Shock swept nation when My Lai massacre photos were first published
By BRIAN ALBRECHT | The Plain Dealer, Cleveland | Published: September 24, 2017
CLEVELAND, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — On Nov. 20, 1969, the horror of Vietnam dropped on Northeast Ohio doorsteps in The Plain Dealer's grim, front-page photo of dead bodies, including women and children, killed by American GIs.
A headline at the top of the page offered the stark explanation: "1st Photos of Viet Mass Slaying"
The newspaper was the first publication anywhere to publish photographs of what became known as the My Lai massacre — an event that will be covered Tuesday in the documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, "The Vietnam War," on PBS.
Other publications would soon follow The Plain Dealer in printing the photos, and a wave of shock swept the nation in reaction to the slaughter of more than 500 unarmed civilians in a small village in Vietnam.
Stories accompanied the newspaper photos, including: "Cameraman Saw GIs Slay 100 Villagers."
"Off to the right I noticed a woman had appeared from some cover and this one GI fired first at her, then they all started shooting at her, aiming at her head. The bones were flying in the air, chip by chip . . ."
That cameraman was Army photographer Sgt. Ron Haeberle, a Fairview High School graduate who was drafted after attending Ohio University.
Haeberle still lives in Northeast Ohio, and recently he and others involved in publication of the photos talked about how this act became a turning point in public attitudes toward the war.
It all began more than a year earlier, on March 16, 1968.
Charlie Company of the Army's Americal Division landed by helicopter at My Lai, where they had been told that anyone found there should be treated as a Viet Cong fighter or sympathizer. They were ordered to destroy buildings, crops and livestock.
In recent months, the company had lost 28 members to injury or death.
The soldiers encountered no resistance and began rounding up people. Women were raped and villagers mutilated and tortured. Many were gathered into groups and at shot at close range by rifles and machine guns.
Among the dead were 182 women, 173 children and 63 old men. Another 97 civilians were killed by Bravo Company in the nearby village of My Khe.
"Something's not right"
Seated outside a Starbucks at Crocker Park, watching shoppers stroll by with their macchiatos and cappuccinos, Haeberle, 76, sipped his cup of plain coffee and fielded the question that has stalked him for the past 49 years.
What the hell happened at My Lai?
On that day in 1968, Haeberle arrived after the mission and slaughter had already started.
"I could see people walking along at a distance, and all of a sudden GIs started opening up on them, firing at them," he recalled.
"I look to my left and see a bunch of people, they were being guarded by soldiers standing around with their M16s. I continued walking and I heard this firing. I looked to my left and I thought, holy s---, here they are, firing into this group of people getting up, trying to run away, and they just kept on firing.
"Right then and there I knew something was wrong. I had Jay Roberts, the (Army) reporter with me, and we both looked at each other and said something's not right."
In The Plain Dealer story that accompanied his photos, Haeberle said, "I was shocked. There was no feeling, nothing human about it. I couldn't believe what I was seeing.
"I came up to a clump of bodies and I saw this small child. Part of his foot had been shot off, and he went to this pile of bodies and just looked at it, like he was looking for somebody. A GI knelt down beside me and shot the little kid. His body flew backwards into the pile."
He would later tell a BBC reporter about "soldiers jumping on water buffaloes with bayonets. Just a complete freak-out scene."
As the soldiers kept shooting, so did Haeberle — with his cameras. He told The Plain Dealer, "It was kind of instinct. Reaction. I had to record what was happening.
"I was kind of numb. I couldn't understand why the small children, the women. It's not right. You just don't do things like that," he continued.
"Some of the soldiers, you try to talk to them. They looked at us, shook their head and walked on," he added.
Haeberle said he and the Army reporter tried asking the field commander what was happening, "but he was on the radio and didn't have time to talk to us."
He carried two cameras that day. One was the Army's, and he recorded general, black-and-white mission shots with it. The other was his personal camera that he used to document color images of the massacre. (The distinction would later become important with publication of the photos.)
As the firing subsided — due in part to the actions of Army scout helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, who landed his craft between a group of soldiers and civilians about to be shot — Haeberle again sought some answers and was again rebuffed.
