Largest Known U.S. Vietnam War Atrocity
But Ignored by U.S. News Media
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Reporting on a recent speech by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in which the Vietnamese leader said that Americans committed “countless barbarous crimes” in the Vietnam War, The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor made this further observation:
And while My Lai is acknowledged, some say that the massacre was only notable because of its scale, and that smaller-scale killings of civilians by U.S. troops were alarmingly commonplace. In his book "Kill Anything That Moves," journalist Nick Turse argues that American authorities were aware of similar killings and often allowed them.
“The indiscriminate killing of South Vietnamese noncombatants — the endless slaughter that wiped out civilians day after day, month after month, year after year throughout the Vietnam War — was neither accidental nor unforeseeable," Turse wrote.
Taylor finds Prime Minister Nguyen’s statement remarkable considering the current relatively stable and friendly relationship between the United States and Vietnam, though understandable in light of the true history of the war that Americans still know very little about.
What I find remarkable is that such a strong article as the one that Taylor has written should appear in the usually warmongering Washington Post. It is the failure of The Post and the mainstream media in general to tell us the full truth about the Vietnam War—in spite of the recently cultivated belief that it actually went too far in doing so—that Prime Minister Nguyen’s charges should sound so shocking.
Although this is the first I have heard of Turse’s book, and have not read it, from the reviews I gather that it tells the story that we at the North Carolina Veterans for Peace attempted to get out when I was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When Lt. William Calley was charged in the My Lai massacre, we put on a program on campus in which a number of members of our group described similar atrocities to My Lai that they had either participated in or witnessed. When the Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW) held its Winter Soldier Investigation in Detroit in early 1971 with many more eyewitness atrocity stories, they sent out films of the testimony of soldiers to sympathetic organizations around the country. We set up an outdoor screen on the “brick pit” next to the undergraduate library and showed the testimony night after night in the summer of 1971. The students generally ignored us—the government had taken the wind out of the sails of the antiwar movement on campus with the draft lottery in December of 1969—and VVAW was cold-shouldered by the news media. This is from Wikipedia:
Mainstream media all but ignored the Winter Soldier Investigation. The East Coast papers refused to cover the hearings, other than a New York Times story a week later. The local field reporter for the Times, Jerry M. Flint, commented with uninterest, "this stuff happens in all wars." In a February 7, 1971 article he wrote that "much of what they said had been reported or televised before, even from Vietnam. What was different here was the number of veterans present." Several of the VVAW representatives speculated that there was an "official censorship blackout," and they would express this theory later in their newsletter.
A few articles that were sympathetic to the veterans appeared in lesser-known publications, and Pacifica Radio, known for its left-wing perspective, gave the event considerable coverage. The CBS television crew that showed up were impressed, but only three minutes made it to the nightly news on the first night—three minutes that were "mostly irrelevant to the subject", according to VVAW.
Because of the general blackout, there’s a pretty good chance that many people even so far off the establishment reservation as to be reading my material are learning about the Winter Soldier Investigation for the first time right now. The fact of the matter is that U.S. military tactics in Vietnam, in their wanton destructiveness and ineffectiveness, were very much like a person attempting to swat flies in a house using a sledgehammer.
Upon closer examination we see that Adam Taylor’s revealing article is not so anomalous as it first appears. It would, indeed, have been amazing to read such revelations in the pages of The Washington Post, but it never appeared among its pages. In what has become an ever more frequently used tactic of buying credibility without spreading useful information widely, The Post only put the Taylor article on its website, and, in all likelihood, they buried it away there.
Biggest Atrocities from the Air
There is also a shortcoming in the quote from the article that we have used, and it is one that is shared by our veterans group at UNC and by what I have seen of the Winter Soldier Investigation. Citing Nick Turse’s book, Taylor says that My Lai differs from countless other atrocities in Vietnam in that it was on a larger scale. Another big difference between My Lai and other atrocities is that it was perpetrated on the ground and not from the air. The testimony at Chapel Hill and at Detroit came largely from conscience-stricken soldiers—mainly enlisted men—who saw their victims, often face to face. The confession that Hugh Turley overheard at the S & J Tavern in Riverdale Park, MD, of a man who had killed women and children upon the orders of his superiors is fairly typical. Those who slaughtered wholesale from the air—the American way of killing—were career military officers and in most cases they never saw their victims. For the most part, those perpetrators have not broken ranks and they have not been overly weighted down by conscience.
