When we visited Vietnam, we devoted a day to the My Lai Memorial. We knew it was not going to be an enjoyable day, but we felt it was necessary to go nonetheless.
There’s so much to love and appreciate about modern Vietnamese culture, so much color and flavor. But too often younger travelers don’t take time to appreciate what happened here during what is known in southeast Asia as The American War.
My Lai was not one of America’s finer moments.
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What Happened at My Lai, Vietnam
It was March 16, 1968 and U.S. troops were still smarting and on high alert from the Tet Offensive launched on New Year’s Day that year. Under the command of Lt. William Calley, 26 members of Charlie Company approached the village of My Lai, which they suspected of hiding Viet Cong.
When the day ended, 504 old men, women and children were dead and the village burned to the ground. Women had been gang raped, infants were bayoneted.
And it was all documented by a U.S. Army photographer.
Heroes at the My Lai Massacre
I was not yet 10 years old at the time, yet the names William Calley and My Lai were burned into my memory from news reports delivered at our dinner table by Walter Cronkite.
I had forgotten about Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot with Company B who attempted to stop the massacre. At one point, he landed his chopper between U.S. troops and civilians, threatening to shoot the American soldiers. He rescued injured children and flew them to safety.
Hugh Thompson is honored as a hero in the My Lai interpretive center.
Today at My Lai – Son My Vietnam
Today, the Vietnamese call the village Son My and it is a national historic site. It’s about two hours from the city of Hue, nearing what had been the DMZ. The foundations of the buildings remain. One hut has been rebuilt to demonstrate how villagers lived at that time.
And the ditch is still there, where 170 villagers huddled as U.S. troops opened fire with AR 15 machine guns.
Emotionally powerful bronze statues of women and children in obvious pain and trauma line the pathway to the memorial. They are surrounded by beautiful potted plants and flowering bushes, all donated by organizations from around the world devoted to peace. Many plants came from U.S. veterans groups, many of them identified as serving in Vietnam.
We didn’t enjoy our day at My Lai, but we are so glad we went. As we left the memorial, we heard the sounds of music. A wedding celebration was underway nearby, reminding us that life continues.
Travel is not always about having fun in exotic destinations. Travel is about learning and understanding. May the lessons learned from a visit to My Lai prevent the necessity of similar memorial in another village in another part of the world at another time.