How many Vietnam veterans are left

Vietnam War50 years ago: The My Lai massacre

"Uncle Ho is always in our hearts," reads the banner across the road to the My Lai Memorial. Ho Chi Minh is revered like a saint in socialist Vietnam. Schoolchildren in blue uniforms with red pioneer scarves are out and about on bicycles. Farmers in straw hats plow rice fields with water buffalo, coconut palms line the roadside - a rural idyll. Only the foundation walls of the village of My Lai remain. Pham Thi Thuan - a small, stooped woman of 84 years - points to the stone outlines in the lush grass. She lived here 50 years ago.

"I woke up very early that day, made a fire and put on the water - then I heard the helicopters. Lots of helicopters. We were hiding, but we weren't afraid. I thought they would search our houses, probably shoot our cattle and disappear again, as always. "

84-year-old Pham Thi Thuan survived the My Lai massacre because she fell under her sister who was shot. (dpa)

The Americans call the terrain Pinkville, it is pink on the military maps. The men of Charlie Company are supposed to track down Viet Cong fighters, North Vietnamese communists, on this hot, humid March morning in 1968. The Americans are young recruits, in their early twenties. The day before, the first of them died from bullets from an invisible enemy.

They are frustrated, scared, and thirsty for revenge. Run by the weak 24-year-old Lieutenant Willliam Calley, who desperately wants to please his boss, Captain Medina. An iron eater, as they say, who cheered the men on during the briefing, the GIs involved remember:

"Our Captain Medina told us: You go in there now, burn everything down and kill everyone: women, children, babies, cows, cats, everything. When we jumped out of the helicopters, we immediately started shooting."

"It got completely out of hand"

When the C-Company reaches the village, the soldiers are irritated. Instead of heavily armed North Vietnamese fighters, they encounter women, children and old men at breakfast. It must be the Viet Cong, one of the GIs shouts anyway, shots are fired, a villager is hit.

"When the first civilian was shot, it was too late. Whoever fired that shot, then everything got out of control. That was just: Shoot, shoot - at everything that moved. Someone came out of a hut - fear , dead. It got completely out of hand. "

50 years later, a sturdy man strides unerringly along the muddy paths between the remains of the wall at the My Lai memorial. It is pouring rain, the ground is steaming in the humid heat. Phan Tanh Cong stops in front of the ruins of his parents' house. He was eleven years old on the day that ended his childhood and happy carefree forever.

Phan Tanh Cong was eleven years old when the Americans slaughtered his village. (dpa)

"We were sitting in the kitchen when the Americans stormed in. There were six of us in my family. They yelled VC, VC, which means Viet Cong, and stood against the wall. Then they immediately started shooting. I fell over with the others , but I wasn't hit. The bodies of my parents and siblings were lying over me. And the Americans probably thought I was dead too, that's why I survived. I still feel the horror today. My brothers and my sister - two, four and six Years old - how can the Viet Cong be? "

About 170 women executed with their children

Today the 61-year-old is the director of the My Lai memorial. Preserving the memory of the crime - that is his life's work. He's told the story of March 16th many times, but his eyes still get wet again and again.

"They screamed and rounded up people, more than a hundred in front of Mr. Nuo's house alone. Then they started shooting and killed them all. 15 women dragged them into the fields in front of the village and raped them. I can still hear them today Then they killed them too. They bayoneted a pregnant woman's belly. Others searched the rest of the houses and shot everyone they met. They also killed our cattle and then set the houses on fire. "

The soldiers of Charlie Company drive around 170 women and their children to the moats and line them up there. The 84-year-old Pham Thi Thuan can still see it today as if it were yesterday.

The trench in My Lai, where around 170 people were shot and dumped. (AP / Bennett Murray)

"We had to get up and sit down again, get up, sit down. Three times. Then they shot. On the head, the stomach, everywhere. Everyone fell. Many women had children with them. My sister fell on me, that's why I did I thought I was fatally injured because there was blood all over there, so much blood - but it wasn't mine. I was buried with bodies. And then they shot again, and then - after a few minutes - a third time. "

Buried under corpses

The killing takes four hours. But Pham Thi Thuan doesn't know that in her water channel, buried under corpses, covered in the blood of her family. It's an eternity for them.

