Richard Hammer was born in 1928 in Hartford, Connecticut. He attended Syracuse University where he received his A.B. in 1950, Trinity College in Hartford where he received his M.A. in 1951, and Columbia University as a graduate student from 1951-53. Hammer was a news assistant with the National Broadcasting Co., an associate editor for Barron’s Weekly and Fortune, and from 1963-1972, he was on the editorial staff for the New York Times. Hammer has written several investigative books on a variety of topics. Shortly after he wrote this book about Son My, he wrote The Court Martial of Lieutenant Calley, in 1971. Hammer is the author-narrator of the film, “Interviews with My Lai Veterans.” As a reporter for the New York Times, Hammer wrote many articles concerning the war in Vietnam.
Hammer researched this book in both Vietnam and here in America by interviewing both the Vietnamese survivors and the soldiers involved. The book was written less than two years after the incident, while the conflict in Vietnam was still occurring. He explains that his drive concerning the matter of My Lai was to discover exactly how such a thing could occur, not necessarily who was to blame. The book reviewer for Time Magazine reviewed both Hammer’s book and another book, My Lai 4, by Seymour Hersh in the same article in Time. He stated how both books jive with one another in regards to the information contained in them about the My Lai incident. The reviewer also states that both books are based on first hand accounts, which lead to more accurate details.
Hammer begins by explaining that he must delve into the events prior to the massacre in order to explain the massacre that happened on the morning of March 16, 1968. He takes the reader to a beautiful, peaceful village on the Batangan Peninsula in Vietnam called Son My. Many wealthy Vietnamese and French came to this area to vacation. Even though visitors came to their beautiful area, the Vietnamese tried to keep away outside influence as much as possible. They were a self-sufficient people who relied on fishing and agriculture for their needs. These pheasants did not truly care about who happened to be ruling over them. The governments in charge of these people changed often, but the people all stayed the same. The only thing that changed for these people when the government changed was the tax collectors. Sometimes they were greedy and took bribes and sometimes they were not. In the long run, the people didn’t really care. They just carried on as they always had.
What is called a village in Vietnam is actually more like a county and is spread out over a fairly large area. In 1945, the Viet Minh divided the village of Son My into 4 hamlets or 4 different parts. Within these hamlets there were 20 subhamlets or townships (See diagram below).
My Lai Co Luy My Khe Tu Cung
My Khe/Kho Truang My Hoi/My Xuam/Xuam Duong Cuong Dinh/Dinh Denh/Cay Quen Xom Lang/Phung Hoa/Binh Dong
Dang De/Con Thieu Xuam Tung/Xuam Cua An Thoi/Dong Rang/Xon Be Binh Tay/Thuong An
Richard Hammer explains that one of the reasons that the massacre took place at My Lai was that the Americans grouped the Tu Cong hamlet into 3 subhamlets mislabeled as My Lai (4), My Lai (5) and My Lai (6). Any suspected VC hamlet was marked in pink on the army maps and this led the American troops to nickname them “pinkville”. The hamlet of My Khe was discovered to be the hiding place of the Viet Cong 48th Local Force Battalion. This was the most feared and fierce fighting force know to the American and ARVN soldiers. Task Force Barker, which consisted of Company B and Company C of the First Battalion, was to attack My Khe on the morning of March 16, but My Khe was labeled My Lai (1) on the American maps. Therefore, Task Force Barker attacked the wrong hamlet.
The mislabeling of the hamlet of Tu Cong as being My Lai led this Task Force to attack the wrong hamlet. While this explains the initial mistake, it still leaves the massacre of about 400 civilian Vietnamese unexplained. The American troops encountered no opposition that morning. Almost all of those slaughtered on that day were women, children and older Vietnamese. In order to understand how American soldiers could do such a thing, Hammer explains how the American troops felt at this time. He explains that most of the men were very young, between 19-21. They were in Vietnam because they were not in college or did not have the right connections to avoid being drafted. These boys were sent to a strange country they quickly learned to fear everyone and everything. A rock could be a mine; a stick could be a trip for a booby trap; a grandmother could be a human bomb; a fourteen year-old girl could be an assassin. The Americans were completely unable to tell whether any Vietnamese they encountered was a friend or enemy. Hammer explains that this fear led to anger towards all Vietnamese.
Task Force Barker was named after its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Barker who was on his second tour of Vietnam. In charge of Company C was 30 year-old Captain Ernest L. “Mad Dog” Medina. Under Medina were three lieutenants. Two of these lieutenants were popular among the men, Stephen Brooks and Jeffrey La Cross who were in charge of the 2nd and 3rd platoons. Lieutenant William Laws Calley, Jr. who was in charge of the 1st platoon, on the other hand, tended to make some of the men uneasy. The night before the planned attack on My Lai, Captain Medina attempted to prepare his men for the intense fighting that was supposed to happen the next day. Medina reminded the men of their lost buddies and told them that this was their chance for revenge. The men of Charley Company had never been in a real combat fight as of yet, so Medina explained later that he was just trying to get the fired up and ready.
Intelligence reports had reported that there were almost no women and children in the hamlet. The orders were to kill all Vietnamese in sight and burn everything. This was the usual procedure used by the American and ARVN forces in Vietnam. Certain areas were marked free-fire zones, which meant that anyone in those areas could be killed and it would be O.K. They were trying not only to kill the VC, but also take away their supplies and hiding places. At dawn on March 16, 1968, the men of Task Force Barker set out to wipe out a VC hamlet in their first real combat battle.
