Early on March 16, 1968, the massacre of hundreds of innocent women, elderly men and children by US soldiers in the tiny hamlet of My Lai took its place as the Vietnam War’s most enduring badge of depravity, and the hapless Americal Division’s most unholy ghost.
The sight of plastic body bags containing the dead from the debacle at Firebase MaryAnn still haunted me when one of the Americal Division’s most unholy ghosts came to call the very next day.
On March 29, 1971, Armed Forces Radio announced that a U.S. Army court-martial at Fort Benning, GA, found Lt. William L. Calley, Jr. guilty on multiple counts of premeditated murder of Vietnamese civilians three years prior in the tiny village of My Lai.
My Lai was a only short helicopter ride south of our Chu Lai base; a place I had gazed down upon from the air many times flying to one Public Information Office assignment or another for the 23rd Infantry, Americal Division. Calley was the Americal platoon leader who led the assault, which turned into a massacre there in 1968.
When the Calley jury ruled, I was three months in country and wise to many sins of the Vietnam war. I was coming to understand virtually all the barbarity which was turning the hearts and minds of Americans against the war had been visited upon, or germinated from, the Americal Division. Drug use and racial tension was rampant. Fragging murder attempts on officers by their own troops were occurring once a week in our division. The countryside outside our gates was being withered to an ecological apocalypse by Agent Orange defoliant. Most recently was the tragedy at MaryAnn. Oceanview not withstanding, Chu Lai, this division, the war, repulsed me.
Yet, above all, the Americal’s most enduring badge of depravity was the atrocity at My Lai.
It was a typically hot, dusty, post-monsoon morning when that operation kicked off on March 16. Shortly after sunrise, 136 soldiers of Charlie Company, which would spearhead the specially formed Task Force Barker, were inserted by chopper into a rural Quang Ngai province farming community that the Army called Pinkville.
The unit had patrolled in the area often. It was considered an enemy stronghold. Charlie Company had suffered casualties by sniper fire, machine guns, and booby traps. The day before the operation, the men held a memorial service for their fellow soldiers killed during the preceding weeks. Battles of the Tet Offensive uprising a month before were still fresh in their memories, putting the soldiers on edge.
The assault on Pinkville would be led by Calley’s 27-man First Platoon on point. Intelligence reports indicated they would almost certainly encounter seasoned Viet Cong resistance, possibly even a battalion-size force of NVA. The objective was to “engage and destroy:” burn the hootches, slaughter the livestock, poison the water wells, lay waste to field crops and food stores. They were not expecting civilians.
After landing, Charlie Company advanced toward My Lai’s cluster of thatched huts. They searched for the enemy and weapons. They found none. There were only women, children and elderly men in the hamlet. The soldiers rounded up these civilians in groups. There was no resistance. No one fired upon them. Regardless, Calley ordered his men to begin shooting the villagers.
There was pushback from some soldiers. But Calley was insistent. Approaching one young private who had dozens of old men, women, and children under guard, Calley instructed, “You know what to do.” Then he left. When he returned after a short while, Calley asked why the people were still alive. The soldier hadn’t known Calley meant they should be shot. Calley declared he wanted them dead. They both opened fire on the group with automatic weapons. The young private cried. All but a few children fell. Calley then personally shot them with his M-16 rifle.
The gunplay became widespread. Mothers shielding their children were shot. When the youngsters tried to run away, they were picked off like wild game in a pasture. The soldiers machine-gunned farm animals, gang-raped women, tortured the living, and mutilated the dead. They burned the village to the ground. Calley personally dragged dozens of people, including babies, into a ditch and executed them. He interrogated a Buddhist monk and then shot him in the head.
Before lunchtime, as many as 500 defenseless noncombatants were systematically murdered. The majority were women—nearly a score of them pregnant. More than 150 dead were children, including dozens of infants. A precise number of casualties at My Lai has never been fixed. The bloodshed only stopped when an Army helicopter pilot on a reconnaissance mission landed his aircraft between US soldiers and a group of fleeing villagers. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson ordered his door gunners to open fire on Charlie Company if they did not break off the attack.
