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German pilot in WWII spared an American B-17 pilot over Germany only to reunite 40 years later and become fishing buddies

The pilot glanced outside his cockpit and froze. He blinked hard and looked again, hoping it was just a mirage. But his co-pilot stared at the same horrible vision.

“My God, this is a nightmare,” the co-pilot said.

“He’s going to destroy us,” the pilot agreed.

The men were looking at a gray German Messerschmitt fighter hovering just three feet off their wingtip. It was five days before Christmas 1943, and the fighter had closed in on their crippled American B-17 bomber for the kill.

The B-17 pilot, Charles Brown, was a 21-year-old West Virginia farm boy on his first combat mission. His bomber had been shot to pieces by swarming fighters, and his plane was alone in the skies above Germany. Half his crew was wounded, and the tail gunner was dead, his blood frozen in icicles over the machine guns.

But when Brown and his co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke, looked at the fighter pilot again, something odd happened. The German didn’t pull the trigger. He nodded at Brown instead. What happened next was one of the most remarkable acts of chivalry recorded during World War II. Years later, Brown would track down his would-be executioner for a reunion that reduced both men to tears.

Living by the code

People love to hear war stories about great generals or crack troops such as Seal Team 6, the Navy unit that killed Osama bin Laden. But there is another side of war that’s seldom explored: Why do some soldiers risk their lives to save their enemies and, in some cases, develop a deep bond with them that outlives war?

And are such acts of chivalry obsolete in an age of drone strikes and terrorism?

Charles Brown was on his first combat mission during World War II when he met an enemy unlike any other.

Those are the kinds of questions Brown’s story raises. His encounter with the German fighter pilot is beautifully told in a New York Times best-selling book, “A Higher Call.” The book explains how that aerial encounter reverberated in both men’s lives for more than 50 years.

“The war left them in turmoil,” says Adam Makos, who wrote the book with Larry Alexander. “When they found each other, they found peace.”

Their story is extraordinary, but it’s not unique. Union and Confederate troops risked their lives to aid one another during the Civil War. British and German troops gathered for post-war reunions; some even vacationed together after World War II. One renowned American general traveled back to Vietnam to meet the man who almost wiped out his battalion, and the two men hugged and prayed together.

What is this bond that surfaces between enemies during and after battle?

It’s called the warrior’s code, say soldiers and military scholars. It’s shaped cultures as diverse as the Vikings, the Samurai, the Romans and Native Americans, says Shannon E. French, author of “Code of the Warrior.”

The code is designed to protect the victor, as well as the vanquished, French says.

“People think of the rules of war primarily as a way to protect innocent civilians from being victims of atrocities,” she says. “In a much more profound sense, the rules are there to protect the people doing the actual fighting.”

The code is designed to prevent soldiers from becoming monsters. Butchering civilians, torturing prisoners, desecrating the enemies’ bodies — are all battlefield behaviors that erode a soldier’s humanity, French says.

The code is ancient as civilization itself. In Homer’s epic poem, “The Iliad,” the Greek hero Achilles breaks the code when his thirst for vengeance leads him to desecrate the body of his slain foe, the Trojan hero Hector.

“There is something worse than death, and one of those things is to completely lose your humanity.”Most warrior cultures share one belief, French says:

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The code is still needed today, French says.

Thousands of U.S. soldiers returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some have seen, and have done, things that are unfathomable.

A study of Vietnam veterans showed that those who felt as if they had participated in dishonorable behavior during the war or saw the Vietnamese as subhuman experienced more post-traumatic stress disorder, French says.

Drone warfare represents a new threat to soldiers’ humanity, French says.

The Pentagon recently announced it would award a new Distinguished Warfare Medal to soldiers who operate drones and launch cyberattacks. The medal would rank above the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, two medals earned in combat.

At least 17,000 people have signed an online petition protesting the medal. The petition says awarding medals to soldiers who wage war via remote control was an “injustice” to those who risked their lives in combat.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended the new medal at a February news conference.

“I’ve seen firsthand how modern tools, like remotely piloted platforms and cybersystems, have changed the way wars are fought,” Panetta says. “And they’ve given our men and women the ability to engage the enemy and change the course of battle, even from afar.”

Still, critics ask, is there any honor in killing an enemy by remote control?

French isn’t so sure.

“If [I’m] in the field risking and taking a life, there’s a sense that I’m putting skin in the game,” she says. “I’m taking a risk so it feels more honorable. Someone who kills at a distance — it can make them doubt. Am I truly honorable?”

The German pilot who took mercy

Revenge, not honor, is what drove 2nd Lt. Franz Stigler to jump into his fighter that chilly December day in 1943.

Stigler wasn’t just any fighter pilot. He was an ace. One more kill and he would win The Knight’s Cross, German’s highest award for valor.

Yet Stigler was driven by something deeper than glory. His older brother, August, was a fellow Luftwaffe pilot who had been killed earlier in the war. American pilots had killed Stigler’s comrades and were bombing his country’s cities.

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Stigler was standing near his fighter on a German airbase when he heard a bomber’s engine. Looking up, he saw a B-17 flying so low it looked like it was going to land. As the bomber disappeared behind some trees, Stigler tossed his cigarette aside, saluted a ground crewman and took off in pursuit.

As Stigler’s fighter rose to meet the bomber, he decided to attack it from behind. He climbed behind the sputtering bomber, squinted into his gun sight and placed his hand on the trigger. He was about to fire when he hesitated. Stigler was baffled. No one in the bomber fired at him.

He looked closer at the tail gunner. He was still, his white fleece collar soaked with blood. Stigler craned his neck to examine the rest of the bomber. Its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns knocked out. He could see men huddled inside the plane tending the wounds of other crewmen.

Then he nudged his plane alongside the bomber’s wings and locked eyes with the pilot whose eyes were wide with shock and horror.

Franz Stigler wondered for years what happened to the American pilot he encountered in combat.

Stigler pressed his hand over the rosary he kept in his flight jacket. He eased his index finger off the trigger. He couldn’t shoot. It would be murder.

Stigler wasn’t just motivated by vengeance that day. He also lived by a code. He could trace his family’s ancestry to knights in 16th century Europe. He had once studied to be a priest.

A German pilot who spared the enemy, though, risked death in Nazi Germany. If someone reported him, he would be executed.

Yet Stigler could also hear the voice of his commanding officer, who once told him:

“You follow the rules of war for you — not your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.”

Alone with the crippled bomber, Stigler changed his mission. He nodded at the American pilot and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn’t shoot down the slow-moving bomber. (The Luftwaffe had B-17s of its own, shot down and rebuilt for secret missions and training.) Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot. Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away and returned to Germany.

“Good luck,” Stigler said to himself. “You’re in God’s hands.”

What creates the bond between enemies?

