Thirteen

My Lai in May

      The villages of My Lai are scattered like wild seed in and around Pinkville, a flat stretch of sandy red clay along the northern coast of South Vietnam. “Pinkville” is a silly, county-fairish misnomer for such a sullen piece of the world. From the infantryman’s perspective, zigzagging through one of the most heavily mined areas in the war zone, there is little pink or rosy about Pinkville: mud huts more often deserted than not, bombed-out pagodas, the patently hostile faces of Pinkville’s inhabitants, acre after acre of slush, paddy after paddy, a dirty maze of elaborate tunnels and bomb shelters and graves.

The place gets its name from the fact that military maps color it a shimmering shade of elephant pink, signifying what the map legends call a “built-up area.” Perhaps it once was. Perhaps Pinkville once upon a time was a thriving part of Quang Ngai province. It is no longer.

Pinkville and the villages called My Lai were well known to Alpha Company. Even before the headlines and before the names Calley and Medina took their place in history, Pinkville was a feared and special place on the earth. In January, a month or so before I arrived in Vietnam, less than a year after the slaughter in My Lai 4, Alpha Company took part in massive Operation Russell Beach, joining forces with other army elements, boatloads of marines, the navy and air force. Subject of the intricately planned and much-touted campaign was Pinkville and the Batangan Peninsula. Both had long served as Charlie’s answer to the American R & R center—friendly natives, home-cooked rice, and nearly total sanctuary from American foot soldiers. Despite publicity and War College strategy, the operation did not produce the anticipated results, and this unit learned some hard lessons about Pinkville. There was no reliable criterion by which to distinguish a pretty Vietnamese girl from a deadly enemy; often they were one and the same person. The unit triggered one mine after another during Operation Russell Beach. Frustration and anger built with each explosion and betrayal, one Oriental face began to look like any other, hostile and black, and Alpha Company was boiling with hate when it was pulled out of Pinkville.

In May we were ordered back. Inserted by chopper in the villages of My Khe, a few thousand meters south of the My Lais, we hit immediate contact. The Viet Cong were there, waiting in ambush across the paddy. The people of My Khe 3 were silent; they let us walk into the ambush, not a word of warning.

The day was quiet and hot, and I was thinking about Coke and rest. Then the bushes just erupted. I was carrying the radio for the company commander, and I remember getting separated from him, thinking I had to get up there. But I couldn’t. I lay there. I screamed, buried my head.

A hand grenade came out of the bushes, skidded across my helmet, a red sardine can with explosives inside. I remember my glimpse of the thing, fizzling there beside me. I remember rolling to my left; remember waiting for the loudest noise of my life. It was just a pop, but I remember thinking that must be how it sounds to a dead man. Nothing hurt much. Clauson, a big fellow, took the force of the grenade. I lay there and watched him trot a few steps, screaming; then he lay on his back and screamed. I couldn’t move. I kept hollering, begging for an end to it. The battalion commander was on the radio, asking where my captain was, wanting to talk to him, wanting me to pop smoke to mark our position, wanting me to call the other platoons. Bullets were coming from the bushes. Clauson was gone, I don’t know where or how, and when I put my head up to look for him, I couldn’t see anyone. Everything was noise, and it lasted on and on. It was over, I knew, when Mad Mark came out of the bushes, carrying a tall, skinny guy named Arnold over his shoulder. He swiveled Arnold into a helicopter, and we went north, into the My Lais.

Along the way we encountered the citizens of Pinkville; they were the nonparticipants in war. Children under ten years, women, old folks who planted their eyes into the dirt and were silent. “Where are the VC?” Captain Johansen would ask, nicely enough. “Where are all the men? Where is Poppa-san?” No answers, not from the villagers. Not until we ducked poppa’s bullet or stepped on his land mine.

Alpha Company was fatigued and angry leaving My Lai 5. Another futile search of a nearly deserted village, another fat zero turned up through interrogation. Moving north to cross the Diem Diem River, the company took continuous sniper fire, and it intensified into a sharp thunder when we reached the river and a bridge, seventy-five meters long and perfectly exposed, the only way across. One man at a time, churning as fast as the rucksacks and radios and machine guns allowed, the unit crossed the Song Diem Diem, the rest of the troops spraying out protective fire, waiting their own turn, and we were scared. It was a race. A lieutenant was the starter, crouched at the clay runway leading into the paddy, hollering “Go” for each of us, then letting loose a burst of fire to cover the guy. The captain, first man to win his race, was at the finish line. He gave the V sign to each man across. It may have signaled victory or valor. It did not mean peace. The men were angry. No enemy soldiers to shoot back at, only hedgerows and bushes and clumps of dead trees.

