A key experience
Published/Last edited or updated: 24th February, 2017
In the early hours of 16 March 1968, a group of American soldiers known as Charlie Company landed by helicopter into the rural village of My Lai with the mission to root out Viet Cong fighters.
What they found were peasant farmers, mostly women, children and the elderly, in their homes eating breakfast about to start their day. In less than five hours, 504 civilian lives would be brutally erased in what became known as the My Lai Massacre, one of the most horrific atrocities against civilians in American military history of the time.
My Lai (pronounced mee lie) lies 15 km northeast of Quang Ngai city near the coast. It is actually one hamlet within the village of Son My (son mee). The massacre took place in two hamlets, on US army maps shown as My Lai 4 and My Khe 4 in an area the army named Pinkville based on the colour it appeared on maps.
Over the course of a morning, the troops rampaged through the village with the objective to kill all. Unarmed civilians were shot point blank, bayonetted, beaten to death, maimed or mutilated—scalping, tongues cut out, hands cut off. Women and girls were gang raped, sexually assaulted and forced to perform sex acts. Homes were sprayed with bullets, grenades were thrown into homes and those fleeing gunned down.
Led by Lt William L. Calley, groups of villagers were herded to an irrigation ditch and executed by machine gun. Witnesses would later describe how one boy no more than three survived the initial gunfire and tried to scramble away, and how Lt Calley ran after the child, dragged him back, threw him into the ditch and shot him. The village was torched to erase the evidence.
In the end, 504 innocent civilians across 247 families were killed. Of them, 182 were women—17 of which were pregnant—173 children including 56 infants under 5 months old, and 60 elderly over the age of 60. 24 families were wiped out entirely. Their names and ages are listed in the Son My museum, which stands adjacent to one of the sites.
The ditch is still there, and a footpath now leads past it and several mass graves, as well as empty plots where homes once stood. Simple markers at each spot state what family lived there and who was killed. You can still see bullet holes in the coconut trees.
Inside the museum there are a few maps, dioramas, artefacts and gut-wrenching photographs, some capturing the moment before a person was killed or after, their splattered body strewn across a dirt path. Army photographer Ron Haeberle followed Charlie Company’s 3rd platoon expecting to document a battle with the Viet Cong but instead he recorded a mass murder, luckily carrying both the Army camera with black and white film (the images Army property) and his own camera with colour film.
The photos were later published in LIFE magazine, exposing the war crime to the world. The image of anguished women and children cowering together moments before they were shot became one of the most iconic images of the Vietnam war. We noticed that some of these famous images were absent from the museum. You may also notice that there are no images capturing the act of killing, American shooting the civilians. After years of denying they existed, in 2009 Haeberle admitted that he had destroyed those photos.
The museum lacks narrative. There are only brief captions and without prior knowledge of the events that took place, a visitor will be left with questions. Some of the facts can be filled in with an English speaking guide, available for free from the museum. It’s a scripted talk and while it gives visitors a better idea of what happened, we also recommend doing your own research beforehand to get the most out of your experience. We’ve included a list of recommended reading at the end. Watch interviews of the survivors, listen to their testimony as well as those of the soldiers. Reports, documentaries grapple with the question of who did this and why. It’s excruciating and disturbing, but it is the only way to get a full picture and begin to even comprehend.
Charlie Company was one of three in Task Force Barker, a unit headed by Lt. Col. Frank Barker Jr. Charlie Company’s commanding officer was Captain Ernest Medina, and the leader of the 1st Platoon was 24-year old Lt. William Calley. Thanks to an independent informal investigation by ex-G.I. Ronald L Ridenhour, an inquiry was ordered and news outlets broke the story in late 1969. It included a report by journalist Seymour M. Hersh which would win him the Pulitzer Prize. Ron Haeberle’s photos were also published. The inquiry recommended charges against 15 officers, of which only two ever faced court-martial. Lt. William Calley was the only one convicted and he was sentenced to life in prison. He spent three days in jail before President Nixon intervened and had him placed under house arrest. He was paroled after serving less than four years.
In the darkest of hours some heroes did emerge. Photos of Larry Colburn, Hugh Thompson and Glenn Andreotta hang in the museum. This three-man helicopter crew was assigned to hover over My Lai on reconnaissance. They could tell something was amiss with all the bodies on the ground and lack of enemy fire and they touched down in the middle of the massacre in progress. They tried to stop the men. At one point, after finding survivors huddling in a shelter, there was an intense standoff between Thompson and several officers. He was able to safely guide the survivors to a helicopter and have them evacuated to safety. In the aftermath, Colburn, Thompson and Andreotta were seen as traitors and whistleblowers. It was later revealed that Nixon approved the use of “dirty tricks” to discredit them and sabotage the My Lai trials to prevent the impending PR disaster.
