That all changed when the brunt of the Vietnam War abruptly entered their lives: On that Saturday morning around 7:30 A.M., a barrage of American artillery rounds and strafing by Huey Cobra attack helicopters bombarded Truong’s village. Following the shelling, a little less than a third of a mile from where Truong was collecting his night’s catch, three platoons from Americal Division’s Charlie Company disembarked and fanned out from Huey Slick choppers. Two platoons surrounded and cordoned off Mỹ Lai, bottling up the perimeter while infantrymen from the 1st platoon spearheaded the invasion into the village. Led by Second Lieutenant William Calley, they entered Mỹ Lai hamlet. On orders from the Company‘s Captain Ernest Medina, they went into the hamlet firing at anything that moved including women and children. They set fire to huts, blew up homes, killed animals, and poisoned drinking wells.
These actions were routine in "free-fire zone" designated search and destroy missions in Vietnam. But, what transpired was not routine, although it was not an isolated event, either.
When Charlie Company landed, Truong was terrified and took cover. After the hell he had witnessed from his position in hiding had ended, and was sure the Americans had left, he returned to his commune. In their home, he found the charred remains of his mother, and the remaining members of his family at the foot of a watchtower. His brother, his sister and her two children were dead. In all twenty-four members of his immediate family had been slaughtered. He found piled bodies along paths and in ditches including children with their throats slit and others naked and disemboweled.
His father, like Truong was working in the rice fields and escaped. His brother was spared from the slaughter because he had hidden under bodies that shielded him from the soldier's bullets.
At about 9 A.M., at the height of the massacre, Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson, Jr., along with his crew, Specialist Glenn Andreotta and Specialist Lawrence Colburn, was flying his Raven observation helicopter over Mỹ Lai. On an earlier flyover, Thompson had marked the location of several wounded Vietnamese with green smoke, signaling they needed help, but noticed that they were now dead. He and his crew saw Captain Ernest Medina walk up to a wounded Vietnamese woman whose location Thompson also marked earlier that morning. Medina nudged her with his foot and then killed her. His flyover included a view of an irrigation ditch with dozens of bodies. There was movement in the ditch indicating some were still alive. Thompson landed. Thompson requested help for the people in the ditch from Squad Leader Sergeant David Mitchell. Second Lieutenant William Calley interceded, commanding Thompson had “better get back in that chopper and mind your own business.”
Thompson returned to his chopper and took off. His crew chief, Specialist Andreotta, reported that Squad Leader Mitchell was executing people in the ditch.
Thompson and his crew spotted a group of unarmed Vietnamese, including children, running from infantrymen of the 2nd Platoon. Thompson landed knowing the soldiers intended to execute them. He put himself between the Vietnamese and their adversaries. Thompson commanded his crew to give him cover and to shoot the Americans if they began shooting at the fleeing villagers.
He confronted 2nd Platoon Leader Lieutenant Stephen Brooks, telling him he was going evacuate the Vietnamese and requested his help. Thompson persuaded the pilots of his two Huey gunship escorts to evacuate eleven survivors. Later, on his return from refueling, crewmember Specialist Andreotta found a boy alive, who Thompson flew to a hospital in Quang Ngai.
When it was all over, Charlie Company deliberately massacred 347 Vietnamese in Mỹ Lai and 157 in the hamlet of My Khe. Warrant Officer Thompson, because of his actions at Mỹ Lai, took sharp congressional criticism. Congressmen Mendel Rivers stated opinion was that Thompson should be the only soldier punished, and Rivers even attempted to have him court-martialed. It took thirty years for America to recognize the heroic actions of Thompson, Andreotta, and Colburn when they were awarded the Soldier’s Medal for bravery. Thompson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and he, Andreotta and Colburn were awarded Bronze Stars.
Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson, Jr. retired from the Army with the rank of Major in 1983 and died in 2006. Specialist Andreotta was killed in action three weeks after Mỹ Lai’s engagement.
These events are troubling enough, but what makes them even more so are there acceptance, perceived as part and parcel of war. Many believe that the U.S. Military or an American soldier would not deliberately perform such acts, and if they did, there were other reasons for their actions. Here is a typical comment: “Until you have faced the terrors and stress of war far from your home, I'd be quite hesitant to point your finger. Neither of us was there and could never understand, but many of us are now returning with unspeakable experiences.” And, United States Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “… in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored,” despite the fact that at the time he essentially whitewashed the Mỹ Lai atrocities.
The excusing or extenuation of these criminal acts is evidenced by the lenient sentences given to the participants in this massacre. Second Lieutenant William Calley was the only participant convicted. After various military and civilian court determinations, a pardon by President Richard Nixon ended up making Calley a free man. Others were acquitted or never tried for their crimes. Moreover, it is important to understand that German and Japanese soldiers were executed for similar acts committed during World War II.
On this forty-third anniversary of the Sơn Mỹ Massacre, it’s important to note that this massacre is only one out of many. Other atrocities, such as the Thanh Phong Massacre, may not have had the same enormity, but we should not treat any of them as insignificant by doing no more than just fluff them off and say they are “to be deplored.” Somehow, Americans need to be made to understand that American soldiers do kill whether they look like the enemy or not, it all depends on what commanders determine as the enemy, even pregnant women, infants, and children; that to kill is an infantryman’s training and purpose; that our Armed Forces do not have a benevolent purpose; that we need “to point our finger” at war’s immorality and wrongdoing; and we need to make a commitment and take all measures available to prevent sending an American to face “the terrors and stress of war.”
In a "60 Minutes" interview, Hugh Thompson said, "I mean, I wish I was a big enough man to say I forgive them [soldiers of Charlie Company at Mỹ Lai], but I swear to God, I can't."
And neither can I.
Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, The Villagers of My Lai, excerpted interviews from their book “Four Hours in My Lai,” My Lai Courts-Martial
Associated Press, Vietnam atrocities revealed in report, Boston Globe
Wikipedia contributors, 'My Lai Massacre', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=My_Lai_Massacre&oldid=419100294> [accessed 19 March 2011]
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Seymour M. Hersh/St. Louis Post Dispatch, The My Lai Massacre, An Atrocity Is Uncovered: November 1969, Candide’s Notebooks: Texts reproduced from Reporting Vietnam, Part Two: American Journalism 1969-1975 (Library of America, 1998), pp. 13-27.