U.S. ARMY CAPTAIN, JAN. 1968–APRIL 1968;
APRIL 1969–MAY 1970
On my first tour, we deployed all the way from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on almost no notice. We were a brigade of the 82nd Airborne that was called into action as a result of a request by General William Westmoreland for additional troops during Tet.
We were airlifted to Vietnam on about 12 hours’ notice. My battalion was the Initial Ready Force of the 82nd Airborne Division, so we were locked and cocked and ready to go anywhere in the world. That was our job, and it just so happened that on this one we went to Vietnam.
We were the lead element of our brigade and we were in-country and up into the Hue area so fast that there were no other Army combat units up there yet, so we were placed under the operational control of the 3rd Marine Division. When we arrived at Phu Bai, just south of Hue, the Marines were heavily engaged in downtown Hue trying to retake the Citadel, which was still occupied by the North Vietnamese. We began operating on the west side of the Perfume River, looking for North Vietnamese units all along that sector and then westward, out toward the A Shau Valley. We developed a number of very brisk firefights there.
My platoon was the one that discovered the very first of the mass graves outside Hue. When the North Vietnamese entered the city in late January at the beginning of the Tet Offensive, they had lists prepared by their Viet Cong guides that enabled them to round up the entire civil infrastructure of the city, from the province chief and representatives on down to the district chief and his family; the entire university faculty; all the doctors, teachers, lawyers, police, firemen; everything that allowed the city to function. They herded them out to the flats along the Perfume River and made them dig these very long ditches, and then killed them all, hundreds of people.
We found the bodies. One of my sergeants, an E-5 named Reuben Torres from Arizona, had tripped over what he thought was a root sticking out of the ground. It turned out to be the elbow of a woman schoolteacher that had just popped loose. He said the look of the bone and smell reminded him of a sheep that had been hit by a mountain lion or coyotes, back on his uncle’s ranch. He could smell the death, the decomposing smell, and he brought me over. I looked at it and I said, “I think we need to get this up.”
So we dug it up, and saw more bodies next to it, and radioed back to Battalion and got the word to start digging them up. We kept turning up more and more bodies, so we put our gas masks on. They didn’t have any Graves Registration personnel there. We were the ones who got them all out.
And over the course of that day, more and more senior officers would fly in, and then news teams came. It was hilarious, because they kept well clear of this stuff. They kept upwind, and they stayed away from us, but they all looked very concerned, very “martial,” but it was my platoon that was digging these bodies out. It was a very unhappy experience. I’ve really hated Communists ever since then.
The irony is that people like Noam Chomsky, to this day, maintain that this was a trumped-up American atrocity. But I’ll tell you when you stood hip-deep in one of these graves trying to pull bodies out that had been two or three weeks in this aqueous, sandy sub-soil starting to seriously decompose: children, women, men….There was a French medical team, a West German doctor, a number of priests and nuns, because South Vietnam still had a very strong Roman Catholic presence. You knew who did it. It wasn’t done by the Americans, and it wasn’t done by the South Vietnamese. It was done by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese — the Communists.
It was a horrifying experience. That was my first real look at what the enemy was capable of doing. This occurred before we had our first big action so I hadn’t seen much combat yet, but then we had this incident, and after that I became very, very focused on my job.
Interview and photography by Jeffrey Wolin from Inconvenient Stories: Vietnam War Veterans.
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.