By Eddie Wong. Posted January 17, 2023.
On the morning of January 31, 1971, over 1,000 people packed into the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in Detroit, MI for the Winter Soldier Investigation, which was organized by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Two inches of snow had fallen and lay frozen, dirty and grey on the ground. By nightfall, the temperature dropped to minus five degrees. Yet, nothing could deter U.S. military veterans and their supporters from going to Detroit for they were driven by a fiery urgency. The U.S military and their allies had been committing war crimes in Vietnam and secretly invaded Laos, but most of the American public knew nothing of these illegal activities or the brutal killing of Vietnamese villagers.
The three-day conference opened with William Crandall, a 26-year-old U.S. Army First Lt. in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade Americal Divison, who spelled out the mission of the hearings:
In the bleak winter of 1776 when the men who had enlisted in the summer were going home because the way was hard and their enlistments were over, Tom Paine wrote, “Those are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis shrink from the service of his country, but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Like the winter soldiers of 1776 who stayed after they had served their time, we veterans of Vietnam know that America is in grave danger. What threatens our country is not Redcoats or even Reds; it is our crimes that are destroying our national unity by separating those of our countrymen who deplore these acts from those of our countrymen who refuse to examine what is being done in America’s name.
The Winter Soldier Investigation is not a mock trial. There will be no phony indictments; there will be no verdict against Uncle Sam. In these three days, over a hundred Vietnam veterans will present straightforward testimony– direct testimony–about acts which are war crimes under international law. Acts which these men have seen and participated in. Acts which are the inexorable result of national policy.
By the end of the conference, 105 U.S. military veterans and 16 civilians, who had served as health workers, social workers, and doctors, spoke on panels that exposed war crimes in the treatment of the South Vietnamese men, women and children and prisoners of war. Several speakers emphasized that the My Lai massacre of March 16, 1968, when 504 South Vietnamese were killed, 173 of whom were children, was not an isolated incident. The testimony of Sgt. Michael McCusker, an infantry reporter/photographer with the 1stMarine Division, was echoed in numerous sickening accounts of U.S military atrocities. Warning: the next section is graphic in its depiction of violence.
I went out with damned near every Marine outfit in all of I Corps from 1st Marine Division and 3rd Marine Division units. And so, these things in the field, the torturing of prisoners, the use of scout dogs in this torture, the Bell Telephone hour as has been described with the field phones, by seeing all of these units, I discovered that no one unit was any worse than another. That this was standard procedure. That it was almost like watching the same film strip continually, time after time after time. Within every unit there was the same prejudice; there was the same bigotry toward Vietnamese. All Vietnamese…
Today I just want to mention a few atrocities of a larger scale that I saw. All three of them were ironically with the same battalion, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. All three atrocities happened in the month of September and October 1966.
Now the first one took place around September 6th or 7th 1966 about ten miles northwest of the Province capital of Tam Ky near the mountains. It was in a pineapple forest and a Marine had just been killed. He had been hit by a sniper and the entire battalion, in revenge, destroyed two entire villages, wiping out everything living, the people (and that was men, women, their children), all their livestock, burning the huts, destroying the paddies, their gardens, their hedgerows, just wiped them out–erased them. They did not exist the moment after the Marines were finished and they might never have existed.
The next instance happened also in the same month of September when a squad of nine men, that was a Chu Lai rifle squad, went into this village. They were supposed to go after what they called a Viet Cong whore. They went into the village and instead of capturing her, they raped her–every man raped her. As a matter of fact, one man said to me later that it was the first time he had ever made love to a woman with his boots on. The man who led the platoon, or the squad, was actually a private. The squad leader was a sergeant, but he was a useless person and he let the private take over his squad. Later he said he took no part in the raid. It was against his morals. So instead of telling his squad not to do it, because they wouldn’t listen to him anyway, the sergeant went into another side of the village and just sat and stared bleakly at the ground, feeling sorry for himself. But at any rate, they raped the girl, and then, the last man to make love to her, shot her in the head. They then rounded up ten villagers, put ’em in a hut (I don’t know how they killed them–grenaded them or shot ’em down), and burned the hut.
They came back to the company area where it was bivouacked for the night while on a regular routine search and destroy mission. I personally came into contact with this when the squad came back, told their CO, who was a lieutenant, and they hastily set back off again towards that village with the lieutenant. I sort of tagged along in the rear and when I got up there they were distributing these bodies that were charred and burned and I asked what these bodies were. They said, “Oh, we were hit by an ambush. These were the people who ambushed, but we got ’em.” Okay, I didn’t want to ask them how they killed them because all the bodies were burned as if they’d been roasted on a spit. There was a tiny little form, that of a child, lying out in the field with straw over its face. It had been clubbed to death.
On the last day of the conference, two Japanese Americans from Los Angeles, Mike Nakayama, a soldier in the First Marine Division, First Battalion, Fifth Marines and Scott Shimabukuro, a soldier in the Third Marine Division, Charlies Battery, 13th Marines, at Khe Sanh, joined African American, Latino, and Native American veterans on the Third World panel. Scott and Mike pointed out the racist backdrop of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the specific racism towards Asian Americans. Here are excerpts from the transcript of the Winter Soldier Investigation:
NAKAYAMA. My name is Mike. I wanted to rap about racism directed against Asians in the military and in Vietnam. First of all, I felt quite a bit of racism before I joined the service, okay, that’s understood. When I got into the service, I experienced amplified racism. As soon as I got off the bus at my boot camp, I was referred to as Ho Chi Minh, which, you know, was…
AUDIENCE. A compliment!
AUDIENCE. Right on! Right on!
