Museum records My Lai massacre
The My Lai statue depicting the mother with the dead baby and the murdered brothers. Picture: Niall McIlroy/The West Australian

At My Lai on Vietnam's central coast, a memorial and museum recall a wartime atrocity. On March 16, 1968, about 50 US soldiers flew to the fishing and farming village ostensibly seeking out Viet Cong sympathisers.

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From their helicopters they rained bullets and rockets on My Lai, killing indiscriminately. They then landed and massacred defenceless villagers, ignoring their pleas for mercy. In a ditch where some had tried to hide, 170 were murdered. By the time the killing had finished, as many as 504 were dead.

At the ruins of My Lai, a granite statue, built by various US veterans' groups, shows some of the villagers in their final moments. A mother, her dead baby in the crook of her arm, raises her hand in self-defence. Next to her are two brothers. The older one is on top of the younger, shielding his body. They are both dead.

The US Army did its best to cover up the crime, burning the village and many of the bodies. But the museum holds photographs of the mother with the dead baby and the murdered brothers. They were taken by army photographer Ronald Haeberle who, along with journalist Seymour Hersch, brought the savagery to light.

My Lai never really recovered; its purpose instead is to be a permanent reminder of the war crime. Paths weave among the foundations of the houses. Gardens flourish in the tropical warmth. A track bears the footprints of Vietnamese villagers and US soldiers. It symbolises the chase and the kill. The ditch where the villagers were murdered is full of water.

An old house where 70-year-old Le Ly and six of his family, including a one-year-old grandson, were murdered has been rebuilt to look just as it would have on March 15, 1968. A bunker where others were killed has also been restored.

The soldiers shot everything that moved. Even the geese, dogs and water buffalo are commemorated.

And beneath the same swaying palms that would have given them shade in life are the mass graves of those who were buried.

The West Australian

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