Officers in charge of the operation were initially praised and awarded medals for the Pinkville operation. The crimes at My Lai were covered up for more than a year. Shortly after I was drafted in 1969, I was heartsick to read about its brutality. Photos of the carnage, taken by Ron Haeberle, an Army correspondent much like myself, broke the story to the world. His images of torn, lifeless bodies scattered in irrigation ditches and trampled fields embedded the profanation at My Lai into my soul for the rest of my life.
Today, the site of the My Lai massacre is known as the Son My Memorial. It was an essential stop for me when I returned to Vietnam in 2018 with Natalie. I stepped upon those horridly hallowed grounds–familiar to me in 1971 as tranquil farmland, punctuated by banana trees and pepper bushes–brimming with emotion. Dominating the site now is a larger-than-life “never again” limestone sculpture, which struck me as a mash up of Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympic Games, and Michelangelo’s Renaissance Pieta at St. Peter’s in Rome. There is defiance in its up-stretched, clenched fist. But also tenderness in the effigy of a mother cradling her lifeless baby. So perfectly like the Vietnamese as I had come to know them.
When we visited the Son My museum, a soft-spoken young girl in a royal blue ao dai tunic stumbled through a canned-English presentation. She attested with little emotion to the wartime atrocities committed there decades before she was born, reciting haltingly the captions of blurry pictures, which served as a faded record of a story the young woman could never adequately convey. The story of a day when an innocent village became hell on earth, evermore to symbolize the terror, cruelty, and madness of war.
The teenage girl’s drone was strangely soothing to me, like a chant. It calmed the rage that welled up in me as I reimagined the atrocities of Calley and his men. It was balm for all the other sorrow which was stuffed deep down inside me, scarred over and dormant since my return from the war. I wished at that moment there was a censer on hand at an altar, like so many that Natalie and I saw in the pagodas and traditional homes we visited. I wanted to make an offering; a prayer for the memories of My Lai, and MaryAnn, and all the rest to drift away like smoke, banished into the ether.
Suddenly, loud, staccato Vietnamese assaulted me from behind, shattering my brooding. I turned to encounter an aged, fleshy woman, overdressed in a dark wool coat and wide brimmed hat. Her rapid-fire torrent made me fearful that I was about to single-handedly take the fall for the cold-blooded crimes we were reliving on the museum walls. Natalie and I were the only Westerners in the room. Oanh, my guide and translator from DaNang, rushed over to rescue me. But it turned out, Mrs. Thong Chi Nguyen simply wanted to tell us her story.
“I am back here after 51 years,” she said. Thong lived nearby the My Lai community before the war. When fighting in the area intensified, she and her husband moved to the Central Highlands province of Dac Lak. She was 39 then. Word reached Dac Lac about the massacre at My Lai and Thong never returned.
Thong’s husband was a Viet Cong “Chieu Hoi”, who surrendered to the South Vietnamese army. “It was too dangerous, too risky, for him to fight the war against the American forces,” she explained. After the war, Mr. Thong paid dearly for his “welcome return.” Defection from the Communists cost him nine years in prison. He died at 68.
Mrs. Thong, who was 90, told me about her sons and grandchildren. They carry on her family’s legacy. But none of her old friends from My Lai survived. On this day, she viewed a wall inscribed with the names and ages of the victims, many of whom she knew. “There is no one left,” she said to me without lowering her voice.
Punished twice—the toll of the war, the retribution against her husband— I was bewildered that Mrs. Thong expressed no bitterness. She enjoys modern Vietnam. “Now, I am free to travel,” she boasted with a laugh and a smile. Even if her travel is only to a place she once lived long ago, where everyone she knew no longer exists.
I envied Mrs. Thong’s ability to overlook the loss inflicted upon her, her family, her country. Or had she, more accurately, overcome it? Was that the real lesson? The Vietnamese are better off now, not because of our intervention into their struggle, but despite it. They honor the dead. Live in peace. Look forward. If only we could do the same.
The news of Calley’s conviction that morning on the base at Chu Lai gave me some hope that at long last, one wickedness of the war—of the Americal—had been atoned. The military judges at Ft. Benning sentenced Calley to life imprisonment, finding him personally responsible for the murder of twenty-two civilians. However, President Nixon got him off the hook. Calley never served a day in jail. Nor did his commander, Captain Ernest Medina, whose orders Calley said he was obligated to follow.
A total of 18 other soldiers were prosecuted for crimes at My Lai. None were ever convicted or punished. The ghost of the Americal lived on.