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My Lai trial begins

My Lai trial begins

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The court-martial of 1st Lt. Calley, a platoon leader in Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Infantry Brigade (Light) of the 23rd (Americal) Division, had led his men in a massacre of Vietnamese civilians, including women and children, at My Lai 4 on March 16, 1968. My Lai 4 was one of a cluster of hamlets that made up Son My village in the northern area of South Vietnam.

The company had been conducting a search-and-destroy mission as part of the yearlong Operation Wheeler/Wallowa (November 1967-November 1968). In search of the 48th Viet Cong Local Force Battalion, the unit entered the village but found only women, children, and old men. Frustrated by unanswered losses due to snipers and mines, the soldiers took out their anger on the villagers, indiscriminately shooting innocent people as they ran from their huts. They then systematically rounded up the survivors, allegedly leading them to nearby ditch and killing them.

READ MORE: My Lai Massacre

Calley was charged with six specifications of premeditated murder. During the trial, Chief Army Prosecutor Capt. Aubrey Daniel charged that Calley ordered Sgt. Daniel Mitchell to “finish off the rest” of the rounded-up villagers. The prosecution stressed that all the killings were committed despite the fact that Calley’s platoon had met no resistance and that no one had fired on the men.

The My Lai massacre was initially covered up, but came to light a year later. An Army board of inquiry, headed by Lt. Gen. William Peers, investigated the massacre and produced a list of 30 persons who knew of the atrocity, but only 14, including Calley and his company commander, Capt. Ernest Medina, were charged with crimes. All eventually had their charges dismissed or were acquitted by courts-martial except Calley, whose platoon allegedly killed 200 innocent people.

Calley was found guilty of personally murdering 22 civilians and sentenced to life imprisonment, but his sentence was reduced to 20 years by the Court of Military Appeals and further reduced to 10 years by the Secretary of the Army. Proclaimed by much of the public as a “scapegoat,” Calley was paroled in 1974.

Quotations: My Lai massacre (1968)

This page contains quotations about the My Lai massacre, carried out by American soldiers of ‘Charlie’ Company in 1968. These quotations have been researched and curated by Alpha History authors. If you would like to suggest a quotation for inclusion here, please contact us.

“It was terrible. They were slaughtering villagers like so many sheep.”

Larry La Croix, American sergeant

“That day it was just a massacre. Just plain right out, wiping out people.”

Leonard Gonzales, American soldier

“I would say that most people in our company didn’t consider the Vietnamese human… A guy would just grab one of the girls there and in one or two incidents they shot the girls when they got done.”

Dennis M Bunning, American private

“The most disturbing thing I saw was one boy and this is what haunts me … A boy with his arms shot off, shot up and hanging on and he just had this bewildered look on his face like what did I do, what’s wrong… he couldn’t comprehend.”

Fred Wilmer, ‘Charlie’ Company

“I feel that they were able to carry out the assigned task, the orders that meant killing small kids, killing women because they were trained that way, they was trained that when you get into combat it’s either you or the enemy…”

Kenneth Hodges, ‘Charlie’ Company sergeant

“The only crime that I have committed is in judgement of my values. Apparently, I valued my troops’ lives more than I did that of the enemy.”

William Calley, ‘Charlie’ Company lieutenant

“It is why I’m old before my time. I remember it all the time. I’m all alone and life is hard. Thinking about it has made me old … I won’t forgive as long as I live — think of the babies being killed, then ask me why I hate them.”

My Lai survivor, interviewed by British television

The Vietnam War and the My Lai Massacre

The murder of more than 400 Vietnamese civilians in My Lai and My Khe by US soldiers on March 16, 1968, stands as one of the darkest days in the nation’s military history. It left an indelible stain on America’s record in Vietnam, the nation’s longest, least popular, and most controversial war. It raises fundamental questions about the American way of war, US military leadership in Vietnam, and the difficulties of fighting insurgencies, a problem of major contemporary concern. It needs to be remembered and studied.

The United States’ involvement in Vietnam expanded through a series of stages between 1950 and 1965. From 1950 to 1954, in the name of containing communism, the US assisted the French in fighting a Communist-led nationalist revolution in Vietnam, ultimately paying close to 80 percent of the cost of the war. From 1954 to 1961, after the French had departed, the American government attempted to construct in the southern part of Vietnam an independent, non-Communist nation to stand as a bulwark against further Communist expansion in Southeast Asia. From 1961 to 1965, the United States assisted the South Vietnamese in fighting an internal insurgency backed by Communist North Vietnam. A full-fledged shooting war between US and South Vietnamese combat forces and National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgents and North Vietnamese regulars lasted from 1965 to 1973.

After 1965, the United States undertook what one top official with no apparent sense of paradox described as an “all-out limited war” in Vietnam. US aircraft carried out bombing campaigns in South and North Vietnam that in time exceeded the tonnage dropped by all nations in all theaters in World War II. By 1968, the United States had more than 500,000 troops in South Vietnam fighting a variety of wars in different regions. Along the demilitarized zone separating North from South Vietnam, US Marines and North Vietnamese regulars were dug in like the armies of World War I pounding each other with artillery. In other parts of South Vietnam, major increments of US forces conducted massive “search-and-destroy” operations to root out NLF and North Vietnamese regulars. In remote areas, small units probed inhospitable terrain in search of an elusive but deadly enemy. In villages across South Vietnam, military personnel and civilians conducted “pacification” operations designed, in the phrase of the day, to win the hearts and minds of the people. Even with this level of engagement, the best the United States could achieve was a costly stalemate. The massive North Vietnamese-NLF Tet Offensive of February 1968 escalated the violence still further. For the first time, the enemy struck with lethal force at the major towns and cities of South Vietnam, even the supposedly secure capital of Saigon, sparking heavy fighting nationwide. The United States and South Vietnam regained what been lost, but at enormous cost and with huge destruction and loss of life.

The My Lai massacre occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Tet Offensive. On March 16, 1968, the soldiers of Charlie Company, First Battalion, Americal Division, helicoptered into what they called My Lai 4, a hamlet in the larger village of Son My in Quang Ngai province, a beautiful but for Americans deadly region along the northeastern coast of South Vietnam and for years an enemy stronghold. Charlie Company was part of Task Force Barker, commanded by LTC Frank Barker and given the mission to root out NLF units deeply entrenched in the area. CPT Ernest Medina headed Charlie Company 2nd LT William Calley commanded the First Platoon. Bravo Company undertook a similar operation in nearby My Khe.

