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First Person

A Day of Darkness

March 16, 1968. My Lai, Vietnam. 504 dead. All civilians. The killers? U.S. soldiers.

March 12, 1998|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MY LAI, Vietnam — Nearly three decades ago, as a young reporter for United Press International, I was escorted by a squad of South Vietnamese soldiers into this Viet Cong stronghold to check out reports that U.S. soldiers had massacred hundreds of civilians.

I suspected that the reports were a fabrication. I had seen the graves in Hue, where North Vietnamese soldiers had buried 3,000 executed civilians, some with hands tied behind their backs, and it hadn't surprised me. But I didn't think the Americans were capable of coldblooded killing because, however history may have recorded it, the vast majority of U.S. troops I had encountered were decent people and honorable soldiers.

But one by one, the peasant women of My Lai--most of the men were dead or off fighting with the VC--came forward to tell what had happened on the morning of March 16, 1968.

The 80 or so soldiers who scrambled out of Huey choppers at 7:30 a.m. were from Charlie Company of the 11th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division--later described by the U.S. Army as "a typical cross-section of American youth assigned to most combat units." They met no armed resistance, and by the time they left four hours later, they had killed 504 civilians, mostly women and children.

Ha Thi Gui spoke softly, almost matter-of-factly, on that day so long ago, never looking me in the eye. She had been herded into a ditch with 170 others and had seen the GIs take aim. Wounded, she survived by playing dead under a pile of bodies. Her mother, two children and three brothers and sisters were killed.

"Why did they do this?" she asked.

*

I came back to My Lai the other day, this time escorted by two government officials. Gui, now 73 and gray-haired, wears an eternally mournful expression and speaks hardly above a whisper. I am sure she did not recognize me, although she still never looked me squarely in the eye.

"We have had some Americans come back," she said, "'and to tell you the truth, when I first see an American, I am terrified. I think maybe he will kill me. But then after awhile it is all right, and I know there is no danger because there is no war.

"For a long time, maybe 10 years, I could do nothing except sit and cry. I lost everything. The days were lonely. I try not to think about the killing, but living here, in the middle of where it happened, it is not easy to forget or be normal."

The curator of this living graveyard, Nguyen Thi Thao, led me through the killing fields after telling me it would be appropriate to make a small payment to anyone I interviewed and to leave a donation for the My Lai memorial. Thao, a tall, elegant woman with an air of authority, earns $36 a month and makes ends meet by guarding the bicycles of Vietnamese who while away evenings on the beach a few miles away.

Although the coconut palms were still pockmarked with bullets, no familiar vision came back to remind me this was a place I had once been, a place that over the years had blurred in my mind's eye as just a collection of rice paddies and thatched-roof homes.

My Lai is different now. There is a two-room museum and a monument to the victims and tombstones placed by the government that list the names of the dead. The ditch where Gui lay covered with bodies has been excavated to appear as it did 30 years ago, and there are women in white aodais--the traditional tunic worn over pants--to guide the 4,000 foreigners and 28,000 Vietnamese who come to My Lai every year.

*

"We do not do this to humiliate the Americans," Thao said. "We do it so that the Vietnamese will not forget, so our schoolchildren can understand the suffering of their elders and learn from history."

Along the dusty paths through clusters of villages, children in blue shorts giggled and shouted, "My! My!" ("American! American!") at the sight of me and tagged along, tugging at my shirt. Elders stared from bamboo thickets, curious but not hostile. Nearby in a field of chest-high corn, a stone monument was carved with the words: "Greve yard of 75 villagers killed by G.I. on March 16, 1968."

Phan Pat, 70 and toothless, was wounded in the massacre that took the lives of 11 members of his family. Cradling his grandson in his arms, he told me, reluctantly at first, how three soldiers came to his home on the fateful morning, looked around and left. Then, he said, they argued outside with a fourth soldier who appeared to be giving them an order. They returned and started shooting.

"I do not hate Americans," Pat said, "but I hate the Americans who did the killing. I can remember the faces of only two because I was so afraid. Sometimes I see a foreigner, and it is like his face fades away and becomes the face of one of the Americans."

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