The Photos That Caused Americans To Ask ‘What Are We Doing In Vietnam?’

A combat photographer reflects on his gripping photos of the My Lai Massacre 50 years later.

By Evelyn Theiss

Photographs of My Lai by Ron Haeberle

This story originally appeared on FOTO.

Ron Haeberle was a combat photographer in Vietnam when he and the Army unit he was riding with — Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment — landed near the hamlet of My Lai on the morning of March 16, 1968. Villagers weren’t alarmed; American GIs had visited the region near the central Vietnamese coast before, without incident. But within minutes, the troops opened fire. Over the course of the next few hours, they killed old men, women, and children. They raped and tortured. They razed the village. And when Haeberle’s shocking photographs of their atrocities were published — more than a year later — the pictures laid bare an appalling truth: American “boys” were as capable of unbridled savagery as any soldiers, anywhere.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the massacre, I spoke with Haeberle — in an exclusive interview, at his home in Ohio — about that March morning; the routine Army operation that devolved into a waking nightmare; and how his photos changed the course of the war in Vietnam.

I first met Ron Haeberle in 2009 when I was a reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer — the newspaper that, in November 1969, first published his My Lai photos. I was assigned to write a story on the 40th anniversary of that landmark exposé, and while much had previously been written about the Plain Dealer reporter who wrote the article that ran alongside Haeberle's photos — Joe Eszterhas, later the screenwriter of "Basic Instinct" and other controversial films — I found almost nothing about the man who took the grisly, iconic pictures at My Lai. Was he still alive? Did he still live in Ohio?

I found a name, address, and phone number, but wasn’t sure if it was the Ron Haeberle. Knowing that a reticent Haeberle might hang up if I called, I drove to the address, knocked on the door, and introduced myself. It was Ron, all right, and he graciously asked me in. I stayed at his house for two hours, as he told me about My Lai and his own life since 1968. It was his first major interview since the story broke four decades earlier. (He gave the BBC a couple of quotes in 1989, he said, and that was the extent of his contact with the press.)

Recently, FOTO asked me to approach Haeberle and ask if he would revisit the story for the 50th anniversary of the massacre. He agreed, and he and I returned to one of the darkest chapters in American history, and his role in bringing it to light.

Ron Haeberle was drafted in 1966, after attending Ohio University, where he was a photographer for the school paper. He ended up in Hawaii with the Army’s Public Information Office. By the end of 1967, it was beginning to look like his "tour" would end there — a disappointing prospect. “As a photographer, I wanted to see what was happening in Vietnam for myself," he told me. He requested a transfer, and was sent to Vietnam. At 26 years old, he was older than most members of Charlie Company, where the average age was just 20.

Charlie Company had been together for about a year before Haeberle joined it in March 1968. The unit had been in no firefights, but had lost men to booby traps and land mines. When they landed at My Lai, they were primed for action; Viet Cong troops were reported to be hiding in the hamlet. That information was wrong. But in the end, it didn't matter: My Lai was doomed. Within four hours of Charlie Company's arrival, the village's huts were burned to the ground and hundreds of civilians were dead. (The exact number of those murdered is disputed to this day, with the official American estimate running to around 350; the Vietnamese say more than 500 were killed.)

Haeberle told me that he had just met the men in his unit that morning. Almost as soon as they landed, he said, “I heard a lot of firing and thought, ‘Hell, we must be in a hot zone.’ But after a couple of minutes we weren’t taking any fire, so we started walking toward the village. I saw what appeared to be civilians. Then I saw a soldier firing at them. I could not figure out what was going on. I couldn’t comprehend it.”

The photograph of murdered villagers in My Lai appeared — in black and white, not in its original color — on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on November 20, 1969. (Haeberle took the pictures not with his Army-issued Leica camera, but with his own camera, a Nikon.) Most of the victims at My Lai were shot; some were bayoneted. Women and girls were raped, and then killed. At least one soldier later confessed to cutting out villagers’ tongues, and scalping others. Of course, My Lai was hardly the only instance of rape, torture, and murder by U.S. troops in Vietnam. But in terms of intensity and scale — and because of Haeberle’s memorable photographs — it remains the emblematic massacre of the war.

