But in My Khe, a generation is missing.
There isn’t much that is exceptional about this hamlet. Farmers in conical hats bend low over rice paddies as children tend to the cows and water buffalo that graze on the fields’ grassy borders. Families, sometimes as many as four people, balance on mopeds as they make their way along My Khe’s single road. It’s hard to imagine this place any other way.
However, on March 16, 45 years ago, events were to happen here that would sear this and the other sleepy hamlets of Son My village onto the world’s consciousness. Forty-five years ago, the U.S. Army had no name for My Khe. It simply called it by the name of its neighbor: My Lai.
I’d been working as a reporter in Vietnam for only six months when I first traveled to My Khe last fall on assignment for the Saigon Times. It was there I met Cong and first heard his story. Last month, I returned. I wanted to speak to Cong again, and to others, to understand how their lives are marked by what happened there.
There are still survivors of that day in March 1968 living in My Khe and its surrounding hamlets. They still remember how it was quiet the morning the Americans came. Nguyen Hong Tuu smiles as he tells me how, at age 12, he was helping gather food for breakfast with his family when the artillery barrage started. Pham Thi Thuan, then 30, was feeding her cows when the familiar sound heralded the soldiers’ arrival. Even now, a shade falls across her face as she describes how this same artillery had killed her husband two years earlier, leaving Thuan to care for their paddy and two girls, then ages 3 and 1. Cong remembers how, at age 11, he was helping his mother prepare food as his father worked the field, gathering their harvest.
There was no panic. South Vietnamese and American troops had been to the hamlet before. Still, Tuu remembers his father growing concerned. He was sure that South Vietnamese troops were coming and that they would kill the family’s livestock and conscript him into the army. Together, Tuu and his father gathered what animals they could and herded them to the shelter of a neighboring village. As they made their way back to the hamlet, Tuu could see the first of the American helicopters land. His father had to explain what it was. Tuu would never see his family together again.
Thuan wasn’t especially concerned about the arrival of U.S. soldiers. Her house faced the road, which they occasionally traveled. Sometimes they would stop and make a fuss of her girls, ruffling their hair and giving them candy.