The savagery that followed defies description. Geared up for action, the men entered My Lai at 8 a.m. with weapons blazing and for the next four hours engaged in an orgy of killing. “We just rounded ’em up, me and a couple of guys, just put the M-16 on automatic, & just mowed ’em down,” one soldier later recalled. Meeting no resistance, the Americans killed old men, women, and even children and babies. They burned homes and destroyed livestock. There were rapes. The GIs suffered but one casualty, a self-inflicted wound to a single soldier. The company’s after-action report counted 128 “enemy” dead and—tellingly—three weapons captured. An official account boasted that Task Force Barker had “crushed an enemy stronghold.” The carnage might have been worse without the courageous intervention of helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, decorated many years later, who, upon witnessing the scene from above landed and protected a small group of Vietnamese by threatening his fellow soldiers with his machine guns.

Among a people that have historically prided themselves on their exceptional virtue, the question that still lingers is how could My Lai happen. Part of the answer rests with the way the war in Vietnam was fought. All wars produce atrocities. Since World War II, moreover, civilians have increasingly been victimized. In Vietnam, the United States relied on its technological superiority, mainly its massive firepower, to disrupt enemy operations, kill enemy soldiers, and inflict sufficient pain on the NLF and North Vietnam that they would be persuaded to cease the fight. In a war without front lines, the principal measure of progress was the notorious body count, which incited GIs to kill as many enemy as possible. In a guerrilla war like Vietnam, the distinction between warrior and civilian was often blurred. Many villages willingly or under duress harbored guerrilla fighters. To the GIs, civilians were often indistinguishable from guerrillas and thought to be in league with them.

The mentality of war also contributed to My Lai. The soldiers of Charlie Company brought to this operation a melange of intense emotions: fear, anger, a lust for revenge, even a sort of emotional numbness that deadened normal human inhibitions. One of the company’s troopers had been killed by a sniper on February 12, its first death in Vietnam. In the weeks that followed, others were killed or wounded by booby traps and land mines, even though the company had never actually seen, much less engaged the enemy. These conditions provoked in the Americans anger, frustration, and a determination to avenge their buddies, manifesting itself even before My Lai in the increasingly brutal treatment of Vietnamese civilians, including several reported rapes. The day before the action, the company held a highly emotional memorial service for a fallen comrade. The formal briefing for My Lai followed soon after and further conditioned the men for revenge. The soldiers thus vented their rage on civilians who were deemed to be the enemy or at least in league with the enemy.

Leaders from the top down failed abjectly in planning, preparation, and execution of the operation. Senior officers ordered an attack they believed would demonstrate to the people of Quang Ngai the costs of harboring the enemy. The plan was based on faulty assumptions regarding enemy strength and the presence of civilians. The soldiers were told that the area was full of NLF sympathizers and must be cleaned out. Civilians would be at market. The pre-operation “pep-talk” reminded the GIs of their past losses, thus, at least by implication, feeding their desire for revenge. It said nothing about dealing with civilians. Leaders on the ground failed to lead. Calley was young, inexperienced, and by most accounts incompetent. Officers and non-coms got caught up in a herd mentality. Senior officers such as Barker and Medina had some idea what was going on but failed to intervene.

These same officers participated in a full-fledged cover-up. No one bothered to question the apparent discrepancies in the after-action report. Those who knew the truth sat on it or looked the other way. An order to go back to My Lai and take a second look was countermanded by MG Samuel Koster. In violation of Army regulations, the division command allowed the brigade to do its own investigation. CL Oran Henderson, the brigade commander, conducted a perfunctory investigation, admitting only that twenty “non-combatants” had been killed accidentally. Thompson’s superiors did not follow up on his reports. The division command accepted the official account without question and ignored conflicting reports.

The horrific story of My Lai was finally revealed more than eighteen months later by an intrepid and conscience-stricken former GI, Ron Ridenhour, who initially heard about it in a bar and traced various leads to get the facts. Ridenhour’s letter to a Congressional committee prompted an Army investigation that led to charges against Calley in September 1969. The story of Calley’s indictment in turn spurred investigative reporter Seymour Hersh to uncover the truth, which he published in November. Shortly after, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer printed a collection of gruesome photographs taken at the scene.

The nation’s reaction to My Lai mirrored its attitudes toward a war that by November 1969 had become markedly unpopular. The press properly expressed horror at the revelations, but it also treated My Lai ethnocentrically as an American story. Some blamed the war itself rather than the men of Charlie Company. Many newspapers that opposed the war saw in My Lai added reason to end it as soon as possible. Some also questioned why it took so long for the story to come out. The public judged My Lai similarly. Some of those who still backed the war questioned whether My Lai had happened at all or blamed the media for publicizing it. Others pointed out that the enemy committed atrocities as a matter of policy. Those who wanted the war to end were appalled at the horror and pressed for its termination.

Under the glare of media publicity and public discussion, the Army sought to deal with My Lai through its legal system. Thirteen soldiers were charged with murder. The charges against six were dropped for lack of evidence six were tried in military courts and found not guilty. Twelve officers were accused of a cover-up. Only Henderson went to trial. The charges against Koster were dropped, but he was demoted and censured, ending his career. The trial of Calley for murder drew as much attention as the incident itself. In March 1971, he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor. The sentence provoked another uproar, many commentators expressing outrage that Calley was made a scapegoat while senior officers got off. President Richard M. Nixon intervened by agreeing to review the case, setting off more outrage. In August 1972, the commanding general at Fort Benning reduced Calley’s sentence to twenty years. Two years later, a US District Court freed him on bail and made him eligible for parole in six months. Later that year, another federal court overturned his conviction on grounds that the pre-trial publicity had made a fair trial impossible.

In Vietnam and the United States, memories of My Lai have dimmed over the years. Americans, including some veterans, helped construct a hospital at the site of the massacre and a “peace park” to remind future generations of the horrors of war. For those Vietnamese who lost loved ones, of course, forgetting is impossible. Yet even in Vietnam there are signs of a desire to move on. Luxury beachfront hotels have been constructed near My Khe as part of the nation’s campaign to attract tourists. In the United States, the Army has determinedly attempted to use My Lai to train officers and men in problems of military ethics and leadership. Yet atrocities continue, whether the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the massacre of unarmed Iraqis by US Marines at the side of a roadside bombing in Hidatha, Iraq, or in the indiscriminate killing of civilians, often by high technology weapons, in Afghanistan. And for most Americans, My Lai is forgotten. Inasmuch as they recall Vietnam, they see themselves as victims and evince little sympathy for the Vietnamese. If the United States is to live up to the high ideals it professes to believe in, events such as My Lai must be remembered and must be seen not simply in terms of the impact upon ourselves but also on the horrors visited on others. The courageous efforts of heroes like Hugh Thompson and Ron Ridenour offer compelling examples of what individuals can do to stop or expose injustice.

George C. Herring is Alumni Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Kentucky and the author of America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975 (4th ed., 2001).

