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Published: March 10th 2011
At 0750 Hrs on the 16th of March, 1968, nine US Army helicopters touched down in an open field 2 Klicks west of the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai (pronounced ‘Me Lie‘). My Lai was part of a village called Son My. One hundred and twenty men jumped off the birds and ran, pressed into a low, flat-backed crouch by the rotor wash. They reflexively established a defensive perimeter in case of hostile fire. An unnecessary precaution as it turned out. As soon as all of the men had disembarked, the helicopters lifted off safely and returned to base.
The infantrymen were armed with M-16 assault rifles, hand grenades, M-60 machine guns and M-71 grenade launchers. These troops made up the 1st, 2nd and 3rd platoons of Charlie Company, 11th Infantry Brigade of the 23rd Division. At a briefing the evening before, the company’s commander; Captain Ernest Medina, told his platoon leaders that since any innocent villagers would be tending to business at the local market after 0700 Hrs, his men could be certain that any people still left in the village would either be VC or VC sympathizers. He told the officers to expect a firefight. According to a
US Army investigative report; the platoon commanders took this to mean that they were to shoot and/ or capture anybody they found in the hamlet. An Army combat photographer by the name of Sgt. Ronald Haeberle of Cleveland, Ohio was accompanying the unit during operations.
Son My is located northeast of the city of Quang Ngai on the central coast of Vietnam. Known for the close support it has historically afforded the Viet Cong and their predecessors the Viet Minh, the entire area was referred to as ‘Pinkville’ by Army Intelligence. During the Tet offensive 2 months before, the Viet Cong’s 48th Battalion attacked Quang Ngai. Army Intelligence believed that remnants of the 48th were hiding in the Son My area and planning on making their escape west along the Annanite mountains to the Ho Chi Minh trail. The Annanites protrude like a long rocky finger from Cambodia into the central coast of Vietnam. The VC and NVA had been using the Annanite route for years to infiltrate Quang Ngai province. Between 1965 and 1968 it was estimated that US forces, in trying to subdue the VC, had destroyed 70% of the province’s hamlets through use of artillery, bombing,
Huey gunship (Slicks) rockets, white phosphorous (Willie Peter) and Napalm. Ground troops were in charge of cleanup operations called ‘Zippos’ wherein any surviving structures were burned to the ground. The Zippo was a cigarette lighter popular with US troops at that time. Many of the area peasants, preferring their own battered hamlets to the squalor of US government sponsored refugee camps, would sneak back to their land and dig shelters under the charred ruins of their homes. By 1968 it was estimated that civilian casualties in Quang Ngai province were approaching 55,000 people per year. In the Spring of 1967 General Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, began a tactical operation called ‘Task Force Oregon’ in Quang Ngai province. Its purpose was to seek out and destroy as many enemy combatants as possible. There was no consideration given to holding ground or ’winning hearts and minds’ as the ‘body count’ became the primary indicator of US success in Vietnam or lack thereof. Violence in the region expanded exponentially.
By March of 68’, Charlie Company had sustained a substantial number of its own casualties. Twice, after recent sweeps through similar hamlets, they found themselves coming under fire from their
Died in 2006.
rear which meant that the very people they had just cleared of suspicion were now training weapons upon them. On the morning those nine helicopters set down outside My Lai, Charlie Company was looking forward to a little payback time. In their minds and to some degree; in fact, the local population and the enemy were one and the same.
At 0840 Hrs the third platoon remained behind to secure the LZ (landing zone) while the 1st Platoon, under commander; 2nd Lieutenant William Calley, flanked the south end of the hamlet, an area called Binh Dong and swung his men north into the heart of the settlement. The 2nd Platoon started maneuvering north just east of the LZ to engage a cluster of homes known as Binh Tay.