We were mortared that night. We crawled about in gullies and along paddy dikes, trying to evade. We saw the red quick flashes of their mortar tubes, but no one dared fire back, for it would do nothing but give away more precisely our position. The captain had me call headquarters to get gunships, and in the middle of the communication the mortar rounds fell even closer, and Johansen muttered that they were bracketing us, walking their rounds in from two directions, and on our hands and knees, my antenna dragging along in the paddy, the night purely black, we crawled forward and backward and finally into a village of My Lai, where we spent that night. Platoons lay out in the water of the paddies. They were afraid to move.

In the next days it took little provocation for us to flick the flint of our Zippo lighters. Thatched roofs take the flame quickly, and on bad days the hamlets of Pinkville burned, taking our revenge in fire. It was good to walk from Pinkville and to see fire behind Alpha Company. It was good, just as pure hate is good.

We walked to other villages, and the phantom Forty-eighth Viet Cong Battalion walked with us. When a booby-trapped artillery round blew two popular soldiers into a hedgerow, men put their fists into the faces of the nearest Vietnamese, two frightened women living in the guilty hamlet, and when the troops were through with them, they hacked off chunks of thick black hair. The men were crying, doing this. An officer used his pistol, hammering it against a prisoner’s skull.

Scraps of our friends were dropped in plastic body bags. Jet fighters were called in. The hamlet was leveled, and napalm was used. I heard screams in the burning black rubble. I heard the enemy’s AK-47 rifles crack out like impotent popguns against the jets. There were Viet Cong in that hamlet. And there were babies and children and people who just didn’t give a damn in there, too. But Chip and Tom were on the way to Graves Registration in Chu Lai; and they were dead, and it was hard to be filled with pity.

We continued the march. The days baked red clay into our hides. One afternoon in mid-May we set up a defensive perimeter atop a high and safely steep hill, and we rested, taking a resupply of hot food, mail, Coke, and beer. Below us farmers worked in their paddies. A lieutenant—the one who earned the nickname Mad Mark—perched on a rock, pushed his spectacles against his nose, peered through the sniper scope mounted on his new M-14 rifle, and squeezed off a bullet at one of the farmers. The fellow fell. Mad Mark was elated: a bull’s-eye at three hundred meters. When the lieutenant took a squad down to examine the results, he radioed back to me: “Wounded him in the leg. He’s carrying rice and some papers in a small satchel. Call higher headquarters ASAP. Tell ’em we got one Victor Charlie, male, military-aged. Engaged with small-arms fire while trying to evade. How’s your copy?”

I swallowed and said, “Good copy. Anything further?”

He paused. “Well, tell ’em the dink has a broken leg. Better get a dust-off out here. Save some chow for us.”

Coming off the hill next day, a kid named Slocum hit a mine, shredding a leg. “Champion 48, this is Echo 40. Request urgent dust-off. Grid 788934. Urgent. I say again …”

And again that night. Small arms and grenades, two men wounded. Another man, lucky that time around, dislocated a shoulder as he dived for cover.

Following day, the officers decided to move us to the ocean. We took sniper fire along the way. My pack fell apart, rubber bands holding the radio antenna snapped, and the six-foot antenna dragged in the dirt. Mad Mark told me to wake up and get my shit together. But it was beginning not to matter. We walked like madmen, canteens going dry, and nothing stopped us. Finally came the sand, pines, a stretch of miraculously white beach, a sheaf of blue and perfect water—the South China Sea to the east of the My Lais—and if we’d had a raft and courage, that ocean could have carried us a thousand miles and more toward home.

Instead, security was placed out in the pines, and we swam. We bellowed and grinned, weapons and ammo in the sand, not giving a damn. We slammed into the water. We punched at it and played in it, soaked our heads in it, slapped it to make cracking, smashing sounds, same as blasting a hand through glass.

Mail came. My girlfriend traveled in Europe, with her boyfriend. My mother and father were afraid for me, praying; my sister was in school, and my brother was playing basketball. The Viet Cong were nearby. They fired for ten seconds, and I got onto the radio, called for helicopters, popped smoke, and the medics carried three men to the choppers, and we went to another village.

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