The My Lai Verdict at 45: How the Trial Split the Nation

T he shooting of hundreds of people in the Vietnamese village of My Lai in 1968 marked a pivotal turning point in America’s feelings about the the Vietnam War. But while public awareness of the massacre, which spread in the year after the event, stoked anti-war sentiment, the verdict in the trial of one of the soldiers held responsible elicited a more complicated reaction.

When Lt. William Calley was found guilty of murdering more than 20 Vietnamese civilians, it ended the argument that an American soldier could not have possibly done such a thing. But the verdict of Mar. 29, 1971, despaired hawks and doves alike.

As TIME explained in a cover story about the trial, those who had believed Calley innocent “sought refuge in the oversimple conclusion that Calley was merely a scapegoat” or that “the Army sent Calley to Viet Nam to kill and should not punish him for doing precisely that.” On the other side, many of those who had no trouble believing that My Lai had happened were in agreement: accountability was key, they argued, but the finger should be pointed at the whole system, not Calley. Nobody was satisfied, though for starkly different reasons.

Nationwide, the indications of the split were many: protests (“&ldquoWe are all of us in this country guilty for having allowed the war to go on,” future Secretary of State John Kerry said at a protest. “We only want this country to realize that it cannot try a Calley for something which generals and Presidents and our way of life encouraged him to do”), flags flown at half-mast&mdasheven songs:

But TIME’s editorial stance on the matter was clear to see:

The tragic reality of My Lai and what it stands for is being avoided in two ways. One is by concluding that the fault is universal and therefore requires a universal bath of guilt, comforting in its generality. The other is by pretending that what happened was necessary and even commendable. The first view insists on the original sin of American Viet Nam policy and holds that Presidents should go to jail. Apart from having obvious legal flaws, the “we-are-all-guilty” position presents a moral trap: if everyone is guilty, no one is guilty or responsible, and the very meaning of morality disintegrates.

The other view, that Calley only did his duty, is equally untenable. It is one thing to sympathize with him or to hold that others are culpable as well it is quite another to deny the difference between killing an armed guerrilla and mowing down old men, women and children. Even amid horror, distinctions must be made&mdashthat is the essence of law, morals and therefore survival. Not to make them is a form of moral blindness. That blindness and the attendant glorification of Lieut. Calley may well be the ultimate degradation of the U.S. by the Viet Nam War.

Major Brown, the pensive juror, believes that if the verdict is &ldquotearing this country apart, it is good because maybe it will make [Americans] look within themselves to find out what&rsquos wrong. I don&rsquot think it will hurt the U.S.&rdquo Maybe not. Yet the crisis of conscience caused by the Calley affair is a graver phenomenon than the horror following the assassination of President Kennedy. Historically, it is far more crucial. Within its limits, the Warren Commission served to mute much of the national agitation that ensued after Kennedy&rsquos death. Nixon has ruled out a Warren-style review of the Calley case itself, but there are suggestions inside the Administration and out that a comparably nonpartisan commission explore the whole question of American conduct of the Viet Nam War. Some Americans are skeptical Harvard Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset thinks that it would not reduce national tensions simply because &ldquothere are no neutral people left in the country.&rdquo Still, Americans must find some means of confronting what they have done to themselves in Viet Nam and what they will continue to do to themselves until U.S. involvement in Indochina finally, irrevocably and mercifully comes to an end.

See how LIFE reported on My Lai:American Atrocity

The End Of The My Lai Massacre

Ultimately, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot named Hugh Thompson Jr. put an end to the killings. After helplessly watching the carnage from above and attempting to rescue the wounded, he landed his helicopter directly in the line of fire, all but daring his brothers in arms to shoot through him if they were going to keep the slaughter going.

When the killings were over, he reported what had happened. His superior, however, gave him a polite and quiet commendation, offering him a medal and a citation that falsified the events of the massacre. They expected Thompson to go along with the falsified citation. Thompson instead threw the citation away.

Even then, it took a full year before the truth came out.

At first, newspapers were reporting that 128 Viet Cong had been tracked down and killed in My Lai. Eventually, following reports from infantryman Tom Glen to his superiors, aviator Ronald Ridenhour contacted some 30 members of Congress and demanded that they blow the whistle on what actually happened. By the fall of 1969, the story was making headlines across the country.


Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division, arrived in South Vietnam in December 1967. Though their first three months in Vietnam passed without any direct contact with People's Army of Vietnam or Viet Cong (VC) forces, by mid-March the company had suffered 28 casualties involving mines or booby-traps. [14] Two days before the My Lai massacre, the company had lost a popular sergeant to a land mine. [15]

During the Tet Offensive in January 1968, attacks were carried out in Quảng Ngãi by the VC 48th Local Force Battalion. U.S. military intelligence assumed that the 48th Battalion, having retreated and dispersed, was taking refuge in the village of Sơn Mỹ, in Quảng Ngãi Province. A number of specific hamlets within that village—designated Mỹ Lai (1) through Mỹ Lai (6) — were suspected of harboring the 48th. [16] Sơn Mỹ was located southwest of the Batangan Peninsula, a VC stronghold throughout the war.

In February and March 1968, the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) was aggressively trying to regain the strategic initiative in South Vietnam after the Tet Offensive, and the search-and-destroy operation against the 48th Battalion thought to be located in Sơn Mỹ became a small part of the US military’s overall strategy. Task Force Barker (TF Barker), a battalion-sized ad hoc unit of 11th Brigade, was to be deployed for the operation. It was formed in January 1968, composed of three rifle companies of the 11th Brigade, including Charlie Company, led by Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Frank A. Barker. Sơn Mỹ village was included in the area of operations of TF Barker. The area of operations (AO) was codenamed Muscatine AO, [17] after Muscatine County, Iowa, the home county of the 23rd Division's commander, Major General Samuel W. Koster.

