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Son My Sanctuary provides stark reminder of My Lai’s tragic history

Situated 13km northeast of Quang Ngai City and in the centre of Tinh Khe commune, the Son My Sanctuary revisits the tragic My Lai massacre, memorialising wounds still raw after four decades.

Graphic: The museum's photos and displays tell the truth of the massacre 46 years ago.
Graphic: The museum’s photos and displays tell the truth of the massacre 46 years ago.

The 3ha area retells the event through images of damaged thatched roofs and footprints of villagers escaping from American soldiers in March of 1968.

The museum site, built in 2003 and considered a National Special Relic, inhabits the village area American troops nicknamed Pinkville.

The main building at the centre of the museum complex centres houses over 1,000 items and photos, remnants of the massacre.

At the centre of the building sits a stone slab upon which the name of 540 villagers – 182 women, and 173 kids and infants – are inscribed.

The photos, many taken by former US Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle, document the cruelty of war and its carnage. Mr. Haeberle’s iconic black and white photographs become all the more visceral when displayed at the museum.

Time capsule: A damaged house has been rebuilt in the Son My Sanctuary Museum. The museum revives mournful memories of the My Lai massacre, which occurred more than four decades ago. — VNS Photos Cong Thanh

A caption on Haeberle’s photo,”Most were women and babies. It looked as if they tried to get away”, is redundant – as if the scene of women and babies piled up on a path needed explaining.

During the summer of 2012, Ron Haeberle visited Viet Nam and My Lai village and met with a survivor of the My Lai massacre.

But first-hand knowledge of the massacre will only get rarer as the decades roll by. For example, a museum guide, Bui Thi Thu Thuy was born in 1990 and learned about the event through her grandparents’ stories.

“The museum managing board brings their stories to life with images of war-torn villages—collapsed and burnt houses, people and animal corpse scattered across village roads,” Thuy said.

“A river channel in the village, where American soldiers herded remaining villagers to kill them off, was dyed red,” she voiced.

A book at the museum retells the deadly morning on March 16, 1968.

Early in the morning, villagers got up for a new day of work on the farm or in the market. The morning’s peace was broken by 30 minutes of shelling around 5.30am. The assault continued with rocket launches from helicopters.

Then nine choppers landed bringing with then a platoon called Bravo Company. They rushed into My Hoi hamlet and searched every house. A family of 15 hid in a shelter until a group of GIs arrived. Eight of the 15 family members tried to escape but were shot; the rest were killed by mines or grenades. An eight year-old boy running from the shelter was shot dead, his mouth still full with the morning’s rice.

Ronald Haeberle, an army photographer, handed over 40 black-and-white photos of the platoon called Charlie Company to the Army, but kept 18 for himself.

Eighteen months later, when the massacre was under investigation, he showed those 18 photos along with a detailed testimony of the incident.

Pham Thanh Cong, 57, one of only a dozen survivors, said he has done everything he can to rebuild the museum to reflect the image he has held onto for more than 40 years.

“Other survivors have either died of old age or lost their memory of the massacre. I want to set up the village to recreate the tragedy that happened 46 years ago. It reminds young villagers and tourists from all over the world how cruel war is,” Cong said.

Barbaric display: The museum features over 1,200 items and photos of the 1968 massacre in which 504 villagers were killed.

“I would die but for the purpose of keeping the history of the village alive.” More than four decades later, Cong has written a book about the slaughter of 504 unarmed civilians by American soldiers.

The book, Pinkville’s Memory, describes every thing that Cong remembers from that day and what his life became after the massacre.

Cong’s mother and six brothers were killed in their house. He was seriously injured but was saved by his father.

Nguyen Van Tan, a 60-year-old visiting from Quang Nam Province, said he mourned for the villagers.

“The massacre was known by all Vietnamese people. I almost cried during my visit to the museum. I cannot understand the level of brutality and ruthlessness it took to kill so many.

The museum’s photos and displays tell the truth of the massacre 46 years ago,” Tan said.

“I hope that all Vietnamese come here to remember their deaths and do something to prevent future war from happening,” he said.

In the museum’s visitors’ book people from around the world are similarly moved.

“No war ever-forever” was written by the Chu family from the US.

A UK visitor wrote, “Lest we forget the civilians that were taken from us during the Viet Nam war. As a past serviceman, it pains me to see atrocities like the ones here. May God bless the people of Son My village. They will never be forgotten. Amen.”

Shamsheer Sharma felt the tug of memory, “I heard of this incident way back in 1968 when in college, so coming back here 46 years later raises goose pimples.”

So far this year, the museum has hosted 250,000 visitors, of which 37,000 were foreigners.

The museum nearby My Khe beach, Chu Sa ancient citadel and Ly Son Island, is expected to be an attraction to domestic and foreign visitors alike.

The My Lai Massacre

The killings that occurred on March 16, 1968 in the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, Son Tinh District in Quang Ngai Province, prompted widespread outrage around the world. The incident is credited with advancing the end of the American War because of how it undermined public support for the war in the US.

The massacre began when soldiers of the Charlie Company, under the command of Lieutenant Calley, opened fire on civilians during a ‘search and destroy’ mission in My Lai and neighbouring villages. The casualties were mainly old men, women and children – all were unarmed.