During World War II, he ran away to join the Marines, but was sent home the next day because he was just 14. He enlisted in the Army three years later and, bemedaled with four Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars and four Purple Hearts, became the most decorated enlisted man during the Korean War. He volunteered for service in Vietnam, where, as a lieutenant colonel, he earned a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, an Air Medal and an Army Commendation Medal in only 58 days of combat.
And then, on April 4, 1969, Anthony B. Herbert, the Army poster boy from the Pennsylvania coalfields, was abruptly relieved of his command.
Colonel Herbert said he had been sacked for exposing brutality against civilians by American troops — a claim challenged in a 1973 “60 Minutes” program that led to a protracted libel suit. While he lost the litigation, a judge ruled that journalists could be forced specifically to defend their judgments in preparing news reports to prove that they were not recklessly libeling public figures.
Colonel Herbert died of cancer on June 7, 2014, at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Colorado, where he lived, and was buried with full military honors on Feb. 9 in Arlington National Cemetery. He was 84. His daughter, Toni Herbert, said the family had preferred not to make the death public until after the ceremony, which, she said, took several months to arrange. A paid death notice, however, submitted by three associates, one of them a retired lieutenant colonel, appeared twice in The New York Times in early February.
Evoking the heroic trajectories of Sgt. Alvin York and Audie Murphy, Anthony Bernard Herbert was born on April 17, 1930, in Herminie, Pa., the son of Charles Herbert, a coal miner, and the former Mary Theibert. Barely a teenager, he was turned away by the Marines in 1944 after he had seen two older brothers off to war.
Three years later, he joined the Army as a parachutist and re-enlisted in 1950 when the Korean War erupted. Selected by the Army for a delegation of distinguished soldiers representing the United Nations, he met President Harry S. Truman and the former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who urged him to get a college degree.
After marrying Marygrace Natale, who survives him along with his daughter, Toni, and two grandchildren, he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English, re-enlisted again, became commander of an Army Ranger unit and served as an R.O.T.C. instructor at the University of Georgia, where he earned a master’s in psychology.
In August 1968, he joined the 173rd Airborne Brigade stationed in the central highlands of South Vietnam. It was there as commander of the Second Battalion of the 503rd Infantry, he said, that he witnessed what he described as eight war crimes, including serial executions of detainees and water torture of a prisoner.
He reported the offenses to the commanding general of the 173rd Airborne and his deputy. The next day, Colonel Herbert was relieved of his command and dealt a devastating efficiency report.
He then turned around and filed charges against the officers and challenged the efficiency report, and it was eventually withdrawn. He was later promoted, and, after being wounded 14 times, he retired early from the Army in 1972.
Still, abetted by concurrent publicity over the My Lai massacre by American soldiers and its subsequent cover-up, he pursued his war crimes allegations in the news media and in a best-selling memoir titled “Soldier,” on which he collaborated with James T. Wooten of The Times in 1973. (That same year, a secret Army report found discrepancies in Colonel Hebert’s public accounts of his wartime experiences, but also uncovered further evidence of war crimes, The Los Angeles Times reported in 2006.)
“In the present poisoned atmosphere toward all things military,” the author and philosopher J. Glenn Gray wrote in The Times Book Review, “most readers will not be inclined to doubt the truth of his specific charges — even if Herbert’s boastfulness in tales of his exploits and his scrupulous avoidance of all atrocities of his own strain their credulity.”
But on Feb. 4, 1973, in a segment produced for “60 Minutes” by Barry Lando, the reporter Mike Wallace portrayed Colonel Herbert as a liar who had revealed war crimes only after the My Lai massacre became public late in 1969 and who was guilty of brutality himself.
He sued for $44 million in a case that would inch forward for 12 years. In 1986, the United States Supreme Court rejected his last appeal. But a lower court, while finding the “60 Minutes” report mostly accurate, also set a major precedent in holding that the First Amendment did not protect journalists sued for libel by public figures from being compelled to provide evidence of their state of mind when they made specific news judgments.
“The point of the ‘60 Minutes’ piece was, as Mike Wallace said to Herbert when we interviewed him, was not whether war crimes took place in Vietnam. There was no question that they did,” Mr. Lando said this week. “The question was, did Herbert hope to portray himself as something of a martyr, by claiming he had been relieved of command for reporting such war crimes? On that issue we found no solid evidence that he had reported those crimes at the time he claimed to have done it.”
While the case unfolded, Colonel Herbert, in retirement from the military, earned a doctorate in psychology from the University of Georgia in 1975. He later practiced privately in Colorado, served as an efficiency consultant to state legislatures and wrote several other books.
Books, indeed, had become dear to him. Not long before he resigned from the Army, he was stuck in a humdrum recruiting job, where, he said at the time, at least “I get to do a lot of reading.”
“Books I never had time for before,” he said. “Books like ‘Catch 22.’ ”