There is one big exception. It was reported originally, to my knowledge, in an obscure book from my home county.
Mary Lewis Deans was a Nash County, NC, writer who married a neighbor of mine in the county when they were both in high school. He later went on to become a career Air Force officer. I recall reading her columns in the weekly Nashville Graphic, dateline Bangkok, in the 1970s when he was the U.S. Air Force attaché in Thailand. In 1996, she edited and published a little book entitled Salute to Veterans: Oral Histories from Veterans and their Relatives, gathered by the Nash County Cultural Center’s oral history project. The one that caught my eye was from the Vietnam experience of then-Lt. Colonel James Hildreth—retired in his wife’s hometown of Spring Hope—in which he described the obliteration of an unthreatening Vietnamese village of more than a thousand residents:
An Unacceptable Target
Told by James Robert "Cotton" Hildreth
I was sixteen when I went into the Merchant Marines. I served sixteen months as a Ship's Radio Officer. When I became eighteen, I joined the Army and served a hitch as an enlisted man, then got out of service. I was called back into service when the Korean War started. I went into the Air Force in 1952 and became a fighter pilot, and it was my career for the next thirty years.
For the next ten years, I served as a flight commander in several fighter squadrons, flying the F-84, F-86, F-100 and F-105. This was the most exciting, rewarding, and enjoyable ten years of my life. During the hottest period of the Cold War we developed and exercised world-wide deployment for our fighter aircraft, using aerial refueling, and responded to numerous military threats with a show of force in such places as the Taiwan Straits and Lebanon in the Middle East.
I was assigned to Fighter Requirements in the Pentagon when the military buildup in Vietnam began, and I volunteered to go. I think we all wanted to go. It was what we had trained to do since we took the oath. When my request was approved, I called my friend, Dudley Foster, in Rated Officer Assignments in Personnel and told him I had been released from my Pentagon tour and wanted an F-105 assignment to Southeast Asia. He told me that since I had not flown F-105 in three years I would have to retrain in the F-105 and that I would have to wait five or six months for a school slot. This was in 1966, and I didn't think the war would last that long.
I asked, "Well, what aircraft do you have that I can go over in now?" And added, "I don't care what it is. I'm ready to go."
He said, "I just had a cancellation in an A-1 assignment."
I didn't know what an A-1 was. He told me it was a conventional Navy attack aircraft that the Marines used in the Korean War for close-air support. The Marines were converting their attack units to A-4s and giving the A-1s to the Air Force to use for Air Commando missions, principally close-air support, search and rescue, and covert mission he couldn't talk about. It was really not what I had in mind, but I wanted to go so badly I took the assignment.
I arrived at Pleiku in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam as Commander of the First Air Commando Squadron in March, 1967, and ended my tour a year later during the Tet Offensive.
How do I feel about the war in Vietnam?
I have mixed feelings, mostly bad. From the onset of the buildup in Vietnam, it was clear that there was no military solution to the conflict. We should never have become so extensively involved. The volume of ordnance we expended over an area about the size of California was more than the total ordnance expended in all the previous armed conflicts in the history of our country, and it had no appreciable effect on the outcome in Southeast Asia. The total of all the targets destroyed was not worth the life of one of my pilots, and I lost eight of them in ten months and twelve of my twenty-two assigned aircraft.
It was difficult to show the bean-counters and political warriors in Washington positive military results for all our casualties and materiel losses. So the American military leadership in South Vietnam determined that bodies destroyed was a good gauge. BODY-COUNT became the measure of a ground commander's success. It should not then have been surprising that this policy led to the civilian massacre at the village of My Lai.
The vast majority of the A-1 missions were in Laos: flying armed reconnaissance of North Vietnamese infiltration routes into South Vietnam, search and rescue missions for downed air crews, and covert support for special ground forces operations.
Our aircraft was very slow and heavily armed. I mention this because all of my previous experience had been in high-performance jet fighters where the pilot never really sees the people who die in the target he destroys. In the A-1 you actually see the people shooting at you, and, at the time, feel the satisfaction of knowing you've killed someone who was trying to kill you.