In February 1968, TF Barker had already tried to secure Sơn Mỹ, with limited success. [18] After that, the village area began to be referred to as Pinkville by TF Barker troops. [19]

On 16–18 March, TF Barker planned to engage and destroy the remnants of the 48th Battalion, allegedly hiding in the Sơn Mỹ village area. Before the engagement, Colonel Oran K. Henderson, the 11th Brigade commander, urged his officers to "go in there aggressively, close with the enemy and wipe them out for good". [20] In turn, LTC Barker reportedly ordered the 1st Battalion commanders to burn the houses, kill the livestock, destroy food supplies, and destroy and/or poison the wells. [21]

On the eve of the attack, at the Charlie Company briefing, Captain Ernest Medina told his men that nearly all the civilian residents of the hamlets in Sơn Mỹ village would have left for the market by 07:00, and that any who remained would most likely be VC or VC sympathizers. [22] He was asked whether the order included the killing of women and children. Those present later gave differing accounts of Medina's response. Some, including platoon leaders, testified that the orders, as they understood them, were to kill all VC and North Vietnamese combatants and "suspects" (including women and children, as well as all animals), to burn the village, and pollute the wells. [23] He was quoted as saying, "They're all VC, now go and get them", and was heard to reply to the question "Who is my enemy?", by saying, "Anybody that was running from us, hiding from us, or appeared to be the enemy. If a man was running, shoot him, sometimes even if a woman with a rifle was running, shoot her." [24] : 310

At Calley's trial, one defense witness testified that he remembered Medina instructing to destroy everything in the village that was "walking, crawling or growling". [25]

Charlie Company was to enter the village of Sơn Mỹ spearheaded by 1st Platoon, engage the enemy, and flush them out. The other two companies from TF Barker were ordered to secure the area and provide support if needed. The area was designated a free fire zone, where American forces were allowed to deploy artillery and air strikes in populated areas, without consideration of risk to civilian or non-combatant lives . [26]

Killings Edit

On the morning of 16 March at 7:30 a.m., around 100 soldiers from Charlie Company led by Medina, following a short artillery and helicopter gunship barrage, landed in helicopters at Sơn Mỹ, a patchwork of individual homesteads, grouped settlements, rice paddies, irrigation ditches, dikes, and dirt roads, connecting an assortment of hamlets and sub-hamlets. The largest among them were the hamlets Mỹ Lai, Cổ Lũy, Mỹ Khê, and Tu Cung. [30] : 1–2

The GIs expected to engage the Vietcong Local Force 48th Battalion, which was one of the Vietcong's most successful units. [31] Although the GIs were not fired upon after landing, they still suspected there were VC guerrillas hiding underground or in the huts. Confirming their suspicions, the gunships engaged several armed enemies in a vicinity of Mỹ Lai later, one weapon was retrieved from the site. [32]

According to the operational plan, 1st Platoon, led by Second Lieutenant William Calley, and 2nd Platoon, led by 2LT Stephen Brooks, entered the hamlet of Tu Cung in line formation at 08:00, while the 3rd Platoon, commanded by 2LT Jeffrey U. Lacross, [33] [34] and Captain Medina's command post remained outside. On approach, both platoons fired at people they saw in the rice fields and in the brush. [35]

Instead of the expected enemy, the GIs found women, children and old men, many of whom were cooking breakfast over outdoor fires. [31] The villagers were getting ready for a market day and at first did not panic or run away, as they were herded into the hamlet's common spaces and homestead yards. Harry Stanley, a machine gunner from Charlie Company, said during the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division inquiry that the killings started without warning. He first observed a member of 1st Platoon strike a Vietnamese man with a bayonet. Then the same trooper pushed another villager into a well and threw a grenade in the well. Next, he saw fifteen or twenty people, mainly women and children, kneeling around a temple with burning incense. They were praying and crying. They were all killed by shots to the head. [36]

Most of the killings occurred in the southern part of Tu Cung, a sub-hamlet of Xom Lang, which was a home to 700 residents. [37] Xom Lang was erroneously marked on the U.S. military operational maps of Quảng Ngãi Province as Mỹ Lai.

A large group of approximately 70–80 villagers was rounded up by 1st Platoon in Xom Lang and led to an irrigation ditch east of the settlement. They were then pushed into the ditch and shot dead by soldiers after repeated orders issued by Calley, who was also shooting. PFC Paul Meadlo testified that he expended several M16 rifle magazines. He recollected that women were allegedly saying "No VC" and were trying to shield their children. [36] He remembered that he was shooting old men and women, ranging in ages from grandmothers to teenagers, many with babies or small children in their arms, since he was convinced at that time that they were all booby-trapped with grenades and were poised to attack. [38] On another occasion during the security sweep of My Lai, Meadlo again fired into civilians side by side with Lieutenant Calley. [39]

PFC Dennis Konti, a witness for the prosecution, [40] told of one especially gruesome episode during the shooting, "A lot of women had thrown themselves on top of the children to protect them, and the children were alive at first. Then, the children who were old enough to walk got up and Calley began to shoot the children". [41] Other 1st Platoon members testified that many of the deaths of individual Vietnamese men, women and children occurred inside Mỹ Lai during the security sweep. To ensure the hamlets could no longer offer support to the enemy, the livestock was shot as well. [42]

When PFC Michael Bernhardt entered the subhamlet of Xom Lang, the massacre was underway:

"I walked up and saw these guys doing strange things . Setting fire to the hootches and huts and waiting for people to come out and then shooting them . going into the hootches and shooting them up . gathering people in groups and shooting them . As I walked in you could see piles of people all through the village . all over. They were gathered up into large groups. I saw them shoot an M79 grenade launcher into a group of people who were still alive. But it was mostly done with a machine gun. They were shooting women and children just like anybody else. We met no resistance and I only saw three captured weapons. We had no casualties. It was just like any other Vietnamese village – old papa-sans, women and kids. As a matter of fact, I don't remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive". [43]

One group of 20–50 villagers was herded south of Xom Lang and killed on a dirt road. According to Ronald Haeberle's eyewitness account of the massacre, in one instance,

"There were some South Vietnamese people, maybe fifteen of them, women and children included, walking on a dirt road maybe 100 yards [90 m] away. All of a sudden the GIs just opened up with M16s. Beside the M16 fire, they were shooting at the people with M79 grenade launchers . I couldn't believe what I was seeing". [44]

Calley testified that he heard the shooting and arrived on the scene. He observed his men firing into a ditch with Vietnamese people inside, then began to take part in the shooting himself, using an M16 from a distance of no more than 5 feet (1.5 m). During the massacre, a helicopter landed on the other side of the ditch and the pilot asked Calley if they could provide any medical assistance to the wounded civilians in Mỹ Lai Calley admitted replying that "a hand grenade was the only available means he had for their evacuation". At 11:00am, Medina radioed an order to cease fire, and 1st Platoon took a break, during which they ate lunch. [45]

Members of 2nd Platoon killed at least 60–70 Vietnamese, as they swept through the northern half of Mỹ Lai and through Binh Tay, a small sub-hamlet about 400 metres (1,300 ft) north of Mỹ Lai. [5] The platoon suffered one dead and seven wounded by mines and booby traps. After the initial sweeps by 1st and 2nd Platoons, 3rd Platoon was dispatched to deal with any "remaining resistance". 3rd Platoon, which stayed in reserve, also reportedly rounded up and killed a group of seven to twelve women and children. [5]

