He was six. She was 14 months old.
They had just been shot, and watched their siblings and mother get shot.
As Tran Van Duc and his sister Tran Thi Ha escaped from the armed men carrying out a grisly massacre, a helicopter flew low over them. Duc threw himself on his sister to protect her.
Ronald L. Haeberle, a combat photographer on duty Vietnam, captured that moment.
While the photographic capture of Duc’s valiant act became famous and emblematic of the struggle for survival waged by the residents of My Lai, the two children were virtually forgotten by history.
After the split second in which he clicked a photograph of the children, Haeberle walked away, thinking they had been shot and killed, since there was a lot of firing going on.
The assumption was made by many, including the TIME’s USA edition, which said the children were shot and killed by U.S. soldiers.
However, more than 50 years later, last month, the War Remnants Museum in HCMC acknowledged that Duc and Ha were the children in the photograph, that they were survivors of the My Lai massacre.
It took a decade-long, often frustrating and exasperating struggle to get this acknowledgement, and it is still not complete.
Tran Van Duc, six, covers his 14-month-old sister to protect her as a helicopter hovers low while they were fleeing the site of the My Lai massacre. Photo courtesy of Ronald L. Haeberle.
In 1976, a year after the Vietnam War ended, when he was just 14, Duc visited the Son My Museum and found the picture of him and his sister there. However, they were not identified.
Two years later, the museum included a label which assigned different names to the children in the picture, adding that both were killed by American soldiers. Aghast, Duc insisted it was wrong, but the museum did not change the information.
Duc decided to officially vocalize his demand for the truth to be recognized after he published his memoir in Germany in 2009. He had migrated to Germany in 1983 under a government-supported vocational training program for children of soldiers killed in action.
Since 2009, Duc has petitioned several governmental agencies, including the Son My Museum, the War Remnants Museum in HCMC, and the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Quang Ngai Province, asking that the survival and existence of his sister Ha and himself be officially acknowledged.
“Of course I would want to correct this false information. I’m still alive and history needs to be honest and reflect the truth,” Duc told VnExpress International.
His sister Ha, now 52, a teacher in Quang Ngai, still carries a bullet in her left chest.
“If the truth is not returned to where it belongs, it will multiply the pain we are suffering,” she said. Because Ha was too young at the time of the event to attest to the truth, she supports her brother in reclaiming their story.
Duc and Ha are also supported by the photographer who took their picture 51 years ago. Haeberle had assumed the children were dead, and never imagined that 43 years later, that boy would come knocking on his door.
Duc and Haeberle at My Lai on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre last year. Photo courtesy of Ronald L. Haeberle.
“In summer 2011, I received an email from Duc saying he was the child in that picture and his sister was alive, too. In September that year, I invited him to my home in Cleveland,” Ronald L. Haeberle said.
When the two met, Duc recounted every little detail of that fateful day.
The intensely traumatic event is seared into Duc’s memory. His family members were collectively at gunpoint on March 16, 1968 in My Lai hamlet, Son My Village, central Quang Ngai Province.
When the family heard “sky-ripping screaming, weeping, low-flying planes, and gun shots” outside, their mother, Nguyen Thi Tau, quickly managed to gather some belongings and tucked some money into each of her children’s pockets.
But Tau and her five children couldn’t escape the shooting. She used her conical hat and her body to shield Duc and Ha.
“The American soldiers gathered many villagers they found hiding in houses by a rice field and shot us in close range. My two sisters were shot dead on the spot. My older sister Tran Thi My was shot too, but she pretended to be dead as she fell on the ground so she survived,” said Duc, now 57, a mechanic in Wuppetal, Germany.
As soon as the soldiers were gone, Tau, who was then bleeding from her belly and thigh, told the wounded Duc to take his sister, also wounded, to their grandmother’s house before the gunmen came back.
“I’d never carried her that far (7km). I was afraid the soldiers would come back so I grabbed Ha and went past the surrounding corpses and I left my mother behind. I couldn’t do anything for her at that time, and today, thinking back, guilt and sadness still eat me up inside,” Duc said.
On the way to their grandmother’s house in Son Tinh District, 7 km southwest of My Lai, Duc saw a helicopter with a shark sign on it flying low near them, so he threw himself on the ground to protect Ha.
The helicopter was the key that reconnected Duc to Haeberle’s memories of My Lai.
