In the fall of 1969, Gary Bray landed in South Vietnam as a recently married, freshly minted second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. His assignment was not enviable: leading the platoon whose former members had committed the My Lai massacre—the murder of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians—eighteen months earlier. In this compelling memoir, he shares his experiences of Vietnam in the direct wake of that terrible event.
After My Lai documents the war’s horrific effects on both sides of the struggle. Bray presents the Vietnam conflict as the touchstone of a generation, telling how his feelings about being a soldier—a family tradition—were dramatically altered by the events he participated in and witnessed. He explains how young men, angered by the deaths of comrades and with no release for their frustration, can sometimes cross the line of legal and ethical behavior.
Bray’s account differs from many Vietnam memoirs in his vivid descriptions of platoon-level tactical operations. As he builds suspense in moment-by-moment depictions of men plunging into jungle gloom and tragedy, he demonstrates that what led to My Lai is easier to comprehend once you’ve walked the booby-trapped ground yourself. An intensely personal story, gracefully rendered yet brutally honest, After My Lai reveals how warfare changes you forever.
|Publisher:||University of Oklahoma Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Gary W. Bray is a retired business owner who lives in Stigler, Oklahoma. While serving in Vietnam, he was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
Read an Excerpt
After My Lai
My Year Commanding First Platoon, Charlie Company
By Gary W. Bray
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Growing Up in Eastern Oklahoma
In 1956, I was seven years old, and I couldn't have been happier. My family lived on an eighty-acre farm in the forest-covered hills of eastern Oklahoma. Although I didn't know it at the time, the land wasn't good for farming. The acreage was situated on the north-facing slope of a large sandstone ridge. Over the eons, rain and wind had eroded most of the soil into nearby creeks and tributaries to be carried away and deposited in the Arkansas River's rich fertile delta valley. What remained was the poor, sandy, rocky soil that my father tried to farm with his antiquated horse-drawn equipment. Scrub oak and underbrush covered half the farm. On the other half he tried to raise peanuts, cotton, and sugarcane.
For me, it was the most delightful place on earth. I spent countless hours roaming through the thickets and brambles searching for targets for my slingshot, which I had made from the red rubber of an old tire tube. In the spring when my father plowed the fields with his team of horses, I followed behind, walking barefoot down the damp furrows of dirt and carrying an old rusty tin can to fill with worms for a fishing trip to the pond. My dog, Butch, a black-and-white beagle my mother despised for sleeping in her flowerbed, tagged along behind me. Whenever my father exposed a mole with his plow, I tossed the can of worms aside, and Butch and I chased it across the freshly turned earth.
My father was a quiet man. Born and raised less than a mile from our farm, his family had settled in eastern Oklahoma in the 1870s when the area was Indian Territory. Like many boys, he grew up helping his father on the family farm, and like many young men of his generation, he served his country in World War II. He had trained to invade Japan when America dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead, he went there as part of the occupation forces.
When he came back to the States, he met my mother at a dance, and they were married a few months later. She was a tall, pretty brunette with a lively personality, the opposite of my father. While he was quiet and reserved, she was outgoing, forever with a smile on her face. She delighted in raising a large garden behind our simple fourroom home built of rough sawn lumber. On the rare occasion when Butch and I chased down a cottontail rabbit and proudly carried it back to the house, she would smile at me and say, "Maybe he's not such a bad dog. At least that's one less rabbit that will eat my garden."
Sunday was my favorite day of the week. That was the day when we loaded up in our old car to visit my aunts and uncles. I was especially excited when we traveled down the three miles of bumpy, dusty dirt road that led to my uncle Olen's farm.
Uncle Olen and his family lived next to Emachaya Creek, a muddy little stream barely twenty feet wide. During periods of little rain it was reduced to mere pools of standing, moss-covered water. Uncle Olen had two boys about my age, and to us, Emachaya Creek was the Mississippi River. We would dig a large can of worms out from under my cousins' rabbit pens, grab cane poles, and head out to one of the pools of water to catch perch or mud catfish. When we grew tired of fishing, we turned rocks over in the shallow water, looking for crawdads, or battled up and down the creek banks in a mock war. As much fun as the fishing and playing were, I had another more important reason for wanting to go to Uncle Olen's farm.