Since Charlie Company had not met any enemy opposition at Mỹ Lai and did not request back-up, Bravo Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of TF Barker was transported by air between 08:15 and 08:30 3 km (2 mi) away. It attacked the subhamlet My Hoi of the hamlet known as Cổ Lũy, which was mapped by the Army as Mỹ Khê. During this operation, between 60 and 155 people, including women and children, were killed. [46]

Over the remaining day, both companies were involved in the further burning and destruction of dwellings, as well as continued mistreatment of Vietnamese detainees. While it was noted in the later Courts Martial proceedings that some soldiers of Charlie Company did not participate in any killings, it was also noted that they neither openly protested against them nor filed complaints later to their superiors. [47]

William Thomas Allison, a professor of Military History at Georgia Southern University, wrote, "By midmorning, members of Charlie Company had killed hundreds of civilians and raped or assaulted countless women and young girls. They encountered no enemy fire and found no weapons in My Lai itself". [48]

By the time the killings stopped, Charlie Company had suffered one casualty - a soldier who had intentionally shot himself in the foot to avoid participating in the massacre—and just three enemy weapons were confiscated. [49]

Helicopter crew intervention Edit

Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr., a helicopter pilot from Company B (Aero-Scouts), 123rd Aviation Battalion, Americal Division, saw dead and wounded civilians as he was flying over the village of Sơn Mỹ, providing close-air support for ground forces. [50] The crew made several attempts to radio for help for the wounded. They landed their helicopter by a ditch, which they noted was full of bodies and in which they could discern movement by survivors. [50] Thompson asked a sergeant he encountered there (David Mitchell of 1st Platoon) if he could help get the people out of the ditch the sergeant replied that he would "help them out of their misery". Thompson, shocked and confused, then spoke with 2LT Calley, who claimed to be "just following orders". As the helicopter took off, Thompson saw Mitchell firing into the ditch. [50]

Thompson and his crew witnessed an unarmed woman being kicked and shot at point-blank range by Medina, who later claimed that he thought she had a hand grenade. [51] Thompson then saw a group of civilians at a bunker being approached by ground personnel. Thompson landed, and told his crew that if the soldiers shot at the villagers while he was trying to get them out of the bunker, then they were to open fire on the soldiers. [50]

Thompson later testified that he spoke with a lieutenant (identified as Stephen Brooks of 2nd Platoon) and told him there were women and children in the bunker, and asked if the lieutenant would help get them out. According to Thompson, "he [the lieutenant] said the only way to get them out was with a hand grenade". Thompson testified that he then told Brooks to "just hold your men right where they are, and I'll get the kids out." He found 12–16 people in the bunker, coaxed them out and led them to the helicopter, standing with them while they were flown out in two groups. [50]

Returning to Mỹ Lai, Thompson and other air crew members noticed several large groups of bodies. [52] Spotting some survivors in the ditch, Thompson landed again. A crew member, Specialist 4 Glenn Andreotta, entered the ditch and returned with a bloodied but apparently unharmed four-year-old girl, who was then flown to safety. [50]

Upon returning to the LZ Dottie base in his OH-23, Thompson reported to his section leader, Captain Barry Lloyd, that the American infantry were no different from Nazis in their slaughter of innocent civilians:

"It's mass murder out there. They're rounding them up and herding them in ditches and then just shooting them." [53]

Thompson then reported what he had seen to his company commander, Major Frederic W. Watke, using terms such as "murder" and "needless and unnecessary killings". Thompson's statements were confirmed by other helicopter pilots and air crew members. [54]

For his actions at My Lai, Thompson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, while his crew members Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn were awarded the Bronze Star. Glenn Andreotta was awarded his medal posthumously, as he was killed in Vietnam on 8 April 1968. [55] As the DFC citation included a fabricated account of rescuing a young girl from My Lai from "intense crossfire", [56] Thompson threw his medal away. [57] [58] He later received a Purple Heart for other services in Vietnam. [59]

In March 1998, the helicopter crew's medals were replaced by the Soldier's Medal, the highest the U.S. Army can award for bravery not involving direct conflict with the enemy. The medal citations state they were "for heroism above and beyond the call of duty while saving the lives of at least 10 Vietnamese civilians during the unlawful massacre of non-combatants by American forces at My Lai". [60]

Thompson initially refused to accept the medal when the U.S. Army wanted to award it quietly. He demanded it be done publicly and that his crew also be honored in the same way. [61] [62] The veterans also contacted the survivors of Mỹ Lai. [63]

After returning to base at about 11:00, Thompson reported the massacre to his superiors. [64] : 176–179 His allegations of civilian killings quickly reached LTC Barker, the operation's overall commander. Barker radioed his executive officer to find out from Medina what was happening on the ground. Medina then gave the cease-fire order to Charlie Company to "cut [the killing] out – knock it off". [65]

Since Thompson made an official report of the civilian killings, he was interviewed by Colonel Oran Henderson, the commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade. [66] Concerned, senior American officers canceled similar planned operations by Task Force Barker against other villages (My Lai 5, My Lai 1, etc.) in Quảng Ngãi Province. [67] Despite Thompson's revealing information, Henderson issued a Letter of Commendation to Medina on 27 March 1968.

The following day, 28 March, the commander of Task Force Barker submitted a combat action report for the 16 March operation, in which he stated that the operation in Mỹ Lai was a success, with 128 VC combatants killed. The Americal Division commander, General Koster, sent a congratulatory message to Charlie Company.

General William C. Westmoreland, the head of MACV, also congratulated Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry for "outstanding action", saying that they had "dealt [the] enemy [a] heavy blow". [68] : 196 Later, he changed his stance, writing in his memoir that it was "the conscious massacre of defenseless babies, children, mothers, and old men in a kind of diabolical slow-motion nightmare that went on for the better part of a day, with a cold-blooded break for lunch". [69]

Owing to the chaotic circumstances of the war and the U.S. Army's decision not to undertake a definitive body count of noncombatants in Vietnam, the number of civilians killed at Mỹ Lai cannot be stated with certainty. Estimates vary from source to source, with 347 and 504 being the most commonly cited figures. The memorial at the site of the massacre lists 504 names, with ages ranging from one to 82. A later investigation by the U.S. Army arrived at a lower figure of 347 deaths, [70] the official U.S. estimate. The official estimate by the local government remains 504. [71]

Reporting, cover-up and investigation Edit

Initial reports claimed "128 Viet Cong and 22 civilians" had been killed in the village during a "fierce fire fight". Westmoreland congratulated the unit on the "outstanding job". As relayed at the time by Stars and Stripes magazine, "U.S. infantrymen had killed 128 Communists in a bloody day-long battle." [72]

On 16 March 1968, in the official press briefing known as the "Five O'Clock Follies", a mimeographed release included this passage: "In an action today, Americal Division forces killed 128 enemy near Quang Ngai City. Helicopter gunships and artillery missions supported the ground elements throughout the day." [73]