The museum guide will emphasise a few times that this wasn’t the only massacre of the Vietnam War. My Lai became famous because there was photographic evidence and the story was published; there are many others, far bloodier operations that may never be known. Unspoken are the countless innocent civilians who were tortured, imprisoned and executed by the North Vietnamese army during and after the war.
What My Lai did was force the American public confront the horrors of what was happening—at first people didn’t believe Haeberle’s photos were real because they couldn’t believe Americans could do such a thing. Suddenly, what the “good side” was capable of was on the front page and evening news, galvanising the public against the war. Those men claimed they were simply following orders.
As written by Ben Cosgrove in Time, My Lai is “a reminder of what America lost in the jungles of Vietnam: namely, any claim to moral high ground in a war often defined by those back home as a battle between right and wrong.”
Today, Lt Calley continues to live as a free man in Georgia. He remains the only officer to have been convicted for his role in the massacre.
March 16, 1968: massacre at Son My.
March 1969: A few weeks later, 22 year old ex-G.I. Ronald Ridenhour hears about the massacre at Pinkville from another soldier. Upon hearing several eyewitness accounts, he does his own informal investigation. In March 1969, he sends a letter to 30 government officials including President Nixon, and several members of Congress.
April 23, 1969: The Office of the Inspector General begins an inquiry.
September 5, 1969: Lt Calley is charged with six counts of premeditated murder.
November 20, 1969: The Plain Dealer is the first news outlet to publish Ron Haeberle’s photos.
November 13, 1969: A story by investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh for The Dispatch News Service brings international attention.
December 5, 1969: LIFE magazine publishes a story along with a series of Ron Haeberle’s photos. Images are shown on the CBS Evening News, causing nation-wide outrage over the massacre.
March 1970: Findings of the Peers Inquiry released. It names 30 people in connection with the massacre and the subsequent cover up.
The army files charges against 14 officers. All except Calley had their charges eventually dismissed or were acquitted.
March 29, 1971: Lt Calley, Charlie Company’s commanding officer, is convicted for the premeditated murder of 22 civilians and is sentenced to life in prison with hard labour. There is public outcry, defending Calley as a hero. President Richard Nixon intervenes and three days later Calley is removed from prison and spends the next three years under house arrest in Georgia pending his legal appeal.
1974: Calley is freed on bail. Later that year, he is paroled.
March 6, 1998: The Solider’s Medal is awarded to helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, door gunner Lawrence Colburn and (posthumously) crew chief Glenn Andreotta. They were the three-man crew assigned to hover over My Lai on reconnaissance who landed as the massacre was underway and tried to stop the slaughter. They retrieved survivors and had them flown to safety.
The award honours their “heroism above and beyond the call of duty while saving the lives of at least 10 Vietnamese civilians during the unlawful massacre of non-combatants by American forces at My Lai.” This is in stark contrast to the years immediately after where they were regarded as traitors and whistle-blowers. Nixon approved the use of “dirty tricks” to discredit witnesses and sabotage the My Lai trials to cover up the impending PR disaster.
December 2016: Larry Colburn, the last surviving member of the three-man helicopter crew, dies.
2017: Lt Calley continues to live free in Georgia. He remains the only officer to have been convicted for his role in the massacre.
There is an impressive amount of information related to the My Lai Massacre online and the following is a roundup of videos, news stories and books that will be useful in forming a fuller, more detailed view of what took place on the day along with the events afterwards.
PBS American Experience: My Lai Massacre
(2010) An award winning documentary.
PBS Frontline: Remember My Lai
(1989) Includes interviews with the soldiers, survivors and photographer Ron Haeberle.
60 Minutes: “Back to My Lai”
(March 29, 1998) Reported by Mike Wallace, the report includes footage and interviews of heroes Hugh Thompson and Larry Colburn as they return to Vietnam and reunite with survivors.
An overview of what happened
The Scene of the Crime
(March 30, 2015) Seymour M. Hersh, the investigative journalist who reported on the massacre, revisits My Lai and the secrets of the past. (An excellent article, but note that it includes an interview with “war veteran” Chuck Palazzo, who is now alleged to have fabricated his military service.)
“Something Dark and Bloody”: What Happened at My Lai
(July 8, 2012) A timeline of events interwoven with soldier and survivor testimony.
