Witnesses describe 1969 attack on Vietnamese village

By Tini Tran Associated Press Writer
Monday April 30, 2001

Woman’s statement clashes with Kerrey’s recent account of raid 


THANH PHONG, Vietnam (AP) — Bui Thi Luom says she was 12 years old when seven Americans with guns stormed into her Mekong Delta village, rounding up women and children. She says she watched helplessly as they opened fire, despite her grandmother’s pleas for mercy. 

She was the only survivor in her hut of 16 people — 11 children and five women, she said. 

Luom’s account, told for the first time to journalists on Saturday, follows the public acknowledgment last week by former Sen. Bob Kerrey that civilians were killed during a commando raid by his U.S. Navy SEAL team on this coastal village 32 years ago. 

In an interview with AP on Saturday, Kerrey angrily denied Luom’s allegations. Kerrey, who says he has been privately haunted by the memory of killing civilians, reiterated his assertion that the SEALS opened fire only after being fired on. 

“They (the SEALS) received fire and on returning fire, some innocent civilians were killed. Not once was an order given to round people up and execute them,” he said. 

He also said assertion from another witness, Pham Thi Lanh, that the raiders wore “helmets” was untrue, and showed the “lack of credibility” in her statement. 

However, The New York Times and CBS’s ”60 Minutes II,” in a joint reporting project, quoted another ex-SEAL, Gerhard Klann, as saying the civilians were herded into a group and massacred at Thanh Phong. 

Kerrey, who later served as Nebraska governor and senator, and ran for president in 1992, received a Bronze Star medal for the Feb. 25, 1969 raid. 

Now the president of New York’s New School University, Kerrey says the village was a declared “free-fire zone” where everyone was regarded as hostile. The attack was prompted by intelligence reports saying Viet Cong officials planned a meeting there that night and that no civilians would be present, he says. 

“We fired because we were fired upon,” Kerrey told a New York news conference on Thursday. “We did not go out on a mission to kill innocent people. I feel guilty about what happened.” 

Although Kerrey insists that his written after-action report mentioned civilian deaths, SEAL message exchanges later that day — and his Bronze Star citation — refer only to 21 Viet Cong killed. Radio logs two days later said 24 died, 13 civilians and 11 VC. 

Luom, now 44, told reporters there were no Viet Cong in Thanh Phong, and only the Americans fired weapons. “They only killed civilians, women and children. No VC,” she said. Altogether, 20 people were killed, she said. 

A small woman with a shy smile, Luom lives with her husband and five children in a nearby fishing village. 

Local officials arranged for Luom and a second witness, Lanh, to meet with foreign reporters. A provincial official was present during the interviews. Lanh gave an account that was similar in most details to what she’d said in an earlier interview with CBS, which Kerrey previously said was untrue. 

The Mekong Delta was the wartime stronghold of the National Liberation Front — the Viet Cong — the homegrown Communist insurgency that sought to overthrow the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government. 

Thanh Phong is a tiny cluster of thatched-roof huts on the coast 100 miles southeast of Ho Chi Minh City. Lush groves of coconut and banana trees line the red-dirt road that connects it to Ben Tre province. 

In 1969, it was even poorer, Luom said. There were no men — many had been killed in bombing raids and others had joined the Viet Cong, she said. Viet Cong sympathies were strong, other residents say. One resident recalled that the first sea shipment of arms from Communist North Vietnam to the south arrived in Thanh Phong in 1964. 

The second witness, Lanh, 62, said she hid in a banana grove as the intruders killed an elderly couple and their three grandchildren. The adults, Bui Van Vat, 65, and Luu Thi Canh, 62, were decapitated, she claimed. 

“They killed her first. I saw the soldiers cutting off her head. Then he started screaming and they killed him,” Lanh said. “He was wearing a scarf, and you could still see the skin hanging on his neck.” 

She said she ran to her house and stuffed her children’s mouths with cloth to keep them quiet. After the incident, she said she found a pile of bodies, including eight of her relatives. The next morning, she and other survivors gathered the bodies, wrapped them in straw mats and buried them in a common grave. “We didn’t even have coffins for them,” she said. 

Lanh, whose account had several inconsistencies, said she could not positively identify the men as Americans. “They spoke a language I didn’t understand and they wore helmets and big clothes,” she said. 

Luom said the victims in the hut where she lived included her pregnant aunt and grandmother. Luom was the oldest of 11 children and the youngest was 3 years old, she said. 

“That night I was sleeping inside the shelter. My grandmother woke me up, calling everybody in the shelter to come outside,” Luom said. “I counted them — seven men with guns.” 

The men rounded up the women and children and seated them in a circle near the shelter’s entrance, Luom said. 

“One woman started coughing and the American soldier put a gun to her throat. My grandmother told her not to cough or the soldier would kill her.” 

Luom said they pulled a young girl to her feet, and the girl screamed. Other villagers told her later the girl had been disemboweled, but Luom said she did not see this. 

“My grandmother turned to help her. I saw her kneel in front of the Americans, pleading for mercy. After that, the soldiers began to shoot,” Luom said. 

The Americans stood about three feet away, she said, and as gunfire erupted, she fled into the dugout shelter. Before leaving, she said, they threw an explosive into the shelter. 

“I just heard an explosion. I’m not sure if it was a grenade or gunfire. It hit my knee,” she said, pulling up a pant leg to show a scar on her left knee. “I don’t know if they knew I had escaped. I think they tried to kill anybody left in the shelter.” 

“Of course they had to know” it was only women and children, Luom said bitterly. “They should have been punished. At the time I was too small, but if I could get revenge, I would. If I could have killed them, I would.”