One of Calley’s men, (Paul Meadlo of Terre Haute, In.) arrived on the scene a few minutes after he heard the shooting erupt and described what he witnessed to Army investigators. He said that the normal procedure would have been for the men to set fire to the homes and then arrest anybody escaping the flames for interrogation later. According to his sworn statement he saw three things happening. Either
My Lai Villagers
Photo taken by Haeberle during the assault.
the US soldiers shot people as they ran out of the burning structures, or they went into the homes and shot the occupants within or they gathered the villagers in groups outside their homes and shot them en masse using machine guns and in at least one instance, a grenade launcher. People found hiding in underground shelters were dispatched with hand grenades. The victims were old men, women and children as young as newborns. A soldier murdered one baby with multiple shots from a .45 caliber pistol while the infant lay on the ground. There was at least one officially confirmed rape and the probability of more. The same scene was being played out to the northeast by 2nd Platoon in Binh Tay. The difference was that Sgt. Haeberle, the combat photographer, was with Calley’s 1st Platoon. This fact would become important later.
Above the fray, an OH-23 Raven observation helicopter piloted by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson took in the scene. At 0800 Hrs he observed 3 Vietnamese in an open field. One of the Vietnamese was wounded. He landed his bird, marked the wounded Vietnamese with a green smoke marker for medevac and flew the other two back
to base for interrogation. He re-fueled and returned to the field where he discovered that the wounded Vietnamese he had previously marked for evacuation was now dead of new gunshot wounds. Two hundred meters south of My Lai he found a wounded Vietnamese woman. He again marked her location with a green smoke grenade and hovered a short distance away to watch her. In a sworn disposition he stated that he saw Captain Ernest Medina approach the woman, nudge her with the barrel of his rifle and shoot her. Thompson then flew over an irrigation ditch running through the hamlet and observed numerous dead and wounded Vietnamese lying in the ditch. He landed his aircraft and was immediately approached by Lt. Calley. He asked Calley what was going on and Calley told him to mind his own business. Thompson then watched squad leader Sgt. David Mitchell approach the ditch and shoot the wounded.
Northeast of My Lai Thompson found 10 villagers, women and children, running towards a bunker while being pursued by a squad of American soldiers. He landed his aircraft between the soldiers and the Vietnamese and got out to talk to the soldiers. Before he did so
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he told the soldier riding shotgun in his helicopter to cover him and to shoot the GI’s if they tried anything. He ordered the pursuing troops to back off, which they did. He radioed for help and succeeded in getting the women and children evacuated. By 1100 Hrs it was all over and the men of Charlie Company ate chow next to the corpse filled irrigation ditch.
Thompson made a full report to his military superiors which was never acted upon. A year later a soldier by the name of Ron Ridenhour, who was not at the massacre but had heard about it from participants he later served with wrote letters reporting what he had learned to President Nixon, the State Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and members of Congress. The only person of that group to move forward with an investigation was Morris ‘Mo’ Udall, a Congressman from Utah. While all of this was going on, Ron Haeberle, the combat photographer, who had been discharged from the Army in August of 1968, was still in possession of the photographs he had taken during the ‘Event‘. In fact, he was showing them as part of a slide show
My Lai Memorial
List of victim names. The word 'Nam' means man. 'Nu' means woman.
he presented to groups of citizens in his hometown of Cleveland. Local organizations like the Kiwanis, Elks and Rotary Clubs. He did this to show the good citizens back home what the war in Vietnam was really like. Nobody who saw those pictures in all of that time batted an eye. Nobody saw fit to contact local media with the horror in the photos because by that time most US citizens were used to it. Nightly news was always showing some innocuous village being burned or bombed or forcibly evicted. It wasn’t until August of 1969 that an investigator from the US Army got in touch with Haberlae to see exactly what it was he had in his Kodak Carousel. Shortly thereafter the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper became the first publication to run their hometown boy’s now infamous picture of the bodies on the road. Go figure.
After a ‘full’ investigation (a thirty-one year old officer named Colin Powell was one of the authors of the final report) the Army brought murder charges against Calley. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He did three years under house arrest and was then given a full pardon by
Quang Ngai Train Station
Simple little affair. Six trains stop here over the course of the day. Three each heading North and South.
