At the My Lai Memorial Site

by David Calleja, Mar 24, 2010 | Destinations: Vietnam
Statue depicting a defiant mother and her family members dying, a tragic symbol of the 1968 My Lai massacre.

Statue depicting a defiant mother and her family members dying, a tragic symbol of the 1968 My Lai massacre.

Statue depicting a defiant mother and her family members dying, a tragic symbol of the 1968 My Lai massacre.

On March 16, 1968, 504 village civilians were slaughtered by members of the U.S. Army's Charlie Company, because of alleged sympathies with the Viet Cong (VC). In some instances, mutilation and rape took place against members of the female population before they were killed.  Authors such as Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim have compared the operation to the tactics used by the Nazis against the residents of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, in June 1942. News of the killings were made public in the United States by independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in November 1969, more than one and a half years later, when extracts of his conversations with the only man ever found guilty of mass killings, Second Lieutenant William Calley, and other soldiers present in My Lai appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Calley, the man once referred to as America's worst war criminal, was originally sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor by a military court. However, supporters of the war claimed that he was a scapegoat. One day after his sentencing in 1971, then-U.S. President Richard Nixon ordered for him to serve house arrest in Fort Benning, Georgia, pending an appeal. Calley was eventually freed in 1974.

 For more than three decades Calley refused to speak about his role in the killing of civilians. In 2007, the British newspaper the Daily Mail tracked him down to Atlanta, Georgia. According to the Daily Mail, Calley insisted on being paid $25,000 prior to speaking "for precisely one hour." The article continues:

"When we showed up at the appointed hour, armed not with a check but a list of pertinent questions, Calley scuttled away from the line of fire. It was an option the man who led the My Lai Massacre never afforded to his innocent victims."

But in 2009, he broke his silence and formally apologized for his role in organizing mass killings, labeling his actions of following orders to kill as "foolish" and admitting that he felt remorseful for the deaths of Vietnamese civilians and family members.

Other members of Charlie Company were not so hesitant in speaking about their experiences. Private First Class Varnado Simpson, who served in the platoon that occupied My Lai. Simpson, declared,

"Do you realize what it was like killing five hundred people in a matter of four or five hours? It's just like the gas chambers - what Hitler did. You line up fifty people, women, old men, children, and just mow ‘em down. And that's the way it was - from twenty-five to fifty to one hundred. Just killed. We just rounded ‘em up, me and a couple of guys, just put the M-16 on automatic, and just mowed ‘em down."

There is no recognizable slogan reminding the world of the horrors that took place in the hamlet of My Lai Subsection 4 (or Tu Cung), Vietnam, more than four decades ago.

Situated 12 kilometers outside of Quang Ngai City, My Lai is divided into a number of sections or hamlets that collectively form the village of Son My (pronounced Sun Mee) in Son Tinh district. The village is home to an atrocity that aches within the hearts of all who are consumed by the tumultuous events that transpired within four hours, a slaughter referred to as one of the heinous crimes in modern history.

So you can imagine how surprised I looked to hear the ticket lady greet me with, "Welcome to My Lai, Vietnam's Holocaust", as the money was about to leave my hands.

This was totally unexpected. Never before had the possibility of being "welcomed" to a mass grave site popped into my head. Her voice tone suggested that I was about to become another statistic contributing to the genocide-remembrance tourism industry.

Had the smile been any wider, this could have been some macabre sector of a theme park.

Maybe it had been a slow morning and the woman had to brighten proceedings somehow in absence of customers, earnestly finding their way to make every person's visit a memorable one. Earlier in the day, Billy, my xe om (motorcycle) driver, who made a good attempt at making me smile, using dark humor which I took more seriously than it was probably intended. He seemed surprised that he had a western customer not from the U.S.A. Nevertheless, he guaranteed that since I was Australian, there would be no motorcycle accident. It must have been my lucky day.

"Why do you want to go to My Lai? Not many visitors here this time of year," he roared as we whizzed past school children and cyclists on the city's streets. My interest in visiting the area, I explained, was to further expand my respect and understanding of the country's war history. Passing on my customary assurance that I liked Vietnam more than any other place I had previously seen, Billy pulled over to the roadside and stopped. Bearing his betel nut-stained teeth, he smiled and reassured me that he would "bring me back to hotel alive."

