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History The crime that shook the world

Fifty years ago a US army unit committed one of the worst war crimes ever. PETER FROST recalls the massacre of My Lai

On March 17 1968, my wife Ann, I and our 10-month-old son Julian joined thousands of others for an anti-Vietnam War rally and a march to the US embassy in Grosvenor Square.

The day started with a huge rally in Trafalgar Square, with tens of thousands opposing both US action in Vietnam and British support for the US war effort.

Ann was a key speaker at the Trafalgar Square meeting. She climbed up on to the plinth under Nelson’s Column with Julian in her arms to appeal for practical funds and donations to keep the campaign going.

She explained that for much of the war she had been part of a group of Young Communists touring Britain collecting medical and other aid in a converted bus visiting miners’ galas and other Labour movement gatherings.

That aid had gone directly to the Vietnam liberation forces.

The Trafalgar Square crowd gave generously to the collection which was sending medical aid and even British-built bicycles to the Vietnamese freedom fighters. Each bike fitted with a local bamboo frame could carry an amazing amount of goods.

They were used for important transportation on the legendary Ho Chi Minh trail that bought equipment from the north to the southern war zones under the noses of the sophisticated US war machine.   

The TV stations loved the pictures of a young mum and her babe-in-arms speaking and we still see the clip in documentaries about 1960s politics on TV today.

Ann explained to the demonstrators the need to save young people not just in Vietnam but also the US and indeed all future generations just like our son Julian.

We needed to end this war and that could only be, Ann explained, by victory for the Vietnamese people.

Not expecting violence we joined the march from the huge Trafalgar Square meeting with Julian in his pushchair. Many well-wishers greeted the mum and baby they had just seen speak at the meeting. Many tossed loose change into our campaign bucket in the pram.

Sadly the cheerful and peaceful atmosphere evaporated as we arrived at Grosvenor Square.  Here the police attacked, including on horses, and more than 200 people were arrested.

The St John Ambulance Brigade says it treated 86 people for injuries that afternoon — 50 demonstrators were taken to hospital along with up to 25 police.

Earlier actor Vanessa Redgrave had been allowed to peacefully enter the embassy with three supporters to deliver a protest, but then it had all turned nasty.

Labour MP Peter Jackson told The Times newspaper: “I was

particularly outraged by the violent use of police horses, who charged into the crowd even after they had cleared the street in front of the embassy.”
Horses would become a well-used tactic in continuing British politics such as the miner’s strike and the poll tax protests among others.

What none knew then was that the day before, March 16 1968, 6,000 miles away in the very country we were protesting about, the official US army press briefing release had blandly stated: “In an action today, American Division forces killed 128 enemy near Quang Ngai City.”

In reality, as the smoke cleared, the truth became far more horrendous, What would become known as the My Lai massacre was the cold-blooded murder of between 347 and 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians.

Victims included men, women, children and infants some as young as our own son Julian.

As well as mass murder some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated.

The unspeakable crime was committed by US soldiers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment. Eventually just 26 soldiers were charged with criminal offences. Only one, Lieutenant William Calley Jr, was convicted.

He was found guilty of killing 22 villagers and was originally given a life sentence. In fact, he served only three-and-a-half years and that under house arrest rather than in a military prison.

Those of us involved in the massive campaign against the Vietnam war would have to wait nearly two years until November 1969 to hear about the awful massacre.

The attack took place in two hamlets renamed on the US army maps as My Lai and My Khe.

My Lai was one of the largest massacres of civilians by US forces in the 20th century.

On the eve of the attack, at the Charlie Company briefing, Captain Ernest Medina told his men that nearly all the civilian residents of the hamlets in Son My village would have left for the market. Any who remained would be Vietcong sympathisers.

Asked whether the order included the killing of women and children, he replied: “They’re all Vietcong, now go and get them.

“Anybody that was running from us, hiding from us or appeared to be the enemy, if a man was running, shoot him, sometimes even if a woman with a rifle was running, shoot her. Destroy everything in the village that was walking, crawling or growing,” Medina concluded.

A large group of approximately 70–80 villagers was rounded up and led to an irrigation ditch. They were pushed in and then killed after repeated orders from Lt Calley, who joined in the shooting.

Witness Dennis Konti told of one especially gruesome episode during the shooting, saying: “A lot of women had thrown themselves on top of the children to protect them and the children were alive at first. Then the children who were old enough to walk got up and Calley began to shoot the children.”

Another witness recalled: “I walked up and saw these guys doing strange things ... Setting fire to the hootches and huts and waiting for people to come out and then shooting them ... going into the hootches and shooting them up ... gathering people in groups and shooting them ...

“As I walked in, you could see piles of people all through the village ... all over. They were gathered up into large groups. I saw them shoot an M79 grenade launcher into a group of people who were still alive. But it was mostly done with a machine gun.”

With tremendous bravery just three of the US troops who witnessed the events were so outraged by what they were seeing they tried to halt the murders and rescue the hiding civilians.

They were helicopter gunship pilot Hugh Thompson Jr, Glenn Andreotta and Larry Colborn. Andreotta died in action three weeks later, but Thompson and Colburn lived on to be vilified and even denounced as anti-US traitors.

In fact, the three heroes had repeatedly landed their helicopter, pulled at least one living little boy from a ditch filled with the dead and confronted their fellow troops and higher-ranking officers with machine guns to save other Vietnamese.

It took another 30 years before the three were officially recognised and decorated for shielding non-combatants from harm in a war zone.

Events such as this saw protests in Britain and the rest of the world increase and in Vietnam US forces were finding this was a battle they could never win. Opposition to the war grew all over the US not least on the university campuses.

Each new outrage like the massacre would help shift public opinion.
The last US troops left Vietnam five years later on March 29 1973 and in 1976 the first elections were finally held, reuniting North and South.

Today Julian’s daughter Lizzie is studying Chinese at university and she visited Vietnam last year.

She told us: “I loved travelling through Vietnam even i,f tourism can sometimes be problematic. Although remnants of the war remain I met so many warm and friendly Vietnamese people.

“Visiting the Vietnam War Museum was heartbreaking so it is nice to hear about my dad’s and my grandmother’s role in ending such imperialist terror in what is today such a vibrant and lively country.”

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