"I don't know how long I lay there. Very long because I was so scared. Then I fought my way up through all the dead bodies. There were a few others who survived and we just are A couple of Americans shot us after us and the woman next to me - she also had her child on her arm - fell to the ground. Then I saw a helicopter again and I thought it was over - but the shooting stopped. "

US Lieutenant Colonel William L. Calley (picture-alliance / dpa)

It is the moment when Lieutenant Hugh Thompson lands in his helicopter. On the way back from a patrol flight, he saw the bodies of civilians. The feature film "My Lai 4" reproduces the conversation between Thompson and Calley almost verbatim. "What's going on here, Lieutenant," the helicopter pilot wants to know from Calley.

"That's my business," says Calley. "I'm just obeying orders."

"Orders, whose orders?"

"Just give orders."

"But these are people, unarmed civilians, sir!"

"Watch out for Thompson, that's my business here. I'm in charge. It's none of your business. You'd better get back in your helicopter and take care of your own business."

"The last word on this has not yet been spoken," replied Thompson.

Hugh Thomson becomes the hero of My Lai

He goes back to the helicopter and orders his gunner to shoot the Americans if they keep killing.

"I knew I would spend the rest of my life in prison if I shot American soldiers. But I would have done it to prevent further murders."

But what should he do with the frightened survivors? There is no room for passengers in his helicopter. But if he leaves her behind, the pilot is convinced, Calley's people will shoot her too. Thompson calls an old aviator buddy and says, "You have to do me a favor." He sends two choppers: The last women, children and men from My Lai are flown out. The young helicopter pilot saved eleven lives, 504 are dead. Later songs are sung about Hugh Thompson, the hero of My Lai.

Hugh Thompson never saw himself as a hero. He simply didn't have a choice, he says later.

"That was murder. There were people standing in a row at the trench, like 170, with their hands raised above their heads and they were executed. This is not a war, this is not what a soldier does for his country. They are murderers."

Not all Charlie Company soldiers killed, maimed, and raped. Only an estimated 18 to 20 - so say witnesses - become murderers this March 16th. But not a single one of the remaining 170 had the courage to stop his comrades. And that's why Thompson was so important to the US Army: the good American in this villain, the light in all the terrible darkness. He has received multiple awards and lectured on courage for the US Army until he died from cancer in 2006.

The military is involved in the cover-up right up to the top ranks

At that time, of course, he was more of a polluter of the nest. Screaming and with tears in his eyes, he returns to the base and reports the crime. There are also photos by the official army photographer Robert Haeberle. Horrible images that will later shock the world. But the officers identify the bodies of unarmed civilians as fallen Viet Cong fighters.

The helicopter pilot Hugh C. Thompson, according to his testimony at the Pentagon about the My Lai massacre. (UPI)

The official army report reports 128 enemies killed; with zero own losses. There was only one wounded among the Americans. He had shot himself in the foot to be flown from the place of horror. But that too is not mentioned in the report. My Lai was officially a successful mission.

The military is involved in the cover-up right up to the top ranks. Almost all high-ranking US officers fly over Pinkville in the following days, basically everyone knows about it. The men of the Charlie Company are sent out into the jungle on missions that last for months. Meanwhile, the surviving villagers return to My Lai to bury their dead.

"The corpses, the blood, the brackish water and the heat here in Vietnam - it was an unimaginable stench. Often it was not possible to identify the dead. Because the faces were unrecognizable from gunshots or bayonet wounds, the bodies were torn to pieces by grenades. So they brought the bodies to the rice fields and buried them in bomb craters. Together. There are at least three large mass graves here. And to this day nobody can say who exactly is buried there. "

"In our village I can be close to their souls"

Phan Tanh Cong, the museum director, has lived here again since 1975. He returned after the reunification of Vietnam under socialist rule. When the memorial was built in 1992, he became its director. But why does a person stay in the place of his most terrible memories all his life?

"It is also a place of good memories. To my mother, my father, my siblings, to happy parties and pranks with neighbors' children. Here, in our village, I can be close to their souls and take care of their graves. And pray for them, so that they can live peacefully on the other side. That's why I stayed here. "

The 21-year-old journalism student Ronald Ridenhour is a gunner of a helicopter in Vietnam in 1968. Three weeks after My Lai, he runs into an old army buddy. They haven't seen each other for a long time, sit together and tell soldiers' stories.

