This week marks 50 years since American troops massacred more than 500 civilians in the Vietnamese village of My Lai.
Among the victims were women, children and elderly, mutilated, raped and killed by US soldiers who were ‘almost robotic’ in their behaviour.
Watching the devastating scenes unfurl through the viewfinder of his camera was army commissioned photographer Ron Haeberle, who found himself powerless to help as his own country’s military forces fired shots into crowds of terrified innocents.
Haeberle was drafted in 1966, after attending Ohio University, where he was a photographer for the school paper. The images he shot on March 16 1968 helped to expose the heinous crimes committed at My Lai.
The oldest at 26, Haeberle flew with Charlie Company to Vietnam. The average age in the group was just 20.
On that day they were primed for action; Viet Cong troops were reported to be hiding in the hamlet. But on arrival, it became clear that this was not the case.
“I heard a lot of firing and thought, ‘Hell, we must be in a hot zone,'” Haeberle told Time Magazine. “But after a couple of minutes we weren’t taking any fire, so we started walking toward the village.
“I saw what appeared to be civilians. Then I saw a soldier firing at them. I could not figure out what was going on. I couldn’t comprehend it.”
Haeberle bore witness to the brutal murders of more than 100 helpless people that day, many of which still haunt him in minute detail.
“I came up to a clump of bodies and I saw this small child,” the photographer explained in the Plain Dealer story that first revealed the atrocities to the world. “Part of his foot had been shot off, and he went to this pile of bodies and just looked at it, like he was looking for somebody.
“A GI knelt down beside me and shot the little kid. His body flew backwards into the pile.”
By late morning the ground was littered with bodies. Nearby, remaining civilians were forced into a roadside ditch and shot. A handful of children managed to keep their lives by hiding under the dead.
“I was shocked. There was no feeling, nothing human about it. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said Heaberle. “Quite a few soldiers that day had lost reality.
“This was revenge. They weren’t seeing human beings, or children – they were seeing the enemy.”
But as the soldiers shot with their guns, Haeberle continued to do the same with his camera.
“It was kind of instinct. Reaction. I had to record what was happening,” he said.
“I was kind of numb. I couldn’t understand why the small children, the women. It’s not right. You just don’t do things like that.
“Some of the soldiers, you try to talk to them. They looked at us, shook their head and walked on,” he added.
After the massacre, the cover up began almost immediately.
“Gen Westmoreland sent a congratulatory letter to Company C praising ‘a wonderful job’. It was one big cover-up from the top down. My photos convinced the GIs to speak out,” Heaberle explained.
Initially, he was worried his account wouldn’t be believed, but a month after returning from Vietnam, Haeberle had his photographs and story published in The Plain Dealer. A full investigation was launched in response but unbelievably only one man was convicted.
In 1971 Lieut William Calley was found guilty of 22 murders and sentenced to life with hard labour. However, three years later he was pardoned by President Nixon and freed.
Only in 2009 did Calley offer an apology, saying: “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”
The criminals were never brought to justice. Something for which Haeberle partly blames himself.
“We are all guilty of something there that day,” he said.
“I have apologised for what happened. It should never have happened. In my own way I go and pay my respects.”
The aging photographer still makes regular visits to My Lai with Tran Van Duc – one of the survivors of the massacre, who was only a young boy when the horrors took place.
Ron Haeberle’s My Lai camera now sits in Duc’s house.
“That to him is important because it captured the last image of his mother,” says Haeberle.
“The Vietnamese are very forgiving, they just want the soldiers to come back so they can forgive them.” Credit: PA
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