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The Shadow of My Lai

   A witness for the prosecution reported some gruesome events, implicating Adam’s father, Warrant Officer Brian Bailey, in the killing of civilians. Other members of the 1st Platoon testified to the contrary, praising Bailey for saving men, women, and children from being slaughtered. Adam had shed no tears at his father’s funeral. A memory surfaced, of that cave in Kentucky … Mammoth Cave, that’s the one … sitting on his father’s broad shoulders, five years old, over that bottomless pit…. Adam dispelled the sudden memory, and the emotion it threatened to expose. Instead he wrestled, as the inquisitive journalist he was, with the conflicting reports. Driving home from his father’s funeral, although the sun shone bright, that shadow of forty-six years ago reached out from two hamlets on the South Central Coast of the South China Sea and gripped and darkened Adam’s heart.

   On March 16, 1968, ravaged by booby traps, a stubborn enemy, a sweltering climate, the men of Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, Americal Division, clashed with the Vietnamese village of My Lai. Adam’s extensive research disclosed his father’s dichotomy, and to tell his father’s story is to give two accounts of the events:

 

    The H-23 Observation Chopper descends for a landing in the village of My Lai, Vietnam. Brian Bailey, a vigorous young man, pilots the ship. His crew chief and door gunner are also on board. Brian lands the helicopter, unstraps his seatbelt, and climbs out. The motor is still running, and there is a blast of downwash from the rotors. A husky sergeant walks over.

    “Brian Bailey, reconnaissance pilot with the 123rd Aviation Battalion, sir,” shouts Brian, over the noise of the motor. “You have wounded civilians at the ditch.”

    “Wounded civilians?” asks the sergeant, unable to hear or unwilling to care.

    “Yes, sir. We need to help them,” says Brian.

    “Help them?” answers the sergeant with a quizzical expression. “Just one way to do that – put ‘em out of their misery.”

    A group of infantrymen are relaxing nearby, some sitting and smoking cigarettes and others observing Brian. An infantry officer leaves his platoon and walks over to Brian and the sergeant.

    “Sir, you have wounded at the ditch,” says Brian to the infantry officer.

    The officer faces the sergeant. “What’s he talking about, sergeant?”

    “Prisoners, sir. Wounded – ”

    “On the eastern side of the village,” interrupts Brian. “People are wounded, alive – they need help.”

    “Listen soldier, I’m in charge – ” begins the officer.

    “They look like civilians, sir,” explains Brian.

    “I’m the boss here. I’m in charge of the ground troops. Now get that goddamned chopper outta here!” barks the infantry officer, roused and gasping with rage.

    Brian rips his pilot’s helmet off and stares defiantly at the infantry officer. “I don’t like what I see, lieutenant.”

    “I don’t care, soldier. Get that fuckin’ thing outta here – now!”

    Brian storms back to the helicopter, jams his helmet on, and climbs on board. The sergeant and the infantry officer watch as the ship ascends.

    Airborne, Brian sits in the small plexiglass cockpit and scans the landscape. Dozens of cadavers fill an irrigation ditch below.

    “Make another pass. I saw something moving,” shouts the crew chief.

    Brian takes notice; signs of life, there at the irrigation ditch. He lands near the ditch, and steps out accompanied by his crew chief. The door gunner covers them with a machine gun.

    From the edge of the ditch they see dead bodies piled upon each other, drenched in blood and filth. The crew chief waits at the edge of the ditch as Brian eases his way down and maneuvers among the cadavers.

    A boy covered in blood, aged about five, struggles to sit up. He looks at Brian with his legs trapped beneath the dead.

    Brian moves some cadavers to free the child. He hands the boy to the crew chief waiting above.

    They climb into the waiting chopper. Brian puts on his helmet at the cockpit. His crew chief cradles the child. The door gunner is clearly upset.

    “C’mon, let’s go. This shit makes me sick,” says the door gunner.

