Fifty years ago on November 20, 1969, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published the only photographs in existence of the Mỹ Lai Massacre in Vietnam. Ron Haeberle made the photographs while working as a U.S. Army photographer on March 16, 1968, one week before he was scheduled to return stateside. His pictures made the Vietnam War more of a reality at a time when anti-war protests were escalating in the United States.
Discussing the coverage before a packed classroom of 250 students at Ohio University on Monday, Haeberle was asked how he handled the impact and the scrutiny for making the horrific pictures.
“I have to live with it,” he said. “It’s reality. When I go back, I pay my respects to the victims.”
The murder of 504 unarmed civilians - mostly women and children - at Mỹ Lai was initially covered up by the U.S. Army. Twenty-six soldiers eventually were charged with criminal offenses, but only Lieutenant William Calley Jr. was convicted. President Richard M. Nixon commuted Calley’s life sentence, and he served only three and a half years of house arrest in his quarters at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Haeberle appeared on a panel with investigative reporter Seymour “Sy” Hersh, who won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting on Mỹ Lai. Many did not believe Hersh’s story until weeks later when they saw Haeberle’s photos in the Plain Dealer.
The Monday event, sponsored by the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, provided the first opportunity for the two to meet in person. The panel also included David Crane, an OU alum like Haeberle. Crane is a lawyer and expert in national and international security and social justice. The event was moderated by Andy Alexander, a former Washington Post ombudsman and a visiting professional in the Journalism school, who was a reporter in Vietnam and also an OU alum.
Hersh’s first story was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Nov. 13, 1969, and at that time, he didn’t know about the photos. Some editors initially doubted the story and only 33 papers picked it up. But after the photographs surfaced as proof and were published in the Plain Dealer, editors across the country believed Hersh’s unbelievable story. Life and Time magazines also published them.
“This was a holy cow moment because it humanized the horror of Vietnam,” Crane said about seeing the photographs as a sophomore at Ohio University. “I think it cracked the code and then America began to take a closer look at why this was going on. The media is the one who keeps the flame burning,” he said.
Haeberle was drafted into the Army when he shifted to part-time student status at Ohio University. After training in Hawaii, he volunteered to go to Vietnam as a photographer for the public information office.
On March 16, 1968, Haeberle was carrying two 35mm cameras. One was his military-issued Leica with black and white film. The other was his personal camera, a Nikon F loaded with Ektachrome, a color slide film, and only one roll.
By this time, Haeberle was accustomed to photographs being censured by his commanders and had become discriminating on what he photographed with his military-issued camera. The pictures he made with his own camera were his property, which he brought home.
He made about 40 pictures that day with the Leica, which were later found “somewhere in a desk drawer.” They were essentially meaningless because they didn’t show much of anything, he said.
But he didn’t process the one undeveloped roll of color film he took home to Ohio on March 27 for a month.
Why did he wait so long?
The emotional impact of war is staggering. He realized he had documentation of something that should not have occurred, but he needed time to “get home first.”
“These photographs don’t mean anything until you start talking about them,” Haeberle said.
So he started talking to Kiwanis and Optimist clubs. He showed them photos of his training days in Hawaii and the positive experiences in Vietnam such as the best medical teams available to care for wounded U.S. soldiers. But at the end of his talks, he started to show the photos from Mỹ Lai to see their reactions. He asked if there were any questions. The room was silent. They couldn’t fathom that Americans would be doing such things.
The energy shifted in the crowded classroom as the moderator, Alexander, asked Haeberle about the moral obligation to try to stop something bad from happening.
“What is your moral obligation to try to stop it and what about fragging?” Alexander asked.
Fragging is a Vietnam-era term for when soldiers kill their own commanders. “Was that a consideration at that moment?” he asked Haeberle, considering that he was the only one photographing what was happening.
Haeberle describes the moment that he and Jay Roberts, a reporter from the same military office, landed at the “hot zone” via helicopter. They heard gunfire and immediately sensed that something was “off.”
“At that moment, I was trying to figure out what was happening,” Haeberle told the audience.
“Our choppers landed in a rice paddy and we heard a tremendous amount of firing but there was no out-going firing from the village toward us. The chopper pilot told us we were landing in a hot zone,” Haerbele explained.
“Once we stood up and started walking - some toward the village and some away from the village - I walked away from the village - but still, this rapid-firing was going on but nobody was shooting at us. I had no idea what was happening and I walked down the Highway 521 and I happened to glance over my left shoulder and saw a group of people huddled,” Haeberle said. They were civilians and three soldiers were guarding them. “I continued walking and all of a sudden I heard automatic fire and these people were getting up and trying to run and these soldiers were just shooting into them. We just couldn’t absorb all of this.”
“To get to the point about fragging,” Haeberle continued, “Say you’re the soldier and I take a picture of you doing the shooting, what’s going to happen to me? You’re not going to let me get out of there.”
“But you did that though,” Alexander said. “Obviously, they saw you taking photos.”
“They saw me taking photographs, but only one person that day said, ‘watch out, there’s a photographer.’” he said.
Alexander pressed Haeberle. “So, you leave the military and you basically sit on these things although you knew something bad went on, do you ever regret not immediately going to someone?”
“No, no, no, I don’t.” Haeberle was adamant. “There were officers above flying around (observing from helicopters). They knew what was going on. If there was going to be an investigation, let them come to us but we weren’t going to volunteer our information at the time.”
“This was a question during the investigation,” Hersh recalled about his reporting. “And the answer a lot of the GI’s gave was ‘wait a second, I’m a GI, I see wrongdoing, I should report it to my superior? Except they’re the ones doing the killing, so who am I supposed to report to?’’’
“There’s not a chance in hell if he (Ron) would have done that then, he wouldn’t be here now,” Hersh said.
“War crimes are command failures,” Crane said. “This (Mỹ Lai) is not a default of how the military operates. The Armed Forces today will prosecute war crimes. The (Haeberle) pictures changed the tenor of the conflict,” Crane said.
“It’s surreal to me,” Crane said about the recent military pardons by President Trump. “The last time it happened was during Mỹ Lai. The Armed Forces are insulted by this. It’s a slap in the face of our military forces who are highly trained and highly educated.”
What happened to Haeberle’s Nikon F?
Haeberle did not pursue photography when he came home. “Those days are long gone,” he said on the phone Wednesday. Because of the massacre photographs, he was “too hot” and no one wanted to take a chance working with him.
But he’s into cycling and returned to Vietnam for the first time in 2000. He wanted to ride the backroads and discover more about the country. He visited Mỹ Lai but didn’t want to disclose his experiences. There is a museum and several road markers and monuments that pay tribute to those who were killed.
He told the audience on Tuesday that when he returns, he pays his respects to the victims. But on this day, he added, “...and I pay my respects to the true survivors.” Those who remain and remember.
In 2011, Haeberle got a message on Facebook from a German cinematographer who claimed to know the identity of the two children in a photograph who had survived the massacre. It was true. Haeberle met Duc Tran Van, who now lives in Germany, and gave him his Nikon F. His sister, Ha, still lives in Vietnam near the village of Mỹ Lai.