One Sunday, as we stood in the creek skipping flat rocks across the long pool of water, I looked up the hill at my uncle's house and saw him, Aunt Sis, and my parents sitting on the back porch.
"Can we go now?" I asked one of my cousins.
He looked toward the house. "I guess, but we'll have to hurry or they'll catch us again," he said as we started up the hill. "We can pretend like we need a drink of water."
"Where are you boys going?" Aunt Sis asked as we opened the wooden screen door that led into the kitchen.
"We need a drink of water," I lied.
"Wipe your feet before you go in," she said, turning back to her conversation with my mother.
We walked past the wooden bucket of well water sitting on the kitchen cabinet and quietly made our way to the bedroom. I glanced at my uncle's guns hanging on a wall rack above the bed, but they weren't the reason we sneaked into his bedroom. We made our way to the dresser in the corner.
"Be careful and don't let it squeak when you open it," I whispered to my cousin. Once before, my aunt had heard the squeaky drawer and caught us.
He gently lifted the drawer and pulled it out. I stood on tiptoes to peer over the edge. Inside, beneath my uncle's neatly folded shirts, lay three leather-bound cases. My cousin reached in and lifted one of the cases.
"No, not that one," I whispered. "The one in the middle."
He placed the case back in the drawer and picked up the middle one. He gently opened the lid and handed the case to me.
The object I desired to see hung on a bright purple ribbon trimmed in white. The gold that lined the heart-shaped medal sparkled in the sunlight that shone through the bedroom window. I held the case for a long moment, staring at the golden image of the man in the heart's center. It was the most impressive sight a young boy could ever behold: the Purple Heart. I knew what it was and why my uncle Olen had it.
One day that summer he had come to our farm to help us gather our peanut crop. As we worked in the heat of the mid-afternoon sun, stacking peanuts around wooden poles to dry, my uncle pulled off his shirt. I worked nearby, and each time I met him at the pole with a load of peanuts, I stared at his chest. Finally, my curiosity got the best of me.
"What are those?" I asked, pointing to a row of round, deep, purple scars across his chest and shoulder.
He placed his finger on one of the purple indentations and grinned at me. "Ah, some German woman got mad at me during the war and shot me." He continued picking up peanut vines.
I worked a while longer and again met him at the pole. "Did it hurt?" I asked.
Again he grinned at me. "About like a yellow jacket sting," he said.
I wanted to ask more questions, but before I could say more, he said, "Ain't nothing for a little boy to worry about," and went back to work.
That night I asked my father how Uncle Olen had gotten shot. He told me Uncle Olen had been with a lot of soldiers in World War II at a place called Normandy Beach. Two days after they landed there, he was laying communication wire through the hedgerows when a female German soldier shot him several times with a machine gun. He spent many months in an army hospital and several years healing from the effects of his wounds.
When I asked my father what had happened to the German soldier, he said Uncle Olen's friends killed her. I wanted to know more, but he told me I was too young. "Wait until you are older," he said.
Aunt Sis called from the back porch, breaking my reverie. "What are you boys doing in there? I thought you wanted a drink of water."
We quickly replaced the medal in the drawer and gently pushed it closed. As we headed out the front door, Aunt Sis and my mother came in through the back. I heard Aunt Sis say something about sneaky boys.
When we returned to the creek, I tried talking my cousin into making up a different excuse to go back in the house for another look at the medal. My cousin mentioned the peach-tree switch his mother kept on the kitchen cabinet. I would have to wait several weeks for another Sunday visit before I could see the beautiful purple medal again.
When we resumed our play battles up and down the creek banks, my little boy's mind filled with images of daring feats and evil German soldiers. When my cousins yelled, "Bang, bang, bang, I got you," it didn't bother me. I had been stung by yellow jackets many times. It was a cheap price to pay to someday earn my own Purple Heart.
