Carson resident has eerie ties to My Lai massacre in Vietnam
For the Nevada Appeal
Editor’s note: Ron Bliss of Carson City served a tour of duty as an Army captain in Vietnam from late 1971 through late 1972. The following are his belated ties to the My Lai massacre that occurred 50 years ago this month, March 16, 1968, in Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam.
Sometimes you don’t choose a story. It chooses you. That’s how I felt after a series of amazing coincidences — all related to the My Lai massacre in Quang Ngai Province Vietnam on March 16, 1968.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of that tragedy.
When I arrived in Vietnam as a U.S. Army captain in December 1971, I purchased a book on the My Lai massacre. I put it aside, but pulled it several weeks later after flying from Quang Ngai City to DaNang, Vietnam, to meet with higher-ups at the White Elephant in DaNang.
We flew on a twin-engine Air America plane, provided by the CIA, that departed from the airport in Quang Ngai. On that trip, the pilot of the plane pointed out to me My Lai hamlet had been relocated from the north side of the Quang Ngai River to the south side after the massacre.
It was only then I realized I was stationed just eight miles from My Lai hamlet. It gave me chills.
When I returned to Quang Ngai that evening, I pulled out the book and saw Lt. William Calley walking into MY office in Quang Ngai.
Later, in September 1972, as Salacious Claims officer for my unit, I was asked to pay a claim by a family from My Lai whose son had been struck and killed by a jeep driven by Capt. Ernest Medina — Calley’s company commander — just two weeks before the massacre.
I went out in public to pay the claim on the streets of Quang Ngai City. Fortunately, it was without incident. My thought, however, was if someone wanted retribution for what happened at My Lai, here I was — though I wasn’t directly involved. They accepted the payment for their son’s life: 10,000 piasters, the equivalent of 37 U.S. dollars.
For those unfamiliar with the story, a platoon of soldiers led by Calley — the platoon leader — shot and killed more than 200 Vietnamese residents of My Lai in cold blood. The massacre continued that day until a warrant officer — Hugh Thompson — landed his helicopter between Calley’s men and a group of Vietnamese who were to be their next target. He called higher headquarters and got Calley and his men to cease and desist.
Later, while working for Liberty National Insurance in East Tennessee in 2009, I met with a former Army sergeant in Elizabethton, Tenn. As former veterans of the Vietnam War often did, we exchanged war stories. I was shocked to find out he had a tie to My Lai, as well.
“I was the driver for the Lieutenant Colonel who tried Capt. Medina for that very incident (killing the 10-year-old boy),” he told me, adding: “They found him innocent.”
I later learned Vietnamese children often were sent to throw grenades at U.S. Army jeeps and what Medina did, as brutal as it was, was considered self-defense.
The coincidence was eerie enough, but later I happened to talk by phone to a girl from New York who had lost her husband in Quang Ngai Province in Vietnam just days before the My Lai incident.
He was a member of the American Division Calley and his men were part of.
Later, I moved to Nevada to be near my mother, stepdad and siblings, who all lived in the Dayton area. While selling insurance for Sterling Insurance out of Reno, I called on another former Army sergeant in Dayton.
I told him my stories and he shocked me by saying: “I was there that day.”
“Were you part of Calley’s unit?” I asked. He said: “No, I was part of the helicopter unit that took Calley and his men to My Lai that day.
“People think that all the casualties that day were from Calley and his men lining up and shooting people, but we strafed and rocketed the village to soften it up before dropping off Calley and his men, and some of the people were killed that way.”
My Lai was considered a Viet Cong stronghold and Medina reportedly told Calley “go in and kill them all. They are all VC (Viet Cong).”
In doing research, I had learned the American unit was frustrated from losing buddies to snipers and booby traps from an unseen enemy and their frustration boiled over that day.
The retired sergeant told me after dropping off Calley and his men at the landing zone, they heard gunfire on the ground and they radioed to ask Calley if he needed additional air support.
Calley’s reply: “No, we’re just shooting a few cows.”
This was done to deny the VC a food source.
Later that day, the sergeant and other members of his helicopter unit went back to My Lai to ferry Calley and his men back to their base camp.
The story about the massacre didn’t come out for another year, but then two years after the incident the sergeant said he and his fellow helicopter crew members were detained by the CIA and debriefed as to what they saw that day.
Later, 14 U.S. Army officers were charged — including Medina and Calley. Only Calley was convicted. He was personally found guilty of killing 22 people and was sentenced to life imprisonment. However, upon appeal, his sentence was first reduced to 20 years and eventually 10. He was paroled in 1974 after serving only one-third of his sentence.
He claimed he was simply following orders.
Fortunately in my 11 months and 21 days in Vietnam, I never had to fire my weapon in self defense. We weren’t attacked and I later learned there was an agreement to minimize U.S. casualties while the Paris Peace Talks were ongoing.
We lost just one soldier during my time in Quang Ngai.
My memories of Vietnam will never leave me. I’m just happy I made it back without incident and am left to give some insight into what happened at My Lai through the help of some unexpected witnesses I happened to meet.