by Nick Turse at History News Network
On October 19, 2003, the Ohio-based newspaper the Toledo Blade launched a four-day series of investigative reports exposing a string of atrocities by an elite, volunteer, 45-man “Tiger Force” unit of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division over the course of seven months in 1967. The Blade goes on to state that in 1971 the Army began a four and a half year investigation of the alleged torture of prisoners, rapes of civilian women, the mutilation of bodies and killing of anywhere from nine to well over one hundred unarmed civilians, among other acts. The articles further report that the Army’s inquiry concluded that eighteen U.S. soldiers committed war crimes ranging from murder and assault to dereliction of duty. However, not one of the soldiers, even of those still on active duty at the time of the investigation, was ever court martialed in connection with the heinous crimes. Moreover, six suspected war criminals were allowed to resign from military service during the criminal investigations specifically to avoid prosecution.
The Toledo Blade articles represent some of the best reporting on a Vietnam War crime by any newspaper, during or since the end of the conflict. Unfortunately, the articles tell a story that was all too common. As a historian writing his dissertation on U.S. war crimes and atrocities during the Vietnam War, I have been immersed in just the sort of archival materials the Toledo Blade used in its pieces, but not simply for one incident but hundreds if not thousands of analogous events. I can safely, and sadly, say that the “Tiger Force” atrocities are merely the tip of the iceberg in regard to U.S.-perpetrated war crimes in Vietnam. However, much of the mainstream historical literature dealing with Vietnam War atrocities (and accompanying cover-ups and/or sham investigations), has been marginalized to a great extent — aside from obligatory remarks concerning the My Lai massacre, which is, itself, often treated as an isolated event. Unfortunately, the otherwise excellent reporting of the Toledo Blade draws upon and feeds off this exceptionalist argument to a certain extent. As such, the true scope of U.S.-perpetrated atrocities is never fully addressed in the articles. The men of the “Tiger Force” are labeled as “Rogue GIs” and the authors simply mention the that Army “conducted 242 war-crimes investigations in Vietnam, [that] a third were substantiated, leading to 21 convictions… according to a review of records at the National Archives” – facts of dubious value that obscure the scope and number of war crimes perpetrated in Vietnam and feed the exceptionalist argument.
Even an accompanying Blade piece on “Other Vietnam Atrocities,” tends to decontextualize the “Tiger Force” incidents, treating them as fairly extraordinary events by listing only three other relatively well known atrocity incidents: former Senator, presidential candidate and Navy SEAL Bob Kerrey’s raid on the hamlet of Thang Phong; the massacre at Son Thang — sometimes referred to as the “Marine Corps’ My Lai”; and the war crimes allegations of Lt. Col. Anthony Herbert — most famously chronicled in his memoir Soldier. This short list, however, doesn’t even hint at the scope and number of similar criminal acts.
For example, the Toledo Blade reports that its “review of thousands of classified Army documents, National Archives records, and radio logs reveals [the “Tiger Force”] … carried out the longest series of atrocities in the Vietnam War [from May and November, 1967]….” Unfortunately, this seven month atrocity-spree is not nearly the longest on record. Nor is it even the longest string of atrocities by one unit within its service branch. According to formerly classified Army documents, an investigation disclosed that from at least March 1968 through October 1969, “Vietnamese [civilian] detainees were subjected to maltreatment” by no less than twenty-three separate interrogators of the 172d Military Intelligence (MI) Detachment. The inquiry found that, in addition to using “electrical shock by means of a field telephone,” an all too commonly used method of torture by Americans during the war, MI personnel also struck detainees with their fists, sticks and boards and employed a form of water torture which impaired prisoners’ ability to breath.
Similar to the “Tiger Force” atrocities chronicled by the Blade, documents indicate that no disciplinary actions were taken against any of the individuals implicated in the long-running series of atrocities, including 172d MI personnel Norman Bowers, Franciszek Pyclik and Eberhard Gasper who were all on active duty at the time that the allegations were investigated by Army officials. In fact, in 1972, Bowers’s commanding general pronounced that “no disciplinary or administrative action” would be taken against the suspected war criminal and in a formerly classified memorandum to the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, prepared by Colonel Murray Williams on behalf of Brigadier General R.G. Gard in January 1973, it was noted that the “…determination by commanders to take no action against three personnel on active duty who were suspected of committing an offense” had not been publicly acknowledged. Their crimes and identities kept a secret, Bowers, Pyclik and Gasper apparently escaped any prosecution, let alone punishment, for their alleged actions.
