Usually, I hated debriefings. Most of what they said was either common sense or redundant. But this briefing was filled with energy. Vengeance was at hand.
Finally, Charlie Company would reach the front lines. Up to this point, we had not met with conflict, only sniper fire, booby traps, and landmines. Somebody lost an arm or a leg almost every day. The guerrilla war tactics messed with our minds and played on our fears. We’d all become jumpy and edgy.
Fear overtook me little by little each day, as I realized that the inevitable moment would come when it would be my turn to lose a limb or die. Between this and friends I lost, I wanted revenge on the enemy’s forces.
About a week before, our platoon was moving through some dense jungle when Dean, my best bud, stepped on a land mine that blew his legs off. I bandaged his wounded legs, while the others loaded him on a stretcher. The injuries bled so much. I didn’t want to accept the odds.
We carried him along in a stretcher. “I need a dustoff,” the RT operator blew over his horn. Halfway to the pickup point, he cancelled the call: Dean was dead. My best friend was dead. There wasn’t an enemy to shoot—he just died—and there was nothing we could do about it.
I pushed the thoughts away before they got to me again and looked up as Captain Medina began to speak. “Charlie Company is assigned to Task Force Barker.” Captain Medina bounced his finger on the eastern edge of the map. The pink-shaded area signified landmines, pain, and death and was right next to the coast. At least we’d get a good view before our limbs were blown off. “At seven hundred hours, we land here, the headquarters of a Viet Cong battalion. All civilians will be at market, leaving only Viet Cong operatives and sympathizers. Burn the buildings; kill anyone left in the village.”
“Captain Medina, sir, what should we do with the women and children?”
“All inhabitants of the village are Viet Cong forces or sympathetic to the Viet Cong. Kill all inhabitants and animals remaining in the village, destroy the buildings, and poison the wells.”
Just a few days ago, Lieutenant Calley directed us through a still basin surrounded with low-hanging willows. The water came nearly to our waists. We waded on for a quarter-mile. When a shot rang out, we knelt and the water reached our chests. We rushed out the other side and into the brush. Just before we dived into cover, another shot rang out. Private Green went down, half of his head missing. Calley grabbed him up and pulled him into the canopy of the trees. Green was like a brother to him. Even though I didn’t like the lieutenant, I felt terrible. Calley had us search for the sniper, but we never found him. Thinking back, the look on his face; it must have been the last straw. I never saw him smile after that.
Captain Medina had instructed that a platoon surround either side of the village, and our platoon enter the village. As the briefing ended, I feared what would become of me and my friends. My life was my friends and surviving through this with them.
At least though, we would come to conflict with enemy forces. At least, we’d kill some of the bastards. It was hard to sleep that night. Tomorrow would be a day I would never forget.
At five hundred hours, we made ready. Loading weapons, ammunitions, and finally us into the choppers that would unload at Pinkville. There must have been about fifteen or twenty slicks. The flight was short, and the crew quiet. Fear and excitement flashed in their eyes. My heart leapt in fear every time I thought of the battle to come. Adrenaline was already pumping through my veins.
We unloaded at the drop point, and Lieutenant Calley instructed me to take up the rear. As we made our way to the village through the lush vegetation, we could see the water and coast surrounded by palm trees. It was calm. I wished I was out there on the water. Instead, I followed my platoon. I took a step and a twig snapped loudly under me. I thought I would die of a heart attack. Would my next step be my last? The land itself taunted me. What was behind that bush? Would someone pop out from behind the next banana tree?
As we moved on, we came into rice paddies. There were irrigation ditches running about the fields and dirt roads leading into hamlets. The roads were undisturbed on that particular morning, until we marched through leaving clouds of dust.
I was looking behind when I heard some commotion and turned back toward the platoon. A woman in a coolie hat carried something while quartering away from us. The lieutenant made a signal and one of the guys opened fire. Three shots.
I figured she must have had a weapon in hand. But as we moved past her body, she clasped what was left of a baby in her arms. I shook my head. I’d seen a lot of terrible shit, but shooting a person on a wild guess didn’t sit well with me. If someone jumped out the bush, well, they aught to have known better. But, accidents like this shouldn’t happen. Damn that incompetent Calley!
We entered the hamlet of Son My shortly after. No fire came and none of the residents fled. They knew running would mark them as Viet Cong operatives. Since Calley had already directed one of us to open fire, any Viet Cong forces had probably already left. Who the hell made him a Lieutenant anyway? He couldn’t even read a map. Fucking idiot.
As was common, we were directed to go into the homes and round up the residents. We entered the first home cautiously. Inside, we found a family sitting at dinner. We rounded up papa-san, mama-san, a mother holding a baby, a toddler, and a daughter of six or seven years. We detained them outside while we searched them and their house. We found no weapons or any devices to aid in the making of weapons. The residents of the second house had rice cooking over the stoves in their homes. They came easily and quietly.
