A second lieutenant assigned to lead the infamous platoon responsible for the My Lai massacre recalls the bitter reality behind Vietnam’s measurement of combat success.
Fresh out of Officers Candidate School, 20-year-old Oklahoman Gary Bray arrived in Vietnam in late August 1969. The day after landing at Ton Son Nhut, the new second lieutenant was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Light Infantry Brigade of the 23rd “Americal” Division at Chu Lai. He was to lead the 1st Platoon of Charlie Company, which, under 2nd Lt. William Calley, had gained infamy 18 months earlier on March 16, 1968, at a small village named My Lai. By the time of Bray’s arrival, most of the men who had been in the unit at the time of the My Lai massacre were gone, and the Army investigation that would result in Calley being charged on a number of counts of premeditated murder was nearing completion. It would still be two more months before the story of the massacre became front-page news, setting off shockwaves across America and revulsion around the world. First Platoon continued to operate in the vicinity of My Lai but never returned to the village. Bray would soon learn from his platoon’s Vietnamese interpreter that the Viet Cong had put bounties on the heads of Charlie Company members.
After several months commanding 1st Platoon, Bray felt as if “I had spent all my life in the place….I became so immersed in the war that I began to think that this was all life would ever be—to keep from getting killed and to hunt down someone else to kill.” On January 9, 1970, as Bray watched it happen, two men in his platoon were killed and one wounded by a booby trap as they guarded engineers building a road near the village of Nui Ong Do. A small boy, befriended by the men, also died in the horrific mine blast.
“Each day began with a plot hatched by one of my superior officers to outwit the enemy and kill him,” Bray recalled. “The success or failure of the plan measured by the body count.”
Large maps of the area of operations (AO) covered the walls of the battalion command bunker at Landing Zone Liz where my superiors hatched out their plans to defeat the enemy. Shelves along the walls held the many radios used to communicate with the companies in the field, the artillery units, the forward air controllers and other support units. Clipboards hung on the walls to keep a record of all the information that came into the battalion command post. Tables and benches ran down one of the walls where the colonel’s staff sat and coordinated all of the battalion’s activities. The most impressive thing about the bunker, however, wasn’t all the equipment and maps, but the briefing area for the frequent visitors who wore stars on their collars.
A miniature stage had been constructed on the side of the bunker for the briefings, and it was complete with podium and seating for the visiting VIPs. Behind the podium hung a large map of the AO and a large plastic chart with many rows and columns filled with grease pencil markings. Each of the four companies of the battalion had its allotted space on the chart. There was a column for Alpha Company, one for Bravo Company, one for Charlie Company, one for Delta Company and a smaller column for the Recon Platoon. One of the staff member’s special jobs was to keep the chart updated so the colonel could brief the visiting generals on the body count.
Under each company’s designation, the chart was divided into smaller columns to list that company’s numerical success or failure during a particular month. The enemy was marked in red. A column, divided into each day of the month, listed the number of enemies killed in action (KIA), wounded in action (WIA) or captured. Opposite the red column was a blue column for friendly casualties, which contained the same column for killed in action or wounded in action. It was an impressive chart.
The chart man kept a running total. With all its red and blue numbers, the officers could tell at a glance how successful the battalion had been in the last month at killing the enemy. The kill ratio was easily computed. A briefing with high red numbers and low blue numbers brought smiles from the generals. A briefing with low red numbers and high blue numbers brought suggestions that perhaps the battalion wasn’t being aggressive enough in its pursuit of the enemy. Such a briefing was usually followed by a combat assault or a trip into the mountains by one of the companies.
The thing I remember most about the chart is that it only contained numbers. There were no names posted in blue pencil, only numbers. A blue “1” under one of the companies’ names was easy to accept, especially if directly opposite, in the red KIA column, there was a red “5.” The generals had no use for such information as the kid’s name, age, hometown and next of kin. All this information was readily available, but it wasn’t reflected on the chart.
I saw the chart after my platoon’s assignment with the engineers. Listed under Charlie Company on the ninth day of January was a small blue “2” in the KIA column. Next to the number were the letters “BT” in green pencil, indicating those killed had died from a booby trap. I wondered why the thing that killed the men received a name on the chart, yet they remained a combined number of “2.” On the same date there were no numbers in the red column, but listed on the enemy side of the chart near the margin was a small notation in yellow grease pencil that read “1 VN civilian KIA—BT.”
I am the only person in the world who remembers that chart for that day. No other members of my platoon were allowed in the command post. The regular staff would have had no reason to remember this one day from all the others. The marks on the chart weren’t numbers. They were three people with faces and personalities. Three people I watched die on a small hill in Vietnam. A short time later, I, too, would be represented by a blue mark on the battalion commander’s colorful chart.
You cross a series of lines in war. They aren’t drawn in the sand or marked on your maps, yet when you cross one of them you are forever changed. You may never return to what you were before.
The first of these lines is crossed when you participate in the death of another human being. Soldiers can call him the enemy, Viet Cong, Nip, Gook or whatever they wish, but the fact remains that he was a human being. Look through his bloodstained personal effects, and you are apt to find a letter from home, a picture of a smiling wife and child, or some keepsake you don’t understand.
As you stare at his lifeless body with curiosity at seeing the first person killed by your own hands, you have lost innocence.You have joined the others in that part of mankind who know they have killed. Because society accepts what you have done in the name of war and expects it, you don’t feel an immediate sense of concern. If you are fortunate enough to live many years afterward and experience life’s joys, such as one day having grandchildren, you will realize society has given you guilt for taking the life of another person, guilt which it doesn’t share with you. You will think of this often.