In the hamlet of Tu Cong, the people were still sleeping, making breakfast, or heading out to their fields or to market. All of the young men were away fighting for the VC or the ARVN. Some families had sons fighting on both sides. Task Force Barker began to bomb Xom Lang using helicopter gun ships at about 7:00 that morning. When the helicopters landed, Medina noticed right away that there seemed to be no return fire. He radioed back to their base, LZ Dottie, but just as he was reporting the lack of fire, another helicopter pilot broke in and reported that he was seeing small arms fire being returned. This was the only report of opposition that morning.
Many small and large incidents of brutality occurred that morning to make for the massacred that resulted. Vietnamese were gathered into small groups and then fired upon. Men set fire to huts, waited for the people to come out and then shot them. One soldier remembers that he saw a buddy pull a small girl, about five or six years old, away from a group of women and drag her into a brick house that happened to be still standing. The soldier telling the story didn’t like to speculate on what his buddy had done. A few minutes later, his buddy came out of the house, threw a grenade inside, and walked away. The Vietnamese that were not shot automatically inside the hamlet were marched to a nearby canal and shot there.
Not all of the soldiers caught this killing fever. Private Michael Bernhardt kept his rifle in his sling the entire time, but was mesmerized by what was going on and just watched helplessly. Private Herbert Carter was another who did not shoot anyone that morning. When Carter could not stand seeing what was going on any longer, he ran out of the hamlet, sat under a tree and ended up shooting himself in the foot. Carter was the only American casualty that morning.
The helicopters above didn’t know exactly what was happening down below, but they began to see the piles of dead bodies both in and around the hamlet. Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson was one of those helicopter pilots who decided to try and lift some of the wounded out of the hamlet. He called on other gun ships to come down and evacuate a group of children he had seen below and take them to the nearest hospital. When he attempted to rescue a two-year-old boy, Lieutenant Calley made a motion with his rifle like he was going to shoot Thompson if he did not leave the boy. Thompson then told one of his waist gunners to shoot Calley if he got in his way again. On October 15, 1969, Thompson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for what he did that morning.
Somewhere around 400 Vietnamese were slaughtered that morning. No one knows exactly how many because entire families were slaughtered, so that no one came to claim many of the dead. The entire incident took less than an hour. There were only three American rifles, some ammunition, and a few grenades recovered. Everyone abandoned Xom Lang and the entire village of Son My, for the most part. The survivors all went to refugee camps where many died later. The beautiful, peaceful village was no more.
In the nearby hamlet of My Khe, the Viet Cong heard the what was going on and fled away further towards the Bantagan Peninsula. So by the time that Task Force Barker got to My Khe, the VC were gone. They would come back later and use the desolation of these hamlets to their advantage in a similar way that the Russians used Stalingrad’s destruction to their advantage during WWII. They bunkered down amongst the carnage, which made for a difficult passage for any ARVN or American unit.
Back at LZ Dottie, Colonel Henderson was suspicious upon hearing the results of the attack of “My Lai”. He only talked with the men involved that day, like Medina who declared that no war crimes had been committed. All of Medina’s men backed him up and entire Task Force Barker was pressured into keeping what happened a secret since it was considered a great victory. In reality though, the massacre was almost common knowledge among both the Vietnamese and among the American forces. The Viet Cong began to distribute flyers describing the massacre, but little credit was given to this because they credited the massacre to the wrong unit.
The true story of Xom Lang came out as a result of the consciences’ of the men who were involved in the massacre. Charles Gruver, who was at Xom Lang, met up with an old college buddy, Ronald Ridenhour, in April of 1968. When Gruver told Ridenhour what had happened, Ridenhour set out to discover whether such a thing really happened. He began to talk with the men that had been in Charley Company and discovered that Gruver had not exaggerated at all, but also that it had been investigated already. Ten days before the end of his tour, he ran into Michael Bernhardt in the hospital and got Bernhard’s promise that if Ridenhour did something to get an investigation going that he would back him up.
Despite friends and family’s advice to not stir up any trouble, Ridenhour mailed 30 letters to various sources like the War Department and several senators in March of 1969. On April 30, 1969, he received a letter from the Army stating that a new investigation into the morning of March 16, 1968 was beginning. In September, only a few days before his duty in Vietnam was over, Lieutenant Calley was charged with the murder of 109 Vietnamese civilians. “Seargent David Mitchell was charged with intent to kill 30 civilians; Gerald Smith and Charles E. Hutto with murder and rape; Captain Medina with 4 murders, maiming and assault; Sergeant Kenneth Hodges with rape and assault with intent to commit murder; Seargent Esequiel Torres with 2 murders and assault with intent to commit murder; Private Max Hutson with murder, intent to commit murder and rape; and Captain Eugene Kotouc with assault, maiming and murder.” When this book was written, the War Department was still debating whether to charge more than thirty-five other soldiers for murder, rape and assault.
The American people upon hearing about the massacre at Xom Lang seemed to be revolted at the events that happened that morning. But much of the public felt sympathy for the men on trial, especially Calley. They believed that such events were bound to happen in war. Nevertheless, President Nixon made the following statement at a press conference in December of 1969, “What appears is certainly a massacre and under no circumstances was it justified.”
Hammer emphasizes that a once beautiful village is no more because of the events of that morning and of the entire war in Vietnam. The Vietnamese were taxed by their governments, made to listen to propaganda from both sides, and their sons many times went off to join the Viet Cong or ARVN, but life for the rest of them went on as usual, until the Americans came. Then everything changed because of the search and destroy missions, free-fire zones and the heavy bombing of Vietnam that went on for many years prior to and after Xom Lang. American troops went to Vietnam to save her people and instead destroyed many of them, their land and their way of life. As Hammer talks an ARVN major, the major, this reader believes speaks for most Vietnamese when he says, “It would be nice if the Americans would go and help defend someone else’s freedom for a change.”