Stigler was able to recognize the common humanity of the enemy when he locked eyes with Brown. It caused him to take mercy.

That sudden recognition can spring from many sources in battle — hearing the moans of a wounded enemy; sharing a common language; or opening the wallet of an enemy and seeing pictures of his wife and children.

That respect for the enemy’s humanity typically starts at the top, some scholars say. A leader sets the tone, and the troops get the message. A military leader who embodied this approach was one of Germany’s greatest World War II commanders, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, also known as the “Desert Fox.”

One time, a group of British commandos tried to sneak behind enemy lines and assassinate Rommel in the North African desert. They failed. But Rommel insisted the commandos be buried in the same graveyard as the German soldiers who died defending him, says Steven Pressfield, author of “Killing Rommel.”

There were battle zones during World War II where that type of magnanimity was almost impossible. On the Eastern Front, German and Russian soldiers literally hated one another. And in the South Pacific, U.S. Marines and Japanese soldiers took no prisoners.

At times, the terrain can force soldiers to follow the code. The North African desert during World War II was one such place, Pressfield says.

Fortunes turned quickly because so many battles were fought by fast-moving tanks and mobile units. A German unit that captured British soldiers could end up surrendering to them minutes later because the battle lines were so fluid. Also, the desert sun was so harsh that both sides knew if they left enemy prisoners stranded or mistreated, they would quickly die, Pressfield says.

Some British and German soldiers never forgot how their enemy treated them and staged reunions after the war.It was not unusual for German and British doctors to work together while taking care of wounded soldiers from both sides, Pressfield says.

“The Germans and the British used to get together for soccer matches,” Pressfield says. “It was the Desert Foxes versus the Desert Rats.”

These soldiers weren’t just engaging in nostalgia. They shared a sense of hardship. They had survived an ordeal that most people could not understand.

“In many ways, a soldier feels more of a bond with the enemy they’re fighting than with the countrymen back home,” Pressfield says. “The enemy they’re fighting is equally risking death.”

That bond could even lead to acts of loyalty after the war, says Daniel Rolph, author of “My Brother’s Keepers.”

Once, when a Union officer mortally wounded a Confederate captain during the Civil War, the Union man sang hymns and prayed with his enemy as the man took his last breaths. Before the captain died, he asked the Union officer to return his sword and revolver to his family — a request the soldier honored after the war ended, Rolph says.

“I even have an article from The New York Times in 1886 where Union soldiers who were on the pension rolls of the federal government were actually trying to transfer their money toward Confederate soldiers,” Rolph says.

These bonds can even form between enemies who do not share a language or a culture.

Harold Moore Jr. was a U.S. Army colonel who led a desperate fight depicted in the 2002 Mel Gibson film, “We Were Soldiers Once … And Young. ” In 1965, Moore lost 79 of his men fighting against a larger North Vietnamese force. It was one of the first major battles in the Vietnam War.

In 1993, Moore led some of his soldiers back to Vietnam to meet their former adversaries on the same battlefield. When they arrived, Moore met the Vietnamese officer who led troops against him, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Huu An.

Charles Brown, with his wife, Jackie (left), found peace after his reunion with Franz Stigler, with his wife, Hiya.

An held out his arms and greeted Moore by kissing him on both cheeks. Moore gave him his wristwatch as a token of friendship.

Moore described in an essay what happened next:

“I invited all to form a circle with arms extended around each other’s shoulders and we bowed our heads. With prayer and tears, we openly shared our painful memories.”

An died two years after meeting Moore. Moore traveled to Vietnam to pay his respects to his former enemy’s family. While visiting their home, Moore spotted a familiar object displayed in the viewing case of An’s family shrine: It was his wristwatch.

A reunion of enemies

As he watched the German fighter peel away that December day, 2nd Lt. Charles Brown wasn’t thinking of the philosophical connection between enemies. He was thinking of survival.

He flew back to his base in England and landed with barely any fuel left. After his bomber came to a stop, he leaned back in his chair and put a hand over a pocket Bible he kept in his flight jacket. Then he sat in silence.

Brown flew more missions before the war ended. Life moved on. He got married, had two daughters, supervised foreign aid for the U.S. State Department during the Vietnam War and eventually retired to Florida.

Late in life, though, the encounter with the German pilot began to gnaw at him. He started having nightmares, but in his dream there would be no act of mercy. He would awaken just before his bomber crashed.

Brown took on a new mission. He had to find that German pilot. Who was he? Why did he save my life?

On January 18, 1990, Brown received a letter. He opened it and read:He scoured military archives in the U.S. and England. He attended a pilots’ reunion and shared his story. He finally placed an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots, retelling the story and asking if anyone knew the pilot.

(L-R) German Ace Franz Stigler, artist Ernie Boyett, and B-17 pilot Charlie Brown.
(L-R) German Ace Franz Stigler, artist Ernie Boyett, and B-17 pilot Charlie Brown.

“Dear Charles, All these years I wondered what happened to the B-17, did she make it or not?”

It was Stigler. He had had left Germany after the war and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1953. He became a prosperous businessman. Now retired, Stigler told Brown that he would be in Florida come summer and “it sure would be nice to talk about our encounter.”

Brown was so excited, though, that he couldn’t wait to see Stigler. He called directory assistance for Vancouver and asked whether there was a number for a Franz Stigler. He dialed the number, and Stigler picked up.

“My God, it’s you!” Brown shouted as tears ran down his cheeks.

Brown had to do more. He wrote a letter to Stigler in which he said: “To say THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU on behalf of my surviving crewmembers and their families appears totally inadequate.”

The two pilots would meet again, but this time in the lobby of a Florida hotel.

One of Brown’s friends was there to record the summer reunion. Both men looked like retired businessmen: they were plump, sporting neat ties and formal shirts. They talked about their encounter in a light, jovial tone.

The mood then changed. Someone asked Stigler what he thought about Brown. Stigler sighed and his square jaw tightened. He began to fight back tears before he said in heavily accented English:

“I love you, Charlie.”

Years later, author Makos says he understands why Stigler experienced such a surge of emotions.

Stigler had lost his brother, his friends and his country. He was virtually exiled by his countrymen after the war. There were 28,000 pilots who fought for the German air force. Only 1,200 survived, Makos says.

“The war cost him everything,” Makos says. “Charlie Brown was the only good thing that came out of World War II for Franz. It was the one thing he could be proud of.”

The meeting helped Brown as well, says his oldest daughter, Dawn Warner.

They met as enemies but Franz Stigler, on left, and Charles Brown, ended up as fishing buddies.

Brown and Stigler became pals. They would take fishing trips together. They would fly cross-country to each other homes and take road trips together to share their story at schools and veterans’ reunions. Their wives, Jackie Brown and Hiya Stigler, became friends.

Brown’s daughter says her father would worry about Stigler’s health and constantly check in on him.

