On 16 march, the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre is commemorated around the world.
In March 1985, fellow reporter Jørn Ruby and I along with photographer Ole J. Sørensen located one of a handful of survivors in Son My, the Vietnamese name for the village, where the carnage took place.
She told us her story, breaking down in tears again and again, as she took us back to that fateful morning, when her life was shattered.
Here is the story of our encounter with Pham Thi Trinh – and how Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld got involved in the cover up of the atrocities during the war in Vietnam.
Pham Thi Trinh: “Some people told me to try and think of how lucky I was to survive. Mostly I believe, it would be better if I had died with my family that day.” Photo: Ole Johnny Sørensen.
Under the blue sky, through the heat haze, Son My looks like a typical Vietnamese countryside village. We drive slowly down the dirt road, passing the farmers moving even slower with their bent backs through the incredibly green rice fields.
In front of us, half grown boys are pushing the water buffaloes, whipping up clouds of red dust. Insects are gently humming, children are screaming with joy, while they cool down in the small lakes at the outskirts of Son My. Inside the bamboo sheds, the women are sitting in the dark, cutting vedgetables and herbs. It is all so peaceful.
For a young woman in the village, Pham Thi Trinh (27), the tranquility of rural life is still giving in to daytime flashbacks and nightmares bringing her back to that spring morning in 1968, when her entire family was massacred by frustrated US soldiers chasing the elusive guerillas – The Viet Cong as they called them, a derogatory term attributed to the South Vietnamese President.
My Lai villagers just minutes before, they were killed. 504 people lost their lives 16 March 1968.
“They killed all my family and our relatives – we were eleven people in all. Only I survived. My baby brother of seven months, his head exploded from the bullets. My mother had him on her arm, she was mortally wounded in that very first round of fire. We fell to the ground, and my mother whispered…”
Pham Thi Trinh is unable to go on. She collapses in front of us in tears. Phuong, our interpreter, is overcome with emotion and whispers between her own sobs, that we should stop the interview.
“No”, says Trinh. “I want to tell my story, I want you to know what happened to my family and all the other people of Son My.
Her family was having breakfast, when they heard the sound of the approaching helicopters from Alpha, Bravo and Charlie Company. In the preceding months, the three companies had suffered serious losses. Charlie company was the worst hit with 28 casualties, all from mines and booby traps. The troops had not managed to engage the guerrillas in direct combat. Frustrations and anger was running very high among the soldiers.
This photo surfaced a year after this woman was killed in My Lai.
“I want nothing left alive”
The evening before they had been briefed by their commanding officer, Captain Ernest L. Medina, who told the troops that military intelligence had located the hideout of a major Viet Cong battalion. Finally, they had the chance to strike a devastating blow against the enemy.
“I want nothing left alive,” Medina reportedly said to his men. He later denied in court to have said so, when he was confronted with the ensuing mass killing of 504 unarmed men, women and children.
The next morning the 200 US soldiers took off on ‘Operation Pinkville’, adrenalin running wild, as the choppers approached Son My for the showdown with the enemy.
“When we heard the soldiers coming, my mother told us to lie down on the floor and be quiet. She greeted them politely and told them we were just farmers. The soldiers shouted at us and pushed us out of the house.
There were three of them pointing their heavy weapons at my family, and they started shooting without asking questions. We fell down in a heap and they just kept shooting. My mother was lying on top of me with my dead baby brother in her arms. The blood from both of them was all over me. I was only hit in my arm with one or two bullits.”
My mother whispered in my ear: “Stay quiet, do not move, until they are gone. Make them think you are dead.” My mother was bleeding from all over her belly and her arms. She was in so much pain, it took her so long to die. I stayed completely still, as my mother had told me.”
“I was half unconscious from fear and exhaustion, when sudden screams made me open my eyes. Two soldiers were dragging our neighbors through the dirt, a woman and her teenage daughter with the youngest son of three years running after them. I could not see the father anywhere.
One of the soldiers ripped the shirt of the young girl and threw her down on the ground. Her mom struggled free and dropped down to protect her daughter. Then the two soldiers opened fire and killed both of them. The little boy tried to run away, the soldiers laughed and shot him dead.”
