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, an official Army report would later find, the troops opened fire. In the hours that followed, American forces killed hundreds of old men, women and children.
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. 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.
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. “As a photographer, I wanted to see what was happening in Vietnam for myself,” he told me. Charlie Company had been together for about a year before Haeberle joined it in March 1968, but Haeberle 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. Then I saw a soldier firing at them. I couldn’t comprehend it.” His 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 Nov. 20, 1969. (Haeberle took the pictures not with his Army-issued Leica camera, but with his own camera, a Nikon; this meant they were not subject to the same oversight .) At least one soldier later confessed to cutting out villagers’ tongues, and scalping others.
My Lai was hardly the only instance of rape or and murder by U.S. troops in Vietnam. But in terms of intensity and scale — and because of Haeberle’s photographs — it remains the emblematic massacre of the war. When this photo ran in LIFE, the caption noted that Haeberle "found the bodies above on a road leading from the village." This image later appeared on the front page of the Plain Dealer . Ronald L. Haeberle—The LIFE Images Collection An officer training candidate looks at pictures made by Ronald L. Haeberle, a former Army photographer, that appeared in the appeared in Nov. 20, 1969, issue of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
Today, Ron Haeberle lives about 40 miles from downtown Cleveland, in an attractive house on a quiet cul de sac. Haeberle told me that he saw an old man with two small children walking toward U.S. troops, their belongings in a basket. !’ to let the soldiers know he wasn’t Viet Cong,” Haeberle recalled. 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. '” An American soldier stokes the flames of houses that were burned during the massacre in My Lai on March 16, 1968. Ronald L. Haeberle—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images At one point in the killing spree, Haeberle recalls, he and Army reporter Jay Roberts came upon a group of villagers huddled in fear after troops assaulted a number of young women.
Haeberle took a photo of a tearful, frantic mother — 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. 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? 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. Click here to see more of Ron Haeberle’s photos from My Lai at Getty Images’ FOTO The massacre and attempt to cover it up was first reported by journalist Seymour Hersh and distributed by a small wire agency, Dispatch News Service, in the second week of November 1969.
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 kept thinking, ‘This is not right.’ It was mind-boggling.” (Haeberle’s reflection, with camera, can be seen at the top of one picture, as he photographs a corpse in a well . “They told me they threw him down there to poison the water supply,” Haeberle said.)
A group of civilian women and children before being killed by the U.S. Army during the massacre. Ronald L. Haeberle—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images 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. Elsewhere, soldiers had herded dozens of villagers into a roadside ditch and shot them. Haeberle says that he and Roberts attempted twice to tell Charlie Company Capt.
(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.) Of the dozen or so officers and others in Charlie Company who eventually faced court martial, only Lt. William Calley was convicted . In the spring of 1971 he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
But 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. Two Vietnamese children on a road before they were shot by U.S. soldiers on March 16, 1968. Ronald L. Haeberle—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images And they have stayed with Haeberle for half a century. Duc was 8 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. Haeberle had captured that moment, as well. Duc and Haeberle have since become friends, 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. So I gave him my camera, the Nikon I used at My Lai, for the shrine.” Haeberle has returned to My Lai several times, and will be there again on the 50th anniversary of the massacre. Haeberle is a thoughtful, plainspoken man.