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Son My (My Lai)

Dr. Bob McElvaine's 2010 Vietnam Journal


May 21, 2010
Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

My Lai. To Americans of my generation, this name brings horror and an overflow of emotions. After our visit to the village of Son My (My Lai 4 is a name of a hamlet in the village and came to be the name by which Americans know it), eight students of another generation now have similar emotions.

Son My is in Quang Ngai province, a long ride on highway 1-A south of Hoi An. It is the province in which Tim O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried, was stationed in 1968. I was surprised on my first visit there a year and a half ago to see that the village is located very close to the coast and not far from the country's main highway. Many hilltops in the region remain barren from the use of defoliants during the war.

Son My (My Lai) - 20 May 2010

I had asked if it would be possible for the students to meet with a survivor of the massacre, and we were ushered into a conference room to meet with Pham Thanh Cong, who was a boy of 11 on March 16, 1968, when Charley Company, under the direction of Lt. William Calley, killed the other five members of his family and nearly five hundred others. He survived beneath a pile of corpses, including those of his family. He is now the director of the Son Mỹ Memorial and museum.

Just hearing this survivor's story would have been a very moving experience, but by chance there was also an American Marine who had been stationed in 1968 just up the coast at the Chu Lai airbase, there with his whole family. He had loaded the helicopters that went out on missions, including the fateful one on March 16, 1968 to the village that the US military codenamed Pinkville.

None of us, I believe, will ever forget the hour or so we spent in that room yesterday morning. I'll let Anne Waldrop speak for us:

We departed in the early morning for one of the most powerful and deeply moving days of my life ...

We arrived at a meeting room to meet with a My Lai survivor. Little did we know that there was also a Vietnam War vet in attendance with his entire family. I've never felt the tensions I felt there in that room, witnessing the vet apologize and moreover take the blame (though he was a few miles away) for the killing of that man's family. In these moments the war became extremely personal. I was watching faces instead of reading names or even seeing pictures. These deep emotions from both sides hit me like a ton of bricks.

Phu, our guide, did all of the vital translating between the American and the Vietnamese. I wonder if he could feel each "side" hanging on each translated word. I could. After we sat down and basic questions were asked, there was a brief moment in which the Vietnamese survivor misunderstood the US vet to have been performing the massacre occurring in March of '68. Thankfully it was resolved, but even still could you imagine ... sitting in a room, across the table from a man who once fought with the people who killed almost your entire family and peaceful village?! I could not; yet I can only hope I could behave as nobly as the Vietnamese man in such a situation ...

While observing these exchanges of languages, emotions, forgiveness, and apology, I felt as though I was watching an event too significant for its casualness. I felt wholly unprepared for such raw emotion(s). I wanted to go back in time and invite MLK, Jr. or Gandhi to this event ... [I was] feeling guilty and not deserving to see such a beautiful event. The Vietnamese man's forgiveness seemed almost holy. It was not without some form of religion, established or not, that supreme acts of courage or "turning the other cheek" occur. I have seen no better example. I feel so lucky to have witnessed this. It will not be forgotten ...

I am (obviously) still working on digesting this day. I expect to be digesting and living out my deepest responses to this peace I saw for the rest of my life.

US Marine with Pham Thanh Cong, My Lai survivor

So shall we all. "Once the vet started to speak," Heather Keenan wrote, "I was overcome with emotion. He seemed just as confused as the survivor, which really struck me. We have read about this confusion among soldiers before, but to actually hear it really impacted me. I envisioned this vet and survivor running across the room into an embrace, which only enhanced my emotions."

"Seeing the Marine was definitely a sobering experience," Fran Tubb said. "It made the whole experience seem real. I could see on his face and the way his hands shook that he was nervous and so incredibly sorry. He was full of regrets." "It was emotional, painful, sobering, and real," Sharon Yoo said. "I thought to myself," James Bridgforth wrote, "'Well, I'm not going to cry,' but of course I did."

After the draining experience in the meeting room, we went on to the museum, which I had seen twice before, but which was an additional moving experience to the students. In looking through the guestbook comments, Anne found one from Tim O'Brien on a visit in 1994, which further brought things together for the students.

We went around the grounds where the massacre took place, including the ditch in which so many people were killed, and the students lit incense in front of the memorial statue.

McElvaine and studnts with Pham Thanh Cong, My Lai survivor

"Today was such a powerful experience," Mary Rebecca Martin said, and we would all agree. It was an amazing day. George Holmes described it this way in his journal:

Today was very emotional for me. Seeing My Lai was definitely one of the most moving experiences of my life. I generally consider myself to be pretty good at controlling emotions, but listening to the survivor talk brought me to tears. I feel guilt. I feel shame. I feel angry. These were people with husbands, wives, daughters, mothers, sons, and we slaughtered them with no regard for humanity. That is WRONG. What if that had been me? ... just speaking to the vet I could tell there was a lot of pain in his voice ... No matter what else I take from this trip, I will never forget the man who lost everything at the hands of my fellow countrymen.

"Tension. Immediate," Kate Sundell wrote. "I struggled to meet [the survivor's] gaze. How could I forget? How can anyone?" None of us will forget this day. It was an educational experience that could never be attained in a classroom on a campus.