Initial investigations of the Mỹ Lai operation were undertaken by Colonel Henderson, under orders from the Americal Division's executive officer, Brigadier General George H. Young. Henderson interviewed several soldiers involved in the incident, then issued a written report in late-April claiming that some 20 civilians were inadvertently killed during the operation. According to Henderson's report, the civilian casualties that occurred were accidental and mainly attributed to long-range artillery fire. [74] The Army at this time was still describing the event as a military victory that had resulted in the deaths of 128 enemy combatants. [75]

Six months later, Tom Glen, a 21-year-old soldier of the 11th Light Infantry Brigade, wrote a letter to General Creighton Abrams, the new MACV commander. [76] He described an ongoing and routine brutality against Vietnamese civilians on the part of American forces in Vietnam that he had personally witnessed, and then concluded,

It would indeed be terrible to find it necessary to believe that an American soldier that harbors such racial intolerance and disregard for justice and human feeling is a prototype of all American national character yet the frequency of such soldiers lends credulity to such beliefs. . What has been outlined here I have seen not only in my own unit, but also in others we have worked with, and I fear it is universal. If this is indeed the case, it is a problem which cannot be overlooked, but can through a more firm implementation of the codes of MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) and the Geneva Conventions, perhaps be eradicated. [77]

Colin Powell, then a 31-year-old Army major serving as an assistant chief of staff of operations for the Americal Division, was charged with investigating the letter, which did not specifically refer to Mỹ Lai, as Glen had limited knowledge of the events there. In his report, Powell wrote, "In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal Division soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent." Powell's handling of the assignment was later characterized by some observers as "whitewashing" the atrocities of Mỹ Lai. [77]

In May 2004, Powell, then United States Secretary of State, told CNN's Larry King, "I mean, I was in a unit that was responsible for Mỹ Lai. I got there after Mỹ Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored." [78]

Seven months prior to the massacre at Mỹ Lai, on Robert McNamara's orders, the Inspector General of the U.S. Defense Department investigated press coverage of alleged atrocities committed in South Vietnam. In August 1967, the 200-page report "Alleged Atrocities by U.S. Military Forces in South Vietnam" was completed. [79]

Independently of Glen, Specialist 5 Ronald L. Ridenhour, a former door gunner from the Aviation Section, Headquarters Company, 11th Infantry Brigade, sent a letter in March 1969 to thirty members of Congress imploring them to investigate the circumstances surrounding the "Pinkville" incident. [80] [81] He and his pilot, Warrant Officer Gilbert Honda, flew over Mỹ Lai several days after the operation and observed a scene of complete destruction. At one point, they hovered over a dead Vietnamese woman with a patch of the 11th Brigade on her body. [82]

Ridenhour himself had not been present when the massacre occurred, but his account was compiled from detailed conversations with soldiers of Charlie Company who had witnessed and, in some cases, participated in the killing. [83] He became convinced that something "rather dark and bloody did indeed occur" at Mỹ Lai, and was so disturbed by the tales he heard that within three months of being discharged from the Army he penned his concerns to Congress [80] as well as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the President. [74] He included the name of Michael Bernhardt, an eyewitness who agreed to testify, in the letter. [84]

Most recipients of Ridenhour's letter ignored it, with the exception of Congressman Mo Udall [85] and Senators Barry Goldwater and Edward Brooke. [86] Udall urged the House Armed Services Committee to call on Pentagon officials to conduct an investigation. [81]

My Lai was first revealed to the American public on November 13, 1969—almost two years after the incident—when freelance journalist Seymour Hersh published a story through the Dispatch News Service. The story threatened to undermine the U.S. war effort and severely damage the Nixon presidency. Inside the White House, officials privately discussed how to contain the scandal. On November 21, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger emphasised that the White House needed to develop a "game plan", to establish a "press policy", and maintain a "unified line" in its public response to the incident. The White House established a "My Lai Task Force" whose mission was to "figure out how best to control the problem", to make sure that administration officials "all don't go in different directions" when discussing the incident, and to "engage in dirty tricks". These included discrediting key witnesses and questioning Hersh's motives for releasing the story. What soon followed was a public relations offensive by the administration designed to shape how My Lai would be portrayed in the press and understood among the American public. [87]

After extensive interviews with Calley, Hersh broke the Mỹ Lai story on 12 November 1969, on the Associated Press wire service [88] on 20 November, Time, Life and Newsweek all covered the story, and CBS televised an interview with Paul Meadlo, a soldier in Calley's unit during the massacre. The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) published explicit photographs of dead villagers killed at Mỹ Lai. [89]

As members of Congress called for an inquiry and news correspondents abroad expressed their horror at the massacre, the General Counsel of the Army Robert Jordan was tasked with speaking to the press. He refused to confirm allegations against Calley. Noting the significance of the fact that the statement was given at all, Bill Downs of ABC News said it amounted to the first public expression of concern by a "high defense official" that American troops "might have committed genocide". [90]

In November 1969, Lieutenant General William R. Peers was appointed by the Secretary of the Army and the Army Chief of Staff to conduct a thorough review of the My Lai incident, 16–19 March 1968, and its investigation by the Army. Peers's final report, [5] presented to higher-ups on 17 March 1970, was highly critical of top officers at brigade and divisional levels for participating in the cover-up, and the Charlie Company officers for their actions at Mỹ Lai. [91]

According to Peers's findings:

[The 1st Battalion] members had killed at least 175–200 Vietnamese men, women, and children. The evidence indicates that only 3 or 4 were confirmed as Viet Cong although there were undoubtedly several unarmed VC (men, women, and children) among them and many more active supporters and sympathizers. One man from the company was reported as wounded from the accidental discharge of his weapon. . a tragedy of major proportions had occurred at Son My. [5]

Critics of the Peers Report pointed out that it sought to place the real blame on four officers who were already dead, foremost among them the commander of Task Force Barker, LTC Frank Barker, who was killed in a mid-air collision on 13 June 1968. [92] Also, the Peers Report avoided drawing any conclusions or recommendations regarding the further examination of the treatment of civilians in a war zone. In 1968, an American journalist, Jonathan Schell, wrote that in the Vietnamese province of Quang Ngai, where the Mỹ Lai massacre occurred, up to 70% of all villages were destroyed by the air strikes and artillery bombardments, including the use of napalm 40 percent of the population were refugees, and the overall civilian casualties were close to 50,000 a year. [93] Regarding the massacre at Mỹ Lai, he stated, "There can be no doubt that such an atrocity was possible only because a number of other methods of killing civilians and destroying their villages had come to be the rule, and not the exception, in our conduct of the war". [94]