The second line that you cross in war is to begin accepting injury or death as an everyday occurrence. When you pass the bodies of enemy soldiers killed in the previous night’s ambush and give them no more than a curious glance, or when you hear radio reports of another unit requesting an urgent dust-off for people wounded by a mine and think to yourself that you are glad it was them and not you, then you have lost another part of your humanity.
You develop a certain numbness to the events that happen around you in war. You witness so many horrible things that you begin to think that surely nothing any worse than what you have already seen can happen. You have put your men on helicopters with limbs dangling or missing. You have put them in body bags in pieces. Worst of all, you have seen the death of innocent children.You begin to develop a hatred for the people of the country you are supposed to be helping. They are the ones killing and maiming your men.
The third line you cross in war is the one that some of the former members of my platoon had crossed under Lieutenant William Calley two years earlier at My Lai. At this point, your hatred becomes so intense, paired with your frustration at not being able to retaliate for the deaths of your friends due to the endless mines and booby traps set by the Viet Cong, that you do something that defies common sense. If you had individually asked those men an hour before they entered My Lai if they were capable of shooting an innocent woman or child, each undoubtedly would have responded that it was something he would never do. Yet that is exactly what a few of them did that morning at My Lai.
You can reach a point where what you are shooting at is no longer a human being, but simply a target.You lose the ability to pull back and say to yourself, “This is wrong.” I know this because of an incident that occurred within my platoon.
We were back on the northern end of the area we had dubbed the “Gaza Strip” along the shore of the South China Sea, about 10 miles north of Duc Pho. The pacified village where my men had been killed a few weeks earlier lay a few kilometers to the north. I could see the early morning sun reflecting from the tin roofs. The area where we operated had been cleared of Vietnamese civilians and declared a free-fire zone. Any people spotted there were automatically considered to be Viet Cong, and as such, we were free to engage and kill them.
My platoon was given an assignment to conduct a patrol along the western edge of the Strip along the Cau River, which defined its border. Nearby, across the river, a group of grass huts formed a small village occupied by a few Vietnamese farmers. We had been assigned three track-mounted armored personnel carriers (APCs) earlier that morning by the company commander and were riding atop them while conducting the patrol.
The terrain along the river was mostly open, sandy ground with occasional clumps of evergreen trees and other low-growing brush. From atop the APC, we could see several hundred meters of the countryside as we moved north along the river. As we approached the area just south of the small village, one of my men pointed out a lone figure running west toward the village about 500 meters to our right front. The individual carried what appeared to be a basket, and as we rapidly closed the gap to 200 meters, it became obvious the figure was an old woman. She was 100 meters into the free-fire zone, trying desperately to reach the river and cross it to get back to her village. A shot rang out from one of the men on the APC beside me, followed immediately by several more from other men joining in and firing at the old woman. I watched as the bullets sprayed the sand around her as she continued to run. From atop the APC, driving across the rough ground, the shots were ill aimed, and most flew well over her head. We had closed the distance to about 100 meters, and I watched as the woman threw the basket on the ground and continued to run in the loose sand toward the river. By now the M-60 machine gun had joined in on the firing, and I watched as a long burst overtook her. She was hit and fell down on her knees, only to struggle back to her feet and continue to hobble toward the river. She had made only a few steps before she was hit several times, this time never to rise again. As we pulled next to where her body lay, I could hear whoops of joy from some of the men. They were excited, as if it had been a great foxhunt, and they had killed their quarry.
I climbed down from the APC and walked over to the woman’s body. She had been shot through both upper legs and several times through the upper body. She was old, very old. Her mouth lay agape, and I could see the red betel nut so commonly chewed by Vietnamese women. I walked over to her basket, which contained plant roots the villagers used for food. She had been gathering food. She might have gathered roots from the same spot with her mother as a child, and because someone had decided that she could not go east of the river, we killed her.
Even though I had not fired at her, I was still responsible for her death. I was the officer in charge. A simple command of “cease-fire” would have spared her life. We could have easily captured her before she reached the river, yet because we had orders giving us permission to kill, we did. We didn’t stop to consider what was happening and make a moral judgment on whether it was right or wrong. We had crossed one of those lines, and we would forever be changed by it.
I dutifully called back to headquarters and reported one Viet Cong killed in action. The old woman would become one of the red grease pencil marks back on LZ Liz in the battalion commander’s bunker. When the brigade and division commanders came for their weekly briefings, they wouldn’t know that instead of carrying a rifle, this Viet Cong had carried a basket of food. They wouldn’t know that she had died terror-filled and wounded, chased by Americans who ran her down on armored personnel carriers. They wouldn’t know that across the river, the old woman’s family had watched her die. They wouldn’t know, but I did. It is one of those images Vietnam gave me to carry to my grave.
About a month later, Gary Bray was suddenly reassigned to take command of 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company. “I knew the men of 1st Platoon, Charlie Company well: I trusted them with my life,” Bray wrote. “All the respect and confidence I had gained from my platoon was gone.” On April 4, 1970, Bray led his new platoon on a mission to a find a Viet Cong camp hidden in nearby hills with the aid of a 14-year-old defector, or “Chieu Hoi.” After finding the camp and marking it for an airstrike, the troops carefully began to search the surrounding area when they detonated a booby trap that wounded Bray and several others. After a few weeks in the hospital, Bray was sent back to Alpha Company, where he was awarded a Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart.
Two days after he left Vietnam on August 14, 1970, two members of Bray’s Charlie Company were killed and 27 wounded by a mine that was detonated by children just outside the gate of LZ Liz.
“Leaving Vietnam was strangely like arriving,” Bray wrote more than three decades later. “On our way to Vietnam we had wondered what the coming year would bring. Now each of us carried the images, forever etched in our minds, of what Vietnam had been. It was history, unchangeable.”
Gary Bray returned home to Oklahoma where he started up and ran a mechanical contracting business and operated a 400-acre farm while raising a family of four with his wife Joy.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.