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Footprints at My Lai

by Michael on November 13, 2014

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On a gray, overcast day I was driving by endless miles of verdant green rice paddies to the central Vietnamese hamlet of Son My. In 1968 this was the site of the notorious incident known as the My Lai Massacre; when American soldiers killed over five-hundred civilians, mostly old men, women and children and then torched the buildings. The hamlet has since been reconstructed to look as it did after the carnage.

My Lai massacre memorial site

The village today displays rice paddies and the burned out foundations of homes.

I was only seven years old when the My Lai massacre occurred, but I still remember seeing disturbing photos of it in Life magazine. Now I was standing at the irrigation ditch where over one hundred of the bodies were found. My Lai is an emotionally tough place for anyone to visit, let alone an American.

Standing there I tried to contemplate the madness that occurred on this peaceful spot. Roosters crowed in the distance and the pungent smell of burning brush wafted over the village. It was an ordinary day, just like the one when the massacre occurred. Then I looked down and noticed hundreds of bare footprints along the path, many of them the tiny footprints of young children. They were interspersed randomly with imprints of army boots.

When the memorial was built the muddy pathways among the rice paddies were recreated out of brown concrete. Before it hardened they placed random imprints of army boots and bare feet to represent the killing frenzy that took place here. Boot prints lead up to individual houses and then build to a crescendo at the ditch.

My Lai massacre memorial site

A toddler at My Lai today.

The effect is that of the Guernica painting come to life on the ground. The imprints reflect the slaughter that took place that day; barefoot civilians being led to their death by booted soldiers. It’s a thought-provoking touch that effectively takes a visitor back to what happened here.

My Lai massacre memorial site

Uncle Do alongside the irrigation ditch.

A small Vietnamese man tugged at my elbow as I was trying to absorb it all. He started pantomiming what happened on that fateful day, making shooting and stabbing motions. Then he pointed to the ditch and demonstrated how all the bodies were laying there. He stood behind the trunk of a palm tree, as if demonstrating hiding behind it. It occurred to me that he was about my age, was he demonstrating something that happened to him?

The man’s extended family of about twelve people walked over to us. I had been speaking to Uncle Do, the head of the clan. The family ranged in age from about six to seventy-six: children, parents, grandparents.  Their age range approximated those of the victims.

His fifteen-year-old niece Mong spoke some English and asked where I was from. I hesitated. Considering where I was standing it was the first time I was tempted to say I was Canadian, but I said “US.” What happened next surprised me. The family surrounded me, shaking my hand and asking to take photos together. We were standing at the site of the worst American massacre of the war and they were greeting me like a long-lost friend.

My Lai massacre memorial site

Meeting Uncle Do's family.

Uncle Do took my arm and we spent the next half hour wandering about the preserved remains of the destroyed hamlet, somber Pied Pipers for the rest of the family tailing along behind us. He pointed out various points of significance along the way, even leading me inside one of the homemade bomb shelters where many of the villagers had been hiding before they were forced out by the troops. When our trek was finished each of the family members shook my hand and, through our ad hoc interpreter Mong, wished me well on the rest of my journey.

My Lai massacre memorial site

Standing astride the footprints are a proud father and grandmother.

It was an experience that would be repeated throughout Vietnam. A few days later Larissa and I were deep in the jungle climbing around the ruins of My Son, a 10th-century temple complex. Parts of the temple are still standing but one area is a pile of flattened rubble due to an errant US Air Force bombing run. In halting English a local visitor asked where we were from. Upon hearing my response he stopped and said, “US-Vietnam friends” before going on his way.

My Son temple Vietnam

Amid the rubble of the 10th-century My Son temple these men welcomed us.

Vietnam is a country that is poised between a violent history and a potentially bright future. While they remember the past they don’t dwell on it and, if our experience is any indication, they certainly don’t hold a grudge. We left Vietnam with warm feelings for all the people we met. They have replaced the pain of the past with hope for the future. In a sense they are forging new footprints.

My Lai massacre memorial site

The statue at My Lai represents the unbending will of the Vietnamese people.

Click the link to read more about our travel to Vietnam.

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Paula March 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Very moving post, and a reminder that in any number of countries, people seem so willing and able to distinguish the actions of the U.S. government from their feelings of friendship and curiosity toward individual Americans. It’s a lesson we could learn from them.

Us March 4, 2012 at 1:43 am

It’s interesting that we found the same thing to be true in North Korea. Despite the relentless propoganda they receive about Americans, the North Koreans we met were quite friendly.

MissElaineous March 3, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Jeez…this made me cry. What a neat experience despite the somber circumstances for the memorial. Humbling, inspiring and so full of hope. Good for you for not saying “Canadian”!

