Kerrey says he's ashamed of leading raid that killed Vietnamese civilians

Thursday, April 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey says he is ashamed that as a Navy SEAL he led a 1969 combat mission during which unarmed Vietnamese women and children were killed.

Though a member of Kerrey's SEAL unit and a Vietnamese woman who said she witnessed the killings allege the civilians were herded together and massacred, the former Nebraska governor maintains the raid was by and large carried out in self-defense.

``To describe it as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to being right, because that's how it felt and that's why I feel guilt and shame for it,'' Kerrey said, according to a partial transcript of a ''60 Minutes II'' segment scheduled for broadcast Tuesday.

Kerrey was later awarded a Bronze Star for the Feb. 25, 1969, raid in the Mekong Delta. The citation says 21 Viet Cong were killed and enemy weapons were captured or destroyed. Kerrey's squad, in reporting to military superiors, didn't mention killing civilians. Witness' and official accounts of the number of dead varies from 13 to more than 20.

``We herded them together in a group. We lined them up and we opened fire,'' Gerhard Klann told ''60 Minutes II.''

A Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, said he knew of no plan for the Pentagon to investigate the circumstances of the Bronze Star award, but he did not rule out an eventual investigation.

Quigley did not comment directly on the Kerry case, but he was asked what the consequence would be of failing to correctly state the circumstances in combat for later awards.

``You'd have to ascertain the circumstances under which the facts were put down incorrectly,'' he said. ``Is this an honest effort to describe facts as you best remember them and you have a failure of your memory, or conflicting facts, or is this an intentional effort from the get-go to describe a situation that never occurred? You'd have to ascertain which one you have.''

Kerrey, who has not ruled out a run for president in 2004, said he is haunted by the 32-year-old memory of the raid.

``I have lived with this privately for 32 years,'' Kerrey told the Omaha World-Herald in an interview published Wednesday. ``I can't keep it private any more. My conscience tells me some good should come from this.''

Neither Kerrey nor Klann returned calls Wednesday from The Associated Press.

Kerrey, who earned the nation's highest valor award, the Medal of Honor, for a later SEAL action, talked about the raid publicly for the first time last week in a speech to ROTC students at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va.

Kerrey said the mission took place on a moonless night, when he was a 25-year-old lieutenant leading a seven-man commando team. He said Klann and another one of his men killed several people they came upon at the start of the raid because they believed they were a threat. Kerrey said he had not ordered the killings but took responsibility for them.

About 15 minutes later, Kerrey said, shots were fired at his squad and his men returned fire.

``But when the fire stopped, we found that we had killed only women, children and older men. It was not a military victory. It was a tragedy and I had ordered it,'' said Kerrey, who has since said he counted about 14 bodies.

Klann's version of the shooting, and an account from Pham Tri Lanh, who said she saw the raid, were reported as part of a joint effort by CBS News and The New York Times. The Times will publish the story in its Sunday magazine and posted it on its Web site Wednesday.

Klann said that at the start of the raid he killed an old man with Kerrey's help and that he does not remember anyone shooting at their team. Instead, he said the commandos assembled about 15 villagers for questioning and that Kerrey ordered the men to open fire.

Lanh, then the 30-year-old wife of a Viet Cong soldier, said she witnessed the shooting.

``They shot these two old women and they fell forward and they rolled over and then they ordered everybody out from the bunker and they lined them up and they shot all of them from behind,'' Lanh told CBS News.

Mike Ambrose, a third member of the commando team, ``wholeheartedly'' denied rounding up villagers and shooting them. Ambrose, like Kerrey, said he remembered the unit being fired on.

``It got ridiculous pretty much once the guns got going. I was in survival mode. It was dark, you're not seeing much but movement and shadows. You couldn't tell if they were women or men,'' Ambrose told the Times magazine. The four remaining members of Kerrey's team declined to comment.

Kerrey said his memory may differ from the rest of the team due to the passing years and the fog of war.

``Gerhard I will not contradict,'' Kerrey said. ``So if that's his view I don't contradict it. It's not my memory of it and as to the eyewitness (she) is, at the very least, sympathetic to the Viet Cong.''

Kerrey, a Democrat, served one term as governor of Nebraska and two terms as senator. He recently became president of New School University in New York.

He told the magazine he wasn't afraid to accept his responsibility for the incident and is under no illusions about the repercussions.

``It's going to be very interesting to see the reaction to the story,'' Kerrey said. ``I mean, because basically you're talking about a man who killed innocent civilians.''