BINH DINH PROVINCE, Vietnam — On the morning of Feb. 25, 1969, Platoon Sgt. Roy E. Bumgarner Jr. led a five-man team on a reconnaissance patrol that took them into a rolling landscape of rice fields.
The soldiers crossed paths with an irrigation worker and two teenage boys tending ducklings. The boys carried only bamboo cages and herding sticks, the irrigation worker a hoe.
Bumgarner detained the three Vietnamese and marched them to a secluded spot, where he and one of his men opened fire. Then they searched the bodies, removing identification papers, a watch and a wedding ring.
Next, Bumgarner dragged the bodies close together and told the other soldier to detonate a grenade near the heads.
Afterward, Bumgarner reported that three enemy fighters had been killed in action and led his team back to their base.
The incident, and others detailed in declassified Army records, show how a violent minority within the 173rd Airborne Brigade abused Vietnamese citizens with little or no fear of punishment.
A military court convicted Bumgarner of manslaughter, reduced his rank and cut his pay. But he served no prison time for the killings. He remained in Vietnam and, approximately six months later, reenlisted for another tour.
Troubled PastBumgarner, who remained in the Army until 1981 and died last year, was a bigger-than-life figure at the 173rd Airborne base near the South China Sea.
He had spent 10 troubled years in the Marines before joining the Army. Marine records show that he had been busted down in rank, court-martialed and served brief periods of confinement at California's Camp Pendleton, in the Philippines and in Japan.
Records indicate that in the Army, he pleaded guilty to assault and disorderly conduct in 1961 and was sentenced to three months' confinement. Four years later, he went to Vietnam. There, he earned a reputation as a talented and prolific killer with a competitive zeal for boosting his personal body count.
Anguish and FuryThe news reached Huynh Thi Nay as she walked home from market that morning. A neighbor told her to hurry — that U.S. soldiers had detained two duck-herders and an irrigation worker outside the hamlet.
"I dropped my carrying basket," Huynh said in a recent interview in Giao Hoi 2 Hamlet. Speaking through an interpreter, she said she raced down a footpath through the paddies to where she knew her 17-year-old son, Pham Tho, would be.
"When I reached there, I found a pair of bamboo cages with a flock of young ducks on one side," she said. "I called out 'Tho, Tho,' about three times, but no one replied."
She ran on until she reached a jackfruit tree, where she spotted the teenager's conical hat perched in a branch. His stick and a hoe lay nearby.
The bodies of her son and his two companions were laid out like spokes of a wheel with the feet pointed outward, the bodies riddled with bullets and the heads blown off, according to Army records.
"It became as dark as night. My tears overflowed in both eyes," said Huynh, now 77. "I rushed back and informed the community here. I was running back, crying all the way. My eyes were full of tears, so I could not see my way."
Phan Thi Dan, widow of the irrigation worker, said she handed him her wedding ring for safekeeping when he left for the rice fields that morning. The couple had sold a pig to pay for the ring, and she didn't want to lose it in the pond where she fished for shrimp for their ducks.
An hour or two later, she heard "the rattling sounds of bullets, then one big explosion sound — boom," she said through an interpreter. Not long after, a friend ran to her, shouting that the Americans had shot her husband, Nguyen Dinh, 41.
Phan, now 79, remembers standing frozen for a moment, fishing net in hand. She says she fainted at the sight of the bodies.
When a U.S. Army investigator arrived with a Vietnamese interpreter, Phan picked up rocks to throw at the American. The interpreter stopped her.
"When I get flashbacks, that fit of fury still arises in me," she said.
A Different AccountBumgarner 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.
Official ExplanationOn 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.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times