NAKAYAMA. Yeah! I can dig it. I was referred to as “Jap” and “gook” constantly through my training. Then I knew I was going to go overseas to fight for this country. I can rap about quite a few instances, right in boot camp, but I’ll just move on to my experiences in Vietnam. While on Vietnam, I was in the infantry, but a few times they let you come back to the rear. Most Marines are allowed to go into PXs without showing an ID, and I was not allowed to go into the PX on a number of occasions with an ID because I was yellow. I was constantly referred to as “gook” in Vietnam also, and, relating this back to the United States, I know a number of my Asian brothers and sisters who are being referred to as “gooks” by returning servicemen, by American people in the Los Angeles area.
The thing that bothered me about this investigation is that it seemed as though people were trying to cover up the issue of racism, which I believe is one of the definite reasons why we are in Vietnam. We talked a lot about atrocities, but the systematic and deliberate genocide of all Asian people through the use of racism cannot be allowed any longer.
AUDIENCE. Take your time, man, you’re doing good. You’re telling the truth.
NAKAYAMA: I’m sure I don’t have to go into detail about the racism and atrocities being committed against Asians, because you’ve been hearing that all week, or since Sunday. But the things that the brothers are relating have been happening in the United States since the Third World people have lived here. Now there’s been a thing on relocation of Vietnamese from their homes to relocation camps. That strikes home pretty close, because my parents and grandparents, who were supposed to be American citizens, were relocated during the Second World War, and that just amplifies the racism that has been coming down in this country. And also, you know about the Indian brothers that this country belongs to. When Evan speaks, he can go into that, how they were robbed. But I want to go into the atrocities against the people here, because the people have been telling you how they treat the Asian brothers and sisters. Now they bring this home with them, and this has a great effect on the Asians here in the United States.
Mike Nakayama added details about his experiences in Vietnam this interview with Eddie Wong and Duane Kubo for Visual Communications’ 50th anniversary exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum in 2019.
Scott Shimabukuro’s testimony at the Winter Soldier hearings elaborated on pervasive racist treatment of the Vietnamese people by the U.S. military.
Before I went into the Marine Corps, I grew up in an all-white and Chicano neighborhood and I encountered a moderate amount of racism; it didn’t bother me much. When I went into the Marine Corps, I thought was going to serve my country and be brave, a Marine and a good American. As I stepped off the bus at UCMD, San Diego, the first words that greeted me were, the DI came up to me and said, “Oh, we have a gook here today in our platoon.” This kind of blew my mind because I thought I was a pretty cool guy myself. But, ever since then, all the during boot camp, I was used as an example of a gook. You go to a class, and they say you’ll be fighting the VC or the NVA. But then the person who is giving the class will see me and he’ll say, “He looks just like that, right there.” Which goes to show that the service draws no lines, you know, in their racism. It’s not just against South Vietnamese or the North Vietnamese. It’s against the Asian, as a people, all over the world…
But an incident of racism is the aspect of racism against Asian women, in particular. They are only a sexual object. You hear about how the girl can really, you know, do a good thing over in Japan or in Okinawa, or Korea, or Thailand. Wherever they go on R & R, they go to these countries where they’re all Asians. This causes a great amount of distress among Asian women, because they are thought of as objects. An instance of racism that I encountered was when, in Vietnam, I desired to marry a Vietnamese citizen, a National. She said it would be no problem on her part, but that I would have to find out what I would have to go through to gain permission to marry her. There’s a chain of command in the military when you start on your sergeant, the next step up above you. I went to my sergeant and told him what I wanted to do. He said I shouldn’t marry this girl because she was a gook, which struck me as kind of funny because I was a gook also. But, besides this, he said, “She’s not civilized, you know. You’ll be so embarrassed with her when you get her to the United States that you’ll want to get rid of her because she’s a savage. She doesn’t know how to live like a human.” Well, you know, I just told the dude where to go and went to my gunnery sergeant; and I got the same from my gunnery sergeant, except he told me to come back in a week. I came back in a week and the same thing happened.
Finally, when I got to my CO, he told me that there was a waiting period. And I said, “Well, how long is the waiting period?” He had my record book in front of him, and on it was my rotation date which was in approximately two months. Well, he set my waiting period for three months, so that by the time I got permission to marry this girl, I would be in Los Angeles.
The Winter Soldier Investigation was covered extensively by the alternative press but ignored by mainstream media even though CBS News had a film crew on hand. Sen. Mark Hatfield, a prominent critic of U.S. policy in Vietnam, was alarmed by the allegations of U.S. war crimes and had the entire testimony read into the Congressional Record on April 22, 1971. An independent film collective compiled their footage into the Winter Soldier film, which was released in 1972 and re-released in 2005. The film can be streamed for free via Kanopy, a service which is available through many public libraries.
Scott Shimabukuro and Mike Nakayama continued their anti-war work in Los Angeles for many years and formed Asian Movement for Military Outreach along with Nick Nagatani, Kenji Kudo, Chris Taga, and non-vet Mike Yanagita, who did draft counseling. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Asian Veterans Against the War, formed as well. A detailed account of organizing among Asian American Vietnam War veterans, including the leadership role of Pat Sumi, can be found in Simeon Man’s book Soldiering through Empire (University of California Press, 2018), which received this thorough and excellent review by Wesley Atwell in Society & Space.
Fifty-two years have passed since the Winter Soldier hearings in Detroit, and it’s mainly the boomer generation that recalls the Vietnam War in the fuzzy haze of all that happened in their youth. Yet, the trauma that the war inflicted on the Vietnamese people and Cambodians, Laotians, and others remains as the removal of unexploded ordinances and addressing the poisoning of the land and people by Agent Orange continues decades later. The military veterans and civilian personnel who testified about U.S. war crimes served the cause of truth and justice and deserve our admiration and respect.
Additional note re: the Full Transcript of the Winter Soldier Investigation
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