Tuesday, February 26, 2013


The memorial statue in My Lai
I’m walking down a quiet path of a rural village, when I hear the sound of a bird unlike any that I’ve ever heard before. The sound of this bird wasn’t a song, and it wasn’t a chirp. This sound was a shriek of terror.

As I turned towards the sound, I caught sight of a bird of prey. It had swooped down from the sky, attacked the smaller bird I had heard, and was now grasping it’s victim in its talons. The smaller bird shrieked and struggled, as the larger bird carried its prey down to the ground, and out of sight in the tall grass. The smaller bird continued to shriek, and shriek, and shriek. Then the shrieks grew fainter.

Then they stopped.

I had never seen a bird kill another bird before. It was the strong, killing the weak, and it was a violent, and cruel sight. It’s especially eerie that I see this attack happen in the place where I’m standing right now. I’m in a village called Son My, and in March of 1968, death descended here from the skies above. What happened in this farming village, came to be known to the outside world as the massacre at My Lai.

Arriving by helicopter on that fateful morning, were 120 soldiers from Charlie Company, from the 23rd Infantry Division. These US Army soldiers were on a ‘Search and Destroy’ mission, and since they were told the village was a Viet Cong stronghold, they were expecting a fight. As the G.I.’s swept into the hamlets, they encountered no armed resistance at all. Despite the lack of resistance, the soldiers began killing the village's civilians.

The soldiers forced the villagers from their homes, gathered them together in groups, and shot them. Other villagers were shot in the back as they fled. Some were forced into their family bomb shelters, and grenades were tossed in after them. Still others were stabbed and slashed to death with bayonets. More than one woman in the village was raped.

It's hard to believe that this tranquil village was once the scene of horrible violence.

Most of those killed were women, children and old men. There were few men of fighting age in the village that morning. By the time the soldiers left four hours later, hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were dead, and the houses of My Lai were burning to the ground.

The current Vietnamese government claims that 504 people were killed here. The American military claims that 347 died here. The actual number of those killed is probably somewhere in between. For the Americans, there was only one casualty. One soldier had been shot, but it was only from a self-inflicted wound. The young soldier had shot himself in the foot to avoid taking part in the bloodbath. Some of the soldiers refused to take part in the killing, but most did.

Throughout history, the US Army has had many honorable victories. Yorktown, Gettysburg, Omaha Beach, and more. But what happened here wasn’t a victory, it was the killing of civilians. The My Lai massacre became a stain of disgrace, on the reputation of the US Army.

As I walk through this somber place, I find the village to be the saddest place I will ever encounter in Vietnam. Part of the massacre site has become a memorial to those who died here, and the mood is truly melancholy. Heading down one walkway, I pass the statues of three women and a baby. The green statues are all frozen in macabre poses. Each figure is depicted at the moment of their death. It’s as though they are stopped in time, caught in the moment that they were struck by gunfire. 

Although the village was destroyed in the massacre, one house has been rebuilt as part of the memorial. A grey haired gardner is tending the yard, and she smiles at me as I approach. I step into the home of what was once a simple Vietnamese farming family, and it looks much as it did before the destruction of that terrible morning. The house is a simple two room farmer's home, with basic wooden furnishings, and a small Buddhist altar. The thatched rooftops of this and the other homes, made it easy for the soldiers to burn down the entire village using little more than  cigarette lighters.
Once destroyed, this family's home has been rebuilt

Nearby, are more disturbing re-creations. Two homes were reconstructed to look as they did immediately after the attack. Where once there were two humble Vietnamese homes, left in their place are the shells of two burned out ruins.

In front of one destroyed house, a sign states the following: “House of Mr. Do Phi’s family restored after being burnt down by US soldiers on March 16th, 1968. Five of his family members were killed.” The sign also lists their names and ages. 

Do Thi Hiep              57
Nguyen Thi Tuong    23
Do Cu Bay                  9
Pham Cu                    4
Do Cu                         1

Surrounding the grim ruins are more family home sites, built only to their foundations. All have a sign posted, listing the names and ages of the family members killed that morning. Sign after sign, family after family, the numbers of the dead add up.

Even the footpaths have been marked to remember that day. No longer just bare ground, the paths have been covered in concrete that is painted to look like dirt. Embedded into the concrete, are eerie tracks. Like the remade ruins, the paths have been recreated to appear as they did the day the massacre happened. They are  marked with the footprints of bare feet, made to represent the villagers. There are the tracks of bicycle wheels, which were so common in those days. Finally, there are the distinct imprints of army boots, like those worn by the soldiers.