Mar March 4, 2012 at 11:22 am

This is such a touching commentary. I see now why so many people do go to Viet Nam. There are people all over the world still fighting events that happened hundreds of years ago and won’t let go of their enmity towards their former enemies. How peaceful the world would be if we could all forgive and forget.

Us March 4, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Forgive yes, but important not to forget.

John Discepoli March 4, 2012 at 3:22 pm

I have never considered an Asian vacation, however all your reports from Viet Nam make me re-consider.

Us March 4, 2012 at 10:53 pm

It’s a great place to visit and is certainly cheap.

Barbara March 4, 2012 at 11:30 pm

Hi Michael & Larissa,
This was very moving. I must bow to both your honesty and to the ability of the Vietnamese to truly pardon.
Have a great day.

Us March 5, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Thanks Barbara.

Waipahu May 19, 2012 at 12:01 am

Though the massacre occurred in March ’68, the news didn’t break in the US until November ’69. When the news broke, I was young, only 10. But I remember seeing the gruesome color photos in the old LIFE and LOOK magazines. In one of those mags, there was a two-page spread (and the pages themselves were LARGE, as those were oversize mags) of the bodies on that dirt road. That photo traumatized me. I’ve never forgotten it. Years later, as a graduate student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in ’84, I came across one particular book about the massacre. I can’t remember its title, but it was from the University’s Sinclair Library. I came across a photo of a woman who appeared to be gnawing at her “nong”–I’m not sure if that’s the correct spelling, but it’s the conical hat that many Vietnamese women wear. Apparently she had been shot. Her eyes were open, and I saw what appeared to be human intestines (apparently hers) just below the nong. I remember being so upset, I had to sit down. My eyes started watering, and I remember covering my face with my hands. It’s a good thing there wasn’t anyone around at that particular part of the library at the time; I would have been embarrassed.

Recently, I learned the woman’s name: Nguyen Thi Thau. Now I have a name that I can affix in my memory to the woman in the photo. In the photo, she looked to be perhaps in her late 20s or early 30s, but I can’t be sure. Whenever I see that photo, I feel angry and helpless. I’ve had to ask God to heal my emotions when I see the photo. I realize that it’s very unlikely that anyone reading this had known Ms Thi Thau. It by some chance someone does, I would really appreciate if I could learn her religious background. In particular, I’d like to know if anyone knows whether she had accepted Jesus as her Savior. If she did, she’ll be one of the first people I’ll come running to, to embrace, when I get to Heaven.

Farshad May 21, 2012 at 5:13 pm

a moving post and same comments!

Waipahu! i’ve seen the photo you mentioned. May God bless her.
Pursuit of peace is within all of us as individuals; for governments i don’t know.

greetings from Iran

Fred Allen Barfoot September 12, 2012 at 11:08 pm

Your report echoes my experiences in Vietnam several years ago — but it still made me cry. The Vietnamese are incredibly resilient and caring. Oh, that we in the United States could realize the evil we exercise in so many places where we take our “power.” Thanks for sharing this.

PeaknikMicki January 8, 2014 at 5:59 am

My Lai was yet another lesson that evil exists everywhere. When I grew up I learnt about the nazis and worried about the communists. But modern history like most recently in the middle east has taught us that people of every nation are capable of atrocities. And that most good people will justify this evil as believing they are citizens of an evil nation is too unfathomable or support it with ignorance and silence.

Richard Mastenik January 31, 2014 at 8:15 pm

Thank you for creating and sharing this event in this site. I visited the Son My memorial two days ago and was deeply moved by the heroic actions of Hugh Thompson Jr. and his crew. I was also moved by the fact the site remains planted with rice, just the way it has been for thousands of years, a testimony to the enduring qualities of the people of this beautiful, united nation. I have experienced nothing but warmth and affection from the Vietnamese people I’ve met while traveling in their lovely country.

Richard Mastenik, USA 1 February, 2014

Michael January 31, 2014 at 9:43 pm

Thanks for sharing your story about visiting this touching place.

Pilgrim Soul June 5, 2014 at 8:33 pm

It’s hard to believe, but Hugh Thompson, Jr., was often referred to as a traitor by US politicians for bravely stopping a rogue operation that took so many lives, and for telling the truth about what happened. Thompson also probably indirectly saved many more lives, hundreds, or perhaps thousands, because there were further ‘operations’ planned for other hamlets or village networks. Thompson’s vigorous advocacy caused the brass to cancel further operations.

