Nov. 12, 2004 -- The 101st Airborne Division's Tiger Force was among the most elite units in the Vietnam War, tasked with cleaning out the enemy in a string of villages in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. But according to an Army investigation, which the government kept secret for almost three decades, the mission turned into a seven-month-long mass murder.
Between May and November 1967, the highly-decorated, all-volunteer reconnaissance unit, which was attached to the 101st Airborne, moved through a series of villages deep inside Vietnam's Central Highlands, territory controlled by the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies. Their orders were to ambush and booby-trap enemy combatants, but the 45-strong unit took the war to the villagers, killing hundreds of them.
Medic Rion Causey, 55, who is now a nuclear engineer in California, says he watched as soldiers killed unarmed civilians. He estimates the unit killed 120 civilians in one five-week period alone.
"Murder was not uncommon," former Tiger Force Sgt. William Doyle, 70, told ABCNEWS, confirming what has now been revealed in Army documents. "It was more or less the rule of the day.
"We trusted absolutely nobody," he said. "You know, that was rule number one."
The Tiger Force investigation was kept secret by the Army for almost three decades until last month, when The Blade, a newspaper published in Toledo, Ohio, ran a four-part series on the killings and investigation that followed. The series was based on an eight-month investigation by reporters Mike Sallah, Mitch Weiss and Joe Mahr, who obtained hundreds of pages of classified Army documents.
"What they would essentially do is they would kill prisoners, they would kill soldiers, they would kill villagers and they would sever the ears to wear as necklaces," Sallah told ABCNEWS. "Twenty-seven Tiger Force soldiers testified during the Army's investigation that they had either taken part in the ritual or that they had witnessed it firsthand — the severing of ears to be made into necklaces."
The Army said today it is conducting a preliminary assessment of any new evidence raised by The Blade's reporting. The assessment will determine whether a new case will be opened, Army spokesman Lt. Col. Kevin Curry told ABCNEWS.
Doyle said he regrets every American soldier who got killed, blinded or injured in the war, but he does not regret what happened to the Vietnamese. "I did not kill any Vietnamese that I did not feel that by killing them I was prolonging my own life and the lives of my friends, and my men under my command," he said. "I was not out just cold-blooded killing people for no reason. That would be a war crime. I'm not guilty of that."
‘Kill With a Look’
Now the people involved are freely admitting to ABCNEWS what they did, saying that their actions were necessary to ensure the safety of the American soldiers.
"You had to have a killer instinct, you had to have a strong survival instinct," said Doyle, who is now retired and living in Missouri. "You got to be quick on the trigger. You got to be pretty merciless."
"If you're walking along a rice paddy dyke, and them farmers are out there planting rice, and one of them looks up at you and makes eye contact, and the eye contact is the wrong kind of contact — because you can kill with a look — he's a dead man," he said. "You better not look with hate. Curiosity — maybe he might live. But when he made eye contact, if you detected hate, you would probably kill him."
Members of the unit say it was impossible for them to tell who was an enemy fighter and who was a peaceful villager.
The young lieutenant who commanded the unit, James Hawkins, now 63, says he and his men learned to smell the enemy or anyone who might pose a threat.
"I can't describe how this really, the smell was," he told ABCNEWS. "But it was a distinct, odor, you know, if they had been there, you'd been down a trail. You, you could smell where they'd been there recently."
Causey recalled catching a group of Vietnamese by surprise, causing them to come out of their hut with their hands up. When Causey and fellow soldiers called the platoon leader to find out what they should do with them, "a minute or so later he responded that they should be shot. So we took them over to the wall and lined them up and we shot them," said Causey, who was never investigated nor charged with any wrongdoing.
Until now, the most infamous war crimes investigation of the Vietnam War was the My Lai massacre in March 1968, during which U.S. soldiers killed as many as 400 Vietnamese civilians. Of the soldiers tried, only Lt. William Calley was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. His term was eventually reduced to 10 years in prison, and he was later paroled in 1975 after serving three-and-a-half years under house arrest.
"The Tiger Force case was the longest war crimes investigation of the Vietnam War," said Sallah. "It was four-and-a-half years. My Lai pales in comparison in terms of the length of time it took to investigate it."
The Army began its investigation into Tiger Force in 1971, four years after the incidents, after a tip from a fellow battalion member who said a Tiger Force soldier had severed the head off an infant to obtain a necklace from the baby's neck.
The Blade obtained the final report written by the Army's own investigators, which concluded that 18 Tiger Force members committed war crimes, including at least three murders.
It was up to Army commanders to decide whether to court-martial any of the individual soldiers. In the end, no soldier was ever prosecuted.
A lead investigator, who asked that his name not be used, told ABCNEWS, "Commanders have final jurisdiction of whether or not to file a case.
