By Shirley Brady Paula Chin Ting Yu
May 01, 2000 12:00 PM


Nguyen Thi Lop knew her husband, Van Lem, was a Viet Cong officer. She knew he went by the code name Bay Lop—Bay for seventh son, Lop for her. But until she picked up a newspaper in February 1968, she didn’t know that he had been arrested—or that he was dead. There was Eddie Adams’s photo of her 36-year-old husband being executed three days before by Saigon’s police chief, Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan. “I almost died,” she says, drying fresh tears. “I always feel like this, after so many years, when people remind me.”

Newly pregnant and fearful of the South Vietnamese authorities, Lop took her two daughters, then 13 and 3, from their house near Saigon’s airport and moved in with relatives nearby. She struggled, working a multitude of odd jobs, until the war ended. Later the victorious North gave her a monthly stipend, a “gratitude house” in the same district and a scholarship for her son, Thong, born eight months after his father’s death.

Now 67, Lop is a grandmother of eight. She shares her home with her son, a construction-materials salesman, and his wife and 2-year-old daughter. Lop is angry that her husband’s body was never recovered but grateful that Adams took his Pulitzer Prize-winning picture. Without i it, she says, Bay Lop would have simply disappeared without a trace.


Ha Thi Quy, 74, wipes her tears as she recounts the horror of March 16,1968. It was a fine, clear morning in My Lai, her hamlet of 700 near Vietnam’s central coast. She was preparing to go to market when GIs from the 105-man Charlie Company started showing up. The company had often passed through on patrol in search of Viet Cong, who they knew relied on villagers for shelter and intelligence. On that day the soldiers, who had suffered heavy losses, believed a battalion of up to 400 Viet Cong was in the area. But there were no signs of an enemy unit. Suddenly one GI bayoneted a villager. Then the slaughter began. For four hours soldiers burned huts, raped women, herded people to the canal and shot them. Quy survived when others fell dead on top of her, but her mother, daughter and grandson were among the 504 who perished. “Everybody prayed and pleaded, ‘Don’t kill me,’ ” she says. “But the soldiers killed everyone.”

Engraved stones now mark the places where families were slain, and there is a special plaque at the canal that flowed with blood. In solemn procession, some 50,000 tourists—a third of them foreigners—come annually to My Lai, where a museum displays mug shots of some of the murderers, including platoon leader Lt. William Calley. (Court-martialed and sentenced to life in prison in 1971, he spent three days in the stockade before being placed under house arrest. He was paroled three years later and now runs a jewelry store in Columbus, Ga. His murder conviction was overturned last year.) Bitter memories remain but the wounds are healing. “I hated the Americans,” says museum director Pham Thanh Cong, 43, a survivor of the massacre. “Now our wish is for peace.”


Weeks before the fall of Saigon, Bob Caron, a helicopter pilot for Air America, sensed the end was near. Late on the steamy morning of April 29,1975, the CIA-funded fleet received orders to begin evacuating U.S. civilians and military personnel and endangered South Vietnamese. Caron and copilot Jack “Pogo” Hunter were sent to the Pittman Building, where CIA employees were quartered, to rescue a top-ranking Vietnamese official. By the time they arrived, the skies over Saigon were buzzing & with choppers. Several had already landed on the Pittman’s rooftop. As Caron’s Bell 205 touched down, he saw a crowd of South Vietnamese jammed onto a makeshift stairway. Fifteen managed to squeeze on board. “When the helicopter was full, [we] stopped loading people in and had to hold them back,” he says. “These people were desperate to escape, but we could only hold so many.”

UPI photographer Hubert Van Es captured the scene from the top floor of the Saigon Hotel. But because the number of the chopper wasn’t visible in his photo, historians have never known who was flying it. In a five-month investigation, PEOPLE found other photos of that afternoon and with forensic experts positively identified the chopper in the photo as number N4 7004—Caron’s. “I thought I was the pilot, but I couldn’t prove it,” says Caron, 66, a West Point grad and former Vietnam Army major now retired in Ft. Walton Beach, Fla. Hunter, a veteran of World War II and Korea who died at 60 in 1997, felt the same, says his son Michael, of Simonton, Texas. For Caron, memories of the people left behind are still haunting. “In their eyes,” he says, “you could see they knew we were never coming back.”


The image still smolders in our national consciousness: A naked girl, flanked by her brothers and cousins, runs screaming as napalm sears her skin during a South Vietnamese air strike on the enemy-infiltrated village of Trang Bang. With the click of a shutter on June 8, 1972, Nick Ut of the Associated Press transformed 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc into one of the most powerful symbols of the war.

Twenty-eight years later the pain from the third-degree burns that covered almost half her body has largely subsided. But Kim Phuc, now 37 and living in Ajax, Ont, knows that some wounds never heal. “I saw the bombs,” she recalls, “and, like a kid, I looked back at them. Instantly there was fire everywhere.” After the napalming, she was eventually brought to a reconstructive-surgery hospital in Saigon, where she underwent 17 skin grafts over the next 13 months. “My parents gave me life,” she says, “but the doctors gave me life again.” In 1982 she enrolled in medical school in Ho Chi Minh City. But months later the Vietnamese government, spurred by international media focus on the 10th anniversary of the napalming, terminated her studies to use her to rally anti-American sentiment. Four years later, Kim Phuc was permitted to move to Havana to study pharmacology. There she met Bui Huy Toan, now 39, whom she married in 1992. On their return from a honeymoon in Moscow, the couple defected to Canada, where their sons Thomas, now 6, and Stephen, 2, were born. Today, Toan works with disabled adults, and Kim Phuc devotes her time to two causes. In 1997 she cofounded the Chicago-based Kim Foundation, which will help fund surgery for young war victims. And she visits world capitals to address church and school groups as a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO. “I share what that little girl went through,” says Kim Phuc. “People can learn the tragedy of war from me.”