My Lai Survivors Gather to Pray for Victims, Peace 40 Years After Massacre
MY LAI, Vietnam – Forty years after rampaging American soldiers slaughtered her family, Do Thi Tuyet returned to the place where her childhood was shattered.
"Everyone in my family was killed in the My Lai massacre — my mother, my father, my brother and three sisters," said Tuyet, who was 8 years old at the time. "They threw me into a ditch full of dead bodies. I was covered with blood and brains."
More than a thousand people turned out Sunday to remember the victims of one of the most notorious chapters of the Vietnam War. On March 16, 1968, members of Charlie Company killed as many as 504 villagers, nearly all of them unarmed children, women and elderly.
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When the unprovoked attack was uncovered, it horrified Americans, prompted military investigations and badly undermined support for the war.
Sunday's memorial drew the families of the victims, returning U.S. war veterans, peace activists and a delegation of atomic bombing survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
"We are not harboring hatred," said Nguyen Hoang Son, vice governor of Quang Ngai, the central Vietnamese province where the incident occurred. "We are calling for solidarity to defend peace, to defend life and to remind the world that it must never forget the massacre at My Lai."
Although the occasion was somber, many visitors said they drew hope from it.
"So much positive energy has come from such a negative event," said Richard Chamberlin, 63, a returning veteran from Madison, Wisconsin. "The people here have amazing resilience. I'm grateful that they've treated us as friends, not enemies."
Chamberlin was part of a delegation called the Madison Quakers, a Wisconsin group that has built a peace park and three schools in My Lai, including a new one that was dedicated Sunday. The group's leader, war veteran Mike Boehm, honored the dead by playing a mournful fiddle tune.
Boehm also arranged for a group of atomic bombing survivors from Japan to join his delegation.
Among them was Fujio Shimoharu, who was playing in a Nagasaki schoolyard on Aug. 9, 1945, when the earth shook, a strong wind howled and the sky went dark as a mushroom cloud rose over the city.
"I'm very angry about the indiscriminate killing both here in My Lai and in Hiroshima and Nagasaki," said Shimoharu, 74. "I came here to send a message of peace to the world."
Shimoharu feels connected to My Lai survivors such as Tuyet, who returned to a replica of her home and wept after Sunday's service ended. U.S. troops torched the original thatch-roofed house; the new one is part of a museum dedicated to the victims.
On that morning 40 years ago, Tuyet and her family were getting ready to go to work in the fields when members of Charlie Company burst into their house and herded them outside at gunpoint.
They were pushed into a ditch where more than 100 people were sprayed with bullets, one of which hit Tuyet in the back, paralyzing the right side of her body.
Her parents, three sisters and a brother were slaughtered. The oldest child was 10, the youngest just 4.
"I was here when the shooting started," Tuyet said, sitting by a family altar in the replica of her simple two-room home. "The troops rounded us up and took us to the ditch."
Her 4-year-old brother, who was eating breakfast when the troops came, died with his mouth full of rice, Tuyet said.
Four decades later, she is still overcome by grief. But Tuyet has managed to build a life for herself. She became a pharmacist, married and had two children.
When they arrived in the hamlet 40 years ago, the frustrated and angry members of Charlie Company were on a "search and destroy" mission, trying to track down elusive Vietcong guerrillas whose tactics had depleted the company's ranks.
The soldiers began shooting in My Lai that day even though they hadn't come under attack. The violence quickly escalated into an orgy of killing.
The young troops had found themselves in a bewildering war where it was impossible to distinguish friend from foe, said Stanley Karnow, an American historian who wrote "Vietnam: A History."
Their actions shocked the American public, who had preferred to think of U.S. troops as heroes making the world safe for democracy, Karnow said.
"But there is a human capacity for committing atrocities," Karnow said.
Do Ba, another My Lai survivor, lost his mother, his brother and his sister in the massacre. But he, too, has managed to build a new life for himself.
He now lives Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, with his new wife and their 14-month-old daughter. He has a job in an electronics factory.
Ba had a chance reunion this weekend with Larry Colburn, who saved him from the rampaging American troops 40 years ago. Colburn was a member of a three-man U.S. Army helicopter crew that landed in the midst of the massacre and intervened to stop the killing.
Colburn returned for this year's ceremony, as he did 10 years ago for the 30th. He came the first time with Hugh Thompson, the pilot who landed their helicopter, who has since died.
"Today I see Do Ba with a wife and a baby," Colburn said. "He's transformed himself from being a broken, lonely man. Now he's complete. He's a perfect example of the human spirit, of the will to survive."
Boehm, whose Wisconsin group helped plan Sunday's ceremony, takes solace from such stories.
"If hope can rise from the ashes of My Lai," he said, "it can rise from anywhere."