In May 1970, a sergeant who participated in Operation Speedy Express wrote a confidential letter to then Army Chief of Staff Westmoreland describing civilian killings he said were on the scale of the massacre occurring as "a My Lai each month for over a year" during 1968–69. Two other letters to this effect from enlisted soldiers to military leaders in 1971, all signed "Concerned Sergeant", were uncovered within declassified National Archive documents. The letters describe common occurrences of civilian killings during population pacification operations. Army policy also stressed very high body counts and this resulted in dead civilians being marked down as combatants. Alluding to indiscriminate killings described as unavoidable, the commander of the 9th Infantry Division, then Major General Julian Ewell, in September 1969, submitted a confidential report to Westmoreland and other generals describing the countryside in some areas of Vietnam as resembling the battlefields of Verdun. [95] [96]

In July 1969, the Office of Provost Marshal General of the Army began to examine the evidence collected by the Peers inquiry regarding possible criminal charges. Eventually, Calley was charged with several counts of premeditated murder in September 1969, and 25 other officers and enlisted men were later charged with related crimes. [97]

Court martial Edit

On November 17, 1970, a court-martial in the United States charged 14 officers, including Major General Koster, the Americal Division's commanding officer, with suppressing information related to the incident. Most of the charges were later dropped. Brigade commander Colonel Henderson was the only high ranking commanding officer who stood trial on charges relating to the cover-up of the Mỹ Lai massacre he was acquitted on 17 December 1971. [98]

During the four-month-long trial, Calley consistently claimed that he was following orders from his commanding officer, Captain Medina. Despite that, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison on 29 March 1971, after being found guilty of premeditated murder of not fewer than twenty people. Two days later, President Richard Nixon made the controversial decision to have Calley released from armed custody at Fort Benning, Georgia, and put under house arrest pending appeal of his sentence. Calley's conviction was upheld by the Army Court of Military Review in 1973 and by the U.S. Court of Military Appeals in 1974. [99]

In August 1971, Calley's sentence was reduced by the Convening Authority from life to twenty years. Calley would eventually serve three and one-half years under house arrest at Fort Benning including three months in a disciplinary barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In September 1974, he was paroled by the Secretary of the Army, Howard Callaway. [99] [100]

In a separate trial, Medina denied giving the orders that led to the massacre, and was acquitted of all charges, effectively negating the prosecution's theory of "command responsibility", now referred to as the "Medina standard". Several months after his acquittal, however, Medina admitted he had suppressed evidence and had lied to Henderson about the number of civilian deaths. [101]

Captain Kotouc, an intelligence officer from 11th Brigade, was also court-martialed and found not guilty. Koster was demoted to brigadier general and lost his position as the Superintendent of West Point. His deputy, Brigadier General Young, received a letter of censure. Both were stripped of Distinguished Service Medals which had been awarded for service in Vietnam. [102]

Of the 26 men initially charged, Calley was the only one convicted. [103] Some have argued that the outcome of the Mỹ Lai courts-martial failed to uphold the laws of war established in the Nuremberg and Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals. [104] Telford Taylor, a senior American prosecutor at Nuremberg, wrote that legal principles established at the war crimes trials could have been used to prosecute senior American military commanders for failing to prevent atrocities such as the one at Mỹ Lai. [105]

Howard Callaway, Secretary of the Army, was quoted in The New York Times in 1976 as stating that Calley's sentence was reduced because Calley honestly believed that what he did was a part of his orders—a rationale that contradicts the standards set at Nuremberg and Tokyo, where following orders was not a defense for committing war crimes. [104] On the whole, aside from the Mỹ Lai courts-martial, there were thirty-six military trials held by the U.S. Army from January 1965 to August 1973 for crimes against civilians in Vietnam. [68] : 196

Some authors [106] have argued that the light punishments of the low-level personnel present at Mỹ Lai and unwillingness to hold higher officials responsible was part of a pattern in which the body-count strategy and the so-called "Mere Gook Rule" encouraged U.S. soldiers to err on the side of killing too many South Vietnamese civilians. This in turn, Nick Turse argues, made lesser known massacres like Mỹ Lai and a pattern of war crimes common in Vietnam. [106]

Survivors Edit

In early 1972, the camp at Mỹ Lai (2) where the survivors of the Mỹ Lai massacre had been relocated was largely destroyed by Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) artillery and aerial bombardment, and remaining eyewitnesses were dispersed. The destruction was officially attributed to "Viet Cong terrorists". Quaker service workers in the area gave testimony in May 1972 by Martin Teitel at hearings before the Congressional Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees in South Vietnam. In June 1972, Teitel's account was published in The New York Times. [107]

Many American soldiers who had been in Mỹ Lai during the massacre accepted personal responsibility for the loss of civilian lives. Some of them expressed regrets without acknowledging any personal guilt, as, for example, Ernest Medina, who said, "I have regrets for it, but I have no guilt over it because I didn't cause it. That's not what the military, particularly the United States Army, is trained for." [108]

Lawrence La Croix, a squad leader in Charlie Company in Mỹ Lai, stated in 2010: "A lot of people talk about Mỹ Lai, and they say, 'Well, you know, yeah, but you can't follow an illegal order.' Trust me. There is no such thing. Not in the military. If I go into a combat situation and I tell them, 'No, I'm not going. I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to follow that order', well, they'd put me up against the wall and shoot me." [109]

On 16 March 1998, a gathering of local people and former American and Vietnamese soldiers stood together at the place of the Mỹ Lai massacre in Vietnam to commemorate its 30th anniversary. American veterans Hugh Thompson and Lawrence Colburn, who were shielding civilians during the massacre, addressed the crowd. Among the listeners was Phan Thi Nhanh, a 14-year-old girl at the time of the massacre. She was saved by Thompson and vividly remembered that tragic day, "We don't say we forget. We just try not to think about the past, but in our hearts we keep a place to think about that". [110] Colburn challenged Lieutenant Calley ". to face the women we faced today who asked the questions they asked, and look at the tears in their eyes and tell them why it happened". [110] No American diplomats nor any other officials attended the meeting.

