Forgetting Thanh Phong

By Calvin Godfrey   January 4, 2017 | 05:35 pm PT
Vietnam's dilemma of having to close the book on a war crime to open a U.S.-backed school.

The small bus rumbling toward the south-eastern tip of Ben Tre Province was packed with fruit and farmers on a damp morning last October.

On the flat peninsula that stretched out from the road, mechanical paddles churned the brackish shrimp ponds replacing rice paddies in Thanh Phu District - the front line of Vietnam’s modern war with creeping seawater that promises to make life in this tough corner of the Mekong Delta tougher still.

Women checked messages on cell phones wrapped in plastic bags; salt filled the air as the bus neared its final stop, a parking lot where motorbike taximen stood ready to take foreigners on a brief loop of the tragedy that’s become synonymous with the place.

After a 15 minute drive into Thanh Phong, they stopped before a granite stele that stood between a beer distributor and a windowless shop that sold everything from shampoo to ice cream.

The low gate to the monument’s overgrown concrete courtyard sat ajar. Two frangipani trees perfumed the wet air, masking the scent of a lone papaya rotting in the weeds.

Rain had washed away most of the memorial’s gold lettering, but one could still make out the words:

This area was raided by the United States SEAL force led by Bob Kerrey on February 25, 1969. Despite the fact that there had been no shots fired by the People's Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam, Kerrey’s team committed the brutal murder of civilians. They stormed into houses and slit the throats of the people inside, and then gathered others before executing them with machine guns at short range. Twenty-one civilians, including elders, women and children, were massacred barbarously.


The crossroads in Thanh Phong where a stele memorializes the Navy SEAL massacre that occurred on February 25, 1969. The monument specifically disputes Kerrey's claim that his men came under fire and responded by strafing the village before them. Instead, it alleges the unit known as "Kerrey's Raiders" rounded up and executed 21 unarmed civilians. Photos by VnExpress/Calvin Godfrey

Across the street, a group of fishermen sat on a porch, slapping cards on a plastic table, letting ice melt in their beer while the sounds of students at a nearby kindergarten filled the air.

No one knew who Kerrey was - only that he had come back to run a school, or some such.

And then a short man with a high voice named Quang Van Phuc stepped forward and held a hand out at his hip.

“I was this tall that night,” he said, before describing how he'd heard gunfire and screaming and ran into the darkness. “The next day we came back to the village; I remember they had piled all of the bodies and severed flesh on a bed.”

Phuc grew up hearing that the raid had been the fault of a local who left the village years before the massacre and led a Marine unit back to the area, long after Communist fighters had fled inland.

A 'distortion of history'

In May, the U.S. Secretary of State gathered reporters at the Rex Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City and announced Bob Kerrey would return to chair the Board of Trustees at the Fulbright University in Vietnam (FUV).

Three years prior, then-President Truong Tan Sang met personally with his counterpart in the White House and welcomed an initiative to build the school.

The Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee later donated 60 hectares (148 acres) of land in a high-tech industrial zone that sits idle today; even the sunburnt security guards patrolling the odd mix of vacant lots and multi-national microchip factories say they have no idea when work would begin on the university campus.

Those close to the school have declined to speak about the controversy or what it means for FUV.

Billed on its website as “the first private, nonprofit Vietnamese university founded on the principles of accountability, meritocracy, transparency, self-governance, mutual respect, and open inquiry,” FUV has virtually disappeared from public discourse.

Individuals close to the project say they have already “moved on” from the discussion and expect John Kerry, the retiring U.S. Secretary of State, to return to Vietnam with good news before his term ends this month. Others have publicly floated the possibility of welcoming the first class this fall.

Vietnamese officials remained decidedly more reticent, until Tuesday, when Minister of Information and Communications Truong Minh Tuan published a review of Vietnam's major media stories from the previous year.

In it, he dedicated significant space to what he described as “an unusual campaign for the appointment of Mr. Kerrey at Fulbright University.”

The minister described the effort to promote Kerrey’s appointment as an effort to distort history.

“Kerrey was a war veteran who directed and participated in a barbaric massacre of innocent civilians in Ben Tre Province during the American invasion of our country,” he wrote.

“There have been several articles in the mainstream media that not only sought to legitimize the appointment, but also conflated the tasks of a soldier with war crimes that violate international laws.”

The minister called the media campaign “extremely upsetting” because it had “hurt the spirit of innocent people who died because of such crimes.”