"He asked: Did you hear what we did in Pinkville? And I said, no - and he: We went in there and killed everyone. Lined up and shot three, four, five hundred people - I don't know how many. And I thought: You huge asshole. What are you pulling me into? I was faced with the choice of blackening my friend or becoming part of this terrible crime. And the only way not to be part of this Becoming a crime is exposing the truth and making sure that the guilty are punished. And that's what I told him. My friend, when he told me about it, said, you know, it was like some Nazi thing. And it was exactly that. A Nazi thing. But we didn't go to Vietnam to become Nazis. At least not the people I know. I don't want to be a Nazi. "

The journalist Seymour Hersh digs deeper

Ridenhour researched. And when he returned to the United States in 1969, he described the My Lai massacre in a long letter to President Nixon. He sends copies to the Secretary of Defense, various members of Congress, and the Chief of the Army, General Westmoreland. He has no choice but to commission an investigation.

Commemoration of the victims of the massacre (EPA)

The indictment against Lieutenant William Calley initially received little attention in the United States. The journalist Seymour Hersh - then a freelance writer in Washington - suspects more behind the sober press release from the Pentagon. He researches and speaks to Lieutenant Calley and others involved in the massacre. He learns disturbing details about the "trip to Pinkville", as Captain Medina had called the operation at the time.

"After they had all butchered, they sat down next to the ditch with all the bodies and ate lunch. Seriously! Then they heard crying. A maybe two-year-old boy who had survived the shooting crawled out of the ditch, crawled among them all The dead came out, covered all over with their blood, and ran away. And Lieutenant Calley said to one of his soldiers: Come on, kill him. But he couldn't. So Calley drew his pistol and shot the little child. "

Jimi Hendrix '"star spangled banner" - the US anthem distorted with the electric guitar to bomb explosions and MG staccato - describes the mood. America was there to defend its "way of life", freedom and democracy against communist oppressors. Their atrocities were regularly described in the darkest colors on radio programs such as the NBC show "Vietcong Terror":

But now America was guilty of its own accord. US Army soldiers - the supposedly good guys in the fight against evil - slaughtered innocent women and children and unarmed civilians. "That Nazi thing," Vietnam veteran Ronald Ridenhour called it. "America's Holocaust," write the newspapers. When the news of the My Lai massacre became known, the mood in the American public finally turned against the war. Seymour Hersh's reports in Life, Times and Newsweek coincide with the major anti-war demonstrations in Washington.

US soldiers investigate the My Lai site in South Vietnam. (AP archive)

Calley apologizes late

The myth of American invincibility was long gone. Peasants in sandals with Kalashnikovs withstood the most effective, best-armed war machine in the world, and more and more American sons were returning home in coffins. Now, in addition to the military hopelessness, came the moral declaration of bankruptcy.

Life sentence. William Calley is the only person convicted of My Lai. That is probably one of the reasons for the outrage in the USA, the mass protests for Calley's release, suspects prosecutor Aubrey Daniel.

"This country wanted to end the war. And it didn't want to believe that this massacre really happened. And if it did, it was the fault of the whole people, the whole army - and not Lieutenant Calley's fault."

The officer does not even have to be behind bars, but can serve the sentence as house arrest. After just four years, President Nixon pardoned the convicted murderer. There is also a song about William Calley.

The song of a soldier who went to war for his country and was made a villain. The scapegoat, even though he was only doing his duty.

William Calley was silent for a long time. It was not until 41 years after the massacre that he publicly asked for forgiveness. There has not been a day in his life since then that he did not regret what happened in My Lai, he said. At least this is the feeling he shares with Phan Tanh Cong, the survivor and director of the My Lai Memorial.

"I've felt this pain for 50 years. Whenever March 16 approaches, all the despair comes back to me. Sadness. I've been lost since that day. Lonely. I didn't know where to go. I have. I have." lost everyone I loved, not just my family, also neighbors, friends. American bullets missed me. But I have a deep hole in my soul. "