STAN LUCZKO knew all about the courtmartial of Breaker Morant even without seeing the movie. The same thing happened to him, the only difference was that the U.S. Marines didn't execute Luczko, they sentenced him to life imprisonment at hard labor.
Morant and his Australian compatriots shot prisoners in the Boer War. Luczko and his squad shot Vietnamese civilians in the hills west of Chu Lai. At both trials, the issue was this: In a remote guerrilla war where the enemy wears no uniform and plays by no rules, where ambiguous orders come from deskbound officers more attuned to home-front politics than the realities of death and fear, where does combat end and murder begin?
Luczko was the all-American boy until Sept. 22, 1966. On that day, he led a squad on patrol through hostile villages, looking for VC. They shot an old woman and a man, and somebody cut the man's ear off. Stan Luczko, marine, volunteer, candidate for officers' school, Marine Corps lifer, was tried as a war criminal, one of the first of the Vietnam conflict, and he was convicted.
When I saw him last, in 1968, he was being taken away in handcuffs to Portsmouth Naval Prison, leaving his parents weeping softly in a tiny courtroom at Quantico Marine base. Released after his sentence was reduced on appeal, he is now a fireman in the small Massachusetts city where he grew up.
No ghosts from the paddies and hootches haunt Luczko's life today. Like the Australian Morant, he took his punishment without remorse, knowing that in war troops kill people. He just had a "difference of opinion" with his superiors over whether he killed the wrong ones. He has a wife and two kids and a small house that always needs work. In a town where old furniture factories are bombs of glue and varnish and amateurs are installing wood stoves to beat New England oil bills, a fireman has other things on his mind. He thinks his court-martial was symptomatic of a war effort that undermined itself by undercutting the troops, but he is not bitter about the Marine Corps that stripped him of his stripes and sent him to prison for doing what he thought he had to do.
"Why should I be angry at the Marine Corps?" he said. "I can't be angry at the entire Corps because of the decision of a few people. It was just a few people who decided to lay this off on us." Luczko is not an introspective man; it surprised him that somebody would call from Washington and ask him to talk about Vietnam and the Corps and military justice. The intonationof his voice hardly changes when he says, "I heard only eight or 10 of all the guys I was in boot camp with are still alive." He says it as if no one were to blame, certainly not the Marine Corps.
In the Boer War of 1899-1902, the Boers, ancestors of the Afrikaners, could not match the British and the Austrailians in conventional combat, so they resorted to guerrilla tactics and terrorism. The British rounded up farm families and put them in camps, and they developed fortified blockhouses that were much like the strategic hamlets of Vietnam.
As depicted in the film, they made an example of Morant and his compatriots to create the political conditions for a negotiated settlement. It didn't matter that the Austrailians were driven by fear and goaded by the mutilation of a colleague; they were expendable, and the officers of the court understood that a guilty verdict was imperative. Prosecution witnesses were granted immunity in exchange for their testimony, people the defense wanted to question were made unavailable and the press was barred from the court.
"It all sounds very familiar," said Luczko. He smiled without effort, his hand wrapped around a glass of iced tea. At the age of 35, he is a gentle, soft-spoken man, a bit overweight now, grateful for his steady job after years of irregular work, at ease showing a guest the new paneling and brickwork he installed himself, patient as his wife Margaret chatters about children and school.
Off duty from the firehouse, he was relaxing on a hot, drowsy afternoon, sipping his tea and smoking menthol cigarettes in a living room where the big television set is broken and they can't afford to fix it, but the cover on the couch is new because a relative runs an upholstery shop. With his blond hair falling over one eye, Luczko seems as comfortable as a slipper in the life of small-town America, in the kind of place where neighbors enter without knocking and every house is full of children. His manner evokes the altar boy and crossing guard of his school years; nothing suggests the half-crazed killer that Vietnam caused him to be.
He came out of months of combat without a scratch, except maybe on his soul. While other veterans of Vietnam are living with scars and burns and missing limbs and the lingering effects of defoliants, Stan Luczko lives the peaceful life of husband and father, a life built on his family, his job, and his house.
His wife, his children, his neighbors and his boss all know what happened to him, but nobody talks about it much. The incident that sent Stan Luczko to prison, cost him his corporal stripes and his freedom and left his aged father tearfully pleading with the Marine Corps to spare "the last of the Luczkos," has receded into memory, like the chicken pox. What interests him now is fire prevention.
