As the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre approaches, survivors of the 1968 massacre spoke to the dpa news agency about the deaths of up to 504 civilians at the hands of US soldiers during the war in Vietnam.
Although 26 US soldiers were charged with war crimes, only the platoon leader Lieutenant William Calley was convicted of murder. Calley made his first public apology in 2009:
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“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai … I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families.
I am very sorry … If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a second lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them – foolishly, I guess.”
Pham Thi Thuan had just woken up and was cooking potatoes when the Americans landed nearby and began killing her neighbours.
It was March 16, 1968, the height of the Vietnam War, and the men of the US Army’s Company C were tasked with uprooting the Vietcong around Quang Ngai.
On that particular day, they were to enter Son My, which included the hamlet My Lai that would later lend its name to the massacre, to kill local fighters. Military intelligence had determined that the villagers were harbouring Vietcong, although Thuan denied this was the case.
“They first killed the people at the rice paddies, as well as the cattle,” said Thuan, an 80-year-old rice farmer from Son My village.
“We just worked for ourselves,” she said. Only a handful of weapons were captured, and the only American casualty that day was a soldier who deliberately shot himself in the foot.
American soldiers treated all the villagers, including women and children, as hostile. One of them, Private Paul Meadlo, recounted what he had done in a 1969 interview for CBS News.
“You just spray the area on them and so you can’t know how many you killed ‘cause they were going fast. So I might have killed 10 or 15 of them,” he told interviewer Mike Wallace.
“Men, women, and children?” asked Wallace.
“Men, women, and children,” he replied.
Pham Thanh Cong, the 61-year-old retired manager of Son My’s memorial museum, lost his mother, three sisters and one brother. Cowering in their bomb shelter, the soldiers shot them before throwing a grenade into the bunker. Cong was saved because the bodies of his dead family members shielded him.
“When the soldiers received their orders, why did they follow?” he pondered during a recent meeting at the massacre site.
“They killed people without feeling. When the people were laid on the ground, they also laughed,” he added.
Thuan was somewhat luckier. She was escorted to a nearby canal with her two children along with, by Vietnamese estimates, 170 others.
The soldiers opened fire and Thuan fell in, but the bullets missed her and her two small children, who were hiding underneath her, and she too was shielded by dead bodies.
According to the memorial museum, Thaun and her children were among just six people who survived in the ditch.
Thuan waited for hours, she said, for the Americans to go away.
“They relaxed at the bank and waited there, and we escaped after they moved to another place,” said Thuan.
The massacre ended when American Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson noticed with alarm the actions of his fellow Americans as he flew his helicopter overhead.
“It looks to me like there’s an awful lot of unnecessary killing going on down there,” he said over the radio at the time. “Something ain’t right about this.”
Seeing a group of 11 survivors being chased by the soldiers, he landed his chopper in between the two groups.
He ordered his door gunner, Specialist Lawrence Colburn, to point his gun at the soldiers and open fire if they tried to attack anyone else. The soldiers stood back as Thompson called in helicopters to evacuate the civilians.
Despite what happened that day 50 years ago, both Cong and Thuan said they held no ill-will towards the American people.
“We love them. Thanks to them we have liberation today because they protested against the war,” said Cong.
“I cannot forget, they killed people here, but we try to forgive them and look forward to the future,” he added.
Thuan lauded the growing relations between the United States and Vietnam today, which has seen substantial improvement since the two countries re-established diplomatic ties in 1995.
“Today, the Vietnamese and Americans people cooperate to make friendship,” she said.
“As we do that, we try to make sure there are no more massacres.”