Meeting The Ghosts Of The My Lai Massacre

45 years since the slaughter the infamous spot remains a difficult place to visit...
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‘If we learn to accept this, there is nothing that we will not accept’.

Jonathan Schell,

“Once people are dead, you can't make them undead.”

Tim O'Brien,

Before parking, my driver, a quiet undemonstrative sort turned off his blaring car radio. He also put his cigarette out carefully rather than flick it out of his window. I took it to mean a show of respect to the area, and the agonised souls that roamed it.

The humidity sapped with its usual severity. I walked up to the grassy path. Past anguished bronze statues of peasants that led to the centrepiece of the memorial park. The park that had formerly housed the village of My Lai. - at least until Charlie Company had encountered it on 16th March 1968.

The huge triumphant Soviet Style monument - of an unbowed defiant woman with an outstretched right arm and clenched fist holding a slain child - seemed totally at odds with the understated dignity of the area. Randomly placed, simple black granite plaques stood near raised grass mounds. They indicated how many villagers died from a particular hut, or how many had been executed at that precise spot. Grey gum trees with bullet holes were constant reminders of the four hours Charlie Company had spent here that fateful day.

There was a blue sky and lushness in the fields. But there was also an absence of activity. Even farm animals appeared to know to keep away from this site. A site that saw between 150-500 innocent Vietnamese villagers lose their lives before that March midday. I found it instructive that there was no sign of the delicate Quynh Hoa plant with gentle snow white flowers, so revered in Vietnamese art and history. It was almost comforting that such a fragile thing refused to exist in a place with such a grisly past.

It was as if nature herself was so disgusted by what had happened in those areas that she knew to keep away.

The men of Charlie Company landed at My Lai and the first barrage broke the air at 7.27am.

A line had been crossed that beggared understanding.

Immediately an old man tending a water buffalo put his hands in the air 50 metres away and was shot with no explanation. Lt Calley failed to reprimand the company for indiscriminate shooting. A Private Boyce, as if gripped by the devil himself, suddenly drove his bayonet into the chest of an unarmed villager killing him on the ground, before shooting another man in the neck, throwing him in a well then dropping a hand grenade into it. ‘That’s the way you gotta do it’ he said. A murderous, unthinking chain reaction had been put in motion.

Private Varnado Simpson was seen to shoot a woman, firing her arm off in the process before she and her baby were killed.

He later recalled killing a young child. ‘My mind just went, I started killing...I just started killing any way I can kill. It just came. I didn’t know I had it in me…the hardest is to kill the first but once you kill then it becomes easier to kill the next person and the next one and the next one…I had no feelings, no emotions, nothing’.

A group of petrified villagers hiding in a tunnel were silenced when a grenade was thrown into it. Lt Calley lined up 10-15 men and executed them at close range with machine guns. The action resulted in severed heads and a scene resembling an abattoir, before Calley questioned a monk further along the field. As he screamed at the terrified monk accusing him of being a Viet Cong, a 2 year old child crawled away from the body of its mother lying dead in a nearby ditch. Calley picked up the child hurled it back into the ditch, and nonchalantly shot it, before continuing to question the petrified monk. Frustrated with his pleading that there were no weapons, or VC hiding in the village Calley simply opened fire at the Venerable Buddhist with an M-16, killing the man instantly.

All huts were ‘zippoed’, that is set alight and burned. The initial flame coming from the durable metal lighters called Zippos, reproductions of which I later saw for sale in a Saigon market. Incredibly an Army photographer was on hand to record some of the images as the Company worked their way through the dying village of My La.

The image of a woman clad in a blue top lay dead in a field, her brains resting next to her, was captured forever by the photographer, resembling something mirthless from the Book of Revelations.

Like all mass murder the truth is beyond the scope of understanding. The simple fact was that up to 500 villagers were brutalised and killed in cold blood by Charlie Company in My Lai on 16th March 1968. It was an unchecked bloodlust, consuming the troop like a violent madness.


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Gentle Mimosa plants buoyed by recent rains grew next to swaying palm trees as we squelched our way to the Museum at Tu Cung. On the way there we walked past the Thua Yan ditch where it was reported 170 bodies were found. Standing next to the ditch, looking into the silent calm murky water held in the long trough, I involuntarily shivered.

Inside the museum were some of the photos taken by the photographer. Their immediacy and graphic nature echoed the murderous intensity of that day, and made for uncomfortable and gruelling viewing.

As I looked at the images I noted the faces of still living villagers through the certainty of hindsight. I knew what was going to happen to them, yet moments before their deaths their eyes betrayed the fact that they also knew that fact. A fearful resignation that had extinguished all hope of a reprieve.

I saw a man lying on the ground with his intestines laid out in front of him. I saw a picture of piles of villagers lying prone and lifeless near the watchtower. And the body of whom we know to be a Mrs Chin Tau. Shot in the head with her brain nestling next to her like rotting mincemeat. Her eyes frozen in a piercing stare. It was a stare that haunted the thoughts of the US Public - if not all of the perpetrators - for a long time afterwards. I know it certainly haunted mine. Even now I can recall the stark shot, mostly when I don’t wish to.

In the museum I also saw bland artefacts. Like an ex-East-end Fireman acquaintance of mine who would never talk about deaths he encountered, rather he would very occasionally mention the sight of a melted doll. Their very ordinariness and banality intensified the horror for me. I know now 1 year old Do Cu owned a pink plastic toy crab before the back of the child’s head was blown away by a high velocity bullet. And in the corner, like the uninvited guests they were, I saw a single picture of Charlie Company zippo lighting thatch huts.

What was ultimately almost as shocking as the tragic deaths of the innocent villagers, as to leave a lasting sense of betrayal was this: what took place had been perpetrated by Americans. The nation we trusted above all others. The good guys.

Here in My Lai I couldn’t reconcile, the fact that American Soldiers committed these atrocities. The fact that Sgt Calley was Amon Goethe in a different uniform.

Disorientated, I bought a packet of cigarettes from a lady with bright, porcelain white teeth. I ripped off the foil, I lit the end, needful of the habit, and silently sucked in the chemicals that poisoned my lungs. It gave me a sensation of falling so fast I had no control over my body.

Of course I had no reason personally to feel guilt at what happened during those evil four hours on 16th March 1968: but I did feel deeply ashamed.

And that is surely worse.

Postscript: No-one from Charlie Company apart from Calley was ever prosecuted.

Yet, perhaps of the most pitful victims of My Lai was Private Varnado Simpson. He later suffered from chronic PTSD. When the documentary makers of ‘Four Hours in My Lai’ visited him at his in house in Jackson, Mississippi in 1989 his hands and legs shook uncontrollably. He admitted to killing ‘about 25 people’. 

In 1977 a teenager accidentally shot and killed his 10 year old son. Simpson recalled, ‘he died in my arms. And when I looked at him his face was like the same face of the child that I had killed. And I said: ‘’This is the punishment for me killing the people that I killed’’ mirroring the Vietnamese proverb Gy ông đp lưng ông: evil acts punish themselves.

Later, his daughter died of meningitis, and on Sunday May 4th 1997, at the age of 48, racked by an all-consuming guilt, he committed suicide with a pump action shotgun.  29 years on My Lai had claimed another victim.

This is an excerpt taken from Layth’s book “Hanoi Autobahn”

Follow Layth on twitter @laythy29