"You see this here?" he said, pointing to the spot where he ran the pipe from the living room wood stove through the wall. "A lot of people do this job themselves and they let that pipe touch wood. That wood gets hot in these old houses and up they go. I've got at least 10 inches between this pipe and any wood."
The whole house is heated by wood now. Luczko cuts the lumber himself, filling up some of the time he has on his hands since a local dairy shut down and he lost his second job fixing its trucks.
He rewired the little house himself when he converted the attic into a bedroom for his daughter kathy, 10. He knew how to do it because he's a licensed electrician. It took him four years to learn that trade -- four years in which he got no help under the GI bill because of his bad conduct discharge -- but he gave it up for the fire department because "the department is steady work. The guys working as electricians, they're having to go to New Hampshire, all over, and I wanted a steady job." t
Luczko enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school. He signed up for a four-year hitch. It was 1964; he was 18. "We didn't know anything about Vietnam," he said. "Not until the next year," when the big U.S. buildup began with the Marine landing outside Danang. Early in 1966, his number came up and he was sent to Chu Lai, a big base on the beautiful, fearsome coast between Danang and Quangngai.
Those were terrible times for American combat troops in Vietnam -- relentless heat, death, loss, pain, fear and frustration, and then more of the same until they went home, in uniform or in a body bag. "We went inland, we patrolled the villages, we went on operations up near the DMZ, wherever they wanted us," Luczko recalls. "I was on convoy duty for a while, escorting trucks up and down the highway. That wasn't bad duty."
It was still early in the war, before William Calley and My Lai. Americans still thought it was unthinkable for American troops to kill civilians and mutilate bodies; the horror was not yet routine.
By September, Luczko was a corporal and a squad leader in K Company, Third Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, First Marine Division. When his squad set out that September morning, he was on his 52d combat patrol without holiday or R and R. He and his men were, he said at his trial, "pretty well beat into the ground" and had been getting only four hours sleep a night.
They were more firghtened and angry than usual that day because two marines at a nearby outpost had ben captured, tortured and mutilated the night before and left to die in the company area. "They died," Luczko says now, "because some lieutenant wouldn't give them any illumination rounds, and they were running around trying to figure out what was going on."
In a nameless and nearly deserted hamlet -- the kind of place that every point man in the war feared and hated for its mines and booby traps -- they encountered an old woman, and when she did not respond to Luczko's shouted commands, they mowed her down, Luczko firing a .45-caliber automatic revolver the others using automatic rifles. A few minutes later, they killed a man, and one of the marines took an ear as a trophy.
It was never explained at the court-martial, and Luczko says he still does not know, who complained to his superiors and started the legal case. "All I ever heard was that some Vietnamese civilians had lodged a complaint, but supposedly tghis was a known VC area. I don't know who it was."
Four marines were courtmartialed and convicted on murder charges. Two were sentenced to 10 years in prison, one to 25 years. Luczko, tried in a closed session at Danang from which reporters were excluded, was found guilty of premeditated murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment at hart labor.
"We were supposed to carry our weapons unloaded on patrol," Luczko recalls. "I think I probably got in trouble with the brass because I wouldn't do that. I was the one who had to lead the men into those villages, and I wasn't going to take them in there without ammo. This was way out on the defense perimeter, we were the only ones out there."
They had orders, he said, "to open fire if suspected VC didn't halt on command or if they took direct hostile action. But they [the VC] had automatic weapons. If you had to stop and load, you'd find half your squad lying on the ground shot. We weren't trained to be babysitters."
In February 1968, a Naval Review Board overturned the convictionm, partly on the grounds that the presiding officer had failed to instruct the court to consider Luckzo's mental condition at the time of the incident. Luczko had been returned to the United States as a prisoner, so his second court-martial was held at Quantico that May.
By that time, the Tet Offensive had turned American public opinion against the war. President Lyndon Johnson had already announced that he would not seek reelection. the My Lai massacre had occurred, but it had not yet been made public, and the court-martial of a marine for killing Vietnamese civilians was still news. The Washington papers and the wire services covered the story.
They prosecution said the killing of the woman was murder; the defense said it was justified in the combat conditions of the time and place. Two of the men under Luczko's command, testifying under the protection of immunity from prosecution said the woman had done nothing threatening, that there were no weapons in the village, and that Luczko never said anything to the woman before shooting her as she squatted defenselessly before him.
One of the prosecution witnesses admitted on cross-examination that he had previously lied under oath, that he had arranged the lie in consultation with other squad members while Luczko was incommunicado in the "sweat box" at the Danang brig, and that he had been seeing a psychiatrist, but his testimony about the shooting of the woman was allowed to stand.
