My Lai Without Tears 50 Years Later

SON MY MEMORIAL

A soft-spoken young girl in a royal blue ao dai is stumbling through a canned English language presentation at the My Lai museum, attesting to the massacre here of local villagers by GIs of the Americal Division, nearly 50 years ago to the day.

SOFT SPOKEN MEMORIES: Pictures cannot tell this story

More accurately known as the Son My Memorial, the site comprises a giant patriotic outdoor sculpture in the “never again” vein. It’s something of a mash up of Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ defiant Black Power salute from the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games, and Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s. Elsewhere, smaller, more subtle garden statues honor the memory of aged local farmers and young children who perished in the rural hamlets that once punctuated this village complex of banana trees, vegetable gardens, and rice paddies.

Inside the museum, our docent points unemotionally to the photos on the wall, reciting their captions haltingly—a far cry from her natural sing-song speech.  Sorry, faded, blurry copies of copies, the pictures tell the story the young woman can never convey—the story of a most horrible day, March 16, 1968, when a Vietnam farming district became hell on earth, evermore to symbolize the terror and madness of war in our generation. I find most interesting of all, not the well-known pre- and post-massacre photos of Ron Haeberle. Instead, I am mesmerized by the North Vietnamese propaganda photos taken later that day, showing survivors with corpses and  somber villagers conducting a memorial vigil.

MY LAI DITCH: Atrocities by all sides speak to the madness that is war (photo by Ron Haeberle)

I have no tears here for My Lai.  It’s an example of war atrocities that have occurred many times before and after by opposing sides in every war.  The psychic wounds that the Vietnam War inflicted on me scarred over long before this trip. In the particular case of My Lai, my anger seethed to exhaustion before I was drafted or had any inkling that I’d wind up in Vietnam, just a short helicopter ride from the site of horror where I am standing. I’m here paying my respects. To mourn, but not to weep. It’s like a visit to the grave of a relative I didn’t know very well.  Honor the dead. Pray for peace.

The young girl’s droning voice is strangely soothing, like a chant. I feel there should be a censer on an altar to make an offering, as in so many of the pagodas and traditional homes we have been visiting. Memories of My Lai would drift like smoke into the ether.

MRS.THONG: Return to My Lai after 60 years

My brooding absorption is shattered by a loud staccato voice that assaults me from behind.  I turn to see Mrs. Thong Chi Nguyen, an aged, fleshy woman way too overdressed in her dark wool coat and wide brimmed safari hat. Her rapid-fire Vietnamese has me wondering if I’m about to take the fall for the horror show we’re all reliving in the museum.  Besides the BW, I’m the only round eye in the joint.  Oanh, my new DaNang friend and translator rushes over to rescue me from Mrs. Thong’s torrent. It turns out, she simply wants to tell me her story.

“I am back here after 61 years,” she says.  Thong lived nearby before the war, but when things got bad, she and her husband moved to a central highlands enclave called Dac Lac. She was 39 then. Word reached Dac Lac about the massacre in Quang Ngai but she never returned until today.  Now she views the wall inscribed with the names and ages of hundreds of victims, many of whom she knew.  “There is no one left,” she says, without lowering her voice.

HAPPY LIFE: “I can travel now,” she tells BW

Thong’s husband was a “Chieu Hoi”, a VC or NVA soldier who defected to the other side. It was too dangerous, too risky, for him to fight the war against the South Vietnamese and American forces. He survived by surrendering. After the war, the couple paid dearly for his “welcome return”: 9 years in prison for him. He died at 68 years of age. Thong, now 90, has sons and grandchildren to carry on her family.  But none of her old friends from Son My.

MY LAI MEMORIAL: I came to mourn, but not to weep

Punished twice—the toll of the war, the retribution against her husband—Thong shows no bitterness. She likes the Vietnam of today.  “Now, I am free to travel”, she boasts to the BW with a laugh and a smile.  Even if her travel is only to a place she once lived long ago, where no one she knows remains anymore.

14 Replies to “My Lai Without Tears 50 Years Later

  1. As my name indicates, I’m just a dumb***. But I find your general take on war, atrocities, horror and survival enlightening. Allowing for the ability to move on and to not be paralyzed by the poor decisions that led to such situations. Even allowing for forgiveness, I feel.
    You’re a good man Fred.
    On a present day note identifying the fact we have moved on, the USS Carl Vinson just arrived in Vietnam. While I’m not sure you are in the same part of the country, I know a crew member. Ask for Hunter Belmont if you encounter crew.
    Until next time……

  2. Good analysis of the statue and the banter and tone of the young woman’s voice. Nice that you were comfortable enough to pay your respects. I am sure you and Natalie are doing it justice. Carry on.

  3. We are in fact same place–DaNang. But we’re not making public appearances beyond the seafood restaurants.

  4. What a marvelous gift 🎁 for you to meet Mrs. Thong to share your stories. It’s the human condition that helps bring the balance in the universe. So glad u traveled the distance to experience a different Vietnam 🇻🇳 and enjoy the people & cuisine.
    Safe Travels!
    PS: you r missing another winter storm; we start heading driving home tomorrow 3/8.

  5. Thanks for your service to our country Fred. Thanks for sharing this beautifully written travel journal laced with incredible descriptions of your sights, smells and feelings. Continue to enjoy your trip – especially the interesting food! Safe travels to you and Natalie.

  6. Thank you for your unflinchingly honest take on your visits, FA. Even though I have “known” of this incident for years, it was only in the recent Ken Burns PBS documentary that I understood the full horror of what happened.

    There were indeed many more and many after, but they didn’t always involve a world power, and the power of a new visual medium out in the field. So maybe you visited not just a memorial to My Lai’s victims, but a rememberance of all civilians slaughtered senselessly of all times and places.

  7. The Ken Burns documentary makes an interesting story in and of itself here in Vietnam. It is officially verboten. However, the firewall in Vietnam is very loose. Everyone who cares, finds a way beyond it. Many folks here have seen it and most are so young, that they have little knowledge or understanding or even interest in the so-called American War. Many here did not know about My Lai until watching this. I am amazed. But you and I will talk further. Because as good as the KB doc is, it didn’t tell the whole truth. The political retribution of the North was horrid and cruel and as terroristic as anything committed by the south and Uncle Sam.

  8. Soon we will be on our 9th visit to Vietnam. 10th for my husband who was a very young (19) USMC radio operator in the Chu Lai area in 1968. He was hesitant about the first trip I planned 12 years ago. Now it’s a favorite place to visit. We have made it to Chu Lai to see how it looks. The American war (as it’s called) is not an issue any place we’ve been from north to south.

  9. I wish I hadn’t waited so long before my first return. If you are heading back to Chu Lai area on your next visit, think about contacting Mr. Cau Nguyen Huu, who was a Vietnamese translator for the 196th Infantry, part of the Americal Division, back in the day. He was very helpful to me, scouting the base, and recalling many of the outer firebase and LZ locations. He is at caunguyenhuu1945@gmail.com. Have a great trip. I’d love to hear more.

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