Similarly, the Toledo Bladepays particular attention to Sam Ybarra, a “notorious suspect,” who was named in seven of the thirty “Tiger Force” war crimes allegations investigated by the Army — including the rape and fatal stabbing of a 13-year-old girl and the brutal killing of a 15-year-old boy. Yet, Ybarra’s notorious reputation may well pale in comparison to that of Sergeant Roy E. “the Bummer” Bumgarner, a soldier who served with the 1st Cavalry Division and later the 173d Airborne Brigade. According to a former commander, “the Bummer” was rumored to have “personally killed over 1,500 people” during a forty-two week stretch in Vietnam. Even if the number was exaggerated, clues on how Bumgarner may have obtained high “body counts” came to light in the course of an Army criminal investigation of an incident that took place on February 25, 1969. According to investigation documents, Bumgarner and a subordinate rounded up three civilians found working in a rice paddy, marched them to a secluded area and murdered them. “The Bummer” then arranged the bodies on the ground with their heads together and a grenade was exploded next to them in an attempt to cover-up their crime. Assorted weapons were then planted near the mutilated corpses to make them appear to have been enemy troops.
During an Army criminal investigation of the incident, men in Bumgarner’s unit told investigators that they had heard rumors of the sergeant carrying out similar acts in the past. Said one soldier in a sworn statement to Army investigators:
“I’ve heard of Bumgarner doing it before — planting weapons on bodies when there is doubt as to their military status. I’ve heard quite a few rumors about Bumgarner killing unarmed people. Only a couple weeks ago I heard that Bumgarner had killed a Vietnamese girl and two younger kids (boys), who didn’t have any weapons.”
Unlike Sam Ybarra, who had been discharged from the military by the time the allegations against him came to light and then refused to cooperate with investigators, “the Bummer” was charged with premeditated murder and tried by general court martial. He was convicted only of manslaughter and his punishment consisted merely of a demotion in rank and a fine of $97 a month for six months. Moreover, after six months, Bumgarner promptly re-enlisted in the Army. His first and only choice of assignments — Vietnam. Records indicate he got his wish!
Military records demonstrate that the “Tiger Force” atrocities are only the tip of a vast submerged history of atrocities in Vietnam. In fact, while most atrocities were likely never chronicled or reported, the archival record is still rife with incidents analogous to those profiled in the Blade articles, including the following atrocities chronicled in formerly classified Army documents:
- A November 1966 incident in which an officer in the Army’s Fourth Infantry Division, severed an ear from a Vietnamese corpse and affixed it to the radio antenna of a jeep as an ornament. The officer was given a non-judicial punishment and a letter of reprimand.
- An August 1967 atrocity in which a 13-year-old Vietnamese child was raped by American MI interrogator of the Army’s 196th Infantry Brigade. The soldier was convicted only of indecent acts with a child and assault. He served seven months and sixteen days for his crime.
- A September 1967 incident in which an American sergeant killed two Vietnamese children — executing one at point blank range with a bullet to the head. Tried by general court martial in 1970, the sergeant pleaded guilty to, and was found guilty of, unpremeditated murder. He was, however, sentenced to no punishment.
- An atrocity that took place on February 4, 1968, just over a month before the My Lai massacre, in the same province by a man from the same division (Americal). The soldier admitted to his commanding officer and other men of his unit that he gunned down three civilians as they worked in a field. A CID investigation substantiated his confession and charges of premeditated murder were preferred against him. The soldier requested a discharge, which was granted by the commanding general of the Americal Division, in lieu of court martial proceedings.
- A series of atrocities similar to, and occurring the same year as, the “Tiger Force” war crimes in which one unit allegedly engaged in an orgy of murder, rape and mutilation, over the course of several months.
While not yielding the high-end body count estimate of the “Tiger Force” series of atrocities, the above incidents begin to demonstrate the ubiquity of the commission of atrocities on the part of American forces during the Vietnam War. Certainly, war crimes, such as murder, rape and mutilation were not an everyday affair for American combat soldiers in Vietnam, however, such acts were also by no means as exceptional as often portrayed in recent historical literature or as tacitly alluded to in the Blade articles.
The excellent investigative reporting of the Toledo Blade is to be commended for shedding light on war crimes committed by American soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division in 1967. However, it is equally important to understand that the “Tiger Force” atrocities were not the mere result of “Rogue GIs” but instead stem from what historian Christian Appy has termed the American “doctrine of atrocity” during the Vietnam War — a strategy built upon official U.S. dictums relating to the body count, free-fire zones, search and destroy tactics and the strategy of attrition as well as unofficial tenets such as “kill anything that moves,” intoned during the “Tiger Force” atrocities and in countless other atrocity tales, or the “mere gook rule” which held that “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC.” Further, it must also be recognized that the “Tiger Force” atrocities, the My Lai massacre, the Herbert allegations and the few other better-known war crimes were not isolated or tangentially-related incidents, but instead are only the most spectacular or best publicized of what was an on-going string of atrocities, large and small, that spanned the entire duration of the war.
The headline of one Blade article proclaims, “Earlier Tiger Force probe could have averted My Lai carnage,” referring to the fact that the 101st Airborne Division’s “Tiger Force” troops operated in the same province (Quang Ngai), with the same mission (search and destroy) months before the Americal Division’s men committed their war crimes. But atrocities were not a localized problem or one that only emerged in 1967. Instead, the pervasive disregard for the laws of war had begun prior to U.S. buildup in 1965 and had roots in earlier conflicts. Only by recognizing these facts can we hope to begin to understand the “Tiger Force” atrocities and the history of American war crimes in Vietnam, writ large.