“It wasn’t just for show,” she says. “They really did feel for each other. They talked about once a week.”

As his friendship with Stigler deepened, something else happened to her father, Warner says:

“The nightmares went away.”

Brown had written a letter of thanks to Stigler, but one day, he showed the extent of his gratitude. He organized a reunion of his surviving crew members, along with their extended families. He invited Stigler as a guest of honor.

During the reunion, a video was played showing all the faces of the people that now lived — children, grandchildren, relatives — because of Stigler’s act of chivalry. Stigler watched the film from his seat of honor.

“Everybody was crying, not just him,” Warner says.

Stigler and Brown died within months of each other in 2008. Stigler was 92, and Brown was 87. They had started off as enemies, became friends, and then something more.

Makos discovered what that was by accident while spending a night at Brown’s house. He was poking through Brown’s library when he came across a book on German fighter jets. Stigler had given the book to Brown. Both were country boys who loved to read about planes.

Makos opened the book and saw an inscription Stigler had written to Brown:

In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying.

The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me, as precious as my brother was.

Thanks Charlie.

Your Brother,

Franz

There is a long ditch in the village of My Lai. On the morning of March 16, 1968, it was crowded with the bodies of the dead—dozens of women, children, and old people, all gunned down by young American soldiers. Now, forty-seven years later, the ditch at My Lai seems wider than I remember from the news photographs of the slaughter: erosion and time doing their work. During the Vietnam War, there was a rice paddy nearby, but it has been paved over to make My Lai more accessible to the thousands of tourists who come each year to wander past the modest markers describing the terrible event. The My Lai massacre was a pivotal moment in that misbegotten war: an American contingent of about a hundred soldiers, known as Charlie Company, having received poor intelligence, and thinking that they would encounter Vietcong troops or sympathizers, discovered only a peaceful village at breakfast. Nevertheless, the soldiers of Charlie Company raped women, burned houses, and turned their M-16s on the unarmed civilians of My Lai. Among the leaders of the assault was Lieutenant William L. Calley, a junior-college dropout from Miami.

By early 1969, most of the members of Charlie Company had completed their tours and returned home. I was then a thirty-two-year-old freelance reporter in Washington, D.C. Determined to understand how young men—boys, really—could have done this, I spent weeks pursuing them. In many cases, they talked openly and, for the most part, honestly with me, describing what they did at My Lai and how they planned to live with the memory of it.

In testimony before an Army inquiry, some of the soldiers acknowledged being at the ditch but claimed that they had disobeyed Calley, who was ordering them to kill. They said that one of the main shooters, along with Calley himself, had been Private First Class Paul Meadlo. The truth remains elusive, but one G.I. described to me a moment that most of his fellow-soldiers, I later learned, remembered vividly. At Calley’s order, Meadlo and others had fired round after round into the ditch and tossed in a few grenades.

Then came a high-pitched whining, which grew louder as a two- or three-year-old boy, covered with mud and blood, crawled his way among the bodies and scrambled toward the rice paddy. His mother had likely protected him with her body. Calley saw what was happening and, according to the witnesses, ran after the child, dragged him back to the ditch, threw him in, and shot him.

The morning after the massacre, Meadlo stepped on a land mine while on a routine patrol, and his right foot was blown off. While waiting to be evacuated to a field hospital by helicopter, he condemned Calley. “God will punish you for what you made me do,” a G.I. recalled Meadlo saying.

“Get him on the helicopter!” Calley shouted.

Meadlo went on cursing at Calley until the helicopter arrived.

Meadlo had grown up in farm country in western Indiana. After a long time spent dropping dimes into a pay phone and calling information operators across the state, I found a Meadlo family listed in New Goshen, a small town near Terre Haute. A woman who turned out to be Paul’s mother, Myrtle, answered the phone. I said that I was a reporter and was writing about Vietnam. I asked how Paul was doing, and wondered if I could come and speak to him the next day. She told me I was welcome to try.

The Meadlos lived in a small house with clapboard siding on a ramshackle chicken farm. When I pulled up in my rental car, Myrtle came out to greet me and said that Paul was inside, though she had no idea whether he would talk or what he might say. It was clear that he had not told her much about Vietnam. Then Myrtle said something that summed up a war that I had grown to hate: “I sent them a good boy and they made him a murderer.”

Meadlo invited me in and agreed to talk. He was twenty-two. He had married before leaving for Vietnam, and he and his wife had a two-and-a-half-year-old son and an infant daughter. Despite his injury, he worked a factory job to support the family. I asked him to show me his wound and to tell me about the treatment. He took off his prosthesis and described what he’d been through. It did not take long for the conversation to turn to My Lai. Meadlo talked and talked, clearly desperate to regain some self-respect. With little emotion, he described Calley’s orders to kill. He did not justify what he had done at My Lai, except that the killings “did take a load off my conscience,” because of “the buddies we’d lost. It was just revenge, that’s all it was.”

Meadlo recounted his actions in bland, appalling detail. “There was supposed to have been some Vietcong in [My Lai] and we began to make a sweep through it,” he told me. “Once we got there we began gathering up the people . . . started putting them in big mobs. There must have been about forty or forty-five civilians standing in one big circle in the middle of the village. . . . Calley told me and a couple of other guys to watch them.” Calley, as he recalled, came back ten minutes later and told him, “Get with it. I want them dead.” From about ten or fifteen feet away, Meadlo said, Calley “started shooting them. Then he told me to start shooting them. . . . I started to shoot them, but the other guys wouldn’t do it. So we”—Meadlo and Calley—“went ahead and killed them.” Meadlo estimated that he had killed fifteen people in the circle. “We all were under orders,” he said. “We all thought we were doing the right thing. At the time it didn’t bother me.” There was official testimony showing that Meadlo had in fact been extremely distressed by Calley’s order. After being told by Calley to “take care of this group,” one Charlie Company soldier recounted, Meadlo and a fellow-soldier “were actually playing with the kids, telling the people where to sit down and giving the kids candy.” When Calley returned and said that he wanted them dead, the soldier said, “Meadlo just looked at him like he couldn’t believe it. He says, ‘Waste them?’ ” When Calley said yes, another soldier testified, Meadlo and Calley “opened up and started firing.” But then Meadlo “started to cry.”

Mike Wallace, of CBS, was interested in my interview, and Meadlo agreed to tell his story again, on national television. I spent the night before the show on a couch in the Meadlo home and flew to New York the next morning with Meadlo and his wife. There was time to talk, and I learned that Meadlo had spent weeks in recovery and rehabilitation at an Army hospital in Japan. Once he came home, he said nothing about his experiences in Vietnam. One night, shortly after his return, his wife woke up to hysterical crying in one of the children’s rooms. She rushed in and found Paul violently shaking the child.

