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An eye-witness account by a My Lai survivor


History books will tell you that on April 30, 1975, the tanks rolled into Saigon, signalling the end of Vietnam’s war and that my fellow people could start to rebuild their lives.  But the difficulties of years gone by were not automatically erased from my memory, like the time when I was nearly beaten to death while collecting crops.

Some of my family began moving back to our former village of Son My, ending my two year absence. This meant that I commenced attending a local school. Compared to my classmates, I was relatively large, but this did not stop my obsession with hunting for extra food to supplement our diet. One afternoon, two of my friends, Dinh and Lien, joined me in trekking into the mountains in hope of harvesting potato tubes, but our afternoon’s toiling yielded no potatoes or Oi [a Vietnamese fruit].  As the sun set in the distance, we walked down the mountain and to our good fortune, stumbled upon a dense clump of tubers, which were very good. All three of us cleared the grass to create a path and in front of us were plenty of onion bulbs to collect. Within a short time, we collected half a bag full. But up ahead we spotted a young man armed with a stick that he used to collect bags and we immediately we sensed danger.

Our first instincts were to lay low in the long grass in the hope that we would not be discovered, but I was caught and without having any chance to think about what punishment awaited me, I found a hoe being pointed in my face. The man pulled me out of the grass roughly and used the hoe to beat me in the stomach, and across my shoulder and back. I cannot remember how long the beating lasted because I had passed out, but it ceased only when my body stopped twitching. All the food my friends and I had gathered was handed back to the man who inflicted the beating. My whole body was swollen and I was unable to attend school or work in the field. When my sister Mỹ and my grandmother asked what had happened, I told only half of the story. The man who inflicted the thrashing, it turned out, lived behind the house of our family friend, Mrs. Bon Thuong. My sister recognised him and other young people he associated with quite often. To this day, I believe that he feels guilty about the incident. Maybe it is because he instigated the attack and now realizes that I have no desire to seek revenge.

My pain and anger is not aimed at only those who took the lives of my family members, but at those who have covered up mistakes years after and have refused to say anything to me. Many reporters from around the world have come to My Son. They have worked with the Quang Ngai municipal staff in their offices and talked several times about the deceased. But I believe the media has been misled by authorities on certain matters. A number of survivors and their relatives have never been asked about their wishes. These include Mrs. Pham Thi Tro, daughter of Mrs. Nhieu, Le Thi Em, Pham Thi Hien, Bui Thi Ha, and Bui Sanh, the grandson of Mr. Huong Tho. They still live less than 800 yards from the memorial house, each one in dire poverty.

You only need look at photographs of the victims taken by U.S. Army officer Mr. Ronald Haeberle. These include:

Mrs. Nguyen Thi Tau, photographed with her closed mouth covered by a straw hat, may have lost her children but this certain that many soldiers have shot her children. Two of them were saved.

Mr. Nhieu’s wife and daughter escaped through the back door of their hut and hid in the rice field. They were lucky to flee, for five members of their family were killed. They also witnessed many gruesome images and experiences in their home.

Mrs. Pham Thi Thuan lost five people in her family, all killed by gunshots. I estimate that about 20 people who ran from the corner of her house sought shelter in the ditch, or other lay down in the garden. Others were hiding behind the altar where the family burned incense and gave offerings to their ancestors. They were all pulled out and shot by U.S. soldiers.

Mrs Thi Tuyet Do lives in Pleiku. She and her family were pulled out by U.S. soldiers and ordered to sit in front of the house before being instructed to enter the ditch. Of the 170 people, most in the line of fire were women and children. Many of them were killed, but you survived if you were covered by the other bodies.

Mr. Dat Pham testified that his wife was shot and injured, while a seven month-old child crawled out of a burning house and wandered towards the ditch; the child was shot by U.S. soldiers, covered in dry leaves, and burned.

Ms. Truong Thi Le lived because she lay quiet underneath two dead bodies and pretended to be dead.

Ha Thi Qui is now 83 years old and was wounded in the hip and lay there quietly, also underneath corpses. She later attempted to crawl home. On the way, she saw many injured persons and bodies of women, some of whom had been raped by U.S. soldiers and then shot.

I saw Mrs. Pham Thi Trinh, then 11 years old try to crawl out of the ditch to the top, just like Mrs. Pham Thi Muoi, whom was only 14 years old when she was found next to a house, raped and shot dead by a U.S. soldier.

A mother and 7 month old child were covered in dry leaves and set alight by U.S. soldiers.

The house of Mr Le contained 15 hidden people who were found and thrown in the trenches. Nobody was spared.

Ms. Trinh’s eight year-old daughter was shot by U.S. soldiers when attempting to escape a ditch while carrying a mouthful of rice.

Mr Tấn Huyen Tran, from Khe Thuan village, said that his grandparents, his parents, and child were shot dead by U.S. soldiers.