Ha Thi Quy, survivor of My Lai

Finding shade by the thatched roof house, I sit on a bench to get comfortable. Seated next to me, is the gardener I saw trimming plants by the house. My translator introduces me, and I receive a heartfelt greeting. With greying hair, the older woman has few teeth; she appears to be in her 80's. She has to be the oldest gardener I’ve ever met. It turns out there's far more to this woman than meets the eye. This friendly senior citizen, is not just a gardener. I’m shocked to learn that she's also a survivor of the My Lai massacre! As we converse, the woman’s dramatic story unfolds. Her name is Ha Thi Quy, and she was 43 back when the massacre happened. 

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” she tells me, and those few words hit hard. As she begins to tell me her story, her friendly face totally changes. She becomes somber, and her eyes have a very deep, faraway look. This look has also been called, ‘the thousand yard stare’. It's a look common to people who have witnessed traumatizing events.

Ha said that the soldiers gathered up more than 100 villagers that day, and forced them together into a ditch before they opened fire. The ditch she speaks of is only yards away from where she is speaking to me now.

“I was shot in the leg,” Ha tells me, and she shows me her scar. The soldiers fired on the crowd repeatedly, and they returned later to finish off those wounded. Two of her children were killed there. Ha survived in the ditch by playing dead, with other bloodied bodies lying on top of her. She remained there until the soldiers had gone. One of her children survived, as well as Ha’s husband, who was away working the fields that day. After burying their two children, there was nothing left for them in their village.

“Before the massacre, my family was fine financially,” Ha said. Afterwards she was left destitute. The family house had been burned to the ground, and they lost all their possessions. “We moved away and lived with other relatives,” she said.

The war and the massacre have taken so much from Ha and her family, that she still hasn’t recovered. In her old age she should be retired, but her government pension isn't much, so she continues working here as a gardener. Ha has shared her painful story with me, so I feel the urge to help her in some way. Before I leave her, we walk together around the corner of the house. Out of sight from the other staff, I quickly place twenty dollars into her unexpecting hand.

Ha looks up at me, and her face lights up all over again as she shakes my hand enthusiastically. Twenty dollars is not much money to an American, but I’ve just given her the equivalent of a week’s pay. It’s the very least I can do.

I’ve been to many memorial sites before, but this is the first one I’ve ever been to where survivors of a massacre are present. The presence of eye witnesses here, and their first hand stories, makes my time in My Lai even more mind blowing. Memorial statues can be lifelike, and signs can list the names of the dead. But when it comes to communicating the horror of what happened here, there is nothing more effective, then to see a survivor’s face as she tells their personal story. 

Life size figures displayed in the museum graphically depict the massacre

Also in the village is the Son My Museum. I enter, and as one would expect it’s a depressing place. Visitors are so moved by what they see here, that they view the displays with a silent reverence. On the walls are shocking photos taken during, and after the massacre by US Army photographer Ron Haeberle. His graphic photos of civilian corpses became the most damning evidence of the massacre. Haeberle’s photos ended up on the front pages of newspapers around the world, exposing the massacre to millions. Some  photos are so bloody and graphic, that they couldn't be shown in the American press. That didn’t stop the museum from displaying the gruesome photos here.

A chilling exhibit on display has life sized plaster figures, depicting a scene of the killing. Two soldiers are shooting five Vietnamese dead, four of them women and children. Another soldier pulls a woman by the hair to join them. In the painted background, bodies lie in the bloodied ditch. Smoke and flames rise from village huts as they burn.

Up on one wall are post-war photos of five American GI’s that took part in the massacre. None have them have ever been convicted of murder. The Army investigation of My Lai was a whitewash, and although 26 soldiers were charged in the massacre and subsequent cover-up, almost all were cleared of wrongdoing in military courts. Even Capt. Ernest Medina, the commanding officer present in My Lai who took part in the killings, was declared innocent. In the judicial farce that followed the massacre, there were was only one conviction. Lt. William Calley became the scapegoat for the entire massacre. In 1971 he was found guilty of 22 counts of premeditated murder. Although Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labor, even this feeble attempt at justice was foiled. Soon after his conviction Calley’s sentence was reduced by President Nixon. He served only a few days in jail, followed by 3 ½ years of ‘house arrest’.

A large museum plaque lists those who died here

This massacre caused many anti-war protestors to label US soldiers in Vietnam as ‘baby killers’. Average American citizens back home almost couldn’t believe it. They wanted to know how a group of average American young men had been turned into cold blooded killers of civilians. There were no simple answers. The Viet Cong wore civilian clothing, so US soldiers often couldn't tell if Vietnamese were friend or foe. The vast differences in language and culture compounded the problem. Other soldiers of Charlie Company had already been killed or wounded by landmines and booby traps. Add to that the recent death of a popular sargeant, and the massacre could be interpreted as a revenge attack. But the biggest reason for the killing seems to be that the soldiers were ordered to do it by their superiors.