Richard Nixon. When the story broke in South Vietnam the government denied everything, evacuated every villager still living in Son My and subjected the area to three days of uninterrupted artillery barrages to cover up any evidence. Estimates of the total number of people killed in the massacre range from 500 to 700.
Today there is a museum and a memorial on the Son My site. According to guide books the memorial is worth seeing. That is why we came to Quang Ngai.
Karen and I arrived in town by train at 10 AM. Outside the small station a horde of scooter drivers descended on us all repeating “My Lai, My Lai?” We thought they were asking us if we needed transport to the site of the memorial. Only later did we learn that they were telling us that we couldn’t believe a word they said. The weather was overcast and drizzly. Definitely not the kind of stuff that you would want to motorbike around in given that the My Lai memorial is nearly 20 Km outside of the city. We located the most convenient of the three hotels in town. The Loc Thinh Guest House sits about
300 meters from the train station. The sour pussed owner, who was asleep behind his desk when we arrived, reluctantly showed us his best room. #2.3. The first room we’ve ever had that uses the Dewey decimal system. 2 uncomfortable double beds, A/C, small color TV with cable, grimy bathroom with a broken toilet seat and a single towel the size of a bath mat. No toilet paper provided. Absolutely the worst room we’ve had in Vietnam. 220,000 Dong ($11 US). $5 would have been almost fair but given that we were only going to be in town for one night and the next best hotel started at $50 US, we bit the bullet and took it. Quang Ngai is a town of 150,000 people. 150,000 unfriendly people. As the only foreigners around we attracted a lot of attention but few smiles. If looks could kill, the men around here would have laid us out on the street before we had taken a dozen steps. We tried waving, smiling and saying hello in Vietnamese all to no avail.
My Lai is the only reason that tourists have for stopping here. As such we thought that we would have little
The room next to our 'Suite'.
trouble in finding somebody eager to run us out to the museum. We were dead wrong. There are no tour agencies in town. No signage offering tours or transportation. We talked with an approachable café owner about getting out there and he acted as if he had never heard of My Lai nor Son My. We were flummoxed. We finally met a taxi driver who knew what we were talking about but he wanted $35 just to take us out and refused to negotiate. A very vexing town.
Knowing when to take a hint, we deep-sixed plans for the museum and decided to satisfy ourselves with a look around town and a quiet day in our hotel. We walked up the main drag of D Hung Vuong. Lots of little shops and cafés full of men staring daggers at us. We had lunch at a popular Com (rice dish specialty) place we found at 474 D Quang Trung. Their claim to fame is a dish of rice that has been simmered in chicken broth and topped with shredded chicken and herbs. (25,000 Dong) That’s all they sell and from the size of the crowd they appear to sell a
Hottest business in town.
lot of it. When a large family of Vietnamese walked in, the waiters made it clear that it was time for us to move along as they cleared our table and pulled it over to join the one next to us to accommodate the family. It looked like we’d be eating in tonight.
On the way home we passed a large shopping center on D Hung Vuong called Sieu Thi Quang Ngai. I sat outside by myself on a long bench while Karen shopped. While she was inside a woman planted herself right next to me and stared into my right ear while I smoked a cigarette. When Karen emerged the woman left. I’m really not sure what that was all about. Karen told me that it was one of the nicest stores she’d ever seen in Nam. She bought a few snacks for supper in our room. We noticed that the food carts on the streets were sort of half-assed little affairs. Sandwich carts had a few baguettes on show and some scraps of meat for fixing’s. Cafés sat sans customers. Empty CD shops blared Rap music into the street from outside speakers. We saw two Internet places
Quang Ngai Shopping Center
Karen swears that it is the best center she's seen in Vietnam to date.
on the main drag. The view from our room consists of a gas station servicing an endless stream of scooters that buy gas a pint at a time. Next to that is a vacant, overgrown, debris strewn lot that the local kids use to practice badminton in.