Tuan reminded his readers that Kerrey had confessed to the crimes, which were initially exposed by U.S. media.

“There is even proof of the event on display at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.”

Meanwhile, at the museum

The Ho Chi Minh City War Remnants Museum sits about two kilometers from the Rex Hotel and attracts over a million visitors per year, most of them foreign.

On a recent weekday, scores of tourists packed its halls and doorways; several huddled around a round concrete sewer on the second floor, where Bob Kerrey’s name hovered at the center of a blue plastic panel.

The panel says Kerrey and a team of Navy SEALs arrived in the village of Thanh Phong - 48 years ago next month - and murdered three children they found hiding in the sewer with knives.


Tourists at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. A sewer on the second floor of the museum contains a plaque at the center that claims three children hid in the concrete tube on the night of the raid and were murdered with knives when Kerrey's unit discovered them. The family only donated the sewer to the museum following the 40th anniversary of the killings.

On the opposite wall hangs the names of the other civilians who died that night; around the corner is an exhibit on the My Lai Massacre.  

“It was not until April 2001 that U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey confessed his crime to the international public,” the panels read.

That’s not entirely right.

Kerrey received a Bronze Star medal for the Thanh Phong raid from then-President Richard Nixon. He only acknowledged the event had been a massacre when confronted with classified documents and an account from one of his men who said the squad had rounded up and executed the unarmed group of mostly women and children. 

Two of Kerrey’s squad told reporters they stabbed an elderly man who stepped out of the first thatched hut they encountered; they either didn't remember or differed on what became of his wife and three grandchildren.

Before these messy narratives spilled into American papers, Kerrey gathered all but one of his fellow squad members to issue a joint statement alleging the victims had been caught in a crossfire between his men and unseen Viet Cong soldiers.

Huynh Ngoc Van, the director of the War Remnants Museum, recalled that when the news broke in Vietnam it inspired a flood of local newspaper accounts of the killings, many of which she considered “exaggerated.”

Van personally accompanied museum researchers to Thanh Phong to investigate the events.

She and members of her team spent years interviewing witnesses before a bereaved family finally agreed to donate the sewer where the three deceased children had hidden, following the 40th anniversary of their deaths.

“We had many Thanh Phongs in southern Vietnam,” said Van, who views the incident as unique only insofar as the events had been investigated and the perpetrators confronted.

Over the years Kerrey has apologized for the deaths (repeatedly and at length) while maintaining that he only ever ordered his men to return fire. In this way, he has done much more than his government, which never apologized for sending Kerrey and a group of other young men to a fishing village in the middle of the night with the name of a single Communist cadre they were supposed to find and kill.

In the flurry that followed Kerrey’s appointment, editorial writers all over the U.S. (including the journalist who initially exposed the massacre) offered unsolicited paths to redemption for Kerrey - some suggested he’d already earned the world’s forgiveness.

Kerrey himself has always bucked direction on how he ought to make amends in Vietnam.

“An apology has always felt insufficient,” he told local media in June. “It is like fish soup without the fish. And so I have tried to help the Vietnamese people when I can. By being a part of the effort to end the trading with the enemy act, normalizing relations, supporting expanded bilateral trade and aid, and especially supporting efforts to improve Vietnam's educational system through the Fulbright program.”

Kerrey did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, but he publicly pledged to ignore calls that he resign his new post as late as June, the same month discussion of his appointment largely tapered off.

When asked whether he should take the job, the director of the War Remnants Museum went quiet.

“I thought a lot about this one,” Van said, before noting that Vietnamese culture requires students of all kinds to address senior school administrators by the respected term “teacher".

“This makes me ... worried,” she said in English. “I think if Bob feels very sorry for what he’s done for the war he can support the Fulbright with money or he can support Thanh Phong, which is very poor until now.”

'Lucky to get a burial, much less a funeral'

Thanh Phong’s retired village chief Tran Van “Sau” Rung greeted reporters from his bed in a palm leaf extension built onto a wide pink tile home just a short motorbike ride from where the killing occurred.

A woman sewed needlepoint in his living room and children ran in and out of the house as Sau stood and swept his salt and pepper hair over his tall forehead in a manner not unlike Kerrey's.

The old soldier grew up in the low-lying farming area and said he’d had two choices: join the Southern Republic of Vietnam or join the Viet Cong.

“I chose the Viet Cong,” he said.