I exit the museum, and come to the main memorial sculpture. The grey stone statue stands two stories high. It’s a grim image; two surviving women among a group of lifeless bodies. One stern faced woman holds a dead child in one arm, while her other arm points skyward in a fist. The killings didn’t bring defeat to the Viet Cong here. If anything, this massacre strengthened their resolve to fight on, and led other civilians to join their cause.

With the opening of the museum, the number of visitors to My Lai has grown. Visitors can take photos of anything they want here, but the press is still tightly controlled in Vietnam, so professional media are kept on a leash. For this reason, two foreign visitors drew a great deal of attention a few years ago. On that day, Vietnamese staff noticed an American with a professional video camera, accompanied by an older American. Since the pair didn’t have official permission to film a documentary, they were brought into the museum office. There they were questioned by the director, Pham Thanh Cong. As a young boy, he had also survived the massacre here. After questioning, the older American eventually confessed to being one of the soldiers of Charlie Company who took part in the massacre that day.

This survivor later became the museum director

“Why did you kill my family?” the director yelled at him. “How could you do such a thing?” The war veteran sobbed, and gave the same excuse given by other soldiers that had killed civilians in My Lai. “I was ordered to do it.”

The old veteran is lucky that he wasn’t arrested for war crimes. Fortunately for him, the policy of the current Vietnamese government is not to dwell on the wars of the past. In the interest of continuing positive relations with the American government, he was released, but not before his unannounced visit made the local papers.

One film director interested in this little village is Oscar winner Oliver Stone. A Vietnam veteran himself, Stone recently visited My Lai, aiming to film a movie about the massacre. After Stone went through all the official channels, the Vietnamese government withheld their blessing, and rejected his request to film his movie about My Lai within Vietnam. It seems that the government prefers that the massacre, like the rest of the war, should be left in the past. Like so many Vietnamese I’ve met, they prefer to focus on Vietnam’s present and future. 

Ha and another friendly survivor, Thi Lien, continue their daily work of gardening on the grounds of the memorial park. I’m amazed that these two ladies have the fortitude to work on the same land where they lost their family members. I’m further amazed that both of them were so easily able to smile and wave at me, an American.

“After the war ended, the government gave me a small house,” Ha said. She had another child, and her surviving family moved back near My Lai. She now has grandkids as well. Although she still mourns the loss of her two children, she isn’t consumed by hatred. “I don’t hate American people,” she told me. Ha’s forgiveness is admirable.

As for the soldiers who took part in the killings, after they escaped justice, most of the  Charlie Company infantrymen left the army as soon as they could. A couple soldiers had chosen to make the army their career, but they were later forced out of the service.

This woman escaped the massacre, because she was at the market that day

None of them can forget what they did here. After the ex-soldiers returned home to civilian life, many continued to be haunted by the memories of those that they had killed at My Lai. This left them with a new foe to confront: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many of the ex-soldiers struggled with drug or alcohol abuse.

One of the soldiers who took part in the massacre, former Specialist 4 Robert T’Souvas, ended up homeless in Pittsburgh. He was later murdered in 1988, shot in the head by his homeless girlfriend over a bottle of vodka.

Another soldier, former Private First Class Varnado Simpson, became very remorseful over his part in the massacre. He admitted in a documentary interview that he had killed at least 25 villagers. Years later, violence would plague his own family as well, when his young son was shot to death near his house. Simpson took multiple medications to control his PTSD, and attempted suicide several times. In 1997, he finally killed himself with a shotgun.

As for the convicted Lt. Calley, after he was paroled from house arrest, he returned to Columbus, Georgia. There he worked for years at his father-in-law’s jewelry store. He had one son, and later divorced. For decades, Calley refused to speak to any journalists about the massacre. He repeatedly tried, and failed, to get a large cash advance in exchange for an exclusive interview. It wasn’t until 2009 at a Kiwanis Club meeting, that he finally gave a public apology for his role in the massacre. It took Calley more than four decades to publicly declare remorse for what he had done. Other soldiers who took part in the killings continue to bear guilt for the My Lai massacre. They live with their own personal demons.

Beyond the boundaries of the Son My memorial park, the rest of the surrounding hamlets that were destroyed that terrible morning have long ago been rebuilt. If you walked through those surrounding villages today, you would never guess that such a horrifying, evil episode could ever have taken place here.

But the awful truth is, it did happen. What happened here should never, ever be forgotten. What happened here in My Lai should forever be remembered, so that it will never, ever happen again.

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