Battlefield abuses and "war crimes"* had become a major public issue in the United States by the time Herrod's patrol entered Son Thang (4). The furor stemmed from revelation of the My Lai incident of 16 March 1968, in which Americal Division soldiers had shot several hundred unresisting Vietnamese noncombatants in Quang Ngai Province. Evidence that Amerï¿½ical Division commanders and staffs had falsified reports and suppressed investigation of this crime furï¿½ther disturbed political leaders and ordinary citizens alike. By early 1970, 16 Army officersï¿½including First Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr., whose platoon was involved in the My Lai shootingï¿½and nine enlisted men were awaiting court-martial on charges related to the massacre. A special Army investigating team headed by Lieutenant General William R. Peers, USA, was examining the allegations of a coverup and soon would confirm its occurrence. Peer's findings would ruin the careers of 14 senior officers, including Major General Samuel W. Koster, former America! Division commander. Congress had begun its own My Lai inï¿½vestigation.
Since mid-1965, when Marine riflemen first moved out into the countryside around Da Nang, III MAF commanders had attempted to enforce discrimination in the use of firepower and ensure firm but compasï¿½sionate treatment of Vietnamese civilians. Television coverage of Company D, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines' assault on the village of Cam Ne, a VC stronghold, in which civilians' huts were allegedly burned inï¿½discriminately in August 1965 dramatized both the military and the public relations importance of this problem.** In combat amid heavily populated hamï¿½lets, against an enemy who used the people to conï¿½ceal and shield him, commanders often found it difficult to distinguish between a deliberate atrocity and the accidental result of misjudgement by troops under fire. Nevertheless, when clearcut battlefield crimes occurred, III MAF charged and court-martialed the offenders and reported the facts to superior headï¿½quarters. To the extent appropriate, the command inï¿½formed the press about pending cases and their disposition. From 1965 to 1971, 27 Marines who served in Vietnam were convicted of the offense of murder in cases in which the victim was Vietnamese.***6
Ill MAF's response to the Son Thang (4) incident followed this established pattern. Brigadier General Leo J. Dulacki, then III MAF Chief of Staff, recalled that Son Thang, while not on the scale of My Lai, "was still a despicable atrocity, and there was concern that it would be blown up to the proportions of My Lai regardless of how III MAF handled the incident." Dulacki said, "disappointedly," that at the lower levï¿½els in the early stages of the investigation there were signs that the atrocity should be "hushed up." Nevertheless, the command "handled the case accordï¿½ing to law and out in the open."7
Ill MAF passed the earlier 1st Marine Division seriï¿½ous incident report through III MAF on to Headquartï¿½ers Marine Corps. The Commandant, General Chapman, closely followed the case. He instructed the 1st Marine Division which had responsibility for inï¿½vestigating and if necessary courtmarrialing offenders, to report developments to Headquarters daily through FMFPac**** These daily reports continued until 6 March. Eventually, to facilitate the conduct of trials, the division, with FMFPac concurrence, declassified all its messages concerning the investigation. Throughï¿½out, III MAF kept the news media fully informed. Reviewing the incident years later, General Dulacki said that in the early stages of the legal process the press showed little interest, "in fact, one of the earliï¿½est press reports emanating from Vietnam comï¿½plimented the Marine Corps for the forthright and candid manner" in which "it handled the case, makï¿½ing favorable comparisons with My Lai. It wasn't unï¿½til much later, as a result of the political maneuvering
* War crimes are defined by a number of international agreements, including the Hague and Geneva conventions and the precedents developed in the post-World War II Nuremburg and Tokyo trials of Axis leaders. Most provisions of these codes affecting the actions of individual soldiers on the battlefield are embodied in the manuals and rules of engagement of the United Armed Services and in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and battlefield offenses arc charged as violations of the UCMJ in accordance with policy which preceded the Vietnam war. U.S. Army Field Manual FM 27-10, The law of land Warfare (1956), para 507b. Sydney D. Bailey, Proï¿½hibitions ant/Restraints in War (New York: Oxford United Press, 1972.).
** For details of the Cam Ne incident, see Jack Shulimson and Maj Charles M.Johnson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam 1965: The landing and the Buildup (Washington: MCHC, 1978). pp. 61-64.
***Moreover, 16 Marines were convicted of rape, while 15 were convicted of manslaughter. Few of these offenses were committed in the heat of battle. For example, in U.S. v Stamats, NMC 70-3765, and U.S. v. Sikorski, NMC 70-3578. the victim of manslaughter was a South Vietnamese soldier who was a drug pusher. Maj W. Hayes Parks, Head, Law of War Branch, International Law Division, Itr to Col John E. Greenwood, dtd 30May79.
**** Marine Corps Order 5830.4. dtd 30Apr70. established this as Standard reporting procedure for commands investigating misconï¿½duct by their personnel which led to damage to lives and property of foreign nationals.