There Is Yet More to Casualties of War

Page 3 of 4

Shortly after the medical team examined the body, arrests were made in what the army has always referred to as "the incident on Hill 192."

First there was Sergeant Meserve. Then there was Corporal Clark, who stabbed the woman. Finally, there were the brothers, Rafe and Manuel, from San Antonio, Texas. Rafe and Manuel backed up Eriksson's story. They said they had only gone along with the rape to maintain harmony within the group.

Meserve denied the killing. He said he only had been fooling when he told the men they could rape the woman and kill her. Clark pleaded innocent, too.

All four courts-martial took place in 1967 in a thirty- by thirty-foot building with a tin roof in Vietnam. Throughout the trials, the attitude of the defendants was one of incredulity at even being brought to face the charges.

Meserve was characterized by every witness, including his officers, as a genuine war hero.

His lieutenant called him the best soldier he had ever seen. "I give him a max rating as a soldier," the lieutenant testified.

Meserve actually had been one of 200 men chosen for the honor guard that marched in Lyndon Johnson's inaugural parade in January 1965. The lieutenant was asked, "Do you think a murderer should be retained in the United States Army?"

"Not until he serves his sentence," came the answer. "Then, after rehabilitation, I think there's a difference."

"Do you think a man found guilty of murder should be punished?"
"Yes, but knowing Meserve as an individual, I would accept him back in the unit. Yes, sir."

Other extenuating circumstances were offered.
Meserve was only twenty and had already served a year in Vietnam. He had been brought up in poverty in Buffalo, New York. He was a lapsed Catholic who had only gone through the ninth grade. He had worked in a cannery before going into the service and had managed to save $5,000.

"There's one thing that stands out about this case," Meserve's lawyer told the court. "It did not occur in the United States. Indeed, there are some who might say it did not occur in civilization."

Incredibly, Meserve was found not guilty of rape but guilty of murder. His original sentence was ten years.

Clark, who joked that he had gutted the woman three times with his bayonet, was sentenced to life for murder.

Of the two brothers, one got eight years and the other, fifteen.
All the sentences were for hard labor at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

The dead woman's name was Mao. Several days after she was taken away, her mother convinced a South Vietnam army unit to help her search for her daughter.

The search was unfruitful but Viet Cong agents saw the mother consorting with the enemy. They killed her a few days later. Not long after that, Mao's sister also was killed by the Viet Cong.

Someone joked to Eriksson: "Between us and Charlie, we've taken care of that whole family." Eriksson's actions were deplored by all other soldiers with whom he came in contact. They thought of him as a coward or possibly a homosexual. They believed it was pointless to ruin the careers of good soldiers.

"Why throw good lives after bad?" they kept asking Eriksson. "How could you know the dead girl really wasn't a V.C. spy?"

Eriksson had originally thought he had been assigned to a squad of psychopaths. But the reactions of his fellow soldiers in Vietnam told him that most every enlisted man he met seemed to have the same mentality.

Eriksson spent the rest of his yearlong tour in Vietnam as a carpenter and a military policeman. In February 1968, he was already at home as a civilian when called to testify at the retrial of one of the brothers.

A lawyer protested that the prisoner's rights had not been read to him properly before he was arrested. Because of that, his confession was inadmissible. He was acquitted.

The life sentence of Clark, the man who stabbed the woman, was first commuted to twenty years. Then it was reduced to eight and that made him eligible for parole after half that time. Clark told the court he was interested in going to college and majoring in philosophy or literature.

The second brother went to court on the grounds that his confession was tainted. His sentence was subsequently shortened to 22 months, and it was decided he'd already served enough time to be released.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Fitzpatrick