My Lai, Son My, Quang Ngai Province,
Socialist Republic of Vietnam
The afternoon Sun is especially brilliant, brighter than usual, its rays bouncing off the grey paddy fields that surround her on all sides. Perhaps the clear blue of the sky accentuates the grey-green of the earth. The landscape hasn’t turned lush yet. Its still March, cold and dry. The monsoons are yet to roar in, transforming the same fields into different shades of rich green. That happens in June but she won’t be there to witness it. She has to be back in Seattle well before that. Her busy civil rights law practice needs her back as soon as possible.
The woman breaths the air in and slowly lets it out a little at a time, savouring the smells for as long as she can. Far above she can just make out the faint undulating ‘V’ of a flight of geese making their way back up North, signalling the approaching end of a particularly chilly winter.
Its quite desolate usually, this place, with just a few watchmen on the Vietnamese government payroll, lounging around the model huts of the model village, grinning with stained teeth at the few tourists that walk by. The tourists are normally Japanese, sons and daughters of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And Americans, aging ex-servicemen or their sons and daughters. And survivors. And their sons and daughters.
The woman is in the third category and she goes by the name of Tuyet Ba Thomson. Her first name is Tuyet Ba. And Thomson? I implore you to have patience and I promise you, you’ll soon find out.
That day had begun just like today. Grey green under brilliant blue. Even the date had been the same, March 16th. Except that later, in the afternoon, the sky turned a deep grey, clouded by cordite fumes and it had stayed that way all through the two hours that she lay hidden, trying not to scream.
Her name, Tuyet Ba, had been the first thing that the man had asked her, in broken Vietnamese, as he had lifted her gently out of the ditch, cradling her broken eight year old body. Her ao ba ba, a sort of loose fitting pyjamas that village girls wore, had become mashed and bloodied while she had huddled under the other bodies, feeling them jump and jerk every once in a while, with each M16 round that slammed into them from just a few feet above.
She had cried, shivering uncontrollably as she found comfort in his calm booming voice, even though she didn’t understand a word,”You’ll be all right, Princess, you’ll be just fine. I’ll see to it if that’s the last thing I ever do.” With that, he had begun striding purposefully toward the OH-23 Raven, its rotors already turning over, with Cpl. Mario Andreotta at the controls.
The stuccato chatter of assault weapon fire seemed like an almost continuous background noise. Tuyet Ba had grown accustomed to the 7.62mm Soviet made BR-40 assault rifles or even the latest AK-47s that the Vietcong used and practiced with when they sometimes dropped in for a free lunch or to forcibly recruit. She would recognize their sounds anytime. The firing she heard now seemed more rapid and continuous and less noisy. She had to burrow deep into his massive arms so she wouldn’t be afraid.
Fifty yards from the chopper, she’d felt the man slow his pace and stop and then felt his lungs inflate as he shouted above the din of gunfire to someone she couldn’t see, since her head was buried in his chest,” What’s going on here, Captain? What the f–k do you thing you guys are doing?” Even though he was outranked, he didn’t salute, didn’t sound deferential in any way.
The reply, even though she couldn’t understand a word, sounded out of control, high pitched and hysterical, an on-the-edge kind of a scream,” Put that little gook bitch down, Corporal, we need some f–kin’ target practice. And get the hell out of here or we’ll do you too.”
Thereafter things happened in a sort of blur. The man cradling her staggered, as if he’d been punched, but he managed not to drop her. There was a sudden rabid exchange of fire and he raced the last few yards and passed her to Andreotta who already had his arms outstretched and then he climbed into the chopper himself.
The Raven lifted off almost immediately, going into a steep climb to avoid the treeline a few yards away. The two Huey gunships that were hovering above, providing escort to the Raven, fell in on both sides and the trio headed for home.
At 5000ft, Andreotta switched on the radio net and spoke into it,”Base, there’s an awful lot of killing going on down there. There are bodies everywhere, a heck of a lot of them. Old folk, men and women, and children mostly. Something ain’t right”.
That only the old and women and children were there wasn’t surprising at all to Tuyet Ba. Vietnamese rural folk had a well defined code. Both parents worked the fields while the grand parents took care of the children and prepared food. All the working adults had left for the fields that day when the soldiers of Charlie Company stormed into their hamlet.
Tuyet’s mother, Thuan, had been home for a change and Tuyet was helping her prepare lunch when they heard the crump crump of artillery begin and soon the 101mm shells started slamming into the fields all around. The shelling stopped within minutes and it wasn’t long before they heard the whirr of the Hueys coming in to land on the little clearing in the middle of the hamlet.
There was no panic. South Vietnamese and American troops had been to the hamlet before. They had walked right by Tuyet’s hut. She recalled that the last time they had passed through, the soldiers had stopped to ruffle her hair and give her candy and gum. But she still felt uncomfortable accepting the candy. What kind of people would shell you one minute and give you chewing gum the next?
The pilot’s monologue continued over the radio,” Thomson is hit, shoulder wound, round passed right through, seems OK, for now. We have a survivor, girl, age around 7, all messed up but stable. Blood loss, broken ankle, ribs, gash on upper arm, needs surgery most likely….”
Andreotta’s voice droned on in a fading jumble in her ears, when a third man she hadn’t seen before, emerged from the rear of the chopper and tied a sort of bandage with a tube round her thin arm and started wiping down her face with a wet antiseptic tissue before gently strapping on an oxygen mask over her face. “You’re doing great, kiddo, hang in there”, he boomed. She tried her best to focus on this third man but couldn’t. She was however not concerned since he was smiling this big open smile when he spoke and seemed real nice. Besides, she felt perfectly safe in the first soldier’s arms.
There were three things that the girl remembered noticing before she lost complete consciousness. The first was a patch on the tunic of the man who had saved her life and was now cradling her tenderly. It read ‘Cpl. Hugh Clowers Thomson Jr.’ and the second, the shoulder flashes on his tunic, of the 161st Aviation Division.
The last was a truth that burned itself into her that day, making her a passionate believer in forgiveness and reconciliation all her life. It was the fact that the men who stomped into the hamlet that morning, to kill, and the men now nursing her inside the chopper, they all had on, the same uniforms.