Today, Ron Haeberle lives about 40 miles from downtown Cleveland, in an attractive house on a quiet cul de sac. His home is simply furnished, clean and orderly. Original works of art by Vietnamese artists, mostly abstracts, adorn the walls. One is a delicate needlework portrait of a woman, gracefully reaching an arm toward the sky.

The suddenness of the violence at My Lai was especially terrifying. Haeberle told me that he saw an old man with two small children walking toward U.S. troops, their belongings in a basket. “The old man was shouting, ‘No VC! No VC!’ to let the soldiers know he wasn’t Viet Cong,” Haeberle recalled. To his horror, the man and the children were cut down in front of him. “A soldier shot all three,” he said.

It was more than a year after the massacre before Haeberle approached the Plain Dealer with his photos, but he had begun sharing his My Lai pictures, in slideshow talks to civic groups and even local high schools, after he returned home to northern Ohio in the spring of 1968. The first slides he showed were innocuous: troops with smiling Vietnamese kids; medics helping villagers. Then images of dead and mutilated women and children filled the screen. “There was just disbelief,” Haeberle said of the reaction. “People said, ‘No, no, no. This cannot have happened.’”

At one point in the killing spree, Haeberle and Army reporter Jay Roberts came upon a group of villagers huddled in fear after troops assaulted a number of young women. Haeberle took this photo — a tearful, frantic mother filling the center of the frame — and as he and Roberts moved on from the scene, rifle fire exploded behind them. “I thought the soldiers were interrogating them,” Haeberle told me. “Then I heard the firing. I couldn’t turn to look. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw them fall.”

Haeberle’s picture of terror and distress on these faces, young and old, in the midst of slaughter remains one of the 20th century’s most powerful photographs. When the Plain Dealer (and later, LIFE magazine) published it, along with a half-dozen others, the images graphically undercut much of what the U.S. had been claiming for years about the conduct and aims of the conflict. Anti-war protesters needed no persuading, but “average” Americans were suddenly asking, What are we doing in Vietnam?

At times, the discovery of a single body was as jarring as coming upon dozens of corpses. Walking toward a dirt road known as Route 521, Haeberle and Jay Roberts noticed a woman in the distance. “She was hiding behind a rock. I saw her stand up, then heard shots,” Haeberle told me, the scene obviously sharp in his mind’s eye 50 years later. “I knew she’d been hit because she fell back behind the rock. Later, I found her lying there and took this photo.”

Awful images, not all of them captured on camera, remain with Haeberle to this day: a soldier nonchalantly shooting a young boy; another riding a water buffalo, repeatedly stabbing it with his bayonet.

The massacre was first reported by journalist Seymour Hersh and distributed by a small wire agency, Dispatch News Service, in the second week of November 1969. (Hersh won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his work.) A week after Hersh’s article appeared in dozens of papers around the U.S., the Plain Dealer ran its own story — along with Haeberle’s photos to bolster the reports of a massacre.

Haeberle said it was an automatic response to continue taking pictures, even as the brutality escalated. “As a photographer, my role was to capture what was happening during the operation," he told me. "I did feel that what I was shooting was historic, especially the carnage. I kept thinking, 'This is not right.' It was mind-boggling." (Above: Haeberle's reflection, with camera, can be seen at the top of this picture, as he photographs a corpse in a well. A soldier had shot an old man and dumped his body. "They told me they threw him down there to poison the water supply," Haeberle said.)

Today, trying to make sense of the unfathomable, Haeberle recalls the message imparted to so many soldiers before their arrival in Vietnam. "We were told, 'Life is meaningless to these people,'" he said, leaving unspoken the rest of that sentiment: The enemy is not like us. They're not quite human.

In the photo above, American troops help a wounded comrade at My Lai. According to Haeberle, the soldier shot himself in the foot with his own gun. Haeberle can't say if the injury was a genuine accident or self-inflicted — perhaps a way to "honorably" avoid taking part in the carnage.

