Simon Speakman Cordall
By Simon Speakman Cordall in HCMC
Pham Thinh Cong is not a remarkable looking man; his black hair sweeps back over a thoughtful face, his shirt is neatly ironed. He could be any middle aged man from pretty much anywhere in Vietnam. It’s only when you look closer, when you see the deep scar that runs from above his left ear towards his eye that you begin to suspect that there is something different about Pham Thinh Cong.
The reality is that early on the morning of March 16, 1968, the 107 men of the American First Battalion’s Charlie Company entered Cong’s commune and forced him - then aged eleven - his mother, father, three sisters, (aged sixteen, eight and two)and his younger brother, (aged five) into a bunker before throwing a hand grenade in after them. Only Cong survived.
It wasn’t until later that day, around 4pm, that the unconscious and badly injured Cong was pulled from the bunker. It was then he came to, only to find himself lying within the charred and scattered remains of what that morning had been his family.
While the murder of Cong’s family will always be the stuff of nightmares, it wasn’t unique. On that day, somewhere between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians were tortured, mutilated, and ultimately killed by the soldiers of Charlie Company. Women were raped and babies shot without thought. Some villagers were scalped. All, without one shot being fired at the U.S. soldiers. It was one of the darkest days in a war that possessed many. The subsequent fallout from the atrocities committed at Son My Village, (sometimes referred to as My Lai) was to turn popular public U.S. opinion still further against the war and, perhaps ultimately, helped speed American withdrawal from Vietnam.
Today, Son My retains much of the charm it must have held on that day in 1968. Cows and water buffalo graze upon its rice paddies, farmers in traditional conical hats stoop low over impossibly verdant fields. Children run and play amongst its maze of tracks and pathways. It’s a quiet place and one that, it would seem, atrocity could have no place within. Closer to the village’s only real street, overlooked by palm and bamboo trees, lies a quiet irrigation ditch. In 1968, it was into these still waters that the American soldiers forced 170 villagers before brutally machine gunning them. Their officer, a Lieutenant Calley, on seeing a baby crawling out of this carnage, is documented as picking up the child by its leg and throwing it back amongst the bodies before shooting it. Today, in the quiet field behind the museum built to commemorate the massacre, a young woman and her son graze their cow and its calf. It was here in 1968 that the American soldiers gunned down thirty two villagers, leaving their bodies on the sandy track on which now stands their mass grave. The list goes on.
In what is still regarded with disbelief by many, of all of those involved in the massacre and its subsequent cover-up, only Lieutenant Calley was convicted of war crimes. For this he served a scant three years - the vast majority under house arrest - before being pardoned by then President, Richard Nixon. After years of silence, Calley finally apologized for his role in the massacre during a private dinner in 2009. For Pham Thinh Cong, an apology issued in private on the other side of the world isn’t enough. “Why hasn’t Calley come here? Why hasn’t he apologized to us?”
While the soldiers of Charlie Company eventually returned to the safety of their base, Pham Thinh Cong and the few others who survived that day were left with lives permanently fractured by its events. “I will hear them tonight,” Pham Thinh Cong explained, “I will hear the shouting, the firing and the screaming. Every time I speak about it, I hear them” That day in the bunker left Cong scarred for life, the deepest of which can never be seen.
*Pham Thinh Cong is the director of Quang Ngai Vestige Sites Management Board