I’d been tipped off about My Lai by Geoffrey Cowan, a young antiwar lawyer in Washington, D.C. Cowan had little specific information, but he’d heard that an unnamed G.I. had gone crazy and killed scores of Vietnamese civilians. Three years earlier, while I was covering the Pentagon for the Associated Press, I had been told by officers returning from the war about the killing of Vietnamese civilians that was going on. One day, while pursuing Cowan’s tip, I ran into a young Army colonel whom I’d known on the Pentagon beat. He had been wounded in the leg in Vietnam and, while recovering, learned that he was to be promoted to general. He now worked in an office that had day-to-day responsibility for the war. When I asked him what he knew about the unnamed G.I., he gave me a sharp, angry look, and began whacking his hand against his knee. “That boy Calley didn’t shoot anyone higher than this,” he said.

I had a name. In a local library, I found a brief story buried in the Times about a Lieutenant Calley who had been charged by the Army with the murder of an unspecified number of civilians in South Vietnam. I tracked down Calley, whom the Army had hidden away in senior officers’ quarters at Fort Benning, in Columbus, Georgia. By then, someone in the Army had allowed me to read and take notes from a classified charge sheet accusing Calley of the premeditated murder of a hundred and nine “Oriental human beings.”

Calley hardly seemed satanic. He was a slight, nervous man in his mid-twenties, with pale, almost translucent skin. He tried hard to seem tough. Over many beers, he told me how he and his soldiers had engaged and killed the enemy at My Lai in a fiercely contested firefight. We talked through the night. At one point, Calley excused himself, to go to the bathroom. He left the door partly open, and I could see that he was vomiting blood.

In November, 1969, I wrote five articles about Calley, Meadlo, and the massacre. I had gone to Life and Look with no success, so I turned instead to a small antiwar news agency in Washington, the Dispatch News Service. It was a time of growing anxiety and unrest. Richard Nixon had won the 1968 election by promising to end the war, but his real plan was to win it, through escalation and secret bombing. In 1969, as many as fifteen hundred American soldiers were being killed every month—almost the same as the year before.

Combat reporters such as Homer Bigart, Bernard Fall, David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Malcolm Browne, Frances FitzGerald, Gloria Emerson, Morley Safer, and Ward Just filed countless dispatches from the field that increasingly made plain that the war was morally groundless, strategically lost, and nothing like what the military and political officials were describing to the public in Saigon and in Washington. On November 15, 1969, two days after the publication of my first My Lai dispatch, an antiwar march in Washington drew half a million people. H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s most trusted aide, and his enforcer, took notes in the Oval Office that were made public eighteen years later. They revealed that on December 1, 1969, at the height of the outcry over Paul Meadlo’s revelations, Nixon approved the use of “dirty tricks” to discredit a key witness to the massacre. When, in 1971, an Army jury convicted Calley of mass murder and sentenced him to life at hard labor, Nixon intervened, ordering Calley to be released from an Army prison and placed under house arrest pending review. Calley was freed three months after Nixon left office and spent the ensuing years working in his father-in-law’s jewelry store, in Columbus, Georgia, and offering self-serving interviews to journalists willing to pay for them. Finally, in 2009, in a speech to a Kiwanis Club, he said that there “is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse” for My Lai, but that he was following orders—“foolishly, I guess.” Calley is now seventy-one. He is the only officer to have been convicted for his role in the My Lai massacre.

In March, 1970, an Army investigation filed charges ranging from murder to dereliction of duty against fourteen officers, including generals and colonels, who were accused of covering up the massacre. Only one officer besides Calley eventually faced court-martial, and he was found not guilty.

A couple of months later, at the height of widespread campus protests against the war—protests that included the killing of four students by National Guardsmen in Ohio—I went to Macalester College, in St. Paul, Minnesota, to give a speech against the war. Hubert Humphrey, who had been Lyndon Johnson’s loyal Vice-President, was now a professor of political science at the college. He had lost to Nixon, in the 1968 election, partly because he could not separate himself from L.B.J.’s Vietnam policy. After my speech, Humphrey asked to talk to me. “I’ve no problem with you, Mr. Hersh,” he said. “You were doing your job and you did it well. But, as for those kids who march around saying, ‘Hey, hey, L.B.J., how many kids did you kill today?’ ” Humphrey’s fleshy, round face reddened, and his voice grew louder with every phrase. “I say, ‘Fuck ’em, fuck ’em, fuck ’em.’ ”

I visited My Lai (as the hamlet was called by the U.S. Army) for the first time a few months ago, with my family. Returning to the scene of the crime is the stuff of cliché for reporters of a certain age, but I could not resist. I had sought permission from the South Vietnamese government in early 1970, but by then the Pentagon’s internal investigation was under way and the area was closed to outsiders. I joined the Times in 1972 and visited Hanoi, in North Vietnam. In 1980, five years after the fall of Saigon, I travelled again to Vietnam to conduct interviews for a book and to do more reporting for theTimes. I thought I knew all, or most, of what there was to learn about the massacre. Of course, I was wrong.

My Lai is in central Vietnam, not far from Highway 1, the road that connects Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, as Saigon is now known. Pham Thanh Cong, the director of the My Lai Museum, is a survivor of the massacre. When we first met, Cong, a stern, stocky man in his late fifties, said little about his personal experiences and stuck to stilted, familiar phrases. He described the Vietnamese as “a welcoming people,” and he avoided any note of accusation. “We forgive, but we do not forget,” he said. Later, as we sat on a bench outside the small museum, he described the massacre, as he remembered it. At the time, Cong was eleven years old. When American helicopters landed in the village, he said, he and his mother and four siblings huddled in a primitive bunker inside their thatch-roofed home. American soldiers ordered them out of the bunker and then pushed them back in, throwing a hand grenade in after them and firing their M-16s. Cong was wounded in three places—on his scalp, on the right side of his torso, and in the leg. He passed out. When he awoke, he found himself in a heap of corpses: his mother, his three sisters, and his six-year-old brother. The American soldiers must have assumed that Cong was dead, too. In the afternoon, when the American helicopters left, his father and a few other surviving villagers, who had come to bury the dead, found him.

hersh ditch

The ditch where Lieutenant Calley ordered the killing of dozens of civilians.PHOTOGRAPH BY KATIE ORLINSKY

(ADDED BY seekingspirt)

The Ditch at My Lai

March 16, 2010.
It is the 42nd anniversary of the
My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968.
When I went back to Vietnam in
March 1994, I took this picture of
the infamous ditch at the massacre site.
Over 150 innocent Vietnamese civilians
were herded into this ditch and shot at
point-blank range.
It took less than a minute for the locust of
bullets to take the lives of 150 people.
America was on a rampage.
You drain the swamp to kill all the fish.
You carpet bomb to kill everyone.
And while this ditch was filling up with
blood and body parts,
the rest of the U.S Government troops
were under orders to kill the other 350
civilians who were in the village that day.
A total of 504 innocent civilians were
slaughtered.
The U.S. Government troops were there
about four hours, long enough to commit
other unspeakable war crimes before people
were shot.
During the first stages of the massacre,
high ranking military officers were flying
overhead in helicopters directing the massacre.
         These people were never found guilty of war crimes. 