Before I had any chance to even contemplate why he said this, we took off again.

In between road bumps, Billy told me that Quang Ngai sees an influx of foreigners around the time of the massacre's anniversary in March. Many people come with cameras to record for television and present flowers to show respect, he said.

"That is the only time that the world cares about us. Where were they 40 years ago? Jews and Arabs ask us to remember their dead because they were in a holocaust. When Africans get killed, the world cries with them. Even Cambodia gets more attention because of Khmer Rouge. But not for us, we get on with life," he said cynically. As to whether he thought My Lai had endured a holocaust, he retorted, "Yes, gassing, shooting"-indicated by shouts of "BANG! BANG!"-, "kill with knives. It's all the same."

Vietnam may not have been gassed, but they got napalmed and endured seemingly every other type of ammunition, I thought. The serenity provided by the background of endless corn fields and drenched rice paddies was all a smokescreen. What if the soil could talk and speak of all it had absorbed during the war?

Entering the front gates of the My Lai Memorial Site, I purchased an iced green tea for Billy as an attempt to persuade him to come along, for nothing beats local knowledge. However, he had other ideas.

"Get a tour guide. I have shade from sun and a cold drink," he said bluntly.

I stood there with a puppy dog expression on my face, like a kid who did not get his Christmas present, hoping that I could still get my way. Instead he went further, saying if he had to tag along with every person he drove to the Memorial Site, "it would be like grieving at a tombstone of somebody I never met. It would lose all meaning. I go on my day so it feels special." Billy never revealed exactly when that day was.

With those words, my hopes of getting exclusive access to a survivor seemed to have faded, but when you come so far to learn so much, I continued to remain hopeful about prospects of meeting one member of the elder generation living in My Lai willing to share their forgiveness courtesy of an interview. According to Billy, there were less than a dozen survivors. My inspiration came from UNESCO Ambassador Kim Phuc, who as a nine year-old in 1972 suffered third degree burns following a napalm attack by South Vietnamese war planes on her village of Trang Bang, near Saigon.

For many years the identity of the individual who ordered the strike remained a mystery until former U.S. Air Force pilot John Plummer turned pastor at his local Baptist Church in Purceville, Virginia, identified himself as the man who "dropped the bombs" as Kim gave a speech to promote peace on Vietnam Veteran's Day in Washington D.C., 1996[8]. Backstage, Kim forgave an emotional Plummer for the actions that happened 24 years ago. Kim Phuc now lives with her husband in suburban Toronto, Canada. Speaking with her was out of the question, but maybe today would be my lucky day.

Inspired by this, I set out to visit the replica village, consisting of a number of small houses and huts. Each housing contains a communal eating and sleeping area, with a small backyard to raise pigs and chickens, and buffaloes to help with the farming work. Paths showed erratic patterns of residents' footprints running to escape capture, depicted by the presence of the military, represented by the more menacing army boot prints. There were shells depicting the extent of the damage as a result of gunfire. Images of slain domestic pets such as cats, dogs and pigs lay everywhere. Amazingly, BoDe trees stand adorned with plaques commemorating the loss of family members. The model village by itself made for a solemn and desolate place. Behind the replica village stood a wall of reconciliation, a symbol of artwork contributed by Vietnamese and American civilians over the years, as a healing gesture to remember what happened yesteryear and a vow to move forward together as friends.

Just like Kim's speech, this wall is a symbol designed to allow everyone to move forward.

Quickly moving into the museum to escape the humidity, I became captivated by a large sign listing the name and age of every victim ranging from 1 to 82 years old. Personal items such as photos, identification documents, handwritten letters, and jewelry were on display. Some of the pictures of young women displayed here were victims of "double veteran duties", slang for soldiers raping a girl (sometimes multiple times) before killing their victim. I examined the photos of young women and referred to Jonathan Neale's "A People's History of the Vietnam War" for the following passage:

"Rape does not happen because men are like that. It happens when commanders encourage it from the top."