“I know he was telling the truth, because the pictures I took in My Lai are in sequence. I also took a picture of that helicopter, and then of Duc and Ha,” Haeberle said.
The two children were among a handful who survived the My Lai Massacre that left 504 civilians dead.
The U.S. troops committed the mass murder weeks after the Tet Offensive, when more than 80,000 soldiers from the north and the Vietnam National Liberation Front (NLF) launched surprise attacks on more than 100 cities and outposts in Saigon and throughout southern Vietnam on January 30, 1968.
The reunion also led the photographer to realize with a shock that he had also photographed Duc’s mother. Haeberle witnessed Nguyen Thi Tau being shot and was able to capture her last moments.
The photographer gave the Nikon camera he used at My Lai to Duc.
The two have since become friends. “I feel an intense warmth from him, the man who kept many memorabilia of my life,” Duc said, pointing to a picture showing a line of corpses taken by Haeberle, many of whom are his family members.
After their first meeting, Haeberle accompanied Duc on his journey, and was there during the first official meeting with Son My Museum in Quang Ngai Province, which displays the photo of Duc and Ha in 2011. They presented the evidence, Duc braving the agony of recalling the events in order for the truth to be heard.
VnExpress International has written to the museum, but had not received a response at the time of going to print.
When asked if he had thought about saving Duc and Ha, Haeberle said: “I was hoping they were alive. But I couldn’t intervene. It was not my mission to do so there, plus the soldiers could have turned against me….”
An American soldier throws bamboo sieves into the fire of burning houses during the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968. Photo courtesy of Ronald L. Haeberle
“I just couldn’t comprehend the killing of the civilians,” he said.
The photographer was in My Lai during his service in December 1967 and March 1968. Then 26, the photographer captured a total of 21 photos that documented American GIs’ atrocities that seared consciences across the world.
Before he sent the pictures to Ohio state’s Plain Dealer newspaper, which published them on the front page more than a year after the massacre, Haeberle had already begun showing his My Lai photos in slideshow talks to civic groups and local high schools.
The slideshow started with benevolent images of U.S soldiers smiling with and helping local Vietnamese kids and villagers. When pictures of burnt village houses, scattered dead bodies, and mutilated babies were shown, there was just “dead silence,” Haeberle recalled.
“People just couldn’t believe the American soldiers would do this. One woman accused me of faking these pictures in Hollywood,” he said.
Haeberle’s My Lai photos, the publication of which he referred to as his “silent protest,” were used during the investigation of massacre later.
The brutality transformed Haeberle’s perspective of the Vietnam War: “We were not getting anywhere with this war.”
The journey continues
A house burns in My Lai village on March 16, 1968. A corpse burns outside the house. Photo courtesy of Ronald L. Haeberle.
Haeberle has visited My Lai five times, and he plans to pay his respects to the fallen for the last time on the 52nd anniversary of the massacre in March next year.
But the journey has not ended for Duc and Ha.
Until the time of writing, only the War Remnants of Museum in HCMC, where their picture is displayed, has confirmed their existence and amended the caption.
The Son My Museum and Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Quang Ngai Province have not yet agreed to change their account of the event, and details of the photograph in particular.
“In My Lai, there is a mass grave where my mother, sisters and relatives all lie. I have been coming home every summer since 2007 to burn incense for them with my sisters,” Duc said.
Coming back to My Lai has never been easy for them.
On the day of the massacre, their father Tran Quy, who joined the army in 1954 as a military doctor, was working in another town 44 km away, Duc wrote in his memoir. He rushed to the hamlet as soon as he heard the news but only arrived the following day.
Quy didn’t get to see his wife and children for the last time because they were buried before he arrived, which deeply tormented him. Since the massacre put everyone on high alert, Quy could only visit his mother-in-law a few days later. He arrived to rejoice in surprise when he found Duc, Ha and My there. The older sister My had eventually stood up from the pile of corpses around her and managed to run to their grandmother’s house as well.
“I remember it vividly. He hugged all of us in his arms and we cried for such a long time,” Duc wrote.
The very next year, the family received a death notification – the father had died in battle while serving his country, leaving behind his remaining children as war orphans.
“My eldest sister raised us,” Duc said.
“51 years have passed, the story of the My Lai massacre cannot be changed, but the way we look at it needs to change. This is the extreme pain of a whole village and our nation. We need to respect what has happened in this place, respect the truth.”