That summer of 1956 was our last spent on the farm. I started school that fall in Enterprise, at the same small country school my father had attended when he was a boy.
Mrs. Lila, the only teacher, taught grades one through six in the same room, with a row of chairs for each grade. While she taught one grade at the front of the class, the others worked quietly at their desks and waited impatiently for recess. Mrs. Lila kept a paddling board on top of her desk for students who talked or raised their heads to look around the room.
I hated school. I cried each morning as I walked the one and a half miles across our neighbor's fields on my way to school.
In spite of my parents' best attempts at making a living on the farm, that winter they decided it was a failed effort. They were reluctant to sell and thought if they found work during the summer for a few years, they would be able to pay off the land and someday return to farming. We became a family of nomads, using the farm as a base for the winter months.
Each spring we journeyed to western Oklahoma to work in cotton and peanut fields. Oftentimes we remained there until late in the fall. We constantly moved from one town to the next to find work, and each time we moved, I started a new school. Between grades one through nine, I attended eleven different schools.
By 1961, my parents gave up holding on to the farm. To my sorrow, they sold it, and we moved to western Oklahoma so my dad could work for my uncle Willis, who owned a plumbing business. I didn't like the flat, arid countryside of the western part of the state. I missed the hilly, forest-covered terrain of eastern Oklahoma. I was relieved when, after my father obtained his plumbing license, we moved back to Quinton, a small town a few miles from our old farm.
Finally, I would get to spend the last three years of high school in one place. I had never had a close friend in school. By the time I learned the kids' names, we would have to move again. Everything changed when we moved to Quinton.
Dennis Guthrie, a skinny guy barely five feet six, was shooting hoops with a couple of boys in front of his house as I walked home after my first day of classes.
"Hey," he said to me. "Want to shoot some baskets with us?"
Our friendship began that day. We were like brothers. When our parents wanted to find us, all they had to do was call the other's house. Our mothers became so accustomed to our being together that when one of us showed up for dinner without the other, it was like a member of the family was missing.
When we got our driver's licenses, we dreamed of buying the hottest new muscle cars and dragging up and down the three blocks of our small town's main street. Dennis pined for a Pontiac GTO. My favorite was the Plymouth GTX. We spent countless hours figuring engine sizes, gear ratios, transmissions, colors, and other options for our dream cars.
Like millions of other kids who grew up then, we also were caught up in the "Sixties Revolution." The music we listened to, the emerging hippie culture, the drugs, and the changing attitudes about sexual behavior all combined to make our generation unique.
But in one respect our generation wasn't unique. Like most of the generations preceding us, we came of age as America was involved in a war. It wasn't a declared war like World War II, yet the news broadcasted daily accounts of what was going on in a little country in Southeast Asia called Vietnam. Dennis and I watched the newscasts about Vietnam with keen interest. We talked often about events there and even considered joining the army. When we were growing up, the men who had served in the military during the war years were regarded as heroes. Whether World War II or Korea was being discussed, we had never heard anyone say negative comments about the men who fought.
Dennis and I graduated from high school in 1967, and that summer we left for Arkansas to work on a large dam being constructed on the Arkansas River where his father was the construction superintendent. We decided to attend school that fall at a small junior college close to home. Dennis enrolled in civil engineering, and I took pre-pharmacy, but our college careers lasted one semester. I had spent my whole young life outdoors, and the thought of being cooped up in a building for the rest of my life didn't appeal to me. Dennis finally managed to buy his GTO, though he settled for a used car with a different color than he wanted. When his dream car became the source of much trouble between him and his parents, he quit school and joined the army.
In February of the following year, I married the girl I had been dating since high school and soon found myself facing the same problem my parents had struggled with for twenty years. Without a technical skill or a college degree, making a living in eastern Oklahoma was next to impossible. I considered returning to college, but the images of Vietnam on the nightly news haunted me. Dennis was likely headed there, and I reasoned that if I still wanted a college education in a few years, the army would pay for it when I returned. Besides, my thoughts on school hadn't changed since that first miserable day in Mrs. Lila's one-room country school back in Enterprise.
