50 Years After My Lai: Remembering Charlie Company

Photo by -JvL- | CC BY 2.0

It was late January, 1969 when I joined the Company at LZ Thunder, located in southern Quang Ngai Province.  As a replacement with the trademarks of new boots and fatigues, I would be “initiated” into my new identity as a “Jungle Warrior” ( the 11th Infantry Brigade).  The 3rd squad, 3rd platoon RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) was particularly happy to see me—I’d be relieving him of humping the radio.

Having new guys was considered a mixed blessing, in one sense, someone to share the load, but also someone who could be a liability in a fire fight.  Yet, as the squad RTO, I was tethered to my squad leader; with his eight months in the field, he was a fountain of experience.  He showed me how to function as a team member, and maybe survive my 365.  He demonstrated what a squad leader should be– following the command decisions from the top-down, yet shaping decisions based on his squad’s unique “enemy” engagement situation.

Forty-nine years later, in reading a well researched essay by a former platoon leader in the 1st Cav., I found a kindred spirit who reached in and found me, so to speak, where I live.  The essay is titled “Calley’s Ghost” by Philip D. Beidler, published in VQR online, issue: 2003.  In his piece, he leads the reader through the 11th Brigade’s “initiation” to Vietnam from their all to brief and totally inadequate training in Hawaii, to Duc Pho and My Lai 4, and summarizes all the details of the top-down and the bottom-up military “code” violations and the complete breakdown of leadership responsibilities (somewhat less visible when I joined the Company).  He doesn’t spare Charlie Company, but is extremely circumspect regarding the failures of the Division Commander on down to the riflemen who open fired and over-killed hundreds of women, children, and old men.  He captures the infantry soldiers’ nightmare of the constant radio chatter (experienced by most combat units in Vietnam) coming from all the levels of command circling high overhead—Division, Brigade, Battalion, and at the lowest level,the gunships—with no proper oversight or control.

Professor Beidler goes on to explain how this pattern is repeated throughout our misbegotten ground war, with variations, by degree, of the My Lai Massacre.  He says of Calley’s Ghost, “For all of us who knew the everyday war of the battalions and brigades, it is the visitation from which memory can never allow itself to find release,  continuing to beggar every instinct of moral accountability, then or now.”  In this, he is reflecting on his years as a university researcher, wrongly thinking that he would have some “analytical or intellectual insulation” from the ongoing reality.

Calley, who was insulted and ridiculed in front of his men by the other officers, had something to prove.  Yet, he did not devise or orchestrate Task Force Barker.   After the cover up was exposed and the trial verdicts were rendered, he was the only one sentenced.  Most of the higher ranking officers were rewarded with advancements or new career opportunities, yet the feckless Calley “became a hero of the die hard right and honored by patriotic organizations.”

Before reading Beidler’s essay, my melancholy concerning the soon to be 50th anniversary of My Lai 4, fueled by the uptick of related commentary, was becoming an emotional roller coaster ride. That essay, along with two other readings, has shined a little light in my darkness.

Recently, as my son-in-law was cleaning out his study, converting it into a nursery for his and my younger daughter’s first child, he chanced upon a couple of books from a Vietnam War course he had taken back in his Texas Tech days.  Being the recipient of this gratuity,  I was surprised to get two books with the liberation ideology of the North Vietnamese: Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diaries of Dang Thuy Tram and Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War.  I worked through personal conflict as I read each one.  I lost close buddies in Vietnam and my first squad leader, mentioned above, had a mortar round explode within ten meters of him on May 31, l969 (with only twelve days left in country), needing a priority dust off, suffering multiple shrapnel wounds.  He was transferred to Japan and ended up spending about ten months in hospitals.  Two others from my squad were killed that day.  David had thirteen days left in country.  We pulled guard together a couple of nights earlier—he was becoming inordinately afraid of dying.

Bao Ninh’s main character Kien,  was a lead scout (those carrying out sapper attacks on fire bases).  His novel has been compared to Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, as “he mixes harrowing flashback scenes from the war with images from his pastoral youth”–The Independent.  Drawing from his own experiences, his main character suffers from massive disillusionment.  Of the five-hundred who went to war with the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade, Bao Ninh is one of ten to survive.  It’s in part about soldiers entering the war with blazing idealism and,  for Kien, finally returning home with “the twin scourges of overwhelming memories and amnesia (my squad leader was affected the same way)”–The New York Times.  He needed to carve out a life for himself in spite of the indifference and scorn heaped upon him and the other returnees—sounds a lot like what many of us Vietnam vets returned home to. He came back somebody else.  The challenge would be to heal the split in his psyche and become somewhat whole.  Not only do I relate with Bao Ninh’s development of Kien and his constant need to function and re adapt to the chaos of combat, but also to his ability to recapture a semblance of his humanity after bursts of rage and acts of brutality in the midst of fighting ARVN and American forces, with their often terrifying air support.

In Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram, we experience the confident beauty of a young recently graduated female doctor from Hanoi who volunteers to serve in the South.  She was the chief physician of a never permanent field hospital in Quang Ngia Province.  “She boarded a truck in Hanoi with a group of civilians—journalists, photographers, doctors—and traveled 250 miles to a staging area, then traveled on foot with heavy packs for three months down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, through the mountains of Troung Son range to Quang Ngai.”  Her family is cultured, her Dad a doctor and Mom a pharmacologist.  Her diaries reveal the close bonds she established with staff, patients, and cadre.

Within her prose, which was often very poetical, she often admonished herself for a feeling or a sentiment that would detract from her very important focus as a new party member: To “hold firmly the spirit of a communist, a spirit as clear as crystal, as hard as diamond, a spirit shining bright with a thousand halos of faith.  A communist loves life dearly but can accept death just as lightly if necessary.”(Dying for the noble cause, that others may be free and liberated)  Bao Ninh, by comparison, had more latitude in his idealogy.  Yet, Thuy was always downplaying her bourgeois sentiments and elevating her working class ethic—that she was no better than anybody else.  She could read peoples’ eyes, the window to the soul, and establish her “brother and sister” relationships accordingly.

My fascination with her is in part because we were both in Duc Pho at the same time.  The result of the 1/20th’s search and clear operations provided her staff with a steady flow of wounded soldiers.  Her diaries are full of entries cursing the invader—“when will we defeat the invader and be at peace?”  Yet, she knew that her people had the spirit and the will to prevail, no matter how long it took.  There are also references to the many invasions and occupations and to once and for all, be truly liberated.  Sounds like a fair request.  Seems that periodically informers would give their clinic location away, with the staff and their patients having to relocate on the fly.

After barely escaping death so many times and more than once doubting that she would live to see her country liberated, her mountain clinic  was betrayed.  On June 22, 1970, 4th/21st D Company, 2nd platoon spotted four people walking down a mountain path towards them, open fired, and shot Thuy and an NVA soldier—two escaped.

This June, I will be attending my 3rd Charlie Company reunion, (I was aware of the reunions back in 2010, but found too many reasons why I shouldn’t go) an event that was kicked off back in 2006.  Last year, there were 48 of us, including wives.  Hopefully, I will again see two guys from my  squad there—Chuck, our 79 man, and Tim, my old squad leader, who I was once tethered to.  Both adhere to status quo values, but I was radicalized a long time ago.  What unites us is our common experience together in the jungles of Vietnam.  In that spirit, I also find camaraderie with Philip Beidler, Bao Ninh and Thuy Tram, the spirit of liberation.


Robert Pillsbury is a Social Critic living in South Texas.