"I filed my report with distribution to all the commanders [at the Criminal Investigation Department] and that was the end of their involvement. I don't write an indictment," he said.
Doyle, who himself was investigated for murder and aggravated assault, said he was proud of what he did in Vietnam.
"I was killing them in self-defense," said Doyle. "The way I seen it, because of the fear tonight, tomorrow, the foot mines, the situation."
Doyle, who received numerous decorations for bravery, admitted killing his own Vietnamese translator, a captured North Vietnamese soldier.
"I'm going to trust my men's lives to him? That's something you dream up in Washington, D.C.," said Doyle.
Vietnamese Have Not Forgotten
Some 36 years later in Vietnam, the people who live in the same villages where Tiger Force came through want to know why the U.S. government has never admitted what happened.
The villagers have not forgotten.
Kieu Trac remembers when Tiger Force soldiers rampaged through the tiny hamlet of Hanh Tin. He says 10 elderly farmers were killed by the Americans. Trac hid in his hut until the soldiers left the village, and then he buried the bodies.
All these years later, Trac says he still doesn't understand why the American soldiers massacred civilians in his village. "They were just farmers working in the field. I don't know why the Americans came here. Why?" he asked in Vietnamese.
Hyunh Thi Gioi was trying to seek shelter in a bunker with her 6-year-old son when the Americans came to Hanh Tin. As Gioi fled, carrying her son over her shoulder, she was shot. The bullet tore through her shoulder and hit her son, who died. Gioi still visits her son's grave regularly, lighting incense and trying to make sense of the tragedy.
She shudders when she sees a patch bearing the insignia of Tiger Force, and she points to her arm, remembering the soldiers who wore the same patch — the soldiers who killed her son.
Outside the village of Hanh Tin, Tam Hau, the niece of an elderly carpenter described to ABCNEWS' Mark Litke how her uncle was murdered by a soldier as he prayed for his life.
Carpenter Dao Hue, 68, was shot at close range by Tiger Force soldiers, executed just a mile from the hut he shared with his niece. She said she still remembers the day her uncle was murdered and remembers the rage of the Americans. Hau still visits the unmarked mound of earth where her uncle is buried.
The soldier responsible for killing Hau's uncle, by his own admission, was Tiger Force Unit commander Hawkins, who said the carpenter had been found with a gun and was making noise that could attract enemy soldiers.
"He was standing, hollering, screaming, ranting, raving and at that point I pulled out my .45 and silenced him," Hawkins told ABCNEWS. Other witnesses deny the carpenter had a gun.
The Army investigation cited that incident in recommending Hawkins be prosecuted for murder.
"Whether it be good or bad judgment, I did do what I did and that's all I can do," said Hawkins. "And if I had it happen again, I would more than likely do the same thing."
The people in the village, as well as the government of Vietnam, have called on the United States to account for what happened 36 years ago.
But to date, no U.S. official has explained why charges were never brought despite the military's extensive investigation.
"There was a cover-up," said The Blade's Weiss. "There is no doubt about it."
"We don't know at this point who killed the investigation," said Sallah. "We don't know why no one was charged. We do know it reached the top levels of government."
The Army sent regular reports on the investigation to the Nixon White House between 1971 and 1973, Sallah and Weiss reported. The final decision to keep the case quiet and not prosecute was made in November 1975, when Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, was urging the country to heal from the wounds of Vietnam. It was also the month James Schlesinger resigned as secretary of defense and was replaced by Donald Rumsfeld, who was the youngest secretary of defense in U.S. history.
"The last thing the Ford administration wanted at that point was a Vietnam war crimes trial, something the size of My Lai, because once you court-martial one of these guys … then everything's out of the bag," said Weiss.
Neither Rumsfeld nor Schlesinger would comment on why none of the Tiger Force soldiers were ever prosecuted. A spokesman for Ford said the former president had no comment on the Tiger Force investigation.
The official reason, read to Hawkins and found in Army documents, was that "no beneficial or constructive results would be derived from criminal prosecution." No punitive action of any kind was taken against Hawkins, who rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and retired with an unblemished record. Hawkins says it doesn't matter to him if the Army decides to reopen the case.
"They want to bring it up and have another American brought up as a scapegoat, or do whatever for something that's gone all this time, well then so be it," said Hawkins. "I'm 63. I'm prepared to do whatever they want to do."
As for Doyle, he doesn't think he will be convicted on any of the charges. "I could get found not guilty on temporary insanity on any one of them, because there's no way you can be in that situation and not be temporarily insane," he told ABCNEWS.
ABCNEWS' David Scott, Andrew Morse, EIleen Murphy and Marni Harriman contributed to this report.