He said he turned in his Army camera film and was told the My Lai operation was a "successful" mission.
Then, he and the Army reporter waited for the other shoe to drop — which didn't.
If someone had asked, Haeberle said, "I would have told them my story, and Jay would have told them his story. But nobody contacted us. The cover-up started pretty much immediately."
But the issue did not stay covered up, and efforts to expose the massacre from within the service prompted an Army investigation that led to the first stories about My Lai, including articles by reporter Seymour Hersh, in the fall of 1969.
Heberle had left the service by then and had shown some of his photos to a few local groups to gauge their reaction.
"A lot of people, they really couldn't believe it. They really questioned me on it," Haeberle said. "One woman accused me of shooting the photographs in Hollywood."
But after Army investigators contacted him and told him the details of horrors (rape and mutilation) at My Lai that went even beyond what Haeberle had witnessed, he decided to see if he could get the photos published.
The additional details of the massacre "really disgusted me. That was way too much," he said.
And at a time when news reports from Vietnam seemed to concentrate on enemy body counts, Haeberle figured the public needed to know the truth.
So he called reporter Joe Eszterhas at The Plain Dealer.
Eszterhas had worked on the school newspaper, The Post, when both attended Ohio University, and Haeberle admired the reporter's writing.
"I had no idea which way it would go," Haeberle said. "But I figured with Joe Eszterhas, his writing, he might be the only one to attach himself to this."
"You should put out the truth, regardless of its effect."
"I was horrified like everyone else," Eszterhas, 73, recently said of his first reaction to seeing Heberle's photos.
"They were so graphic. There was no doubt that Ron was there and took the pictures," he added. "He was just an ordinary guy who found himself in the middle of a horrible, chaotic, bloody maelstrom."
Though Eszterhas had no doubt that Haeberle was telling the truth, he still checked with the Army to verify that Haeberle had been there.
The Army also said the newspaper had no right to publish the photos because they were taken with the Army's camera.
No, they were taken with his personal camera, Eszterhas countered.
The Army also said that if the photos were published, The Plain Dealer would prejudice the rights of individuals charged or facing charges in connection with the massacre.
The Plain Dealer responded that it did not believe those rights would be jeopardized, and defended the right of readers to see "what they (the photos) are purported to be."
That phrase, "purported to be," did not sit well with Eszterhas, who now lives in Bainbridge Township. "I didn't much like the sort-of disavowal. But I was proud of the fact they printed them," he said.
Former Plain Dealer photographer Richard Conway was working the night Haeberle brought the photos in, and recalled, "I was stunned by them. It was just unbelievable that something like that could happen, that civilians would be shot apparently for no reason at all."
Conway, of Solon, also noted that nearly all of Haeberle's shots showed bodies, not soldiers shooting civilians.
That was deliberate. Haeberle said he destroyed the photos showing individual soldiers shooting civilians.
"I am not going to point the finger at somebody," he recently said. "My explanation is that we're all guilty. I'm guilty of a cover-up, I'll admit to that. All of us were guilty of that, and that goes all the way to the top."
In 1969, Mike Roberts was a Plain Dealer reporter working in the Washington bureau, and he had read early reports of the massacre that were greeted with some skepticism.
"The pictures were really the key because not only were we (The Plain Dealer) puzzled, but most papers were puzzled. Is this for real?" Roberts, 77, of Orange Village, recalled.
"So when Joe (Eszterhas) gets the pictures, that puts The Plain Dealer in a totally different orbit," he added. "It really had a lot to do with legitimizing the story. And that was a really significant moment for the paper."
Roberts had spent a year reporting in Vietnam, and said there could have been similar incidents there during the war, but nothing of the magnitude of My Lai.
He described most of the U.S. troops he encountered in Vietnam as "really well-disciplined."
Yet he also noted, "I could see how that (massacre) could happen, particularly if you didn't have well-trained officers. It could get really scary out there if you didn't have a lot of experience."
Roberts said he could see similar forces at work when he covered the fatal shooting of four Kent State University students by Ohio National Guardsmen six months after the massacre photos were published.