“It was very hard just to keep still and just lay there next to my mother and my headless baby brother. I do not know how a 10-year old girl could do that. Later that day, when the soldiers had left, people from one of the other villages came to see, what had happened to us. They buried my mother, my brothers and sisters, my aunt, my cousins, my grandmother. They were all dead except me. We burned incense and prayed, and then a family from the other village took me home with them.
I quickly healed from my small wounds, but somehow these wounds are still with me, and they get deeper and deeper in my soul and heart. The doctors told me many times that I am fine. I do not think I will ever become a healthy and happy human being. Some people told me to try and think of how lucky I was to survive. I believe, it would be better if I had died with my family that day.”
A memorial in Son My has listed the names of the 504 villagers, who were killed that morning in the village: Among them were 60 elders, 17 pregnant women and 210 babies and children under the age of 13. Pham Thi Trinh spends her time maintaining the memorial grounds.
A military victory
At first, Operation Pinkville was recorded as a major military victory, the dead villagers – big and small – were counted as enemy casualties. Only one US soldier was wounded, when he shot himself in the foot by accident.
Soon rumors started circulating among the American troops in Vietnam. A courageous helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson and his gunner Lawrence Colburn had threatened to shoot their fellow soldiers, when they saw from the air what was going on the ground in Son My. They managed to get a small group of survivors on board and flew them to safety.
A young officer, Colin Powell (later to become US Secretary of State under President George Bush) was dispatched to investigate the rumors. Powell reported to his superiors that he did not find any evidence to substantiate the rumors of a massacre in My Lai. On the contrary, he pointed out that “relations were excellent” between the local people and the American soldiers. In reality, Powell only interviewed one of the commanding officers at regional headquarters. No real investigation took place at the time.
Lieutenant William Calley got a life sentence for his role in the My Lai killings, personally killing 22 villagers and ordering his men to join the massacre. He only served 3,5 years in house arrest and was then released.
A year after the massacre, irrefutable evidence showed up. A military photographer, Ronald Haeberle, had brought his own private camera along with the army equipment. Haunted by feelings of remorse and guilt, he handed his private photos over to a fellow soldier, Ron Ridenhour, who interviewed several soldiers participating in the My Lai massacre. Ridenhour presented his findings in a letter to the US Congress, and subsequently tipped off US freelance journalist Seymour Hersh, who broke the story of what really happened in My Lai.
“Murder in the name of war”
After a military investigation, 24 soldiers were court martialled and charged with various criminal offenses, including manslaughter and rape. Only one of them, lieutenant Willam L. Calley was convicted with a lifetime jail sentence for the killing of 22 people and ordering his men to shoot at the villagers. Calley’s sentence was subsequently commuted to house arrest, and he became a free man 3,5 years later.
The My Lai massacre has since been called “murder in the name of war” by critics of the American role in Vietnam. Even worse, additional evidence has later surfaced that the events that morning were by no means an isolated atrocity, committed by desperate soldiers.
In 2006, US journalists Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss disclosed that systematic killings took place on a much larger scale in numerous other villages in Quang Ngai province, in the same area where the My Lai massacre took place.
According to Sallah and Weiss it was a systematic terror campaign to force the farmers in Quang Ngai to leave their villages, because they were suspected of sharing their crops with the guerillas.
These massacres were carried out by the socalled Tiger Force. The numerous reports about the atrocities led to an internal army investigation by CIC, the Criminal Investigation Command. The report was rejected by senior Pentagon officials, one of them was Donald Rumsfeld, later to become Secretary of Defense under President Bush, overseeing the war in Iraq.
The head of the CIC investigation team, Gustav Apsey, resigned in frustration and brought home a copy of his report. The other investigation team members were re-assigned to US military bases in Korea and Germany.
After Apsey’s death, his son found the incriminating report in his father’s basement and handed it over to the two journalists, who launched their own extensive investigation to verify the report.
Sallah and Weiss documented it all in a Pulitzer Prize winning journalistic investigation for the Toledo Blade newspaper. Their reports were later published in the book: “Tiger Force – The shocking true story of American soldiers out of control in Vietnam”.