Mike Hastie
U.S. Army Medic
Vietnam 1970-71

Later, at lunch with my family and me, Cong said, “I will never forget the pain.” And in his job he can never leave it behind. Cong told me that a few years earlier a veteran named Kenneth Schiel, who had been at My Lai, had visited the museum—the only member of Charlie Company at that point to have done so—as a participant in an Al Jazeera television documentary marking the fortieth anniversary of the massacre. Schiel had enlisted in the Army after graduation from high school, in Swartz Creek, Michigan, a small town near Flint, and, after the subsequent investigations, he was charged with killing nine villagers. (The charges were dismissed.)

The documentary featured a conversation with Cong, who had been told that Schiel was a Vietnam veteran, but not that he had been at My Lai. In the video, Schiel tells an interviewer, “Did I shoot? I’ll say that I shot until I realized what was wrong. I’m not going to say whether I shot villagers or not.” He was even less forthcoming in a conversation with Cong, after it became clear that he had participated in the massacre. Schiel says repeatedly that he wants to “apologize to the people of My Lai,” but he refuses to go further. “I ask myself all the time why did this happen. I don’t know.”

Cong demands, “How did you feel when you shot into civilians and killed? Was it hard for you?” Schiel says that he wasn’t among the soldiers who were shooting groups of civilians. Cong responds, “So maybe you came to my house and killed my relatives.”

A transcript on file at the museum contains the rest of the conversation. Schiel says, “The only thing I can do now is just apologize for it.” Cong, who sounds increasingly distressed, continues to ask Schiel to talk openly about his crimes, and Schiel keeps saying, “Sorry, sorry.” When Cong asks Schiel whether he was able to eat a meal upon returning to his base, Schiel begins to cry. “Please don’t ask me any more questions,” he says. “I cannot stay calm.” Then Schiel asks Cong if he can join a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the massacre. Cong rebuffs him. “It would be too shameful,” he says, adding, “The local people will be very angry if they realize that you were the person who took part in the massacre.”

Before leaving the museum, I asked Cong why he had been so unyielding with Schiel. His face hardened. He said that he had no interest in easing the pain of a My Lai veteran who refused to own up fully to what he had done. Cong’s father, who worked for the Vietcong, lived with Cong after the massacre, but he was killed in action, in 1970, by an American combat unit. Cong went to live with relatives in a nearby village, helping them raise cattle. Finally, after the war, he was able to return to school.

There was more to learn from the comprehensive statistics that Cong and the museum staff had compiled. The names and ages of the dead are engraved on a marble plaque that dominates one of the exhibit rooms. The museum’s count, no longer in dispute, is five hundred and four victims, from two hundred and forty-seven families. Twenty-four families were obliterated—–three generations murdered, with no survivors. Among the dead were a hundred and eighty-two women, seventeen of them pregnant. A hundred and seventy-three children were executed, including fifty-six infants. Sixty older men died. The museum’s accounting included another important fact: the victims of the massacre that day were not only in My Lai (also known as My Lai 4) but also in a sister settlement known to the Americans as My Khe 4. This settlement, a mile or so to the east, on the South China Sea, was assaulted by another contingent of U.S. soldiers, Bravo Company. The museum lists four hundred and seven victims in My Lai 4 and ninety-seven in My Khe 4.

hersh at work
Hersh at work in North Vietnam, in 1972, three years after he broke the massacre story. COURTESY SEYMOUR M. HERSH

The message was clear: what happened at My Lai 4 was not singular, not an aberration; it was replicated, in lesser numbers, by Bravo Company. Bravo was attached to the same unit—Task Force Barker—as Charlie Company. The assaults were by far the most important operation carried out that day by any combat unit in the Americal Division, which Task Force Barker was attached to. The division’s senior leadership, including its commander, Major General Samuel Koster, flew in and out of the area throughout the day to check its progress.

There was an ugly context to this. By 1967, the war was going badly in the South Vietnamese provinces of Quang Ngai, Quang Nam, and Quang Tri, which were known for their independence from the government in Saigon, and their support for the Vietcong and North Vietnam. Quang Tri was one of the most heavily bombed provinces in the country. American warplanes drenched all three provinces with defoliating chemicals, including Agent Orange.

On my recent trip, I spent five days in Hanoi, which is the capital of unified Vietnam. Retired military officers and Communist Party officials there told me that the My Lai massacre, by bolstering antiwar dissent inside America, helped North Vietnam win the war. I was also told, again and again, that My Lai was unique only in its size. The most straightforward assessment came from Nguyen Thi Binh, known to everyone in Vietnam as Madame Binh. In the early seventies, she was the head of the National Liberation Front delegation at the Paris peace talks and became widely known for her willingness to speak bluntly and for her striking good looks. Madame Binh, who is eighty-seven, retired from public life in 2002, after serving two terms as Vietnam’s Vice-President, but she remains involved in war-related charities dealing with Agent Orange victims and the disabled.

“I’ll be honest with you,” she said. “My Lai became important in America only after it was reported by an American.” Within weeks of the massacre, a spokesman for the North Vietnamese in Paris had publicly described the events, but the story was assumed to be propaganda. “I remember it well, because the antiwar movement in America grew because of it,” Madame Binh added, speaking in French. “But in Vietnam there was not only one My Lai—there were many.”

One morning in Danang, a beach resort and port city of about a million people, I had coffee with Vo Cao Loi, one of the few survivors of Bravo Company’s attack at My Khe 4. He was fifteen at the time, Loi said, through an interpreter. His mother had what she called “a bad feeling” when she heard helicopters approaching the village. There had been operations in the area before. “It was not just like some Americans would show up all of a sudden,” he said. “Before they came, they often fired artillery and bombed the area, and then after all that they would send in the ground forces.” American and South Vietnamese Army units had moved through the area many times with no incident, but this time Loi was shooed out of the village by his mother moments before the attack. His two older brothers were fighting with the Vietcong, and one had been killed in combat six days earlier. “I think she was afraid because I was almost a grown boy and if I stayed I could be beaten up or forced to join the South Vietnamese Army. I went to the river, about fifty metres away. Close, close enough: I heard the fire and the screaming.” Loi stayed hidden until evening, when he returned home to bury his mother and other relatives.

