Witness to Vietnam atrocities never knew about investigation
By MICHAEL D. SALLAH and MITCH WEISS
BLADE STAFF WRITERS
(This article was published on Nov. 30, 2003)
Dennis Stout was a soldier caught between the ethics of his job and surviving in an unforgiving Army.
As a military journalist, he watched platoon soldiers force 35 women and children into a pasture in the heart of Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
As the people huddled - some crying-the soldiers moved the villagers into small groups and led them to the edge of the field.
Then came the gun shots, with bodies falling.
"They just killed them - mothers, with little kids and old people," he recalled.
Though he wrote for an Army newspaper, he said he was banned from reporting about the killings that July day in 1967.
It would be 36 years before the American public would learn of the elite unit known as Tiger Force, and its unprovoked attacks on Vietnamese villagers.
The platoon’s war crimes were revealed in a recent Blade series, "Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths," which described the slaughter of unarmed civilians by the soldiers between May and November, 1967.
The Army investigated the case for 4 1/2 years, substantiating 20 war crimes involving 18 soldiers. But no one was charged.
As a public information officer who moved among fighting units, Mr. Stout said he watched the platoon soldiers routinely kill men, women, and children, but was unable to stop the brutality.
"I knew what they were doing was wrong - this unit was out of control," said the former sergeant, who wrote for the Screaming Eagle, the newspaper of the 1st Battalion/327th Infantry. "There was no reason for what they did. No reason at all."
It wasn’t just Tiger Force.
During his five months as a press officer, he said soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division - the larger unit that included Tiger Force -were committing atrocities.
He watched 22 paratroopers rape and execute a woman, he said, and a medic pump swamp water into the heart of a prisoner before he was fatally shot by soldiers.
Mr. Stout said he told a master sergeant, but was ordered to forget the
killings. He confided to a chaplain but was warned to keep quiet.
After leaving the Army in 1969, he complained to Army officials who promised to investigate.
But for three decades, the Pentagon refused to say what happened to his case - and the detailed records he provided to agents.
"I just thought it disappeared," he said.
In fact, the Army sent two letters to Mr. Stout in 1997, saying officials were "unable to locate" records of his complaints.
But documents at the National Archives tell a different story.
Records show that the Army conducted an investigation for two years of his complaints beginning on Dec. 16, 1969.
Known as the "Stout Allegation," the inquiry focused on eight specific atrocities passed on to agents by Mr. Stout, including the Tiger Force executions of villagers in the field.
It can’t be determined if anyone was charged because hundreds of documents, including sworn witness statements, are missing from the case, according to senior archivists.
It was during his stint as an Army journalist in the Song Ve Valley that he began to observe mass executions, Mr. Stout said.
The unit leading the charge was Tiger Force, he said.
"They just shot everybody," said Mr. Stout, 58, now a building contractor who lives in Phoenix. "There were no civilians they ever let go. They killed everybody they could find."
He said his job was to write positive stories about soldiers in battle. But after witnessing assaults on villagers in the Song Ve, he said his faith was shaken in the military. "They just lined people up and shot them."
It was the beginning of his own struggles with memories of soldiers shooting civilians that persist today, he said.
Records show he arrived in Vietnam in September, 1966, and was assigned to Company B of the 1st Battalion/327th Infantry.
After the Illinois native was grazed by a bullet during a firefight in May, 1967, he was appointed the battalion’s press officer.
That same month, the battalion was sent to the Quang Ngai Province to help the U.S. military control the contested Central Highlands. Part of the unit’s mission was to move thousands of civilians to relocation centers.
After arriving, the battalion - including Tiger Force - moved to the Song Ve Valley, a remote, fertile basin in the center of the province.
The goal of the military was to stop the 5,000 inhabitants from growing rice - food that could feed the enemy. But with deep ties to the land, many villagers refused to leave. That’s when Tiger Force members joined other battalion soldiers in what became a grisly routine: Shooting villagers who stayed in their hamlets.
Mr. Stout said commanders were counting the executed civilians as enemy soldiers to help boost "body count."
In Vietnam, the measure of success was the number of enemy soldiers killed - not the taking of land, say military historians.
Mr. Stout said in July he spotted a sign posted in a command center in the valley with a tally of the dead enemy soldiers: 600. But the numbers of weapons seized totaled only 11. "Most of the dead people were civilians."
He said he stood across a field and witnessed the execution of 35 unarmed villagers by Tiger Force soldiers. "They took five people at a time to different parts of the field and just shot them. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. I wake up at night sometimes and I still see those women and children."
He identified one of the soldiers leading the platoon as Sgt. William Doyle, who was later named as a war-crimes suspect by the Army in the Tiger Force investigation.
