Thirty years later, memories of My Lai massacre remain fresh

By Paul Alexander, Associated Press writer
(From South Coast Today:

MY LAI, Vietnam -- Truong Thi Le stares at a graphic photograph of the massacre's carnage, then points at the pile of corpses under which she hid for four hours, clutching her 6-year-old son. Her dead mother, brother and another son sprawl nearby.

"I feel pain in my heart when I look at this," she says, her voice choking. "I have to struggle not to cry. I still can't account for what happened."

Dredging up memories of the terrible events of March 16, 1968, is easy -- far too easy -- for Le, 70, and Ha Thi Quy, 73 ((see top photo). Dealing with the memories is another matter.

That long-ago day started mostly overcast and breezy, with some hot sun later around noon, the two women say. The 8,000 residents of the four My Lai hamlets were having breakfast or heading to the rice paddies. The winter crop, not one of the best, was almost ready for harvest.

When gunfire started, it wasn't a surprise. My Lai was in a war zone; many residents had crude dirt shelters to huddle in during artillery attacks.

But this time was different. Within four hours, 504 men, women and children, by the residents' count, would lie dead after one of the U.S. Army's blackest days.

Quy speaks softly at first, recalling how American soldiers had visited My Lai hamlet No. 4 previously, giving away candy and cigarettes and getting water.

Her wrinkled face comes alive and her voice picks up intensity and agitation -- "I still feel frightened to tell the story," she says -- as she details how helicopters came in low around 6 a.m., followed by American infantrymen who gathered up the villagers.

As Quy was herded through the rice paddies, a bullet hit her thigh; she thinks it was a stray because it didn't come from the soldier behind her.

She managed to keep walking until the group reached a newly dug ditch about 50 yards long.

"The villagers did not dare to resist," she says. "They had nothing to fight back. I prayed for them to spare me. They didn't say anything."

The first to be shot was a monk. In the ensuing barrage, Quy was hit in the buttocks, went down and passed out.

When Quy awoke, the soldiers were gone. They left behind 407 dead and dying, villagers said later. The Americans had moved on to My Lai hamlet No. 2, where they killed 97 more people.
Quy found herself in a pile of corpses, including her mother and eldest daughter, in the ditch where the blood was calf-deep.

"The dead bodies piled over me. That's why I survived. I was just lucky," she says. "I managed to pull myself out of the bodies and walked home. It was burned and all the cows and pigs were killed. We had nothing left."

Covered in blood, Quy walked to another village for clean clothes, a bath and an escape from the insanity.

Finally becoming widely known nearly two years later, the tale of the horrors at My Lai intensified the American public's ill feelings about the war. Returning servicemen were branded "baby-killers" even if they had been far from the battlefield.

"My Lai was an appalling example of much that had gone wrong in Vietnam," retired Army Gen. Colin Powell wrote in his book, "My American Journey."

"The involvement of so many unprepared officers and noncoms led to breakdowns in morale, discipline and professional judgment -- and to horrors like My Lai -- as the troops became numb to what appeared to be endless and mindless slaughter."

Initial military reports claimed the massacre began when two Americans were killed and 10 wounded by booby traps. In reality, the only U.S. casualty was a soldier who shot himself in the foot.

The Army's court-martial proceedings ruled that platoon leader Lt. William Calley and his men, frustrated by losses from land mines, snipers and ambushes, killed at least 175 villagers and perhaps more than 400.
Calley was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Other officers were censured or demoted.
After a public outcry that Calley was being made a scapegoat, President Nixon reduced the sentence to 20 years, and Calley actually served just three years of house arrest before his conviction was overturned by a federal judge.

Ironically, the massacre was not such big news in Vietnam, especially in the war-ravaged region surrounding My Lai, where almost everyone lost a relative or friend to the war and where reports have persisted that this was far from the only atrocity.

Fierce battles followed around My Lai until 1971. Bulldozers flattened much of the area. Only about 500 villagers remained, working the rice paddies during the day and hiding nearby at night.

Quy was a hired worker in other villages for a while. One of her two sons lost an arm, a leg and an eye in a land-mine blast later in 1968. But her remaining relatives and her land were in My Lai, so she returned, even as the fighting continued.

"Most were too frightened to come back," she says. "And there was a bad smell from the bodies and the blood."

Though the country has no official religion, many Vietnamese believe in spirits. Both Le and Quy claim they and other survivors could hear faint screams and cries for years after the massacre.
"I think their souls were still wandering around late at night," Le says.

But they say the cries have faded since a memorial was erected in 1978. The spirits seem to be more at rest now.

The local population has grown to 13,125. The dirt road is paved. Once, only a handful of relatively rich families owned bicycles. Now there are 700 motorbikes and an average of four bicycles per household. Nearly a third of the homes have a TV.

But this is still a poor farming community -- average per-capita income $135 a year -- where most work is done by hand.

Freshly harvested peanuts dry in large flat baskets on the side of the road. Women ride bicycles bushy with yam leaves gathered for pig feed. The waist-high rice is weeks away from harvest.

The names of the massacre's victims are listed on a black plaque that looks like a small chunk of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. It hangs from a wall of the museum in the center of the My Lai memorial site.

Photos taken during the massacre by a U.S. military photographer show the carnage in stomach-churning detail. Gray statues and a mosaic portray victims, some dying, others comforting or defiant.
A couple of My Lai's artillery shelters were rebuilt. A dead tree, riddled with bullet holes, juts up beside one.

Pots of burnt joss sticks sit in front of headstones. One marks where 170 people were killed in the ditch, another where 15 women were raped and killed.

It took five years for Quy's physical wounds to heal; the psychological ones are still fresh for her and Le.
"I felt very angry toward the American troops," Le says. "Of course I didn't believe all Americans were bad. It was just some of them. But I'm still trying to release my emotions."

Virtually everyone involved in My Lai or its aftermath expresses one hope: that the massacre will be a lesson never to be forgotten.

"Most of the families in the two communes lost someone," Quy says. "Those born since then have been told stories about the massacre. I hope children all over the world don't have to go through what we did."

Copyright Digital History 2018