Two days later, Vietcong troops took Loi to a headquarters in the mountains to the west. He was too young to fight, but he was brought before Vietcong combat units operating throughout Quang Ngai to describe what the Americans had done at My Khe. The goal was to inspire the guerrilla forces to fight harder. Loi eventually joined the Vietcong and served at the military command until the end of the war. American surveillance planes and troops were constantly searching for his unit. “We moved the headquarters every time we thought the Americans were getting close,” Loi told me. “Whoever worked in headquarters had to be absolutely loyal. There were three circles on the inside: the outer one was for suppliers, a second one was for those who worked in maintenance and logistics, and the inner one was for the commanders. Only division commanders could stay in the inner circle. When they did leave the headquarters, they would dress as normal soldiers, so one would never know. They went into nearby villages. There were cases when Americans killed our division officers, but they did not know who they were.” As with the U.S. Army, Loi said, Vietcong officers often motivated their soldiers by inflating the number of enemy combatants they had killed.

The massacres at My Lai and My Khe, terrible as they were, mobilized support for the war against the Americans, Loi said. Asked if he could understand why such war crimes were tolerated by the American command, Loi said he did not know, but he had a dark view of the quality of U.S. leadership in central Vietnam. “The American generals had to take responsibility for the actions of the soldiers,” he told me. “The soldiers take orders, and they were just doing their duty.”

Loi said that he still grieves for his family, and he has nightmares about the massacre. But, unlike Pham Thanh Cong, he found a surrogate family almost immediately: “The Vietcong loved me and took care of me. They raised me.” I told Loi about Cong’s anger at Kenneth Schiel, and Loi said, “Even if others do terrible things to you, you can forgive it and move toward the future.” After the war, Loi transferred to the regular Vietnamese Army. He eventually became a full colonel and retired after thirty-eight years of service. He and his wife now own a coffee shop in Danang.

Almost seventy per cent of the population of Vietnam is under the age of forty, and although the war remains an issue mainly for the older generations, American tourists are a boon to the economy. If American G.I.s committed atrocities, well, so did the French and the Chinese in other wars. Diplomatically, the U.S. is considered a friend, a potential ally against China. Thousands of Vietnamese who worked for or with the Americans during the Vietnam War fled to the United States in 1975. Some of their children have confounded their parents by returning to Communist Vietnam, despite its many ills, from rampant corruption to aggressive government censorship.

Nguyen Qui Duc, a fifty-seven-year-old writer and journalist who runs a popular bar and restaurant in Hanoi, fled to America in 1975 when he was seventeen. Thirty-one years later, he returned. In San Francisco, he was a prize-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker, but, as he told me, “I’d always wanted to come back and live in Vietnam. I felt unfinished leaving home at seventeen and living as someone else in the United States. I was grateful for the opportunities in America, but I needed a sense of community. I came to Hanoi for the first time as a reporter for National Public Radio, and fell in love with it.”

Duc told me that, like many Vietnamese, he had learned to accept the American brutality in the war. “American soldiers committed atrocious acts, but in war such things happen,” he said. “And it’s a fact that the Vietnamese cannot own up to their own acts of brutality in the war. We Vietnamese have a practical attitude: better forget a bad enemy if you can gain a needed friend.”

During the war, Duc’s father, Nguyen Van Dai, was a deputy governor in South Vietnam. He was seized by the Vietcong in 1968 and imprisoned until 1980. In 1984, Duc, with the help of an American diplomat, successfully petitioned the government to allow his parents to emigrate to California; Duc had not seen his father for sixteen years. He told me of his anxiety as he waited for him at the airport. His father had suffered terribly in isolation in a Communist prison near the Chinese border; he was often unable to move his limbs. Would he be in a wheelchair, or mentally unstable? Duc’s father arrived in California during a Democratic Presidential primary. He walked off the plane and greeted his son. “How’s Jesse Jackson doing?” he said. He found a job as a social worker and lived for sixteen more years.

Some American veterans of the war have returned to Vietnam to live. Chuck Palazzo grew up in a troubled family on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx and, after dropping out of high school, enlisted in the Marines. In the fall of 1970, after a year of training, he was assigned to an élite reconnaissance unit whose mission was to confirm intelligence and to ambush enemy missile sites and combat units at night. He and his men sometimes parachuted in under fire. “I was involved in a lot of intense combat with many North Vietnamese regulars as well as Vietcong, and I lost a lot of friends,” Palazzo told me over a drink in Danang, where he now lives and works. “But the gung ho left when I was still here. I started to read and understand the politics of the war, and one of my officers was privately agreeing with me that what we were doing there was wrong and senseless. The officer told me, ‘Watch your ass and get the hell out of here.’ ”

Palazzo first arrived in Danang in 1970, on a charter flight, and he could see coffins lined up on the field as the plane taxied in. “It was only then that I realized I was in a war,” he said. “Thirteen months later, I was standing in line, again at Danang, to get on the plane taking me home, but my name was not on the manifest.” After some scrambling, Palazzo said, “I was told that if I wanted to go home that day the only way out was to escort a group of coffins flying to America on a C-141 cargo plane.” So that’s what he did.

After leaving the Marines, Palazzo earned a college degree and began a career as an I.T. specialist. But, like many vets, he came “back to the world” with post-traumatic stress disorder and struggled with addictions. His marriage collapsed. He lost various jobs. In 2006, Palazzo made a “selfish” decision to return to Ho Chi Minh City. “It was all about me dealing with P.T.S.D. and confronting my own ghosts,” he said. “My first visit became a love affair with the Vietnamese.” Palazzo wanted to do all he could for the victims of Agent Orange. For years, the Veterans Administration, citing the uncertainty of evidence, refused to recognize a link between Agent Orange and the ailments, including cancers, of many who were exposed to it. “In the war, the company commander told us it was mosquito spray, but we could see that all the trees and vegetation were destroyed,” Palazzo said. “It occurred to me that, if American vets were getting something, some help and compensation, why not the Vietnamese?” Palazzo, who moved to Danang in 2007, is now an I.T. consultant and the leader of a local branch of Veterans for Peace, an American antiwar N.G.O. He remains active in the Agent Orange Action Group, which seeks international support to cope with the persistent effects of the defoliant.

In Hanoi, I met Chuck Searcy, a tall, gray-haired man of seventy who grew up in Georgia. Searcy’s father had been taken prisoner by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, and it never occurred to Searcy to avoid Vietnam. “I thought President Johnson and the Congress knew what we were doing in Vietnam,” he told me. In 1966, Searcy quit college and enlisted. He was an intelligence analyst, in a unit that was situated near the airport in Saigon, and which processed and evaluated American analyses and reports.

“Within three months, all the ideals I had as a patriotic Georgia boy were shattered, and I began to question who we were as a nation,” Searcy said. “The intelligence I was seeing amounted to a big intellectual lie.” The South Vietnamese clearly thought little of the intelligence the Americans were passing along. At one point, a colleague bought fish at a market in Saigon and noticed that it was wrapped in one of his unit’s classified reports. “By the time I left, in June of 1968,” Searcy said, “I was angry and bitter.”

