By the mid-1960s, the Mekong Delta, with its verdant paddies and canal-side hamlets, was the rice bowl of South Vietnam and home to nearly 6 million Vietnamese. It was also one of the most important revolutionary strongholds during the Vietnam War. Despite its military significance, State Department officials were “deeply concerned” about introducing a large number of US troops into the densely populated area, fearing that it would be impossible to limit civilian carnage.
Yet in late 1968, as peace talks in Paris got under way in earnest, US officials launched a “land rush” to pacify huge swaths of the Delta and bring the population under the control of the South Vietnamese government in Saigon. To this end, from December 1968 through May 1969, a large-scale operation was carried out by the Ninth Infantry Division, with support from nondivision assets ranging from helicopter gunships to B-52 bombers. The offensive, known as Operation Speedy Express, claimed an enemy body count of 10,899 at a cost of only 267 American lives. Although guerrillas were known to be well armed, the division captured only 748 weapons.
In late 1969 Seymour Hersh broke the story of the 1968 My Lai massacre, during which US troops slaughtered more than 500 civilians in Quang Ngai Province, far north of the Delta. Some months later, in May 1970, a self-described “grunt” who participated in Speedy Express wrote a confidential letter to William Westmoreland, then Army chief of staff, saying that the Ninth Division’s atrocities amounted to “a My Lay each month for over a year.” In his 1976 memoir A Soldier Reports, Westmoreland insisted, “The Army investigated every case [of possible war crimes], no matter who made the allegation,” and claimed that “none of the crimes even remotely approached the magnitude and horror of My Lai.” Yet he personally took action to quash an investigation into the large-scale atrocities described in the soldier’s letter.
I uncovered that letter and two others, each unsigned or signed only “Concerned Sergeant,” in the National Archives in 2002, in a collection of files about the sergeant’s case that had been declassified but forgotten, launching what became a years-long investigation. Records show that his allegations–of helicopter gunships mowing down noncombatants, of airstrikes on villages, of farmers gunned down in their fields while commanders pressed relentlessly for high body counts–were a source of high-level concern. A review of the letter by a Pentagon expert found his claims to be extremely plausible, and military officials tentatively identified the letter writer as George Lewis, a Purple Heart recipient who served with the Ninth Division in the Delta from June 1968 through May 1969. Yet there is no record that investigators ever contacted him. Now, through my own investigation–using material from four major collections of archival and personal papers, including confidential letters, accounts of secret Pentagon briefings, unpublished interviews with Vietnamese survivors and military officials conducted in the 1970s by Newsweek reporters, as well as fresh interviews with Ninth Division officers and enlisted personnel–I have been able to corroborate the sergeant’s horrific claims. The investigation paints a disturbing picture of civilian slaughter on a scale that indeed dwarfs My Lai, and of a cover-up at the Army’s highest levels. The killings were no accident or aberration. They were instead the result of command policies that turned wide swaths of the Mekong Delta into “free-fire zones” in a relentless effort to achieve a high body count. While the carnage in the Delta did not begin or end with Speedy Express, the operation provides a harsh new snapshot of the abject slaughter that typified US actions during the Vietnam War.