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My Lai Photographer Ron Haeberle Exposed a Vietnam Massacre 40 Years Ago Today in The Plain Dealer

by Evelyn Theiss

Forty years ago today, black-and-white photographs of slaughtered women, children and old men in a Vietnamese village shocked the world -- or that portion of the world willing to believe American soldiers could gun down unarmed peasants and leave them to die in streets and ditches.

The Plain Dealer, in an international exclusive, was the first news outlet to publish the images of what infamously became known as the My Lai massacre, which had taken place on March 16, 1968.

"A clump of bodies," read the description on the front page of The Plain Dealer's Nov. 20, 1969, edition. At first some people were in denial about how these South Vietnamese civilians were killed, even after seeing the pictures.

Photographer remembers My Lai Massacre

It was too hard, too painful, to comprehend.

But the atrocities committed by soldiers in the U.S. Army's Charlie Company were captured by combat photographer Sgt. Ron Haeberle, a Fairview High School graduate who'd been drafted after college.

The Army did not begin investigating My Lai until the spring of 1969, a year after the killings, after a former member of Charlie Company sent a letter to government officials, including President Richard Nixon and numerous members of Congress.

Army investigators came to Cleveland to interview Haeberle in August 1969. Upon his honorable discharge from the Army the previous year, he'd returned here and was occasionally giving slide-show talks to Kiwanis and Lions clubs about his war experience in general. Those groups would never expect the horrific scenes he'd documented.

"First, I showed all the good we did there, what the medics did, and photos of Vietnamese people smiling. And then I'd go to the My Lai photos, and there'd be dead silence," says Haeberle today, in one of his first U.S. interviews in many decades.

"They'd say, 'No, this can't have happened. That can't be true.' "

They didn't want to believe it, as many people didn't when the photos were published, but it was true.

Unbelievable massacre still reverberates

On March 16, 1968, American soldiers, "the good guys," who were not under fire, entered a village where residents were eating breakfast, rousted them from their homes, raped young girls and then killed them, their siblings, parents and grandparents. When the injured moved among the corpses they lay with, they were shot again until they were still.

The U.S. Army set the number killed at 347; the memorial in My Lai lists the names of 504 dead.

The story of the My Lai massacre became a significant part of our nation's history. Twenty-six soldiers of the 50-member unit were initially charged with criminal offenses for their actions, but only Lt. William Calley was convicted of premeditated murder. He served three years of a life sentence under house arrest after President Nixon reduced his sentence.

Calley was silent about My Lai for 40 years, until making a public apology in August.

But the term "My Lai" still reverberates: It's mentioned when there are civilian casualties at the hands of U.S. or allied troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The Plain Dealer got the explosive My Lai photographs in November 1969 soon after Haeberle, then 28, was contacted by Army investigators. He called the newspaper, because The Plain Dealer was his hometown paper and because he recognized one of the bylines -- Joe Eszterhas.

They had attended Ohio University at the same time, and Eszterhas had edited the college paper.

"I didn't have any connections, so Joe was the logical person for me to call," Haeberle says.

Earlier that same week, a story about the massacre, written by a free-lance writer named Seymour Hersh, was being distributed by a small news service. The story wasn't picked up by very many newspapers; it was met with incredulity, since neither Hersh nor his news service were well-known.

Still, it garnered some notice. Mike Roberts, then a Plain Dealer Washington bureau reporter who'd returned stateside after a year serving as the paper's Vietnam correspondent, remembers that copies of Hersh's story were slipped under office doors in the National Press Building.

"No one believed it," said Roberts, of Orange Village. "Bill Ware, the [Plain Dealer's] executive editor, called; he wasn't sure if we should go with it. Almost simultaneously, this kid comes forward with these pictures -- Haeberle's photographs legitimized the story."

Richard Conway, a retired Plain Dealer photographer in Solon, was working on the photo desk at the paper that night.

"This guy brought the slides in -- I took a look at them, and it was shocking," he says.

"They were in color. They showed the terror on people's faces right before they were shot."

Man behind camera never sought fame

The photographs would become historic in a war era that consumed a generation. But Haeberle quietly returned to obscurity. Forty years later, he continues to live a quiet life. After the war, he returned here to work at Premier Industrial Corp. in Cleveland, where he was a supervisor. For the rest of his career -- besides a brief stint as a photographer at Case Western Reserve University, which he found unexciting -- he worked as a supervisor at various manufacturing plants.

Today, he lives in a nondescript house in a new development in a far western Cleveland suburb. He's 68, divorced and has a grown daughter. On his mantel, there's a Rube Goldberg sculpture trophy from 1969, a journalism award for his photos that ran in Life magazine. On his coffee table, there's hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger's book, "Highest Duty."

Haeberle is fit and athletic -- he works out every day, whether at a spinning class, on the Pilates reformer he's got at home, or on ultralong bike rides. He also skis and kayaks.