Tran Van Rung (AKA Sau Rung) was one of the first to arrive to the scene of the raid after the killing stopped.

After sustaining an injury while fighting in the surrounding districts, Sau says he received orders to lay low near Thanh Phong. In his estimation, no revolutionary soldier would have dared to occupy the coastal village itself.

The whole area, he said, had been stripped of vegetation by chemical defoliants and any man of fighting age found along the bare coastline would have immediately been captured or killed.

When government and U.S. patrols encountered a local French teacher here, he said, they carted him off.

“Luckily, they didn't kill him,” Sau said. “They put him in prison for a year; when he returned he took his whole family from the area because it was just too dangerous.”

Sau recalled that Kerrey’s squad had visited the area three times before the massacre.

He can still remember villagers streaming toward him in the final hours of the night in question. He and the other able-bodied men woke to the sounds of children wailing as they fled.

Sau and his men spent two hours finding the civilians safe places to sleep, before heading to surmise the casualties in Thanh Phong.

“I had enough experience in combat to know when the Americans had withdrawn,” he said.

Sau and his men quickly sifted through the corpses, piling dead children next to their mothers and covering the horror with straw mats.

“We didn’t want to stay,” he said. “We knew they’d come back.”

Then Sau found 12-year-old Bui Thi Luom weeping and peppered with shrapnel.

He carried the girl to a clinic in a nearby village, then went to sleep.

The next day, civilians returned to the area to bury the dead.

“Most of the families had lost everyone, so there was no one left to mourn them,” he said. “Besides, it was a war: you were lucky to get a burial, much less a funeral.”

He continues to keep a log containing the names of the victims and their birthdays. Whenever relatives return to the area, he helps inform them about what happened here.

Sau said Kerrey had an open invitation to come drink tea with him any time.

“Of course, I'd accept his apology,” he said. “But why ask me? I think it would be better for him to come and talk to the surviving relatives and, perhaps, offer some money to take care of the tombs of the dead.”

Meeting Bob Kerrey

The road to Bui Thi Luom's house turns to muddy sand long before you arrive - sand that seems to stick to everything for kilometers in any direction.

As the sun set over her small farm, the sole survivor of the massacre limped out onto her lopsided patio, heavyset in cheetah-print pajamas.

Kerrey’s Raiders, as the squad was known, killed Luom’s grandmother, four aunts and ten cousins—all women and children she slept with in an earthen dugout designed to shield them from harm.

In 2001, the Los Angeles Times quoted her as saying she’d kill Kerrey and his men if she had the chance.

But time, it seems, had softened those feelings.

“I don't have any bitterness toward Kerrey after all these years,” she told VnExpress International. “I was only 12 then; I’m almost dead now.”


Bui Thi Luom was 12-years old on the night of the raid and is considered the sole survivor of the violence that claimed her grandmother, 10 cousins and four aunts. She's pictured here at her home in Ben Tre Province.

Over the years, she’s explained to visiting reporters that the unit called her and her family out into the night and, after a brief conference, began shooting them.

Luom survived by ducking back into the dugout when the killing began.

“I have scars all over my body, and my knee injury is the largest one,” she said, rolling up a pant leg. “Sometimes I can still feel the pain.”

Sau told VnExpress International Luom grew up in an inland village with her mother.

When she was well enough, she began caring for the graves of those killed in the raid—something she considered her lifelong duty.

She now lives with her husband, niece, sister-in-law and older brother who collectively earn about $450-$650 per month, mostly from fishing.

“We don't have much land here to grow anything,” she said, gesturing to the dark brown soil around the house.

A few years ago, when her family moved here, Luom exhumed the bones of those killed and buried them at a nearby cemetery so she could clean the tombs and provide regular offerings to their spirits.

“I couldn't move the bodies of all the children because there were too many,” she said.

No American, she said, had ever come to say sorry to her. Luom, who first heard Kerrey’s name in 2001, knew very little about the controversy surrounding him or the land sitting idle outside Ho Chi Minh City.

She spoke cautiously, but at the conclusion of her interview she seemed to have made a decision.

“I want to meet Bob Kerrey and talk to him,” she said. “All my relatives are dead and it would be great if he could offer me something.”

Luom saw no reason to prevent him from opening a new university, but she doubted it would benefit her and her family in any way.

“I don't think my kids or grandkids would ever make it there,” she said. “They'll drop out of school around the eighth grade to start working.”

Nhung Nguyen contributed reporting to this story

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