Vietnamese fisherman To Tuu still remembers the helicopters full of US troops, zooming in on the morning of March 16, 1968. Within hours, there was nothing left of his village.
“The American soldiers left bodies everywhere,” says the 85-year-old, who fled with his family as soon as he saw the choppers arriving. “Some of them were burnt, including a woman who had just given birth.”
The My Lai massacre was one of the darkest moments of the Vietnam war, and for many Vietnamese like To Tuu, the scars have yet to heal four decades later.
US Lieutenant William Calley, the only US soldier convicted over the killings, said he had been given orders to clean the area — several hamlets including Tu Cung, Co Luy and My Lai — of communist guerrillas.
Hundreds of people, most of them civilians and many of them women and children, were killed in what had been intended as a “search and destroy” mission to flush out Viet Cong fighters.
“I didn’t think they would do anything, just like previous times,” recalls Pham Dat, 80. “But they started to kill everyone. The animals at first — and then the men.”
Some people survived by hiding under the bodies of the dead. The killing went on for hours — 170 people were pushed into a ditch and shot at Tu Cung alone — with more than 400 people believed killed in that hamlet and around 500 in all.
But some US soldiers tried to stop the carnage — notably helicopter pilot Hugh Thomson, who landed his aircraft between the US troops and civilians and managed to save some lives.