Thompson also threw away the Distinguished Flying Cross he was awarded because it was accompanied by a citation that was entirely fabricated by army brass intent on covering up what happened. It wasn’t until 1998 that Thomson got the ‘Soldiers Medal,’ a medal given to people for action other than combat. They wanted to give it to him quietly, but he demanded that it be given publicly, and to everybody in his crew as well as himself. But there will never be a medal distinguished enough to honor this extraordinary individual. His actions are often featured centrally in ethics manuals used by military organizations in democratic countries. Simply a great man.

Sadly, the memorial services a My Lai in 1998 and 2008, which were attended by many former Vietnamese and American soldiers, as well as survivors of the massacre, were not attended by any representatives of the US government. Reconciliation with Vietnam is not the official policy of the US government. Such is the continued bitterness of the US establishment, mainly because the Vietnamese won the war the US so unwisely and tragically started, rather than allowing the Vietnamese to vote for their leaders according to the Paris Accords.

Michael June 7, 2014 at 8:54 pm

Considering what happens when politicians get involved in something controversial their behavior never ceases to surprise and disappoint. Thanks for checking in.

Gary July 16, 2014 at 1:59 pm

My family and I visited this very moving memorial in Dec. of 2012. We are caucasian Canadians and our adopted daughter is African- American. We, too, had a personal guide as we weaved in and out of reconstructed huts and walked along the cement pathways full of footprints. It was very sobering and many times we paused for a short prayer. We, too, were inspired by the tender hearts of the Vietnamese people. They treated us extremely well, especially our daughter. Says something when all they want to do is make you happy and enjoy your time in their country. While the country has such a tortured past, they remember and move on to build a better country. GO VISIT, you’ll never regret it.

Michael July 16, 2014 at 2:07 pm

Hi Gary,
Thank you for sharing your experience at My Lai.

Steve May 3, 2015 at 7:50 pm

Thanks very much for sharing this story about your visit to Son My. I was very young when the My Lai atrocity occurred but I just watched a PBS special about it and it was truly horrific and barbaric what our troops did to these innocent, peaceful, and unarmed men, women, and children. The fact that our nation never even offered an official apology for what happened (let alone some sort of compensation) is shocking.

I’m very glad that a memorial was built to remember the innocent people who were murdered here and I would love to one day visit the site to show the Vietnamese people how remorseful I am, as an American citizen, for what happened.

Thanks again very much for the story and photos. It was very moving.

Sue May 19, 2016 at 9:15 am

Looking for more recent photos online of the gate to Son My (My Lai)
(haven’t found any so far), I came across your site.

Even in 1994 these amazing people were so welcoming as they left their work in the rice fields and came running towards our mini bus waving and shouting “welcome to Vietnam”. Minutes after chatting with and taking photos of them we passed under the gate and realised we were amongst the present day families and neighbours of those who died that day
.
Many many American Vets have returned to the same welcome and left their apologies and regrets at what happened here in the onsite museum. Well worth a visit, it is impossible to not be profoundly moved by it. The photos of that day are on my website at
http://www.wright-photo.com/mylai1.htm

Thank you for bringing me up to date on Son My.
Sue
Ontario Canada

Michael May 19, 2016 at 5:08 pm

Thanks for sharing. Those are great photos.

Andrew June 6, 2016 at 8:50 am

What’s always been perplexing to me is this: on March 16, 1968 the villagers were innocent civilians we’re told. Not VC. Not combatants. Yet how was it that American soldiers kept stepping on land mines in this very area, yet these “innocent civilians” knew exactly where to not step?

Mike Hastie July 10, 2016 at 11:35 am

If the American people knew what their government did during the Vietnam War, they would have panic attacks, because the truth would completely dismantle their core belief system. The United States committed atrocities everyday during a war that was virtually covered up, the same way that the genocide of the American Indian was covered up. Lying is the most powerful weapon in war.
Mike Hastie
Army Medic Vietnam
July 10, 2016

Bill Waller February 17, 2017 at 7:32 pm

I will never understand why these butchers were not held accountable for killing these innocent people. In February 1968 I was in May Lai and that area. We were guarding a bridge at Binh Son and go on patrols to My Lai and other areas. These were all nice friendly people. The only reason I see is some General at the Americal headquarters wanted a large body count so he could get another ribbon. I was in the infantry but I and I believe 99% of the men in my unit would have refused an order to kill innocent people. I believe they will eventually get what they deserve.

Michael February 17, 2017 at 8:25 pm

Hi Bill,

Thank you so much for sharing that story. I’ve never met anyone who was there before the massacre so your perspective is very interesting.

Take care,

Michael

Michael May 21, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Thank you Farshad for your kind comments. You are right, individuals get along, we have seen that in every country we have visited. It is the governments that get in the way.

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