In the spring, he often heads West and cycles through Utah -- "In Moab, I feel like an ant among the mountains" -- and California. The only things he documents with his camera these days are his travels and the beauties of nature he finds during his travels.

In contrast to today's celebrity-seekers, Haeberle is a throwback. A low-key man by nature, he has almost never -- until now -- talked to reporters about 1969 and how those photos affected his life. He did give a straightforward interview to the BBC in 1989 and will be part of a documentary about My Lai slated to run on PBS next year.

He doesn't talk much about his moment in history. But if the subject comes up, he'll talk about those terrible four hours and why he kept shooting photos.

"That was my job -- I was walking around with two cameras strapped around me, mine and the Army's, and my job was to document wherever we went, what the unit did," he says.

When Charlie Company landed in My Lai and began shooting people, Haeberle shot photos. "It was reactive," he says.

"I was trying to figure out, 'How am I going to capture the event and go back to headquarters and show them what we were doing?' "

But, he says, "I didn't make it to certain parts of the village where other things were going on, the rapes and the cutting of tongues and scalping and all that stuff. I didn't see any of that.

"Later on, when I was interviewed by the CID [the Army's Criminal Investigation Division] and they explained everything that happened there, I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' I didn't know it was quite that bad."

Photographs changed lives, perceptions

On that night in 1969, when Plain Dealer editors were considering publication, the evidence looked very, very bad.

"It was such a horrific idea that American troops could do this, to women and children," says Conway of The Plain Dealer. "I thought it was amazing we had these -- such a big story out of Vietnam."

Of course, it wasn't a fait accompli that the photos would run. First, the paper had to verify that Haeberle was who he said he was. That was confirmed when an Army prosecutor named Aubrey Daniel strongly suggested The Plain Dealer not publish Haeberle's photos.

Conway was just one of many people who thought the images "might be a little too much for the paper." Publisher Thomas Vail had to approve publication, and he did. Eszterhas later said that Plain Dealer editors were hopeful they'd win journalism prizes for the incendiary scoop.

Eszterhas, speaking from his home in Bainbridge Township earlier this month, well remembers the intensity of the hours leading up to publication.

"Daniel told us, 'You have no right to run those photos because [Haeberle] was using an Army camera," Eszterhas recalls. "And we told him he'd had his own camera, too."

Eszterhas wrote the news story that accompanied the photos, and told of Haeberle's experiences at My Lai. He and Haeberle then sold the photos to Life magazine, sharing less than $20,000.

"It was a huge scoop," says Haeberle. "It changed my life a little -- I got to travel a bit. It changed Joe Eszterhas' life a lot."

Within a few years, Eszterhas had fallen out of favor and was fired from The Plain Dealer. But he went on to write for Rolling Stone magazine and then became a successful Hollywood screenwriter who made millions.

Haeberle has never wanted to dwell on the events at My Lai. But he has read books and watched several documentaries on My Lai, wanting to learn more about what happened in that village.

"My understanding was the company [which he joined the morning of My Lai] had been taking losses right and left, seeing their buddies killed by mines, and they'd become hardened.

"But what happened that day did not have to happen. No. No way."

Does Haeberle feel his decision to share the photos with the newspaper changed history, or people's lives? Quietly, nonchalantly, he says: "Oh, I'm sure it did. I've talked to people over the years, Army people even, who did mention it helped bring a turning point to the war, bring about the end of the war, maybe.

"At least that part, that makes me feel good, that part coming out."

Eszterhas, too, points out that the publication of the My Lai photos, coupled with the Kent State shootings six months later, which he also covered, began a critical shift in Americans' perceptions of the Vietnam War.

In Vietnam, a shocking memorial

In 2000, Haeberle went back to Vietnam for the first time. He bought a number of original works by Vietnamese artists, which hang in his living room today. Most are abstracts; one is a black-and-white, delicately needleworked portrait of a woman, gracefully reaching one arm toward the sky.

He and a group of cyclist friends biked 775 miles from Hanoi to Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, with stops along the way.

One was at My Lai, where women still push and pull water buffalo alongside green rice fields and where there is now a museum and peace garden memorializing the dead.

Haeberle's traveling friends knew of his role in My Lai's past. "But we just kept it quiet. They were protective."

He walked into the small museum -- "It's beautiful," he says -- and was shocked to see the 16-by-20-inch photos on the wall. The massacre photos were all his, some color, some black-and-white; there was even a black-and-white shot of him.

"I never gave them the photos," he explains. "So the Army must have."

He won't say he got choked up, exactly, but he was affected by being in that space, his own powerful images of horror looking back at him from the walls.

"I found myself making an apology for what happened," he says. "I walked around by myself. No one else was around, and I was making silent amends.

"For something that didn't have to happen, but did."

 

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