Library Project Helps Heal Past Wounds
by Larry Goldsmith
Approximately a mile and a half from the site of the most infamous massacre committed by U.S. military servicemen, an American-built public library will soon serve the descendents of the massacre’s victims.
On March 16, 1968, U.S. Army soldiers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division, led by 2nd Lt. William Calley, killed 504 unarmed civilians, mostly women, children, infants and elderly. The incident took place in My Lai and My Khe hamlets of Son My Village, Son Tinh District, on the coast of the South China Sea.
Lt. Calley was convicted of 22 counts of murder and received a life sentence, but served only three and a half years under house arrest. Three U.S. servicemen who tried to halt the massacre and protect the wounded were initially denounced as traitors by several U.S. congressmen, but were later recognized as the heroes of the incident.
The My Lai Library is on the grounds of Son My High School, a quiet tree-shaded campus of two-story buildings that serves approximately 1,200 students. On a break, uniformed students congregate as teachers, mostly women in traditional ao dai dress, walk to their next classes.
The library is sandwiched between two crumbling buildings that will be demolished as part of the final construction phase. The library itself is virtually complete, and school administrators are anxious to receive the keys to the new facility.
The project was welcomed by local officials, according to Francis “Chuck” Theusch, founder of the Library of Vietnam Project, the American nonprofit organization that is funding the library.
“Our first meeting was in January of 2010. It actually caused a little bit of an argument, because both the Son Tinh District and the high school wanted the library,” Theusch said. “Obviously, they really wanted it if they were willing to argue about it,” he said. Eventually, Nguyen Van Tap, deputy director of the Quang Ngai Department of Foreign Affairs, was brought in to mediate the dispute. The decision finally swung in the high school’s favor because of a policy directive from the Vietnamese government.
“It’s kind of an unfunded mandate. For a high school to reach a certain level, it has to include a library and there was hard cash available from the Ministry of Education to help build it,” Theusch said.
“We have always worked in fertile ground because the Vietnamese people are in love with education. Now, with this directive, our role is even more important.”
The Library of Vietnam Project has completed 23 other libraries throughout Vietnam and has additional projects in neighboring Laos and Cambodia.
The project’s budget is approximately $50,000, of which $22,500 is needed to finish.
“It really should be done now,” Theusch said. “They’ll wrap it up in a month when they finish the demolition. The local contractor has done a fantastic job and financed part of the cost himself so we need to finish our own fundraising to meet our commitment.”
In many ways, the project is symbolized by the relationship between Theusch, who served as an infantryman at a firebase near the massacre site in 1969, and Tran Thi Anh Thu, now a Vietnamese Army major, who grew up in Son My and whose family members were killed in the massacre. When Theusch returned to Vietnam in 1999 and visited the massacre museum where she worked, their initial meeting was not pleasant.
“She told me she hated all Americans,” Theusch said.
However, she and Theusch developed a correspondence and met again during his later visits. She also learned that her aunt had been saved when U.S. personnel airlifted her to a hospital for treatment.
“After what had happened, they expected her to be killed, but she was returned to them in good health. That one good deed has traveled far. It helped us 30 years later,” Theusch said.
Deputy Director Tap called Major Thu, who is now stationed at the National Military Museum in Hanoi, for advice on the project. She convinced him that the Library Project was a legitimate partner that would follow through on its promises.
“It’s so fitting that so many people from both sides of the war can come together to make this project a reality,” Theusch said. “In the end, the children will be the ones who benefit. That’s the legacy we all want to leave.”