Searcy finished his Army tour in Europe. His return home was a disaster. “My father heard me talk about the war and he was incredulous. Had I turned into a Communist? He said that he and my mother don’t ‘know who you are anymore. You’re not an American.’ Then they told me to get out.” Searcy went on to graduate from the University of Georgia, and edited a weekly newspaper in Athens, Georgia. He then began a career in politics and public policy that included working as an aide to Wyche Fowler, a Georgia Democratic congressman.

In 1992, Searcy returned to Vietnam and eventually decided to join the few other veterans who had moved there. “I knew, even as I was flying out of Vietnam in 1968, that someday, somehow, I would return, hopefully in a time of peace. I felt even back then that I was abandoning the Vietnamese to a terribly tragic fate, for which we Americans were mostly responsible. That sentiment never quite left me.” Searcy worked with a program that dealt with mine clearance. The U.S. dropped three times the number of bombs by weight in Vietnam as it had during the Second World War. Between the end of the war and 1998, more than a hundred thousand Vietnamese civilians, an estimated forty per cent of them children, had been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance. For more than two decades after the war, the U.S. refused to pay for damage done by bombs or by Agent Orange, though in 1996 the government began to provide modest funding for mine clearance. From 2001 to 2011, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund also helped finance the mine-clearance program. “A lot of veterans felt we should assume some responsibility,” Searcy said. The program helped educate Vietnamese, especially farmers and children, about the dangers posed by the unexploded weapons, and casualties have diminished.

Searcy said that his early disillusionment with the war was validated shortly before its end. His father called to ask if they could have coffee. They hadn’t spoken since he was ordered out of the house. “He and my mother had been talking,” Searcy said. “And he told me, ‘We think you were right and we were wrong. We want you to come home.’ ” He went home almost immediately, he said, and remained close to his parents until they died. Searcy is twice divorced, and wrote, in a self-deprecating e-mail, “I have resisted the kind efforts of the Vietnamese to get me married off again.”

There was more to learn in Vietnam. By early 1969, most of the members of Charlie Company were back home in America or reassigned to other combat units. The coverup was working. By then, however, a courageous Army veteran named Ronald Ridenhour had written a detailed letter about the “dark and bloody” massacre and mailed copies of it to thirty government officials and members of Congress. Within weeks, the letter found its way to the American military headquarters in Vietnam.

On my recent visit to Hanoi, a government official asked me to pay a courtesy call at the provincial offices in the city of Quang Ngai before driving the few miles to My Lai. There I was presented with a newly published guidebook to the province, which included a detailed description of another purported American massacre during the war, in the hamlet of Truong Le, outside Quang Ngai. According to the report, an Army platoon on a search-and-destroy operation arrived at Truong Le at seven in the morning on April 18, 1969, a little more than a year after My Lai. The soldiers pulled women and children out of their houses and then torched the village. Three hours later, the report alleges, the soldiers returned to Truong Le and killed forty-one children and twenty-two women, leaving only nine survivors.

Little, it seemed, had changed in the aftermath of My Lai.

In 1998, a few weeks before the thirtieth anniversary of the My Lai massacre, a retired Pentagon official, W. Donald Stewart, gave me a copy of an unpublished report from August, 1967, showing that most American troops in South Vietnam did not understand their responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions. Stewart was then the chief of the investigations division of the Directorate of Inspection Services, at the Pentagon. His report, which involved months of travel and hundreds of interviews, was prepared at the request of Robert McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Stewart’s report said that many of the soldiers interviewed “felt they were at liberty to substitute their own judgment for the clear provisions of the Conventions. . . . It was primarily the young and inexperienced troops who stated they would maltreat or kill prisoners, despite having just received instructions” on international law.

McNamara left the Pentagon in February, 1968, and the report was never released. Stewart later told me that he understood why the report was suppressed: “People were sending their eighteen-year-olds over there, and we didn’t want them to find out that they were cutting off ears. I came back from South Vietnam thinking that things were out of control. . . . I understood Calley—very much so.”

It turns out that Robert McNamara did, too. I knew nothing of the Stewart study while I was reporting on My Lai in late 1969, but I did learn that McNamara had been put on notice years earlier about the bloody abuses in central Vietnam. After the first of my My Lai stories was published, Jonathan Schell, a young writer for The New Yorker,who in 1968 had published a devastating account for the magazine of the incessant bombing in Quang Ngai and a nearby province, called me. (Schell died last year.) His article—which later became a book, “The Military Half”—demonstrated, in essence, that the U.S. military, convinced that the Vietcong were entrenched in central Vietnam and attracting serious support, made little distinction between combatants and noncombatants in the area that included My Lai.

Schell had returned from South Vietnam, in 1967, devastated by what he had seen. He came from an eminent New York family, and his father, a Wall Street attorney and a patron of the arts, was a neighbor, in Martha’s Vineyard, of Jerome Wiesner, the former science adviser to President John F. Kennedy. Wiesner, then the provost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was also involved with McNamara in a project to build an electronic barrier that would prevent the North Vietnamese from sending matériel south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (The barrier was never completed.) Schell told Wiesner what he had seen in Vietnam, and Wiesner, who shared his dismay, arranged for him to talk with McNamara.

Soon afterward, Schell discussed his observations with McNamara, in Washington. Schell told me that he was uncomfortable about giving the government a report before writing his article, but he felt that it had to be done. McNamara agreed that their meeting would remain secret, and he said that he would do nothing to impede Schell’s work. He also provided Schell with an office in the Pentagon where he could dictate his notes. Two copies were made, and McNamara said that he would use his set to begin an inquiry into the abuses that Schell had described.

Schell’s story was published early the next year. He heard nothing more from McNamara, and there was no public sign of any change in policy. Then came my articles on My Lai, and Schell called McNamara, who had since left the Pentagon to become president of the World Bank. He reminded him that he had left him a detailed accounting of atrocities in the My Lai area. Now, Schell told me, he thought it was important to write about their meeting. McNamara said that they had agreed it was off the record and insisted that Schell honor the commitment. Schell asked me for advice. I wanted him to do the story, of course, but told him that if he really had made an off-the-record pact with McNamara he had no choice but to honor it.

Schell kept his word. In a memorial essay on McNamara in The Nation, in 2009, he described his visit to McNamara but did not mention their extraordinary agreement. Fifteen years after the meeting, Schell wrote, he learned from Neil Sheehan, the brilliant war reporter for the Associated Press, the Times and The New Yorker, and the author of “A Bright Shining Lie,” that McNamara had sent Schell’s notes to Ellsworth Bunker, the American Ambassador in Saigon. Apparently unknown to McNamara, the goal in Saigon was not to investigate Schell’s allegations but to discredit his reporting and do everything possible to prevent publication of the material.