By the late morning of March 16th, bodies were scattered everywhere in My Lai: some, like those above, were covered with straw and set alight. Elsewhere, soldiers had herded dozens of villagers into a roadside ditch and shot them. A few children survived by hiding under corpses. “Early on, after the old man and those two children were killed, Jay Roberts and I confronted (Charlie Company Capt. Ernest) Medina," Haeberle said, "and told him what we'd seen." But Medina could not, or would not, help. Haeberle said that he and Roberts saw Medina again later, in the village, but the captain was on a field radio and would not speak to them.

Medina faced a court martial in 1971, and was acquitted. (American helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, gunner Lawrence Colburn, and crew chief Glenn Andreotta, who arrived in the midst of the massacre, were each awarded the Soldier's Medal for heroism on the 30th anniversary of My Lai, in recognition of their attempts to intervene and save villagers' lives, while risking their own.)

Haeberle's searing photos, along with stories in the Plain Dealer and other outlets in the fall of 1969, sparked outrage and soul-searching in much of America. The Army, meanwhile, had known about the massacre from the start, and had engaged in a long (and ultimately fruitless) cover-up. Of the dozen or so officers and others in Charlie Company who eventually faced court martial, only Lt. William Calley (pictured, center) was convicted. In the spring of 1971 he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. President Richard Nixon reduced the sentence to house arrest; Calley served three and a half years in his quarters at Fort Benning, Georgia. He is the only person found guilty in military or criminal court for the atrocities at My Lai.

Ron Haeberle never sought the spotlight. But he gets some solace knowing that his pictures mattered. “Photography can be a powerful medium," he said. "It serves as evidence, as documentation. Without those photos, My Lai would have stayed hidden. Calley would not have been charged. After seeing the pictures, people had to re-think the war."

Haeberle told me that he returned to My Lai in 2011, where he met Duc Tran Van, a survivor of the massacre. Duc was eight years old in March 1968, and as Haeberle spoke with him, through an interpreter, he realized with a jolt that the woman he had photographed dead behind a rock 43 years earlier was Duc’s mother, Nguyen Thi Tau.

Duc told Haeberle that his mother urged him to run, with his 20-month-old sister, to their grandmother's house. When he heard a helicopter above them, Duc threw himself to the ground to protect his sister, who was already wounded. Haeberle had captured that moment, as well.

Duc and Haeberle have since become friends (above: Haeberle and Duc in Vietnam in 2011), and the Army veteran has visited Duc in Germany, where he now lives. “Duc has a small shrine to his family in his home,” Haeberle said. “I took the last photo of his mother. So I gave him my camera, the Nikon I used at My Lai, for the shrine.”

Haeberle is a thoughtful, plainspoken man. When I asked him if the publication of his pictures from My Lai changed the course of his own life, his response was characteristically muted. “How can we know that sort of thing?” he asked me. “What can we really know when we’re looking to the future? The photos made me more well-known than I might have been. But I just kept moving ahead.”

When Haeberle left Vietnam in 1968, he flew to his brother’s home in Seattle, overlooking Puget Sound. “I sat without moving, for six hours,” he told me. “The sky and the water were so blue — I looked out the window and just tried to let everything go.” Many others in Charlie Company turned to alcohol and drugs. A number later spoke of the guilt they felt. At least one is known to have committed suicide.

Haeberle is 76 years old, retired after years in manufacturing, divorced, with a grown daughter. He skis in winter, and kayaks in summer. An avid cyclist, he often heads west in the spring — Utah, California — for long cycling trips. He likes “feeling like an ant amid the mountains,” he said.

He has returned to Vietnam (above), and to My Lai several times, and will be there again on the 50th anniversary of the massacre. “The people in My Lai say they forgive us,” he told me. “They are a very forgiving people.” Haeberle has never regretted sharing his photos with the world. But that one act, he said, does not define his life. In his living room, 8,000 miles from My Lai, he said he’s proud that he still has “an adventurous spirit” — connecting, for example, with Duc and other survivors in Vietnam.

As he spoke, the afternoon light in Ohio was fading. “I’m still learning,” Haeberle said, “about what the world has to offer.”

For more images, visit FOTO. Warning, photos are graphic. 

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