The army was the only choice that made sense to me.CHAPTER 2
The Only Choice That Made Sense
I enlisted in the army in the spring of 1968. At last I would be a part of the organization I had heard so many stories about during my childhood. The trip to Fort Polk, Louisiana, was my first airplane ride. The small propeller-driven plane had no insulation to deaden the noise and offered only a bench with webbing behind for the other recruits and me to hold on to. We flew through a thunderstorm about halfway there, and the little plane popped and banged to the point that I was sure we were going to crash. Several of the new recruits flying with me got airsick and threw up at their feet. By the time we reached Fort Polk, I didn't care if I ever got on another airplane in my life.
The army recruiters I had talked to had been a mild-mannered, polite, accommodating group of people. They had addressed me by my first name when they answered all my questions concerning what life would be like for the next three years. The second group of people I met in the army, with stripes on their shoulders, also had called me by my first name. The funny thing is, somewhere along the way my name changed. Suddenly, instead of Gary, I was "Scumbag," "Shithead," "Numbnuts," or, if the drill instructors—DIs—felt good that day, simply "Recruit." From the moment I stepped off the olive drab bus at basic training, they had absolute control of my life.
Their objective was to strip us of our individuality and independence. We stood the way they wanted us to stand, we walked the way they wanted us to walk, and we went to the bathroom when they wanted us to go. Two minutes after we got off the bus, people were scattered everywhere doing push-ups, while others ran around and around the flagpole located in the center of the company area. When the drill instructors decided we had been sufficiently intimidated and humiliated, we were told to "fall in." On the asphalt in front of the barracks, some poor trainee had painted more than one hundred sets of footprints in bright yellow paint. Each of us found a set to stand on. The DIs told us to place our bags in front of us and stand at attention. Then they dumped the contents of each bag on the asphalt in front of the owner. Chewing gum, candy, books, transistor radios, and other contraband went into a large garbage can at the end of the formation. One unfortunate recruit had a condom hidden in his bag.
"And just what in the hell are you planning to do with this?" a DI screamed in his face. He held the condom in front of the trembling recruit's face, looking down the line at another DI, with just the hint of a grin on his face as if to say, "I've got one."
The other DI joined him.
"What are we going to do about this?" the first DI asked.
"Maybe we have a pervert here," the second replied.
"Why don't you go over there and hump that flagpole for a while," the first DI yelled.
All the time the rest of us were getting our bags pilfered, the poor guy was making love to a flagpole. For the remainder of basic, he was known as "Rubber." I learned one thing quickly—don't do anything stupid to attract the attention of the drill instructors.
The first day we also learned what all soldiers become proficient at in the army—standing in line and waiting. We stood in line to get our uniforms. The supply clerks looked over each of us to estimate size, which resulted in some ill-fitting uniforms. Next came boots. They asked us what size we wore—a very important question for a recruit. Over the next eight weeks we would walk or run more than a thousand miles in those boots.
After the uniforms and other equipment were taken care of, haircuts and shots followed. Both were quick affairs. The barber didn't ask me how I wanted my hair. He started at the base of my neck and brought the two-inch-wide clippers over the top of my scalp to my forehead. The barber finished with a few more passes on the sides, taking twenty seconds at most. All hair was cut a uniform one-eighths of an inch long.
Excerpted from After My Lai by Gary W. Bray. Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ix
Prologue: Ringling, Oklahoma, 2002 I 3
1 Growing Up in Eastern Oklahoma 7
2 The Only Choice That Made Sense 15
3 Assigned to Vietnam 25
4 Charlie Company's Taste of War 29
5 The My Lai Massacre 35
6 Taking Command 47
7 The Gaza Strip 67
8 Ambush along the River 95
9 Jungle Duty and the 515 Valley 101
10 The Easy Job 119
11 A Series of Lines 131
12 The Most Defining Event 141
13 Leaving Vietnam 159
Epilogue: Ringling, Oklahoma, 2002 II 163