A few months after my newspaper articles appeared, Harper’s published an excerpt from a book I’d been writing, to be titled “My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath.” The excerpt provided a far more detailed account of what had happened, emphasizing how the soldiers in Lieutenant Calley’s company had become brutalized in the months leading up to the massacre. McNamara’s twenty-year-old son, Craig, who opposed the war, called me and said that he had left a copy of the magazine in his father’s sitting room. He later found it in the fireplace. After McNamara left public life, he campaigned against nuclear arms and tried to win absolution for his role in the Vietnam War. He acknowledged in a 1995 memoir, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,” that the war had been a “disaster,” but he rarely expressed regrets about the damage that was done to the Vietnamese people and to American soldiers like Paul Meadlo. “I’m very proud of my accomplishments, and I’m very sorry that in the process of accomplishing things I’ve made errors,” he told the filmmaker Errol Morris in “The Fog of War,” a documentary released in 2003.

Declassified documents from McNamara’s years in the Pentagon reveal that McNamara repeatedly expressed skepticism about the war in his private reports to President Johnson. But he never articulated any doubt or pessimism in public. Craig McNamara told me that on his deathbed his father “said he felt that God had abandoned him.” The tragedy was not only his. 

seymourmhersh

Seymour M. Hersh wrote his first piece for The New Yorker in 1971 and has been a regular contributor to the magazine since 1993.

NOV 11, 2014

World War I Battlefields, 100 Years Later

Fields of Battle—Lands of Peace 14-18 is the work of photojournalist Michael St Maur Sheil. Captured over a period of seven years, Michael’s photography combines a passion for history and landscape and presents a unique reflection on the transformation of the battlefields of the Great War into the landscape of modern Europe. Michael remarks:

“This collection represents a legacy which I hope will create a gateway to the battlefields themselves, thus encouraging people to visit these historic landscapes during the centennial period and so create awareness and understanding of the events and historical implications of the First World War”

From August 2014 to November 2018, sixty powerful images will be publicly exhibited around the UK and then internationally; bringing the centenary of the Great War to tens of millions of people in their own communities 24 hours a day. You can find more information on the amazing exhibition at fieldsofbattle1418.org.

 

1. Newfoundland Memorial Park
Beaumont-Hamel, France

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Photograph by MICHAEL ST MAUR SHEIL
Website | Exhibition | Facebook | Prints

The landscape of the Newfoundland Memorial Park, in Beaumont Hamel, with trenches, shell crater and wire pickets. Part of the Somme battlefield, the battle began on 1 July 1916 and ended in a muddy quagmire in mid-November; the Allies having advanced only five miles (8km). The Newfoundland Regiment, nearly 800 men, was virtually wiped out on the first day.

2. Ouvrage du Thiamont Battlefield
Verdun, France

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Photograph by MICHAEL ST MAUR SHEIL
Website | Exhibition | Facebook | Prints

The pockmarked landscape of the Ouvrage du Thiamont battlefield close to Verdun, still bearing the testimony of the savage ferocity of the fighting. In recent years Verdun has become a symbol of reconciliation between Germany and France – a fitting recognition that during the 10 month battle the opposing sides suffered over 700,000 casualties in total. This was indeed a “war within a war”

3. Lochnagar Crater
Somme, France

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Photograph by MICHAEL ST MAUR SHEIL
Website | Exhibition | Facebook | Prints

Lochnagar Crater is one of the iconic remnants of the Somme battlefield and just as in the war, one can really only appreciate its true scale from the air. Created by British tunnellers who dug a 600 m (0.37 miles) tunnel to reach a point under the German lines where they then placed 50,000 lbs of high explosive which was detonated at 0728 on the 1st July 1916 creating a hole over 90 m wide (295 ft) and 30 m deep (98.4 ft).

4. Butte de Vauquois
Argonne, France

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Photograph by MICHAEL ST MAUR SHEIL
Website | Exhibition | Facebook | Prints

The Butte itself is a steep-sided hill which was the site of a village which was captured by the Germans in September 1914. Subsequently the French gained a foot-hold on the summit and both sides began a campaign of mining which lasted until February 1918. The furious mining and counter mining blew away the entire hill-top and today the small village lies at the foot of the hill.

Underground there are approximately 17,000 metres of galleries, the deepest of which is 104 m, and over 150 chambers and rooms. One of the mines planted here contained over 60 tons of high explosive and was the largest single mine explosion on the Western Front. The photograph above clearly shows the nature of the fighting: the curving line in the bottom centre of the frame is the German front line and the white edifice above that marks the French front line which at this point is about 40 metres distant.

5. St Symphorien Cemetery
Hainaut, Belgium

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Photograph by MICHAEL ST MAUR SHEIL
Website | Exhibition | Facebook | Prints

Established by the Germans after the battle of Mons in August 1914 is contains both their own dead as well of those of their British adversaries. Indeed the first British soldier to be killed in combat, Pvt. John Parr is buried here and by an odd quirk of fate the last two Commonwealth soldiers to be killed in the war are buried here.

This cemetery embraces so much of the 1st World War: the first and the last, former adversaries lying side by side in what was originally a potash mine but which is now a cemetery of real beauty and tranquillity. In all truth here can be no beauty about death in war but here in this cemetery one is hard put to think of other words other than “beauty” and “tranquility”.

6. View from Cavernes des Dragons southwards
over La Vallee Foulon towards French positions

world war i battlefields 100 years later michael st maur sheil (2)

Photograph by MICHAEL ST MAUR SHEIL
Website | Exhibition | Facebook | Prints

“This photograph is really in honour of the man who helped create this whole project, the late Prof Richard Holmes. When i first showed him this picture he went rather silent and I thought he did not like the shot. However the next day he wrote me the following e-mail:”

I think that this is perhaps my favourite view of the Western Front … as one stands there one cannot but be humbled by the spirit and endurance required of the soldier in battle. You cannot really understand a battle without viewing the ground on which it was fought. Part of the process is intellectual: to see how ridges provided fields of fire and woods offered cover. But, part of it, too, is emotional. This landscape was once peopled by soldiers, embedded deep in the seams of the soil. All those elements are to be found in this landscape. When I look at it my throat tightens as I think of the brave spirits who died fighting on these slopes. Here is the story of war, the essence of which we are seeking to tell.

Haunting images reveal the scarred landscapes of First World War battlefields 100 years on

Molleville Farm was a key position in the German defences on the Heights of Meuse on the right wing of the American attack at Meuse-Argonne

Picture: Michael St Maur Sheil/Mary Evans Picture Library/Caters News

 

 

Dirty Wars: Jeremy Scahill and Rick Rowley’s New Film Exposes Hidden Truths of Covert U.S. Warfare 

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I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory