 2200
hours that night when he reported to his battalion commander, LTC Holladay,
and related for the second time the substance of what is hereafter referred
to as the "Thompson Report."
3. The Order to Return to My Lai (4)
At about 1530 hours on 16 March, after receiving a second report of civilian casualties, COL Henderson stated he became suspicious and directed TF Barker to send a company back through My Lai (4) to ascertain the exact number of casualties and the cause of death. As the order was being transmitted to C/1-20 Inf by TF Barker, it was monitored by MG Koster, the commander of the Americal Division, who inquired concerning the reasons. After a brief explanation by the CO of C/1-20 Inf, during which time MG Koster was advised that 20-28 noncombatants had been killed, MG Koster countermanded the order and directed that COL Henderson be notified. There were no further efforts to make an on-site determination of the cause or extent of the civilian casualties.
4. The Thompson Report Reaches Division Headquarters
Because of the late hour at which LTC Holladay received the report from MAJ Watke, they waited until the following morning before reporting to BG Young, an Assistant Division Connander. Watke repeated his story, which both he and LTC Holladay agree contained the allegations that there had been "lots of unnecessary killing ... mostly women, children and old men" and that a confrontation had taken place between personnel of aviation and ground units; however, there is conflict as to the number of casualties mentioned. LTC Holladay and MAJ Watke also agree that BG Young was advised that the complaints made by Thompson had been confirmed by other aviation unit personnel.
At about noon on the 17th, BG Young reported to MG Koster the information he had received from MAJ Watke and LTC Holladay. There is substantive disagreement in testimony between what BG Young testified he received from Watke and Holladay and what the latter two state they reported. BG Young stated he was not apprised of any charge of indiscriminate or unnecessary killing of noncombatants. He further stated that it was his impression the matter of majorconcern was that there had been a confrontation between the ground forces aviation unit, resulting from an incident in which noncombatants had been caught in a cross fire between US and enemy forces.
BG Young contends that it was this lesser charge he brought to MG Koster, who directed BG Young to instruct COL Henderson to conduct a thorough investigation of the incident. MG Koster has confirmed parts of BG Young's account of this conversation but in a previous statement before the Criminal Investigation Division (CID), MG Koster stated that he had been advised of some indiscriminate shooting of civilians.
The Inquiry has concluded that the two general officers received a muted
version of the Thompson Report from Watke and Holladay, but one that included
the allegation that noncombatants had been indiscriminately killed.
Upon receipt of the report, it seems most likely that they related it to
the information MG Koster had received from TF Barker the previous day,
that 20-28 noncombatants had been inadvertently killed. The information
concerning noncombatant casualties had not been forwarded outside of the
Division, although D4ACV and III MAF regulations required such action,
or were the new allegations reported to higher headquarters. Adopting
a "close hold" attitude concerning all information relating to this matter,
MG Koster directed BG Young to have COL Henderson investigate the incident.
C. INVESTIGATION OF THE INCIDENT AND REVIEW
1. COL Henderson's "Investigation"
BG Young made arrangements for a meeting which was held on 18 March at 0900 hours at LZ Dottie. The meeting was attended by five officers: BG Young, COL Henderson, LTC Barker, LTC Holladay, and MAJ Watke. BG Young told the group of the Division Commander's instructions concerning the investigation and MAJ Watke repeated his account of the complaints. When the meeting terminated, COL Henderson commenced his "investigation" with an interview of W01 Thompson and two other aviation unit personnel. (While Henderson states he talked only with Thompson and for only a few minutes, the testimony of others indicates that he talked individually with three persons for almost an hour.) These interviews, together with the information already possessed by Henderson from personal observation and conversations with TF Barker personnel, should have provided a full awareness of the nature and extent of the incident at My Lai (4). From at least this point forward, Henderson's actions appear to have been little more than a pretense of an investigation and had as their goal the suppression of the true facts concerning the events of 16 March.
Following his interview with aviation personnel, Henderson questioned CPT Medina, whose explanation concerning civilian casualties left him "suspicious." The remainder of Henderson's "investigation" was without substance; his "interview with a substantial number of C Company personnel" consisted of a discussion on the afternoon of 18 March with a group which, COL Henderson claims, numbered from 30 to 40 personnel. After complimenting them on their performance in the operation, he asked them collectively if they had witnessed any atrocities. Henderson stated that the response he received was negative. While COL Henderson claims he spoke with other individuals and responsible commanders, available evidence indicates that his so-called investigative actions ended after a brief flight which he stated he made over the area of operation on 18 March.
Commencing on 19 March, COL Henderson is said to have made a series of oral reports to BG Young and MG Koster in which he was purported to have related to them the results of his "investigation." It seems clear that in his reports Henderson deliberately misrepresented both the scope of his investigation and the ion he had obtained. He reported that while 20 civilians had been killed by artillery and/or gunships, there was no basis in fact to the allegations made by W01 Thompson. Henderson's final oral report was accepted by MG Koster as adequately responding to the charges made by W01 Thompson. The matter appears to have rested there until about mid-April 1968, when information was received at Division Headquarters from Vietnamese sources.
2. Reaction to Information from Vietnamese Sources
The initial reports from Vietnamese sources concerning the incident were apparently received by the US Advisory teams in Son Tinh District and Quang Ngai Province.
The Son My Village Chief submitted a report to the Son Tinh District Chief containing allegations of mass killings by US Forces in Son My Village. The District Chief in turn forwarded two reports of the incident to the Quang Ngai Province Chief based on the information furnished to him by the Village Chief. The first of these reports, dated 28 March 1968, contained little of substance and remained within Vietnamese channels. The second was dated 11April 1968, and copies of it were provided to both the Provinceand District Advisory teams. In addition, a copy of the District Chief's 11 April letter went to COL Toan, the Commanding Officer of the 2d ARVN Division.
In his 11 April letter, the District Chief referred to an incident of
16 March in which it was alleged that a US Army unit had assembled and
killed more than 400 civilian residents of Tu Cung Hamlet* of Son My Village
and had killed an additional 90 people at Co Luy Hamlet.** He stated that,
if true he considered this an act of insane violence.
* Includes the subhamlet of My Lai (4).
** Includes the subhamlet of My Khe (4).
Also in the first half of April, VC propaganda alleging that US forces had killed 500 people in Son My Village in the middle of March came into the hands of COL Toan and LTC Khien, the Province Chief of Quang Ngai Province and, possibly somewhat later, into US hands. Both COL Henderson and MG Koster appear to have discussed the District chief's report and the VC propaganda with COL Toan and LTC Khien, and apparently with LTC Guinn, the US Deputy Province Advisor.
MG Koster indicated that the receipt in mid-April 1968 of the VC propaganda and the information from the District Chief reopened the subject of civilian casualties in the 16 March operation. However, it did not stimulate any fresh inquiry. COL Henderson had already completed his "investigation" and had given an oral report to MG Koster. The receipt of the allegations from Vietnamese sources resulted only in MG Koster's directing COL Henderson to commit his oral report to writing.
In response to this direction, COL Henderson prepared and submitted a so-called "Report of Investigation" dated 24 April 1968 to MG Koster. The report consisted of two typewritten pages and two inclosures. The first enclosure was a typed copy of a statement dated 14 April 1968 with the signature block removed, which this Inquiry determined was prepared by the Deputy Senior Advisor, Son Tinh District, at the request of the Province Advisory Team. This statement indicated that the report of the Son My Village Chief alleging mass-killings was not given much importance by the Son Tinh District Chief. The second enclosure was a translation of the VC propaganda message regarding the incident. COL Henderson's report briefly summarized the operation, listed personnel purportedly interviewed (but made no reference to W01 Thompson or to any other members of the aero scout unit), and summarized what purported to be the District Chief's attitude toward the allegation. The conclusion stated by COL Henderson in the report was that 20 noncombatants were inadvertently killed by artillery and by crossfire between the US and VC Forces, that no civilians were gathered and shot by US Forces, and that the allegation that US Forces had shot and killed 450-500 civilians was obviously VC propaganda.