I regretted bringing along my books as accompaniments, and wished I was naïve about everything, so learning, not proving, would be the objective of coming here in the first place. The silence added to the morbid atmosphere, resembled a morgue at times. However, I was not alone. My company in the museum were 30 people from a tour group travelling from Hanoi. They walked slowly, inspecting booths, solemnly appreciating the suffering of yesteryear, as if they were uncovering the gravesites themselves. Nobody uttered a word. They communicated only with their eyes, occasionally looking down at the floor before moving around the display cases. As I walked around the museum, a woman who claimed to be a survivor from My Lai, asked me how I felt about being here. To me she looked a little young, but she claimed to be in her 50s.

"How do you feel here?" she asked me. I assumed that she wanted to know how overcome I was by the magnitude of My Lai's tragedy.

"Sickened," I replied. She thought I needed a doctor because she started feeling my forehead.

"No, I am upset by looking at some of the awful things that happened here," I responded.

"Yes, GIs did bad things to my people. Please understand how evil they were. I hope this changes (the) way you think about the American War," she said, referring to what the Vietnamese call the Vietnam War. "Our country did not invade the U.S. They came here, thinking they can win. But we teach them a lesson."

"So are you a survivor from My Lai?" I asked, suspecting she was either a tour guide out to scalp some money or a liar.

"In Vietnam, if you live through war, then you are a survivor, because everybody fought us. But nobody beat us." was her candid response.

"I asked if you survived the My Lai massacre," I repeated.

"Yes. I live near My Lai. This is our Holocaust." Was she hoping to cash in by pretending to have survived what happened in 1968? I could have strung her along and appeared to believe everything she told me, for the sake of exposing a fraud, but since the desire to speak to an eyewitness was so great, I did not think anybody would imitate a survivor of a catastrophe itself.

Great, a swindler, I concluded.

Finally an official staff member wandering through the museum and I repeated my self-introductory spiel and pleaded that more people in the world needed to know stories from a survivor. Initially, the chances of an interview appeared good, but my gut instinct did not last.

"We have survivors living on grounds. But today is too hot for them to come and speak to you. The people are old," the staff member said. At least that was believable. But I remained dissatisfied and emphasized that I would come back for the interview next week.

"We only speak to big media. You are not important." That flattened my ego like a pancake.

"I have travelled halfway around the world to hear their message, not yours," I said.

Noticing the tour group passing by, the staff member said to me, "People who live here agree that My Lai is Vietnam's holocaust."

I became agitated, raised my voice and stated, "I want to hear them, the survivors, talk, not you." By now, everybody was listening to me.

Whatever facial expression or intonation my voice happened to contain, there were some sharp sentences in Vietnamese exchanged between the staff member and some middle-aged women from the tour group listening in. They said a few words, nodded in unison and glared at me before shuffling off to continue their journey. The tabloid press are going to have a field day with this.

Already the headlines started to flash in my mind, one of which being Holocaust Denier Exposed in My Lai, because I refused to take the words of a tour guide/potential interpreter/possible money launderer at face value without question. For her it was about authority: for me, authenticity. More importantly, my patience had finally worn out. Only one more task remained; the lighting and placing of incense sticks in front of a statue depicting a defiant and dying mother holding her child to her bosom as fellow villagers perished.

After saying a prayer for the souls of the departed, I referred to my copy of Four Hours In My Lai one last time to read the tale of Truong Thi Le, a 30 year-old woman in 1968, who lost nine members of her immediate family on that day. She survived the carnage by sandwiching herself between two corpses, escaping to find a litter of dead humans and animals, and an entire village uprooted after soldiers had left.[10] The ghosts of more than 500 dead souls had won their battle in evicting me from the premises, for it was time to return back to the city.

Once again, My Lai would become a distant little hamlet in a matter of moments, replaced by the sound of laughing children walking together in school uniforms, with corn fields and rice paddies in the background. Potholed dusty roads were gradually replaced by bitumen, as the outskirts of Quang Ngai City emerged on the horizon. No more was I surrounded by the gunshots, screams and bloodstains of a horrific moment in history. Motorcycles and street vendors selling noodles and ice-cream blended in with internet cafes packed with students. Amidst the butchery of yesteryear, the roots of optimism are sprouting with the seeds of forgiveness.

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