US Vietnam-era deserter arrested

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A US Marine who absconded from his base more than 36 years ago as a protest against the Vietnam war has been arrested and may face a court martial.

Ernest Johnson Jr, 55, fled his camp in North Carolina in 1969 after becoming disenchanted with the war in Vietnam after the 1968 My Lai massacre (photo left). 

Using the surname McQueen, he spent the next three decades in a number of states as a regular husband and father.

Mr Johnson, who suffers from prostate cancer, could face a jail sentence and a mandatory discharge from the Marines.

“They were hot on my tail a few times, and they were hot on my tail this time,” Mr Johnson told the Star-Telegram newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas, where he was arrested.

“I could have run this time, but I said, ‘No, my running days are over with.'”…

     

No ‘campaign’

Mr Johnson said he began to doubt the wisdom of joining the Marines after news emerged in 1969 of a now-infamous massacre of Vietnamese civilians at the village of My Lai.

Reports from returning soldiers confirmed his unease.

“I just decided I didn’t want to be a part of killing anybody. That’s about as plain as I can say it,” Mr Johnson said.

A spokesman for the US Marines said Mr Johnson could face a maximum jail term of three years and a dishonourable discharge if found guilty.

A decision has not yet been taken on whether to transport him back to Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina.

However, the US military has previously dropped charges against similar deserters, instead giving them a less-than-honourable discharge.

Captain Jay Delarosa denied the arrest was part of a campaign to send messages to modern-day Marines.

“The purpose in apprehending such individuals is… simply an end result of a decision he made long ago.”

A brief My-Lai History

Thirty-eight years ago, on March 16,1968, a company of US Army combat soldiers from the Americal Division swept into the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, rounded up the 500-plus unarmed residents, all women, children and old men, and executed them in cold blood, Nazi-style.  No weapons were found in the village, and the whole operation only took 4 hours.

Although there was a massive cover-up of this operation (which involved a young up-and-coming US Army Major named Colin Powell), those who orchestrated this business-as-usual war zone event did not deny the details of the slaughter when the case came to trial several years later.  But the story did eventually filter back to the Western news media, thanks to a couple of courageous witnesses and journalists whose consciences were still intact.  An Army court-marital trial eventually convened against some of the soldiers, including Lt. William Calley and Company C commanding officer, Ernest Medina.

According to many of the soldiers in Company C, Medina ordered the killing of every living thing in My Lai, including, obviously, innocent noncombatant men, women, children and even farm animals.  Lt. Calley was charged in the murder of 109 civilians. In his defense statement he stated that he had been taught to hate all Vietnamese, even children, who, he was told, were very good at planting mines.

The massacre was documented by many of Medina‘s soldiers and recorded by photographers, but the Army still tried to cover it up.  The cases were tried in military courts with juries of Army officers, which eventually either dropped the charges against all of the defendants (except Calley) or acquitted those accused. Medina and all the others who were among the killing soldiers at My Lai that day went free, and only Calley was convicted of the murders of  at least 20 civilians. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for his crime, but, under pressure from patriotic pro-war Americans, President Nixon pardoned him within weeks of the verdict.

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