MG Koster testified that when he received the 24 April report he found it unacceptable and directed the conduct of a formal investigation through either BG Young or COL Parson, the Division Chief of Staff. Both Young and Parson denied having received or passed on any such instructions. MG Koster and COL Henderson agreed that such an investigation was conducted, and a report submitted, by LTC Barker. Both described in detail the form and substance of this report, but the evidence appears conclusive that no such report was ever prepared.
D. SUPPRESSION AND WITHHOLDING OF INFORMATION
Within the Americal Division, at every command level from company to division, actions were taken or omitted which together effectively concealed the Son My incident. Outside the division, advisory teams at Province, District and possibly the 2d ARVN Division also contributed to this end. Some of the acts and omissions that resulted in concealment of the incident were inadvertent while others constituted deliberate suppression or withholding of information.
Efforts initiated in 1968 deliberately to withhold information continue to this day. Six officers who occupied key positions at the time of the incident exercised their right to remain silent before this Inquiry, others gave false or misleading testimony or withheld information, and key documents relating to the incident have not been found in US files.
1. At Company Level
No reports of the crimes committed by C/1-20 Inf and B/4 - 3 Inf during the operation were made by members of the units, although there were many men in both companies who had not participated in any criminal acts. The comander of C/1-20 Inf assembled his men after the operation and advised them not to discuss the incident because an investigation was being conducted, and he advised one individual not to write to his Congressman about the incident. He also made a false report that only 20-28 noncombatants had been killed and attributed the cause of death to artillery and gunships.
The commander of B/4-3 Inf submitted false reports (possibly without knowing they were false) that 38 VC had been killed by his lst Platoon and that none of them were women and children.
2. At Task Force and Brigade Levels
Significant information concerning irregularities in the operation and the commission of war crimes by C/1-20 Inf was known to the commanders and staff officers of both TF Barker and the llth Brigade on 16 March but was never transmitted to the Americal Division. Reports of VC killed by C/1-20 Inf on 16 March terminated at 0840 hours when the total reached 90, although the killing continued. In addition to withholding information, the l1th Brigade headquarters submitted false and misleading reports to Division. One instance concerned a C/1-20 Inf VC body count report of 69, which was changed to attribute the cause of death to artillery and to move the location at which the purported VC were killed from inside the hamlet of My Lai (4) to a site 600 meters away. A second false report involved an interrogation report from C/1-20 Inf that 30-40 VC had departed the hamlet immediately prior to the combat assault. The record of this interrogation report as received at the Americal Division on 16 March stated that there were many VC in the C/1-20 Inf area of operation.
A reporter and photographer attached to the llth Brigade information office accompanied TF Barker on 16 March and observed many war crimes committed by C/1-20 Inf. Both individuals failed to report what they had seen, the reporter wrote a false and misleading account of the operation, and the photographer withheld and suppressed from proper authorities the photographic evidence of atrocities he had obtained.
In response to a routine division requirement, LTC Barker submitted a Combat Action Report, dated 28 March 1968, concerning his unit's operations on 16 March. The report significantly omitted any reference to noncombatant casualties and other irregularities, falsely depicted a hotly-contested combat action, and appears to have been an outright effort to suppress and mislead.
Perhaps the most significant action taken to suppress the true facts of the Son My operation was the deception employed by COL Henderson to mislead his commander as to the scope and findings of his investigation of the Thompson allegations. His later submission -- the so-called Report of Investigation, dated 24 April 1968, which dismissed the allegations from Vietnamese. sources as baseless propaganda and restated the fiction that 20 noncombatants had been inadvertently killed, continued the original deception practiced upon his commander.
3. At Division Level
a. Within Aviation Units
There is no evidence to suggest that there were deliberate attempts within the division aviation unit to conceal information concerning the Son My incident. However, there were acts and omissions by the commanders of the 123d Aviation Battalion, and Company B of that unit, which contributed to concealment of the facts. One of the principal reasons why the full import of the Thompson Report was probably not appreciated at the division command level can be attributed to these two commanders and their failure to verify or document the serious charges made by W01 Thompson and others. Neither took action to obtain aocumentary substantiation, to conduct a low-level aerial reconnaissance or otherwise to verify the allegations, or to confirm in writing what they reported orally to BG Yo ung. The initial delay in reporting the matter through command channels needlessly prevented the report from reaching the Americal Division, command group until approximately 24 hours after the incident had occurred.
