WASHINGTON — Julian Ewell, a retired Army lieutenant general who was a highly decorated paratrooper in World War II and who oversaw a major combat operation in Vietnam that critics inside and outside the military said killed thousands of civilians, died of pneumonia July 27 at Inova Fairfax Hospital. He was 93 and lived at The Fairfax retirement community at Fort Belvoir, Va.
Ewell held two top command positions in Vietnam, as commander of the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta and later as commander of II Field Force, the largest Army combat command in Vietnam.
Under his command between December 1968 and May 1969, the 9th Infantry Division launched a large-scale offensive, Operation Speedy Express, that aimed to quickly eliminate enemy troops with overwhelming force. The division claimed 10,899 enemies were killed during the operation, but only 748 weapons were seized — a disparity, investigators said, that could indicate that not all the dead were combatants.
The Army inspector general wrote in 1972, “While there appears to be no means of determining the precise number of civilian casualties incurred by US forces during Operation Speedy Express, it would appear that the extent of these casualties was indeed substantial, and that a fairly solid case can be constructed to show that civilian casualties may have amounted to several thousand (between 5,000 and 7,000).”
That report was recently revealed by journalists Deborah Nelson and Nick Turse, who reported in 2008 that the vast scale of civilian deaths was the equivalent of “a My Lai a month.” My Lai, the massacre of nearly 500 Vietnamese by American troops in 1968, had scandalized the nation, deeply embarrassed the Army and undercut support for the war.
Turse described Ewell’s Delta operation in a December article in the Nation magazine. Nelson in her book, “The War Behind Me” (2008), noted that after the operation ended and Ewell was at II Field Force, he “took notice of the civilian killings” and issued an order that such deaths would not be tolerated.
“From my research, the bulk of the evidence suggests that Julian Ewell presided over an atrocity of astonishing proportions,” Turse said in an interview Tuesday. “The Army had a lot of indications that something extremely dark went on down in the Delta from a variety of sources,” but it opted not to vigorously pursue the allegations.
Nevertheless, the 2008 revelations were not the first indication of trouble in the operation. A sergeant serving under Ewell sent a series of anonymous letters in 1970 about the high number of civilian deaths to top Army commanders. Newsweek magazine investigated and published a truncated report. A Washington Monthly article gave an eyewitness account of helicopter gunships strafing water buffalo and children in the Delta.
Soldiers spoke out against the deaths, some in a congressional hearing, and Col. David Hackworth, who served in the division, wrote in a 2001 newspaper column, “My division in the Delta, the 9th, reported killing more than 20,000 Viet Cong in 1968 and 1969, yet less than 2,000 weapons were found on the ‘enemy’ dead. How much of the ‘body count’ consisted of civilians?”
Ewell was known in Vietnam for his attention to the enemy “body count,” considered an indication of success in the war. Subordinates noted that he never ordered them to kill civilians but was insistent about increasing the body count.