Murder in the Name of War - My Lai
(20 July 1998) A five part series by BBC
Timeline: Charlie Company and the Massacre at My Lai
A timeline, including a breakdown of the morning of the massacre.
Larry Colburn, Who Helped Stop My Lai Massacre, Dies at 67
(December 16, 2016) The death of the last surviving member of the US helicopter crew that saw the My Lai massacre in progress and were so horrified, they risked their own lives to try and stop it, and save civilians.
Hugh Thompson, 62, Who Saved Civilians at My Lai, Dies
(Jan 7, 2006)
Interview: Larry Colburn
(May 2009) In his interview with American Experience, Larry Colburn discusses Hugh Thompson, their role at My Lai, and how that day affected the rest of their lives.
Heroes of My Lai honoured
(March 7, 1998) Hugh Thompson and Lawrence Colburn are awarded the Soldier’s Medal.
The photographer and the photographs
My Lai, Sexual Assault and the Black Blouse Girl: Forty-Five Years Later, One of America’s Most Iconic Photos Hides Truth in Plain Sight
(October 29, 2013)
Everybody Knows the “Napalm Girl” but How Come Nobody Knows the “Black Blouse Girl”?
45 Years Later, My Lai, the Military and Sexual Abuse
American Atrocity: Remembering My Lai
(March 13, 2013) Images of the 1969 LIFE magazine article that ran with Ronald Haeberle’s photographs.
My Lai photographer Ron Haeberle exposed a Vietnam massacre 40 years ago today in The Plain Dealer
(November 20, 2009)
My Lai photographer Ron Haeberle admits he destroyed pictures of soldiers in the act of killing
(November 20, 2009)
Photo Gallery: Photographic Evidence of the Massacre at My Lai
A selection of Ron Haeberle’s images, many of them violent and graphic.
Calley apologizes for role in My Lai massacre
(August 21, 2009) After nearly 40 years of silence, convicted ex-Army officer says he’s sorry.
Nixon and the My Lai Massacre Coverup
(March 15, 2014) How Nixon initiated the campaign to sabotage the My Lai massacre trials so no American soldier involved would be convicted of war crimes.
(January 22, 1972) Seymour M Hersh reports on the coverup of My Lai.
Document points to Nixon in My Lai cover-up attempt
(Mar 23, 2014) Documents held at the Nixon Presidential Library paint a disturbing picture of what happened inside the Nixon administration after news of the massacre broke.
Links to court-martial testimony, documents, army maps
Books and resources
Four Hours in My Lai
By Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim (1993)
The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story
by Trent Angers (1999)
My Lai: An American Atrocity in the Vietnam War
by William Thomas Allison (2012)
To get to the museum on your own, from Quang Ngai city cross the Tra Khuc bridge (Cau Tra Khuc) going north, then turn right passing My Tra Riverside Hotel. At the large roundabout, continue straight on QL24B. It’s 8 km to Son My.
By public transit, the green Mai Linh bus #3 departs Quang Ngai bus station between 05:30 and 17:30 and winds its way through the city, crosses Tra Khuc bridge and heads northeast with stops at Son My, My Khe beach and ends at Sa Ky port. There’s a bus stop directly in front of the museum. Let the attendant know you are going to Son My (son mee) and they’ll let you know where to disembark. Cost is 13,000 dong per ride. Check this Quang Ngai government link for the current bus schedule.
It’s possible to do a day trip to Son My while in transit. With some careful timing, you could arrive in the morning by train, take a xe om or taxi 13 km to the site and return to catch an onward train. By bus it takes some gumption and timing is more difficult, especially if using local buses that have less reliable departure times. Arrive into Quang Ngai bus station and grab xe om/taxi or take the Mai Linh bus.
On a bus coming from the south along Highway 1A, pass through Quang Ngai town and cross the river. Just where it touches down on the northern bank of the river, there's a sign for Highway QL24B and a sharp right-turn exit—alight here. Or heading from the north, you'll want to get off Highway 1A just before the overpass, which is marked by a sign indicating that you're entering Quang Ngai. Buses can drop you off here if you ask. Find a xe om, meter taxi or find the bus stop and grab bus #3. You can return here when you're done and catch one of the 16-passanger vans heading north or south along Highway 1A.
Finally, it’s possible to hire a car and do it as a long day trip from Hoi An.
Address: 15km from Quang Ngai
Coordinates (for GPS): 108º52'22.21" E, 15º10'36.68" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: 10,000 VND. English-speaking guides are available—there is no charge for the service but a donation to the museum is appropriate.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
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