A second serious charge against both of these two commanders is that they failed to take any action when they became convinced that the investigation of the incident was a "cover-up." An admonition was issued by the B Company Commander to his unit to halt further discussion of the incident while it was being investigated. This action was not taken to conceal information, but it probably had the unfortunate, although unintended, result of aiding in the suppression of the facts.
b. Within Headquarters, Americal Division
Americal Division Headquarters was the recipient of much information concerning the Son Ply operation from both US and GVN sources. Except for routine operational data forwarded on 16 March, none of the reports or allegations concerning irregularities at Son My were transmitted to higher headquarters, although directives from III MAF and 14ACV clearly required such action. As previously indicated, the Inquiry has concluded that on 17 March, when they received a muted version of the Thompson Report, MG Koster and BG Young may have viewed the report in relation to information previously received that 20-28 noncombatant casualties had been caused by artillery and gunships. While COL Henderson's later reports were false, and the general officers were negligent in having accepted them, they probably believed they were withholding information concerning a much less serious incident than the one that had actually occurred.
Additional information from Vietnamese sources reaching the Americal Division sometime in April implied that a far more serious event had taken place at Son My. The command response to this information was so inadequate to the situation and so inconsistent with what would ordinarily be expected of officers of the ability and experience of MG Koster and BG Young that it can only be explained as a refusal or an inability to give credence to information or reports which were not consistent with their original, and erroneous, conclusions.
In summary form, the following are the significant acts done or omitted at the Americal Division headquarters which contributed to the concealment of the true facts concerning Son My:
(1) There was a failure to report information concerning noncombatant
casualties and allegations of war crimes known to be to of particular
interest to COMUSMACV and required to be reported by directives of both
III 14AF and MACV;
(2) Having decided to withhold from higher headquarters information concerning civilian casualties, MG Koster directed that the matter be investigated by COL Henderson. However, he did not insure that a thorough investigation was conducted nor did he subject COL Henderson's reports to adequate review, thereby nullifying his efforts to determine the true facts;
(3) The Division command group acted to control closely all information regarding the Son My incident. Information regarding the incident was not included in daily briefings or provided the General or Special Staff, and the investigative resources of the staff were not employed.
4. By Persons Outside the Americal Division
Among the Vietnamese officials who came in contact with information concerning possible war crimes in Son My during the period 16-19 March, there was a natural reluctance to confront their American counterparts with such serious allegations and to insist upon inquiry into the matter. Such information as did reach US advisory personnel was not forwarded through advisory channels, but referred only to the Americal Division and its llth Brigade. In addition, there is evidence that at the Quang Ngai Province and Son Tinh District levels and probably at the 2d ARVN Division, the senior US military advisors aided in suppressing information concerning the incident.
E. SUMMARY OF FINDINGS
It is concluded that:
1. During the period of 16-19 March 1968, troops of Task Force Barker massacred a large number of Vietnamese nationals in the village of Son My.
2. Knowledge as to the extent of the incident existed at Company level, at least among the key staff officers and comander at the Task Force Barker level, and at the llth Brigade command level.
3. Efforts at the Americal Division command level to conceal information concerning what was probably believed to be the killing of 20-28 civilians actually resulted in the suppression of a war crime of far greater magnitude.
4. The commander of the llth Brigade, upon learning that a war crime had probably been committed, deliberately set out to conceal the fact from proper authority and to deceive his commander concerning the matter.
5. Investigations concerning the incident conducted within the Americal Division were superficial and misleading and not subjected to substantive review.
6. Efforts were made at every level of command from company to division to withhold and suppress information concerning the incident at Son My.
7. Failure of Americal Division headquarters personnel to act on information received from GVN/ARVN officials served to suppress effectively information concerning the Son My incident.
8. Efforts of the Americal Division to suppress and withhold information were assisted by US officers serving in advisory positions with Vietnamese agencies.
PEERS REPORT PAGE
MY LAI COURTS-MARTIAL PAGE