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An eye-witness account by a My Lai survivor


In February 2010, I wrote about a visit to the Vietnamese village of My Lai, Quang Ngai Province. During the Vietnam War, or Anti-American War as locals referred to it, 504 civilians were recorded to have been shot dead in four hours by members of the U.S. Military’s Charlie Company on March 16, 1968. Following the article’s publication, a man named Tran Van Duc contacted me and identified himself as a survivor of the massacre.

Tran Van Duc has agreed to talk about his experience of coping in a country exposed to conflict and his efforts to obtain answers from local authorities over wrongs committed against his family more than 40 years ago, a task that has seen him recently return to Vietnam and the village he once called home.

This account, originally written in German, has been translated and edited for grammatical purposes. Tran Van Duc has verified the version that appears here. He has advised me that the stories of his family’s life in various villages between 1959 and 1966 were told to him by his grandmother and various aunts.

Here is Tan Van Duc’s story, in his own words.

I was born Tran Van Duc in 1962, the third child and oldest son in my family. My mother sold food at a local market and my father was a tailor, selling clothes and western medicine. He had previously been held captive by the government, and as a result we were all under constant surveillance, reporting to authorities daily.

We had a large house near Son My Market. On one side, our neighbor owned a lot of coconuts and stored them in his yard, and I can still remember how refreshing they used to taste in the heat. On the other side of our house, there was a large pond, where villagers cultivated shrimp and fish. Behind us was My Khe, where the sea and endless white sand seemed to stretch far into the distance.

During my earliest memories of childhood, when the bombing raids commenced, my family became used to hiding in the ditches. Others were not so lucky, killed by collapsing tunnels as they attempted to emulate us. Many residents made the decision to flee My Son. Some went to neighboring Ly Son, others were separated and their whereabouts became unknown. Many children became orphaned and adults lost their homes. Fields and gardens were totally destroyed. Since my parents were in a fortunate position to provide help to those who had suffered losses, a number of families came to them in desperate need of food and shelter. As everybody left in search of safer grounds, we headed to Binh Duc, which due to its relative peace, seemed like paradise.

With a population comprised mainly of fishermen and salt producers, Binh Duc seemed like a wonderful place. People here were very friendly and always smiled. Red and green colored boats appeared by the sea, ready for their day’s fishing. The shelling in Binh Duc was not as bad as the fighting in Son My. As the war started getting worse, our family lived with Mr and Mrs. Dong Hue for two years. My parents continued to operate their business in sewing and the wholesale market. I played with other children, waiting until the late afternoon for the sun to cool down, where we would catch crabs by the sea or play football with a plastic ball.

As the bullets rained and bombs fell constantly, the local market in Binh Duc came under heavy attack and we moved again, to Thuan Yen, where my younger sister, Thi Ha, was born. My family built a small house on the property of Mrs. Bo and my father worked in nearby Ting Hiep as a nurse in the district of Son Tinh C12.

Even as a child, I understood the threat and impact of war, a reality confirmed when my family was also forced to live apart from each other. It was hard for me to accept that my grandmother, who had lived all of her life in Son Hoi, lived alone. Her children all had their own families and had since moved. My parents took it upon themselves to take care of grandmother. I loved my grandmother very much, because she reminded me of my mother in both shape and character. My sister My Hong and I often delivered money for her to buy rice, something that excited me a lot, and I can still remember how warm her hugs were. The idea of running along with my sisters was always such fun, but it would not take long before I got too tired and asked for a piggy back ride.

There was so much to like about travelling on the B24 road through Thuan Yen, which were lined with bamboo trees with a backdrop of the mountains. The villages, surrounded by wheat fields and rice paddies, were often dotted with people toiling hard in the rice fields, planting themselves deep into the mud. This road led to My Lai, a place where everybody seemed busy working out how to best cope with bombings. The village of My Lai had become a recent target for gunfire, and the safest time to undertake all activities was either early in the morning, which is when farmers tended to their rice and vegetable plantations, and watered and spread fertilizer on their crops. The only other safe time was late at night, as this is when the fewest shots reigned over the village. Consequently, daily life was frantic. Every day, residents woke early to greet the sunrise, for this is when family meals were prepared.