Luczko admitted firing at the woman. He said he shot her when she extended her arm into a haystack and the thought she was reaching for a weapon. "Did you think she was Vietcong?" the prosecutor asked. "Yes, sir, I believed she was," he answered.
Luczko was convicted again, this time on the reduced charge of manslaughter. Before he was sentenced, his lawyer presented a petition signed by 5,825 people from his home town and 256 personal letters asking the court for clemency. The prosecutor argued for a long prison term: "The law does not recognize the difference between the yellow skin and the white skin in the talking of a human life without justification or excuse," he said.
The sentence was three years at hard labor and a bad-conduct discharge. Luczko was returned to Portsmouth prison; with the time he had already spent in custody and time off for good behavior, he was released at the end of 1968, after 2 1/2 years in prison.
Luczko's recollections of the shooting don't differ much from what he said at the court martial.
"We had reports of VC presence in this village, and I deployed the squad on line to search it. We found land mines not of U.S. manufacture. We found a box of government ID cards without any pictures on them. Our orders were to destroy it, whatever we found, so nobody could use it, and we did.
"We had word that were VC inside the village. One hootch just didn't look right to me. We found trip wires and everything inside. There was nobody around. Where the woman came from, I still don't know."
The woman, he said, "wouldn't answer any of my commands. She stuck her arm all the way into that hay bale, and that's what triggered it off. We knew guys who got blown away becaue they didn't react to thinkgs. I didn't wait for any questions. Maybe we were keyed up too high, I don't know. I can't prove she was VC, but they can't prove she wasn't."
Luczko has regrets, but not about prison. The model boy and model Marine was a model prisoner. During his trials and appeals, Luczko was confined at Danang, at Camp Pendleton, at Quantico, and at Portsmouth, and every time he was moved, "I lost my place in the honor company. Every time, I had to work my way back up to the honor company before I could get out of my cellblock." But life in prison, he said, "is what you make of it. Do what you're told, when you're told, it's livable. There's no sense making it harder on yourself." He does not regret going through an ordeal that would have enraged or embittered a more volatile man. He regretes, instead, putting himself on the line in a war that the brass didn't really want to fight.
"The Americans in Saigon used to say that the Korean troops in Vietnam were too burtual, but i'll tell you we would rather be in combat alongside them than those PF Flyers sent up from Saigon. The Koreans were there to kill the enemy," he said, whjile the marines "put guys in the brig for breaking and entering those hootches. They had no doors and no windows, so how could you break in?" Those old rules of war won't work any more, he said, because "you probably will never again have a war where the enemy will be in uniform. It's only the good guys who identify themselves."
Luczko said hardly anybody in his town ever asks him about the killing and the trial. What they do as, he said, is "what do I think of the guys who skipped to Canada. I say okay, they didn't want to go to war. You don't want to have people like that in front of you or behind you on patrol. Hell, I don'te even think married guys should be put in the front line. Let them be clerks or drive trucks. We could even tell if the piolets were married when they were flying close air support. If they were single, they got right down on the ground where they were supposed to be. If they were married, they'd stay off a bit."
Stan and Margaret Luczko were married a year after he came home from prison. They had known each other in high school and now live across the street from her girlhood home, in the house they bought for $12,000 with money she had saved from her job at Sears. "Really, we've been very luck, in spite of the injustice of what happend," she said.
"The community accepted Stan. Nobody ever even looked sideways at him."
The life the Luczkos lead is quintessential small-town America, the kind of life Stan L;uczko might have if he had never joined the Marine coprs. It is a life of Norman Rockwell parts, family, Catholic Church, old cars that always need tinkering, hockey, a bit of land out in the woods, friends dropping in for a drink now and then. Their only complaint, Margaret Luczko said, is that his bad-conduct discharge prevents him from getting any veteran's health or education benefits, but he refuses to go through the paperwork necessary to apply for upgrading the discharge. "Our lives are settled now, and is's just not worth it," she said. d
"They asked me to give them an account in my own words of the entire incident and the court-martial," Luczko said. "I'm not going to do it. They must have copies of the trial record."
Luczko said he was surprised to be approached while he was sill in prison by a marine sergeant who offered to let him return to the Corps after his relaese. "They said Officers Candidate School was oujt of the question, buty they said I could make sergeant in six months. I said I would do it, but only if they would guarnatee not to send me back to Vietnam. I didn't want to be in the position of going back there -- they should either let you fight or not send you at all."