Many people from the international press have come with their camera crews to film stories about My Lai in the past. Authorities paid members of the press to stay about 800 yards away from areas where the poorest survivors and their families lived, to discourage any contact and prevent details being released. Film director Oliver Stone worked in Pinkville with an interpreter, dealing with the press to obtain details for making his film. But our testimony and history has been ignored. My family received no help from the community or the state. After Vietnam became a united country, I learned that my mother’s tombstone had been issued with the wrong date of birth and even worse, the incorrect picture.  When I raised this with house memorial officials, they did not take up my complaints further. Perhaps my stories of a handful of cold rice and going numerous days without food in my childhood interfered with their seemingly lavish lifestyle.

For any of the 130 American soldiers involved in the massacre, people such as Ernest Medina, William Calley, Oran K. Henderson, Samuel W. Koster, Eugene Kotouče, have you considered what impact your actions had on the children who lost their parents? Some of these children are now adults and they still live with the nightmares of being dragged out of their huts, being thrown into ditches, and watching machine guns and grenades slaughter their family members. After 42 years, you still have not come back to seek redemption. What did the innocent people of Son My and the surrounding hamlets do wrong to deserve being killed? How many screaming children can you recall crawling or lying on the ground in a puddle of blood? When you opened fire, mothers were breastfeeding children.  Elderly village women and defenceless and unarmed men died with frightened looks in their eyes. People that we respected and paid reverence to, you spat in their faces. You raped teenage girls and young women. Before committing your evil deeds, your units slowly encircled us, preventing any chance of escape.

Maybe you do not care, in which case, an apology is useless.

However, there were some soldiers who showed compassion and I would publicly like to thank them. These people include Mr. Ronald Haeberle, who took a photo of my mother and other images from his helicopter. These include the two pictures of the four young children he photographed before they were shot by U.S. soldiers, and another of two children lying on the street. The people of Son My remember him very fondly for his actions to prevent further loss of life.  I also pay my respects to Hugh Thompson, who landed his helicopter to rescue an eight-year old child and take her to a hospital after receiving a radio call from Glenn Andreotta.  Larry Colburn, Ron Ridenhour, Seymour Hersh (the investigative journalist who exposed the My Lai Massacre to the world in 1969) and William R. Peers all tried to tell the world exactly what took place, but were silenced by the U.S. government.

Although I now reside in Germany, I am speaking up on behalf of the residents who continue to live in My Lai and remain committed to seeing justice prevail for the deceased and survivors.

Author’s note

Tran Van Duc has told the author of this article that in his recent visit to My Lai in July and August, he contacted senior officials in Quang Ngai Province. These include the Police Director of Quang Ngai Province, Mr. Le Xuan Hoa, Province Chairman, Mr. Nguyen Xuan Hue, and the Director of Sports Culture and Tourism, Nguyen Dang Vu. According to Mr. Tran, Mr. Nguyen Dang Vu has “promised to repair the reporting of false information about my family.”

On August 13, 2010, Tran Van Duc emailed the author, stating that in a meeting four days earlier, the Quang Ngai Provincial Department of Culture, Sport and Tourism expressed their condolences for the suffering endured by the Tran family as a result of the My Lai Massacre, and would work to change any incorrect the details regarding the identification of Tran Van Duc’s mother.

The author has also learned courtesy of an email dated August 30 that Mr. Tran wrote to Vietnam veteran Mike Boehm dated August 30. In the email, Mr. Tran says that he has removed an inscription as part of “An American Peace”, denoting the remains of his mother and two sisters killed on the day of the massacre, along with 72 other civilians.

Mr. Boehm, who has spearheaded a number of community initiaives in Vietnam through the Madison Quakers Inc., said that he assumed Mr. Tran “is referring to our of our humanitarian projects when he is writing about ‘An American Peace’”. He said that Madison Quakers Inc. has funded a number of projects in My Lai and Quang Ngai Province, including the construction of four primary schools, the establishment of the My Lai Loan Fund for women to start small businesses and the My Lai Peace Park.[1]

Mr. Boehm said that he “heard of, but not visited” any plaques commemorating the tragedy in My Lai.

“For more than 42 years media writing or filming about My Lai concentrate on the massacre. My organization is focused on helping those still living,” Mr. Boehm said.

Comment was being sought from the Quang Ngai Provincial Department of Culture, Sport and Tourism.

In an attempt to verify the correct ages of the deceased members of Mr. Tran’s family, the author requested a copy of the official list from the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in Canberra, Australia, on September 2, 2010.

Mr. Tran has stated to me via email that official details recorded at the My Lai Memorial are incorrect, and should read as follows :

Nguyen Thi Tau, (mother), 32 years old

Tran Thi Hong, (sister), 11 years old

Tran Thi Hue, (sister), 5 years old.[2]


[1] Gates, P., (2010), “Vietnam veteran gives his all”, The Madison Times, March 10, http://www.themadisontimes.com/news_details.php?news_id=96&archive=1

[2] According to the website www.countryjoe.com/massacre.html, the original details listed Tran Thi Hue as being 7 years old. This claim is said to have been published in The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story written by Trent Angers. Mr. Angers is said to have obtained the official list containing the names and ages of all 504 victims as requested from by the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington DC.

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