By PAULINE JELINEK and ROBERT BURNS, Associated Press Writers Pauline Jelinek And Robert Burns, Associated Press Writers – Wed Aug 4, 11:13 pm ET
WASHINGTON – More than 30 years after his death, an Air Force general has been exonerated of charges that he violated presidential restrictions on aerial bombing during the Vietnam War and that he ordered the falsification of records to conceal the missions.
John D. Lavelle was forced to retire in April 1972 at the rank of major general — two stars below the rank he held as commander of air operations in Vietnam — after being relieved of duty for ordering unauthorized airstrikes against North Vietnamese military targets.
In this 1972 file photo, Gen. John D. Lavelle, right, talks with then Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John C. Stennis, D-Miss., before a closed session to hear his case, in Washington.
He maintained his innocence during congressional hearings held after his dismissal.
He died in 1979.
The story took a new twist in 2007 with the publication in Air Force Magazine of an article by a retired Air Force general, Aloysius Casey, and his son, Patrick Casey. They used declassified documents and transcripts of President Richard Nixon’s Oval Office audio tapes to show that Nixon had secretly authorized more aggressive bombing in North Vietnam in February 1972.
The Caseys also wrote that such attacks had been authorized in late 1971 and early 1972 by top U.S. officers, including Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Gen. Creighton T. Abrams, the overall U.S. military commander in South Vietnam.
Lavelle’s family petitioned the Air Force to correct his record and restore his rank. It said the decision in 1972 to relieve him of duty was based on “woefully incomplete” evidence.
The family’s legal petition to the Air Force said the Nixon tapes show that “he was a ‘scapegoat’ and in fact had acted within the authority expressly granted to him by the president and communicated to him through classified communications between the chief of Pacific Command, the secretary of defense and others.”
A copy of the petition and other legal documents in the case were obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday.
In 2008 the Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records found no evidence that Lavelle caused, directly or indirectly, the falsification of records or that he was even aware of their existence.
The board also agreed with the family’s assertion that the 1972 decision had been based on incomplete information and that the White House and others withheld important facts.
“After thoroughly reviewing the evidence of record and noting the applicant’s contentions, we find sufficient evidence the retirement grade in which the member was nominated was the result of material error — an incomplete record,” the board concluded.
It added: “It is clear the White House, the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff all possessed evidence which, if released, would have exonerated him.”
In a written statement Wednesday, the Air Force said its board found that once Lavelle learned about the falsified reports — which pertained to false claims of hostile fire by North Vietnamese forces — he took action to ensure that the practice was stopped.
The Air Force board recommended, in light of the new information, that Lavelle be reinstated to the rank of general. Defense Secretary Robert Gates endorsed the recommendation and President Barack Obama has asked the Senate to confirm Lavelle to the rank of general.
The Lavelle family issued a statement Wednesday praising the decision to exonerate the general.
“The president’s nomination is a major milestone in the effort to publicly restore General Lavelle’s outstanding record of military service, his honor and his good name,” it said.
Lavelle’s widow, Mary Jo Lavelle, 91, thanked all involved.
“Jack was a good man, a good husband, a good father and a good officer,” she said. “I wish he was alive to hear this news.”