Mr. Stout said he tried to stay quiet about the atrocities, but after watching the rape and execution of a woman by soldiers from another unit, he broke down.
"I just wanted to stay alive long enough to someday tell people what happened," he said. "My moral cop-out was to live through it, because I couldn’t stop it at the time."
He was honorably discharged from the Army in February, 1969, and enrolled in Arizona State University.
That year, the story of the My Lai Massacre - the slaughter of 500 villagers by the Army’s 11th Brigade - was revealed by reporter Seymour Hersh. After reading about the attack, Mr. Stout contacted a lawyer, Gerald Pollock of Phoenix.
"I needed to tell people that My Lai was not an isolated case," he said.
Mr. Pollock said he remembered meeting with Mr. Stout. "He was obviously nervous, but he wanted to tell people about what he saw."
In December, 1969, Mr. Stout and his lawyer met with representatives of the Army’s criminal investigation command.
Mr. Stout said he remembered filing eight complaints. including the executions of the villagers in the field by Tiger Force soldiers.
During two additional meetings, Mr. Stout said he provided Army investigators with the names of suspects, locations of war crimes, and identification cards he took from dead villagers. He said he also turned over the names of the sergeant major and chaplain to whom he initially complained.
"I gave these people names and locations within five meters of where the killings occurred," he said. "My stuff was so nailed down. I was so specific, I knew they would have to take action."
However, he said, in 1970, he received a letter from the Army stating the investigation could not proceed, because agents were unable to go behind enemy lines to talk to witnesses.
But that was not the case.
Unknown to Mr. Stout, Army agents were interrogating dozens of witnesses - more than 100 in two years.
On Feb. 3, 1971, investigators interviewed a key witness in the case: Sgt. Gary Coy. The former battalion soldier told agents he didn’t know about Mr. Stout’s allegations. But he talked about another war crime - one involving a soldier who severed a baby’s head in a hut.
Investigators later identified the suspect as Sam Ybarra, a former Tiger Force private and one of the platoon’s most well known members.
It was the beginning of a new investigation - one that would focus solely on Tiger Force.
Though the Tiger Force investigation lasted until 1975, Mr. Stout said he was ignorant of the development. "I had absolutely no idea that my complaint led to that investigation," he said.
Over the years, he said he has been angry over the Army’s responses to his inquiries. In 1970, and again, in 1975, he sent letters to the Pentagon asking for information, with no response, he said.
On Dec. 18, 1996, he wrote to his congressman, then-U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, for help in finding his case. But the Army informed Mr. Salmon’s office on Feb. 12, 1997 that it could not locate any records.
Chris Grey, a spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, told The Blade last week the Army is unable to find evidence of his complaints. "There are millions of records, and we are looking," he said.
One possible explanation could be that numerous documents were destroyed in the early 1970s.
A 1973 letter on file at National Archives from Army Col. Joseph Tenhet states that war-crime cases between 1965 and 1971 were destroyed "in anticipation of a cease fire" in the war.
"As a substantial amount of our classified files consisted of war crimes which are rarely, if ever, referred to in the normal course of business, permission was requested for their immediate destruction," he wrote in the letter to Col. Waldemar Solf.
Because the investigation of Tiger Force lasted through 1975, those records were not destroyed.
Many of the documents, including statements of former soldiers, support Mr. Stout’s claims of fatal assaults of civilians in the Song Ve Valley.
At least nine unarmed villagers were killed by platoon soldiers between June and July, but those are only the documented cases.
Former soldiers and Vietnamese villagers interviewed by The Blade said the platoon carried out mass slayings in June and July.
Nguyen Dam, 66, a rice farmer, said there were so many bodies to be buried, the civilians simply dug mass graves. "There were so many villagers who died, we couldn’t bury them one by one."
Army officials say they are now conducting a review of the Tiger Force investigation, including comparing the evidence gathered three decades ago by Army agents with The Blade’s findings.
Mr. Stout said he wants the military to find his original complaints. "I went to them because it was the right thing to do," he said. "Then they kept telling me that they didn’t know what I was talking about."
He wants to know whether anyone was disciplined as a result of his case. "I’ve lived with this for so long," he said. "If nothing happened, then I will press the Army to reopen the case."
One war-crimes expert said the Army should review how it handled the cases sparked by Mr. Stout’s complaints.
Ben Ferencz, 84, a former U.S. prosecutor assigned to the Nuremberg trials, said enough questions are being raised about the Army’s handling of the Tiger Force investigation "that the military needs to show the rules of law were applied, and if not, why? You can’t ignore war crimes - then or now."
Mr. Stout agrees.
He said he was criticized by other soldiers for reporting the atrocities 34 years ago - and many times, doubted when he brought up the case years later.
"People today don’t believe we could have done this," he said. "But what I saw, I could never forget.