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DOUG’S NCIS VIET NAM CASE FILES — DEATH IN TU CAU

In the aftermath of the 1968 My Lai massacre, there was considerable sensitivity about incidents when Vietnamese civilians became caught up in the war and were injured or killed.  So when the 1st Marine Division chief of staff received word that peasant women and children had been killed in their home during an unexplained attack by Marines on a night patrol in a village called Tu Cau, he requested an immediate investigation.  NCIS Special Agent Lance Arnold was designated as control agent, joined by every available Danang agent then in the office.  Grabbing weapons and crime scene equipment, they hurriedly drove south on Route One to Tu Cau, sharing the road with Marine tanks and towed artillery.

The Marines at Tu Cau were deployed to guard a critical bridge.  They were also ordered to patrol surrounding villages and rice paddies to subdue enemy Viet Cong extortion tax collecting and assassinations.  When agents arrived, patrol members from the night before had been placed apart from each other to prevent communication.  Preliminary interviews were conducted as was an examination of the crime scene, a modest nearby farm house.  Sadly conditioned by years of conflict, Vietnamese farmers were stoic and remarkably cooperative with agents and their Vietnamese interpreter.  It soon became apparent that the incident was a terrible accident: two Marine squads, unaware of the presence of the other, had clashed at the farmhouse each believing they had encountered an armed enemy squad.  In the darkness, they exchanged rifle fire and threw fragmentation grenades, some of them into the home underground defensive bunker where women and children were sheltering.  All were killed.  There were no Marine casualties.

It was my sad duty later in the day to inventory the dismembered remains of the deceased, all packed into a simple red wooden casket.  This was my introduction to the effects of modern weapons of war.

Marines were subsequently disciplined in courts martial, not with murder but with offenses relating to poor leadership.

Agents en route to Tu Cau from DaNang shared the crowded road with Vietnamese civilians as well as US Marines conducting operations in the area.  Here a Marine amphibious tractor loaded with riflemen heads north on Route One.

1st Division Marines built defenses to protect the critical Tu Cau bridge and protect surrounding villages.

Two Vietnamese women approach the farmhouse where the attack occurred.

Lead agent Lance Arnold assesses the crime scene in the farmhouse.  Note bullet and shrapnel strikes on the walls.  An exhausted Marine lieutenant sits in the window opening.

Vietnamese witnesses were interviewed by Special Agents Ed Hemphill (left) and Frank Orrantia.  Lance Arnold is seen entering the room.

Father of four young sons Special Agent Larry Coleman comforts a young Vietnamese boy, resplendent in his USMC utility cover.