Even in such a hostile environment, nobody would have predicted the events that took place on that day, March 16, 1968. American military units fired artillery shots across Thuan Yen, My Khe, and My Lai for one hour. They sounded like fireworks. Our village and neighboring hamlets were completely surrounded. At 11:00 am, helicopters started flying over My Lai, and some people in the neighborhood heard rockets being fired. My family and I learned that some residents had already been injured by the shots because the rockets were flying flow and landed in rice paddies where people were working in the fields. I could hear people scream and cry in a high-pitched wailing sound. Any civilians who were caught were marched into the center of the village. It resembled a makeshift prison yard full of men, women and children.

My father was not present in the household because he was away working in Ty Vinh Tinh Hiep, leaving my mother in charge of the household. Without any hesitation, she prepared an emergency kit for the children, fearing that we would also be taken from our hut. She hurriedly prepared a large brown canvas bag, placed some of my clothes in the bags and gave each of my siblings and myself 10,000 Vietnamese Dong, which we hid in our socks. I felt guilty about taking the money because it seemed like a fortune. We were then instructed to hide behind our house, which stored our home-made oils, medicines, textiles and fabrics. But before anybody had a chance to move, American troops stormed into our house and forced my mother, brothers and sisters to move onto the streets where everybody else was assembled. The last item my mother grabbed with her one free hand was her traditional straw hat, while desperately holding onto my baby sister, Thi Ha, with the other.

Once we were marched outside and told where to sit, my mother looked around and noticed the chaotic scenes where villagers were being pushed and shoved by soldiers. She noticed a nearby ditch near a neighboring house own by Mrs. Nhieu and told us all to move quickly, but to our dismay we found that it was already full. Crouching low, we eventually settled on a space near a tunnel opening. American troops were patrolling the area and continued to search tunnels. One old woman was struck on the lower back by a soldier’s rifle butt so hard, she fell to the ground in agonizing pain and could no longer walk. Horrified by what had just happened, I heard somebody say, “My God, we will all die.” This memory still haunts me today.

One attribute I always remember about my mother was that no matter how hopeless the situation looked, she never accepted defeat. From our ditch, she spotted a nearby bamboo bush and hinted to us that we should head towards it immediately. The children went first and she following behind us. But no sooner had we begun to crawl through the crowd of people that a soldier saw my mother amidst the crowd, stormed into the ditch and grabbed my mother violently, ripping her clothes. I cried loudly in the hope that she would not be shot. Without warning, gun shots were fired into the ditch, hitting a number of bodies. As bullets, blood and flesh flew everywhere, my mother covered her body with her straw hat while hugging my little sister Ha close to her breast, and with her free hand, pushed me in the direction of a ditch adjacent to neighboring rice fields. She ordered me to protect my sister Ha and pretend to be dead so that the soldiers would leave us alone. We were not to move unless we knew the area was clear. For what seemed like hours, my little sister lay on her stomach and I sheltered her by doing the same.

As soon as the American troops moved out, my older sister and I searched for our mother and found her. She was seriously hurt, having been shot in the head and I knew nothing could be done to save her. However, she still had enough energy to give us one last instruction: “Hug your sister Ha, and take her to Grandma’s house. Don’t stay here any longer or they may come back and shoot you.”

These were the last words I heard my mother speak, and whenever I think about that day, it causes me great pain because I loved her very much. It saddens me to accept that among the numerous dead corpses littered the path between the village and my Grandma’s house, one of them was my own mother.

There is a famous panoramic picture of corpses amidst a green rice paddy taken by U.S. Army photographer Ronald Haeberle. But it does not include a shot of the dead women and children behind him. This is because of his position inside the helicopter where the photograph was taken.

When we were far away from the tower, a low-flying helicopter appeared, preparing for landing. I was very scared and hugged my sister. We lay down on the ground out to escape overhead bullets being fired in our direction. When I looked up, I saw helicopters quite clearly and there were a few American soldiers. One unarmed soldier was sitting outside the door, taking photos of the scene. If he had fired bullets, my sister and I would have been hit because the chopper was flying close to the ground. Only when the helicopter disappeared, I embraced my sister, Ha, and headed for Truong Son, in search for the road to Hoi An. We came across several dead bodies of local men on their way to work or the market.

From a distance we heard the sound of the American soldiers’ heavy gunfire. Houses were also being burned, and thick black smoke rose in the sky. I sensed that the helicopters were still patrolling the region. But all I could think about was why the inhabitants of My Son, especially innocent children, were attacked and killed. Many good friends and relatives of My Lai had their roots here, yet the village was now destroyed, and what was once a happy village was now gone. In grieving for the people who once lived here, I repeated “Why were they to blame? Why did you kill her?” over and over again.

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