One of many photos taken by United States
Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle on March 16, 1968
in the aftermath of the My Lai massacre
showing mostly women and children dead on a road.
years ago, on Saturday morning, March 16, 1968, 18-year-old Truong Moi, a fisherman from the hamlet of My Lai in Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam, went out to check the fishnets he had set in a nearby river. Troung was a member of a community of about 700 people, including the hamlet of My Khe. They lived in thatch-roofed huts and redbrick homes in the village of Son My, located on Vietnam’s South Central Coast. My Lai and My Khe were quiet and peaceful hamlets, for the most part untouched by the war.
In Vietnam, those actions were routine in search and destroy missions. As such, My Lai and My Khe were designated as free-fire zones. Civilian populations always get caught up in war’s mayhem. But, what transpired was not routine. It was not an isolated event, either.
When Charlie Company landed, Truong was terrified and took cover. When he returned home, he found the charred remains of his mother and the remaining members of his family. His brother, his sister, and her two children were dead. In all, twenty-four members of his family had been slaughtered. He found bodies along paths and in ditches, including children, with their throats slit and others naked and disemboweled.
Working in the rice fields, Truong’s father escaped. His brother survived the slaughter because he had hidden under bodies that shielded him from the bullets.
At about 9 A.M., at the height of the massacre, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, along with his crew, Specialist Glenn Andreotta and Specialist Lawrence Colburn were flying an observation helicopter over My Lai. On an earlier flyover, Thompson had marked the location of several wounded Vietnamese with green smoke, signaling they needed help, but noticed they were now dead. He and his crew saw Captain 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 alive. Thompson landed, and requested help for the people in the ditch from Squad Leader Sergeant David Mitchell. Second Lieutenant William Calley interceded, telling Thompson to mind his own business and to get back in his helicopter. Thompson returned 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 2nd Platoon. Thompson landed knowing the soldiers intended to execute them. Thompson commanded his crew to give him cover and to shoot the Americans if they began shooting at the fleeing villagers. He then put himself between the Vietnamese and Americans.
He confronted 2nd Platoon Leader Lieutenant Stephen Brooks, telling him he was going to 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 massacred 347 Vietnamese in My Lai and 157 in the hamlet of My Khe.
Warrant Officer Thompson, because of his actions at My Lai, encountered sharp criticism. Congressmen Mendel Rivers said that Thompson should be the only soldier punished, and 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.
Thompson retired from the Army with the rank of Major in 1983 and died in 2006. Specialist Andreotta was killed in action three weeks after My Lai.
Those events are troubling, but what makes them equally troubling is there acceptance. Accepted because it is perceived, no matter how horrific, that unrestrained violence is the norm in war. Many believe that an American soldier would not deliberately commit such acts, and if they did there were mitigating circumstances for their actions. Despite the fact that, at the time, he essentially whitewashed My Lai’s atrocities, 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.”
Other than Calley, participants in the massacre were acquitted, or never tried for their crimes. Calley was sentenced to life in prison but pardoned by President Richard Nixon in 1974.
World War II German and Japanese soldiers were put on trial for war crimes and executed for committing similar acts.
To kill an enemy is a soldier’s purpose. But there are laws of war, and soldiers, whether they are Americans or not, must be held accountable for their conduct. We must not excuse America’s war crimes by doing no more than fluff them off and say they are “to be deplored.” And, we should not whitewash the history of any war, particularly the horror of Vietnam.
Copyright © 2016 Horatio Green
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