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Remember My Lai

Originally Broadcast: May 23, 1989


NARRATOR: In 1968 at a Vietnamese village called My Lai, American soldiers masaacred hundreds of unarmed civilians.

VARNARDO SIMPSON: I just started killing any kind of way I could kill.

NARRATOR: The legacy of that day still haunts the soldiers and the people of My Lai.

TRUONG THI LE: I think of them lying there dead and my heart is cut to pieces.

HUGH THOMPSON: It still hurts to think about us doing things like that.

RON HAEBERLE: And they had to live with it, they have to live with it, and so do I, so do we all.

NARRATOR: Tonight, on FRONTLINE: "Remember My Lai."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Good evening.

Since the Vietnam war ended fourteen years ago this spring, many of its scars have begun to heal. America has confronted some of its political and military failures, and finally honored the sacrifice of the young men and women who served in Vietnam.

But there are some things time does not heal -- My Lai is one.

Tonight, FRONTLINE offers a disturbing, surprising and profound film, that, for the first time, examines the darkest chapter of the Vietnan War ... through the memories of American soldiers and Vietnamese villagers who were in My Lai that savage day more than twenty years ago.

Our program was produced by Kevin Sim and Michael Bilton of England's Yorkshire Television.

It is called "Remember My Lai."

Interviewer: Can you tell me, Varnardo, what this book is? Why, why you've kept it?

Varnardo Simpson: This is my life, this is my pact, this is my present, this is my future, and I keep it to remind me. But it's always, it's always there, you know, I just, this is it, this is my life, this is everything. This is the way I am. This is what made me this way.

NARRATOR: This is My Lai today. A small hamlet in central Vietnam near the coast of the South China Sea.

On their maps, the U.S. Army called this area Pinkville. That is how the massacre was known at first. The Pinkville Massacre.

Today, the villagers are farmers and fishermen, just as they were more than twenty years ago. But then, My Lai was at the center of a bitterly contested region in the Vietnam War.

Early one morning in March 1968, Charlie Company of the 1st 20th American Infantry Battalion landed here by helicopter and attacked the village.

By the time they left, four hours later, the young GIs of Charlie Company had killed hundreds of unarmed civilians -- old men, women, and children.

The village of My Lai had ceased to exist.

Instructor: Let's go, man, let's go. Let's go. Grab the ammo and move back to your point -- wait for further instruction. Looking good, looking good ... looking good.

Keep on trucking, keep right on trucking.

NARRATOR: In Fort Benning, Georgia, new infantry recruits in the U.S. Army receive their first rounds of ammunition and take their first steps as soldiers.

In 1967, at the height of the war, thousands of young men were sent here for basic training.

Most were bound for Vietnam, including many of those who would eventually make up Charlie Company.

KENNETH HODGES, Former Sergeant, Charlie Company: The transition from civilian to soldier is a very distinct and very rigorous training. Soldiers were taught all the things that they need to know about being a good soldier in those very early days and weeks in basic training.

Drill Sergeant: Let's go, step it out, step it out. Keep your heads up. You all look like you're tired. Are you tired?

Soldiers: No, drill sergeant.

KENNETH HODGES: They're taught how to use weapons, how to use weapons to kill. They are taught how to drill, how to march with weapons.

Drill Sergeant: Get that weapon up you...

KENNETH HODGES: And all of these drills and different maneuvers are carried out by orders.

Soldier: Move out! Move outl

KENNETH HODGES: They are taught hand-to-hand fighting. They are taught close-order fighting. They are taught how to deal with the enemy when they come