Since our train was leaving early the next morning Karen went down to the desk, paid our bill and collected our passports from one of the maids as the manager was still asleep behind the desk. Hotels in Vietnam routinely hold your passport until your tab is paid and you are checked out. At 7 PM a twenty-something boy knocked on the door and tried to push his way inside when I answered. I blocked him from entering and asked him what he wanted. All he could say was “Passports”. He wanted our passports. I explained to him that as the bill had been paid and the passports returned to us he weren’t gettin’ no passports. Downstairs the night manager was just as adamant about getting the passports back. Karen provided him with Xerox copies of the passports, explained that the bill had been paid in full and told him that the
Getting Out of Town
Safely out of our hotel.
passports would not be forthcoming. At that point we thought the matter settled. We was wrong. Thirty-minutes later the boy reappeared at the door and yet again tried to force his way into the room. I planted a hand on his chest and gave him a sharp shove backward. He did not take kindly to my token of disaffection and took on a threatening posture which is hard to do when you weigh ninety-pounds soaking wet and you’ve got a royally pissed off male standing in front of you with a sixty-pound weight advantage. He waved some documents in my face and told me that they required our signatures. While he’s talking his eyes are scanning the interior of the room settling down only when they catch sight of our luggage. The documents were standard Vietnamese hotel guest registrations. By law they’re supposed to be signed and held by the hotel’s management. Few hotels if any actually do this but it is the law. Most hotels hold the passports as insurance against your running out on the bill. In the States hotels have your credit card info but Vietnamese hotels don’t take credit cards for the most part. I let
Junior cool his heels in the hall while Karen and I signed the papers. He took them and left in a huff. By now I’m smelling a pretty fat rat.
Passport extortion, while not common, can be a problem in Vietnam. Most of the cases we’re aware of have happened with hotels in Hanoi. The game is this: You check in, give management your passport and when you try to check out you’re told that your bill is higher than what you were originally quoted and that you better fork over the dough or you’re not getting your passport back. Since there’s not much you can do without your passport most people pay the bill. This was clearly our hotel’s game but by giving Karen back the passports the maid had blown the scheme sky high. I was pretty sure that the kid was going to sneak into the room while we slept and take a piece of luggage hostage so we tied the door tightly shut from the inside and went to sleep. As soon as we awoke the next morning, Karen and I grabbed our bags and tippy-toed through the tulips and out the front door. Bottom line: Do not ever stay in this hotel.
We had a coffee at a café just in front of the train station. A large kitten wandered over to our table. We fed it some bits of food. Soon it was sitting on our laps and purring contentedly while we scratched its ears. Probably the only affection the animal will receive in its entire Quang Ngai life. Four local men sitting at the table next to ours started snickering at our treatment of the cat. We ignored them. When it was time to go we set the kitten gently on the ground and gathered our things. One of the men at the table scowled and motioned for me to take the cat with us. His palms outstretched in kitten-sized lifting motions. His pursed lips smacked out a series of little kisses. The boys at the table thought this good fun and giggled him onwards. Bottom line: Do not come to Quang Ngai.
Tips: Karen and I know that there are some people who have 'issues' with Vietnam and that they will use our review of Quang Ngai as a rationalization against any visits to this fair land. Go for it but we're not coming with you. We have visited Southeast Asia six times in the past 10 years. Our affection for Nam and its people runs deep. As far as we are concerned Vietnam is the finest travel destination in this part of the world bar none and that includes Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia. Quang Ngai has been the only place in Nam that we have visited where we were subjected to this sort of treatment. For this one notch in the negative column we have over twenty on the other side of the scale.
If you're wondering whether or not our treatment was the result of our being American I can only say that the only people aware of our nationality were the hotel staff. Vietnamese have a hard time distinguishing accents between English speaking peoples. Most Vietnamese we meet on the street think that we are from the UK or Australia. America is never one of their guesses as so few Yanks travel to Vietnam.
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