Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Into The Dark: The My Lai Massacre

Quang Ngai Province, Vietnam

Anti-war marchers in Washington D.C. (AP)
Anti-war marchers in Washington
D.C. (AP)

Quang Ngai province is a stunning, exotic mixture of mountains, jungle, rice paddies and beaches along a vastly unblemished shoreline. To the west, toward the Laotian border, beyond more mountains and hills than can be imagined, as far as the eye can see, the ancient lands of Vietnam stretch into the horizon. Jungles so thick and treacherous, an American soldier couldn't move a half-mile a day. The heat was like a vise it could sap the will of the strongest man and put a brave soldier on his knees. Rusted shells of French military vehicles, armored carriers and tanks lay hidden in the bush, overgrown with two decades of weeds and vegetation, dim reminders of the Indochina War during the 1950s and the ultimate defeat of European colonialism.

The village of Chu Lai was in the province of Quang Ngai, a highly contested area whose control shifted almost daily between the Viet Cong and South Vietnamese forces during the 1960s. It is located on QL-1, the one and only national highway of South Vietnam, which hugs the coast along the South China Sea. It was, and still is, a highway that is mostly unpaved and littered with potholes. A traveler was just as likely to come across a water buffalo as speeding motorcycles, a column of military vehicles, ARVN soldiers (South Vietnamese), farmers, civilians, school children, U.S. soldiers, Korean ROCs and even the VC who also used QL-1 to get around Vietnam.

The 11th Brigade built a base camp in the town of Duc Pho, a small village in the southern part of Quang Ngai province. This was an area that was dominated by the Viet Cong for many years prior to 1967. Sympathy for Ho Chi Minh and his "holy cause" ran deep. So much so that the only way to defeat the Viet Cong in the Duc Pho-Mo Duc district was to wipe out the villages. By the time the 11th Infantry Brigade arrived in the town of Duc Pho, it was estimated that 70% of the homes in the province were already destroyed. And this was months before the massive Tet Offensive of February, 1968 when North Vietnam launched a nationwide coordinated attack on hundreds of towns and villages in South Vietnam. Total destruction was the military's solution on how to deal with an enemy that could not be understood and often could not be seen. Villages across Vietnam were bombed, burned, bulldozed and buried.

General William Westmoreland, 1967 (CORBIS)
General William
Westmoreland, 1967

General William Westmoreland, Commander of American Forces in Vietnam, once wrote: "So sympathetic were some of the people to the VC that the only way to establish control...among the people was to remove the people and destroy the village." The civilian population, caught between the Viet Cong who ruled the night and the Americans who took over during the day, suffered at the hands of both. In the rural areas, where electricity was mostly unknown and families lived on the same plot of land for centuries, political loyalties were often subject to the whim of whoever was holding a rifle. Water buffalo was the main source of power and farmers knew little else except the methods, tradition and culture of growing rice. To many young American soldiers, Vietnam was a land of primitive technology and so alien to their own experiences, so different than what they were accustomed to seeing, it was like going back in time to a pre-historic era.

The author on patrol near My Lai, 1968 (Courtesy Mark Gado)
The author on patrol near My Lai,
1968 (Courtesy Mark Gado)

In Quang Ngai Province during 1967 and 1968, the Viet Cong remained in control in almost all of the rural areas. Despite continuous bombardment by American artillery and thousands of strategic bombing missions by U.S. Navy jets, enemy forces were still strong and ruled the countryside. In November, 1967, U.S. forces and North Vietnamese Regulars (NVA) engaged in a fearsome battle to the death in the hills of Dak To on Thanksgiving Day. The terrifying story of that battle on Hill 875 was still fresh in the minds of American soldiers and spoke volumes of the amazing persistence of the Viet Cong (Page and Pimlott, p. 289). A few miles to the east of QL-1, the hamlets of Son My and My Lai were the scene of continued fighting where the area was frequently covered with mines and booby traps. These deadly traps took a heavy toll, both physically and psychologically, on the American soldier.

In February and March of 1968, Charlie Company, of the 1st Battalion, 11th Brigade, suffered severe losses as a result of these traps. In one instance, while patrolling near Son My, the company stumbled upon a heavily laid minefield. As the explosions went off among them, the men tried to push forward. It was the worst thing they could have done. More explosions ripped through the helpless soldiers. Broken and severed limbs were everywhere. When it was over, 15 men were killed and wounded. By the time early March rolled around, Charlie Company had suffered 28 casualties and had yet to actually see any Viet Cong. They were seething with an anger and hatred for an enemy that, to them, was mostly invisible.


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