    Brian turns to the crew chief. “Someone’s gonna hear about this. The bastards are executing civilians, just like the fucking Nazis!” He looks to his control panel, and back to the crew chief. “We can fly to the hospital at Quang Ngai. We still got enough fuel.”

    The H-23 Observation Chopper rises high and flies away.

The American public learned of the atrocities at My Lai in 1969, from a story published by journalist Seymour Hersh. Members of Charlie Company, who had been there, praised Brian Bailey for saving lives. His crew chief and door gunner were killed in combat before they could testify. However, according to some eyewitness reports, Bailey participated in the killing of civilians:

 

    Airborne, Brian sits in the small plexiglass cockpit and scans the landscape. Dozens of cadavers fill an irrigation ditch below.

    “Make another pass. I saw something moving,” shouts the crew chief.

    Brian puts the observation chopper into a hover, just a few feet from the ground, over the ditch.

    “A child. He’s alive,” says the crew chief.

    Brian merely stares down at the child, the chopper still fixed in a hover. The child stares blankly at the chopper, his head raised to the sky.

    “We’ve got to land,” says the crew chief.

    Brian turns to his crew chief and returns his gaze to the child below. He says nothing, gains altitude, and flies away.

    The crew chief and door gunner exchange puzzled glances. The crew chief shakes his head at the door gunner. Both men turn toward their captain.

    Brian makes headway offering no explanation. Then, abruptly, Brian turns his ship around. He descends and hovers low. He can see the child watching, inside the irrigation ditch, his legs still trapped by the cadavers.

    “A clean shot,” Brian shouts at the door gunner.

    “What?” asks the gunner.

    “You heard me. Clean shot.”

    “We can fly him outta here,” says the crew chief, “to the hospital at Quang Ngai.”

    Brian doesn’t listen. “Finish it, soldier,” he orders the gunner.

    “No fuckin’ way! I ain’t shootin’ no kid,” answers the gunner.

    Brian begins a descent and lands. With the motor still running, he leaves his seat and lunges at the door gunner. He pushes the reluctant gunner aside and takes hold of the machine gun.

    The child watches innocently, raises an arm and points a finger at Brian. From behind the machine gun, Brian stares back with a pained expression. He pulls the trigger. A barrage of bullets erupt, cracking like thunder, unleashed and inexorable, bullet shells dropping and ricocheting from the ship’s metallic interior.

 

    Almost home and that hidden memory surfaced again, and this time Adam welcomed it and explored it, as he had done with Mammoth Cave and its shadowy passages as a child when his father was stationed at the Fort Knox Military Base in Kentucky. During a visit to Mammoth Cave, Brian Bailey lifted his son, from the edge of a bottomless pit no less, to sit him on his shoulders. Adam begged his father to hold him, afraid of falling, hanging from that dizzying height, into that vast and yawning emptiness. Yet his father held him, faithfully, steady on his strong shoulders, and never let him fall into the abyss.

   Adam’s eyes clouded with tears. He felt the shocking absence of his father. The man was bigger than life with his vitality and taste for adventure, and his anger and regrets and dark moods; such loud things ending at a deafening silence.   

    Concerning his remains, Brian Bailey said he wanted to be “purified by fire,” and his ashes scattered into the Tra Khuc River in Vietnam. A winding river of tears, carrying his remains past the corpses in the irrigation ditches, past burning settlements, past dirt roads littered with the fleeting and the dead, past the lamentations of that wretched war, and finally trickling to the mouth of the Tra Khuc River, tasting the salt of the South China Sea.

 

Anselmo Alliegro gained a scholarship and took writing courses at the New School University in New York City. He is a writer and artist, and has contributed to literary journals such as Mo: Writings From the River, spring 2007, volume 2, issue 1; The William and Mary Review, spring 2005, volume 43; and Paumanok Review, summer 2004, among others. He is currently working on short stories and research for a novel.