“No VC. No VC,” some of the residents said. But that was rarely reliable.
I felt sympathetic to them though, with our coming in and disrupting their lives to search for weapons. At the same time, I felt cautious and a little paranoid. You never knew when mama-san or papa-san would pull out a weapon or a child would approach with a bomb strapped to its back. Yet, we found no weapons or weapon-making operations within the homes.
“These residents are clean.” I told my squad. “We’ll round up more while we wait for further orders.”
When I, along with a few of my squad, entered the third house, that is when I heard the first shots fired. I rushed the residents outside. I could see across the village plaza that a few people lay on the ground near Calley’s squad.
“What’s going on?” I asked my men, the ones that had stayed outside with the detainees.
“I don’t know. One of Calley’s just stabbed a guy with his bayonet and then shot him. Maybe he was going for something.”
When more of Calley’s squad opened fired on a group of captives, chaos erupted. Frightened detainees cried out protest and anguish. Although few made physical protests, hysteria spread like wildfire through soldier and villager alike. I kept my detainees calm, but not all the homes had been evacuated. In front of a church, twenty women and children burned incense and prayed. Moments later, bullets found the back of their heads. Several soldiers had now begun an all-out assault. The killings seemed indiscriminate to me. I saw two boys walking beside a house. Soldiers opened fire. The older boy tried to defend the younger, but both slumped to the ground after several rounds hit them.
I realized I needed to get my detainees, whom I believe were not Viet Cong, around the buildings for cover. That is when Lieutenant Calley came to us.
“You know what to do with them,” he said.
I assumed he meant to interrogate them, and we moved beyond the nearest house to provide cover. We had gathered up about forty people, namely the elderly, women, and children. None of them had made a physical protest, but they were scared.
I kept my gaze towards the village square, where the villagers were being shot by the squads that had rounded them up. I had edged my squad and villagers near a ditch, and was soon joined by another squad.
“One good man.” I turned to the voice. It sounded like one of the villagers for it was spoken quickly and with an accent. When I turned back to the village, my heart pounding with anxiety and fear, I saw a soldier ripping the cloths from a girl. She couldn’t have been older than twelve or thirteen. I stared in horror as I realized he was raping her.
“What the hell is going on?”
“I thought I told you to get rid of these people.” I spun around at Lieutenant Calley’s voice. “Waste them!”
I slowly turned around to face my captives as he slapped in a new clip, shouldered his piece, and began discharging it into the Vietnamese villagers.
“One good man.” I noticed the words were coming from the papa-san I had pulled from the first house. He held the toddler in his arms. A thousand signals were around me. The other squad leader had begun firing. There was crying and villagers pleading, “No, no, no…” while others continued to scream, “No VC! No VC!” Mother’s threw themselves over their children as bodies began to fall into the ditch. I watched them die at point-blank range.
“Stop! These people are clean!” I yelled
“What were our orders? Shoot ‘em!” I looked in the Lieutenant’s eyes. I don’t know what I saw, anger maybe, but that gaze was cold and haunting. “Now, soldier!”
I readied my piece and pointed it at the group of villagers, at papa-san with child in arm. Tears were blurring my vision. It wasn’t an order I wanted to follow. All I wanted to do was end the madness, and Calley seemed to be leading this onslaught. Eight soldiers were firing their M-16’s into about two-hundred villagers. Shooting and stabbing at people, women and babies in the ditch. I was just one boy; I was only eighteen; I wasn’t in charge, what could I alone do?
“One good man!” My eyes met papa-san’s and I knew, at that instance, what the old man was asking for. Not just a man that would refuse to shoot, to kill, to murder, as some of the men had refused, but to fight back, to attempt to stop the onslaught. I wanted to shoot him… Calley. I didn’t know if it would have solved the chaos, the murders, and I was pretty sure I would die for it. I feared for my life in all that chaos and horror; I feared to disobey a direct order. What I didn’t know, is part of me would die that day anyway.
“One good man!” The voice was louder than the firing guns and screams. I remember looking at his face pressed against the toddler as I choked down a swallow of bile and pushed the goodness in my heart into the pit of my stomach. It was an action I would pay for the rest of my life. As I drowned the good in myself, I tightened my finger. Bang! Click! Bang! Click! Bang!
They fell into the ditch, dead. The image of that child’s broken body lying beside his papa burned into my mind.
There wasn’t a good man and one didn’t come for over an hour. By then, five-hundred defenseless women, old folks, and children lay murdered in ditches or strewn throughout the burning village. I never understood how we, the good guys, did such terrible things.
This is a fictionalized account of actual events occurring at My Lai during the Vietnam War.
More information on Vietnam and My Lai Massacre can be found below:
A little trivia to my story: see if you can find who I meant by “one didn’t come for over an hour”. This pilot saved over a dozen lives during the massacre of Son My village and prevented further attacks, thus saving thousands of lives because of his actions.