"That was so similar to My Lai in terms of no discipline on the part of the troops, on the leadership, they were clueless," said Roberts, who later co-authored a book on the Kent State shootings with Joe Eszterhas. "Kent State was a domestic My Lai, because all of the same elements were there at Kent on the part of the military."
Roberts said he wasn't surprised by The Plain Dealer's decision to publish the photos, but he speculated, "I'm not sure the guys on top were that happy to have the pictures. It made life . . . difficult."
Tom Vail, who was Plain Dealer editor and publisher at the time, recently recalled that although he found the photos "appalling," he decided to publish them.
"It was a very, very bad thing, but I thought that in the interest of good reporting, we should put it out there," he said.
Vail said he was warned that some readers might be offended by the photos, and the paper could lose circulation.
"I went ahead with it anyway," he said. "You should put out the truth, regardless of its effect."
Vail believed the photos had an impact in changing public attitudes regarding the war.
"When people started realizing everything we were doing (in Vietnam), they began to question what we were doing there in the first place," Vail said.
By late 1969, when the country was wracked by doubts about Vietnam and anti-war protest, "My Lai was like a grenade exploding in the middle of it," Eszterhas said.
The photos "had an absolutely explosive effect on the American public at a time when this country was awfully polarized," he added. "It was one of the important elements that helped end the war."
Locally, "The Plain Dealer had gotten bomb threats and all kind of negative reaction," Eszterhas noted. "I got a lot of scurrilous mail for the next couple of weeks."
Roberts said the massacre fueled disillusionment with the war.
"My Lai just capped it off," Roberts said. "People were saying, 'What are we doing here?' Which was a reasonable question."
Some writers have described My Lai as a turning point in the war.
The man who documented the massacre agreed.
"A lot of people didn't want to believe that something like this could happen. GIs do not do this," Haeberle said.
But "the photographs did make people realize that things like this can happen, and did happen," he added.
"It's all of us"
As the furor over the photos raged, 25 officers and men of the unit responsible for the massacre were initially charged with criminal offenses.
In the Burns/Novick documentary, one of those soldiers said in a TV interview, "At the time I felt like I was doing the right thing."
Only Lt. William Calley, one of the officers at My Lai, was convicted of murder. He served three years of a life sentence until that term was later reduced by President Richard Nixon.
In 2009, Calley publicly apologized, reportedly saying, "I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry."
The Vietnamese built a museum at My Lai after the war.
The site now features a museum, gardens, commemorative statuary, replicas of the hamlet, and a memorial wall listing the victims' names.
The museum's collection includes artifacts recovered from the area and Haeberle's photographs and the Nikon camera he used to take the massacre photos. (He donates any royalties from the photos to charity.)
Haeberle has been back to My Lai three times and plans to return next year for the 50th anniversary year.
He said he keeps returning because, "I have the greatest respect for the Vietnamese people, especially the victims and 'true' survivors of this horrible tragedy. I'm striving to present and preserve a true account of events that happened on March 16, 1968 to the My Lai Museum."
He said the area has drastically changed with new roads and housing. Yet walking around the museum and memorial still elicits "kind of an eerie feeling," he said. "It's super sad that happened."
And perhaps surprisingly, "the Vietnamese want to forgive the American soldiers," Haeberle said. "They're forgiving people."
Nowadays, "I look back in my own mind, I try to figure out, maybe if I should have done something different," he said. "It just happened so fast, we didn't realize the scope of the whole picture."
Haeberle said he's still asked why he didn't do something to stop the massacre.
"I wouldn't be here today," he said. "One soldier tried to stop things. They threatened him with his life if he said or did anything."
He believes the unit's frustration with their combat losses, and the soldiers' inexperience, were factors leading to the massacre.
"I don't think our soldiers were well-trained for guerilla warfare, and they didn't understand the people, the culture or the environment," he said.
Nevertheless, to Haeberle no one is blameless, including himself.
"We all knew it was wrong," he said. "You can't just blame Calley. It's everyone. It's all of us."
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Lt. William Calley is flanked by two unidentified officers as he arrives for his court martial in 1971 at Fort Benning, Georgia.