One particular mission is as vivid in my memory now as the day it happened. I was leading a flight of two A-1s on an armed reconnaissance mission, but shortly after take-off we were diverted to a target on the coast of I Corps (northern quarter of South Vietnam.) On arriving in the target area, we contacted the FAC (forward air controller) who pointed out the target. It was a huge village of three or four hundred houses, probably twelve to fifteen hundred people. It was between the main north-south highway and the ocean, a pretty, clean village. I asked the FAC why the village was a target.
The FAC said, "That is a Vietcong village."
I said, "How do you know its a Vietcong village?"
He said, "Well we saw three Vietcong run in there."
Across the road from the village was a rice paddy.
He said, "We saw them run out of the rice paddy when we flew over, and they ran into the village."
I said, "And you want us to wipe out this whole village to get three Vietcong?" How do you know they were Vietcong? Were they armed?"
He said, "They had on black pajamas."
All of the farmers working in the fields had on black pajamas. That was their dress. And they carried tools like rakes and hoes.
He said, "They were armed."
I said, "How do you know they weren't carrying rakes and hoes?"
He said, "Don't argue with me. I've got the provincial governor in the back seat, and he says that is a Vietcong village."
I said, "Well, I'll go down and look around and see if I can draw any fire."
So we went down and flew over real low and slow. There were children in the courtyard, smiling and waving at us. This village had obviously been there for years, and it had never been touched. I pulled back up; and I said, "Okay, what are your instructions?"
He said, "The wind is blowing off-shore; so put your napalm down on that first row of houses, and the wind will carry the fire across the entire village."
So I said, ""Fine."
I pulled around and told my wingman to come in from one side and I would attack from the other. We would start our attack from opposite corners. I was coming in toward the corner hut. I looked up at the other end, and he had moved over the road and dropped his napalm on the road. As I approached my release point, a woman with a tiny baby strapped on her back, holding the hand of a small child three or four years old, came running from the hut. I pulled my aircraft over and dropped the napalm in a ditch beside the highway.
The FAC screamed and raised holy hell because he had this governor in the aircraft with him. He said, "You know I'm going to report you for this!"
I said, "You don't have to. I'll be on the ground before you are, and I'll report myself."
When we landed, my wingman walked over to my aircraft and said, "Sir, I have three small grandchildren, and I could never have faced them again if I had followed those orders." He said he didn't want to fly any more combat missions. Later, I had him transferred to a unit with an airborne command and control mission.
I went into Squadron Operations and called the Command Center at Seventh air Force and talked to the director, a brigadier general I had served with several years before. I told him what happened.
He said, "Damn, Cotton, don't you know what's going on? That village didn't pay their taxes. That lieutenant colonel, a provincial commander, is teaching them a lesson."
On returning from an interdiction mission several days later, we flew over the target area. The village had been totally destroyed. Nothing but a large, black, burned area remained. I'm sure when the FAC got a fast-mover (high-performance jet) on the target and destroyed the village the report read: Target 100 percent destroyed, body-count 1200 KBA (killed by air) confirmed.
I'm a grandfather now, and I can't watch my grandchildren at play or carry them in my arms without thinking of that village in Vietnam.
I put the story on my web site originally on June 10, 1998. To date, no one in what could be called the mainstream U.S. news media has touched it. In July 2010, with my assistance in finding Hildreth’s phone number, my friend Turley was able to conduct an interview. He entitled his article, “The Wingman and the Village.” In his article Turley revealed that Hildreth had retired as a Major General.
It’s not in his article, but Turley tells me that he asked Hildreth who gave the order to destroy the village. Hildreth declined to name the man, saying, “I still have friends in the Pentagon.” Turley’s article’s big contribution to the story came with Hildreth’s response to another question: “When asked if he would have destroyed the village had he been flying an F-105 supersonic fighter-bomber, Hildreth replied coolly, Yes, [because] you don’t see the people.’ ”
And that’s why America’s biggest atrocities have been, and continue to be, perpetrated from the air, and it’s also why we’ll probably never even hear about most of them, and no one will ever be punished for them.
May 4, 2015