Phan, now 79, remembers standing frozen for a moment, fishing net in hand. She says she fainted at the sight of the bodies.
"When I get flashbacks, that fit of fury still arises in me," she said.
A Different Account
Bumgarner told an Army investigator that his platoon had fired at the Vietnamese because they were running.
"Before we approached the bodies, we threw about 4 or 5 frags at them just to be on the safe side," he said, according to the investigator's notes, referring to fragmentation grenades. Bumgarner said that a search of the bodies turned up no personal effects, but that he and his soldiers recovered a grenade, a rocket and a mortar round nearby.
Spc. 4 James C. Rodarte, one of Bumgarner's men, told a different story. In a sworn statement, he said the Vietnamese were unarmed and were not running.
He said he did not obey Bumgarner's order to shoot the three civilians, but instead fired into the air and the ground. The victims were dead when he dropped the grenade near their heads, Rodarte said.
Bumgarner pulled several weapons out of a carrying case and planted them near the bodies, Rodarte said.
"He said not to say anything other than that we made contact and saw them running, and fired on them," Rodarte said. "He said don't make a statement, that we had everybody on our side and we could get out of it."
Rodarte was wearing Phan's wedding ring when the investigator interviewed him. He said he kept it, along with a watch that belonged to Pham Tho. Rodarte recently declined to answer The Times' questions.
The two soldiers were court-martialed on charges of premeditated murder.
Rodarte, then 20, was acquitted. Bumgarner, then 38, was convicted of manslaughter.
The judge reduced his rank to private and ordered him to forfeit $97 a month in pay for two years. The period later was reduced to six months.
On March 31, 1972, Peter Berenbak opened the New York Times to find a photo of Bumgarner, his arm around a Vietnamese child, accompanying a feature article about Americans who considered Vietnam their home.
He fired off a letter to the editor.
"Sgt. Bumgarner is a convicted murderer," he wrote. "So I feel a responsibility to speak for Sgt. Bumgarner's victims and ask the Army why this man is still in Vietnam?"
Berenbak, now 62 and a sales executive in New Jersey, was serving in a civil affairs unit at the same base as the 173rd Airborne when the killings occurred. He was sent to the hamlet and saw the bodies lying on a poncho liner, awaiting transport to the base, he said in a recent interview.
"I can still see the old man insisting that the Americans killed them, and still remember my initial reaction: 'No, Americans don't do things like this.' "
Berenbak sent a copy of his letter to the editor to then-Rep. Peter Frelinghuysen Jr. (R-N.J.), who forwarded it to the office of the secretary of the Army, requesting an explanation.
Col. Murray Williams, deputy director of discipline and drug policies, replied on April 21, 1972. He noted that the Army needed infantrymen in Vietnam, and Bumgarner had volunteered.
"The type of court-martial or the offense for which he was court-martialed does not automatically restrict his eligibility for reenlistment," Williams wrote. "Thus, Sgt. Bumgarner, although convicted by a court-martial, for which he paid a debt, is contributing positively in his chosen profession."
Times researcher Janet Lundblad contributed to this report.