On 25 February 1969, near LZ English in Binh Dinh Province, Platoon Sergeant Roy Bumgarner (HHC, 173rd Airborne Brigade) and SP4 James Rodarte (Company E, 2/503, 173rd Airborne Brigade) detained three Vietnamese men (Nguyen Dinh, Nguyen Kinh, and Phan Tho). Bumgarner and Rodarte shot the detainees at close range, then Bumgarner planted several weapons on the bodies before dropping a fragmentation grenade near their heads to make it look like they had been killed in combat.
Rodarte testified that he and Bumgarner first encountered a woman in the fields, searched her, and let her go when they didn't find anything incriminating. They yelled to get the attention of other Vietnamese farmers working in the rice paddies, and when it looked like they were going to flee, fired over their heads. The group included an older child, who Rodarte said Bumgarner sent away. They took the men away for questioning, with Bumgarner in the lead.
Meeting two other soldiers (Thomas Dvorak and Gilberto Carrasco), Rodarte said that Bumgarner had the detainees sit on the ground, and asked Rodarte if he was ready. When he said yes, Bumgarner started firing his M-16 at the prisoners. At his insistence, Rodarte also fired toward the ground. Fearing that Bumgarner would attack him for not shooting the prisoners, Rodarte changed magazines and alternately fired at the ground and in the air above them. They then searched the bodies, taking paperwork, a ring, and a watch. Bumgarner arranged the bodies, planted weapons, and dropped the grenade to obscure their identities. In an affidavit, Rodarte stated that he kept the ring and gave the watch to a friend, but Bumgarner turned over the paperwork for disposal.
Charles Dobbs, who witnessed the aftermath, testified that he found civilian and ARVN ID cards on the victims, and was told to burn them. He kept one of the IDs and photographs found with the bodies to turn them over to proper authorities. Dobbs also claimed that the weapons (and 81mm mortar bomb, B-41 rocket, Chinese hand grenade, and a pistol belt) planted on the victims were captured on a patrol in December 1968 - Bumgarner had kept them because they might be useful in the future.
Both enlisted men were charged with premeditated murder. The courts-martial exonerated Rodarte, but convicted Bumgarner of manslaughter. Bumgarner was reduced in rank to E-1 and forfeiture of $97.00 per month for twenty-four months.
This case is probably nothing unusual on its own, even in the ruling of the resulting court-martial. What surprised me was what happened with the appellate ruling, which the case file included. Bumgarner's conviction and reduction were upheld by the Military Court of Review, but the forfeiture of pay was reduced to only six months because six months into the sentence, he was allowed to reenlist. This added a couple of wrinkles to the case. First, Army regulations only allowed forfeitures of more than two-thirds of base pay when the sentence also included confinement or discharge. Second, by regulation, the duration of forfeitures of lesser proportions of base pay was terminated at the start of a new enlistment period. So, by allowing Bumgarner to reenlist, the Army inadvertently reduced his sentence.
Other interesting tidbits related to the case:
- Bumgarner received the Soldiers' Medal for rescuing aircrew from a burning helicopter. That was witnessed by LTC Anthony B. Herbert, who called him the best sergeant he'd met in twenty years of service. Herbert was also the Battalion's commanding officer who preferred charges against Bumgarner and Rodarte. After the Article 32 investigation, those charges were endorsed by BG John W. Barnes, who believed that they warranted a dishonorable discharge from the Army.
- MACV paid solatium payments to the victim's families in the amount of $ VN 12,000 each on 27 February 1969.
- 173rd Airborne Brigade provided coffins for the burial of the victims.
- The Executive Officer and S-5 of the 173rd Airborne Brigade personally expressed their condolences to the families on 27 February 1969.
- MACV also provided concrete for the construction of grave markers.
- In March 1969, a local bridge was repaired.
- On 28 February, the brigade S-5 visited the victim's families to explain the process of the Article 32 hearing.