Samuel Koster, 86; General Charged In My Lai Killings

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 10, 2006

Samuel W. Koster Sr., 86, the general who was the highest-ranking officer charged in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, died of renal failure Jan. 23 at his Annapolis home.

Gen. Koster was in command of the Army's largest and northernmost division, Americal, on March 16, 1968, when troops led by Capt. Ernest Medina and Lt. William Calley killed hundreds of civilians in a South Vietnamese village also known as Pinkville.

No official count was made, but soldiers and investigators later estimated that 350 to 500 old men, women and children were slaughtered by grenades, rifles, bayonets and machine guns. Some were piled in ditches that became mass graves; others burned to death in their huts. No Viet Cong were discovered in the village, no shots were fired in opposition and no U.S. troops were wounded. To many Americans at home, the atrocity marked the moral nadir of the Vietnam War and a pivotal event in opposition to the war.

Gen. Koster was not on the ground at My Lai, but he flew over the village while the soldiers moved in and afterward. He later testified that he believed only about 20 civilians had died, although he also said he was told about "wild shooting" and a confrontation between ground troops and a helicopter pilot, later identified as Hugh Thompson, who tried to stop the shooting of civilians.

Subordinates testified that Gen. Koster broke into a radio conversation shortly after the incident and countermanded an order to conduct a count of the dead. He later ordered subordinates to file reports on the incident, but they were incomplete, and one was lost.

Those reports were never sent to higher authorities, as military rules required, until a discharged GI, Ron Ridenhour, wrote a three-page letter to the Pentagon and triggered a secret investigation. Journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story to the public 20 months after the massacre.

Gen. Koster left Vietnam in June 1968 to become superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In March 1970, Army prosecutors charged Gen. Koster and 13 other officers with dereliction of duty and failure to follow orders.

The general's announcement of his resignation from West Point was met with a standing ovation for the general from the 3,700 cadets and a march in homage to him. Cadets credited him with ending some of the worst excesses of hazing there.

Gen. Koster was reassigned to Fort Meade, where he served as a deputy to the officer who later decided to drop all charges against him because of a lack of evidence and Koster's record of service.

At the time, Army Secretary Stanley Resor conceded that "a great deal of information suggesting that a possible tragedy of serious proportions had occurred at My Lai was either known to General Koster or was readily available in the operational logs and other records of the division."

After a public outcry about the charges being dropped, Gen. Koster was demoted a rank to brigadier general and stripped of his Distinguished Service Medal, and a letter of censure was placed in his file. The only soldier convicted in the deaths was Calley.

Gen. Koster later served at Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground as deputy commander of Army testing and retired in 1973.

In 1982, a retired Gen. Koster told a Washington Post reporter: "Getting into Vietnam in the first place was where we made a mistake. Before you fight on the continent of Asia, you ought to have an overwhelming reason to be there, and I don't think we had one."

Gen. Koster was born in West Liberty, Iowa, on Dec. 29, 1919, and graduated from West Point in 1942. He fought in the infantry in Europe during World War II, rising to lieutenant colonel and battalion commander by the age of 26, and he helped to liberate a Nazi death camp.

He served as a tactical officer at West Point in the late 1940s, and during the Korean War directed the Eighth Army's guerrilla warfare operations. He also served in Paris and at the Pentagon before going to Vietnam. Among his military awards were the Silver Star, Legion of Merit and Bronze Star.

After his military retirement, Gen. Koster worked for 12 years as an executive vice president for the power transmission division of Koppers and Hanson Industries in Baltimore, overseeing power plants in the United States and Canada.

His three sons are Army officers, and two graduated from West Point.

Survivors include his wife of 63 years, Cherie Koster of Annapolis; five children, Col. Sam Koster Jr. of Burke, Susanne Henley-Ross of Annapolis and Kent Island, Nancy Sroka of Crofton, Col. Bob Koster of Vienna and Col. Jack Koster of Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.; 15 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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