More than a thousand people turned out on 16 March 2008, forty years after the massacre. The Sơn Mỹ Memorial drew survivors and families of victims and some returning U.S. veterans. One girl (an 8-year-old at the time) said, "Everyone in my family was killed in the Mỹ Lai massacre — my mother, my father, my brother and three sisters. They threw me into a ditch full of dead bodies. I was covered with blood and brains." [111] The U.S. was unofficially represented by a volunteer group from Wisconsin called Madison Quakers, who in 10 years built three schools in Mỹ Lai and planted a peace garden. [111]

On 19 August 2009, Calley made his first public apology for the massacre in a speech to the Kiwanis club of Greater Columbus, Georgia: [112] [113]

"There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in Mỹ Lai", he told members of the club. "I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry. If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a 2nd lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them—foolishly, I guess." [114] [115]

Trần Văn Đức, who was seven years old at the time of the Mỹ Lai massacre and now resides in Remscheid, Germany, called the apology "terse". He wrote a public letter to Calley describing the plight of his and many other families to remind him that time did not ease the pain, and that grief and sorrow over lost lives will forever stay in Mỹ Lai. [116]

Officers Edit

  • LTC Frank A. Barker – commander of the Task Force Barker, a battalion-sized unit, assembled to attack the VC 48th Battalion supposedly based in and around Mỹ Lai. He allegedly ordered the destruction of the village and supervised the artillery barrage and combat assault from his helicopter. Reported the operation as a success was killed in Vietnam on 13 June 1968, in a mid-air collision before the investigation had begun. [5][92]
  • CPT Kenneth W. Boatman – an artillery forward observer was accused by the Army of failure to report possible misconduct, but the charge was dropped. [117]
  • MAJ Charles C. Calhoun – operations officer of Task Force Barker charges against him of failure to report possible misconduct were dropped. [117]
  • 2LT William Calley – platoon leader, 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, First Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division. Was charged in premeditating the murder of 102 civilians, [118] found guilty and sentenced to life. Was paroled in September 1974 by the Secretary of the Army Howard Callaway.
  • LTC William D. Guinn Jr. – Deputy Province Senior Advisor/Senior Sector Advisor for Quangngai Province. Charges against him of dereliction of duty and false swearing brought by the Army were dropped. [117]
  • COL Oran K. Henderson – 11th Infantry Brigade commander, who ordered the attack and flew in a helicopter over Mỹ Lai during it. After Hugh Thompson immediately reported multiple killings of civilians, Henderson started the cover-up by dismissing the allegation about the massacre and reporting to the superiors that indeed 20 people from Mỹ Lai died by accident. Accused of cover-up and perjury by the Army charges dropped. [5]
  • MG Samuel W. Koster – commander of the 23rd Infantry Division, was not involved with planning the Mỹ Lai search-and-destroy mission. However, during the operation he flew over Mỹ Lai and monitored the radio communications. [119] Afterward, Koster did not follow up with the 11th Brigade commander COL Henderson on the initial investigation, and later was involved in the cover-up. Was charged by the Army with failure to obey lawful regulations, dereliction of duty, and alleged cover-up charges dropped. Later was demoted to brigadier general and stripped of a Distinguished Service Medal. [117]
  • CPT Eugene M. Kotouc – military intelligence officer assigned to Task Force Barker [120] he partially provided information, on which the Mỹ Lai combat assault was approved together with Medina and a South Vietnamese officer, he interrogated, tortured and allegedly executed VC and NVA suspects later that day. Was charged with maiming and assault, tried by the jury and acquitted. [47]
  • CPT Dennis H. Johnson – 52d Military Intelligence Detachment, assigned to Task Force Barker, was accused of failure to obey lawful regulations, however charges were later dropped. [117]
  • 2LT Jeffrey U. Lacross – platoon leader, 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company testified that his platoon did not meet any armed resistance in Mỹ Lai, and that his men did not kill anybody, however, since, in his words, both Calley and Brooks reported a body count of 60 for their platoons, he then submitted a body count of 6. [121]
  • MAJ Robert W. McKnight – operations officer of the 11th Brigade was accused of false swearing by the Army, but charges were subsequently dropped. [117]
  • CPT Ernest Medina – commander of Charlie Company, First' battalion, 20th Infantry nicknamed Mad Dog by subordinates. He planned, ordered, and supervised the execution of the operation in Sơn Mỹ village. Was accused of failure to report a felony and of murder went to trial and was acquitted. [122]
  • CPT Earl Michaels – Charlie Company commander during My Lai operation he died in a helicopter crash three months later.
  • BG George H. Young Jr. – assistant division commander, 23rd Infantry Division charged with alleged cover-up, failure to obey lawful regulations and dereliction of duty by the Army charges were dismissed. [117]
  • MAJ Frederic W. Watke – commander of Company B, 123rd Aviation Battalion, 23rd Infantry Division, providing helicopter support on 16 March 1968. Testified that he informed COL Henderson about killings of civilians in My Lai as reported by helicopter pilots. [123] Accused of failure to obey lawful regulations and dereliction of duty charges dropped. [117]
  • CPT Thomas K. Willingham – Company B, Fourth Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, assigned to Task Force Barker charged with making false official statements and failure to report a felony charges dropped. [117]

Altogether, 14 officers directly and indirectly involved with the operation, including two generals, were investigated in connection with the Mỹ Lai massacre, except for LTC Frank A. Barker, CPT Earl Michaels, and 2LT Stephen Brooks, who all died before the beginning of the investigation. [117] [124] [125]

1st Platoon, Charlie Company 1st Battalion 20th Infantry Edit

  • PFC James Bergthold, Sr. – Assistant gunner and ammo bearer on a machine gun team with Maples. Was never charged with a crime. Admitted that he killed a wounded woman he came upon in a hut, to put her out of her misery.
  • PFC Michael Bernhardt – Rifleman he dropped out of the University of Miami to volunteer for the Army. [126] Bernhardt refused to kill civilians at Mỹ Lai. Captain Medina reportedly later threatened Bernhardt to deter him from exposing the massacre. As a result, Bernhardt was given more dangerous assignments such as point duty on patrol, and would later be afflicted with a form of trench foot as a direct result. Bernhardt told Ridenhour, who was not present at Mỹ Lai during the massacre, about the events, pushing him to continue his investigation. [127] Later he would help expose and detail the massacre in numerous interviews with the press, and he served as a prosecution witness in the trial of Medina, where he was subjected to intense cross examination by defense counsel F. Lee Bailey backed by a team of attorneys including Gary Myers. Bernhardt is a recipient of the New York Society for Ethical Culture's 1970 Ethical Humanist Award. [128]
  • PFC Herbert L. Carter – "Tunnel Rat" accidentally shot himself in the foot while reloading his pistol but claimed that he shot himself in the foot in order to be MEDEVACed out of the village when the massacre started. [129]
  • PFC Dennis L. Conti – Grenadier/Minesweeper testified that he initially refused to shoot but later fired some M79 rounds at a group of fleeing people with unknown effect.
  • SP4 Lawrence C. La Croix – Squad Leader testified favourably for Captain Medina during his trial. In 1993 sent a letter to Los Angeles Times, saying, "Now, 25 years later, I have only recently stopped having flashbacks of that morning. I still cannot touch a weapon without vomiting. I am unable to interact with any of the large Vietnamese population in Los Angeles for fear that they might find out who I am and, because I cannot stand the pain of remembering or wondering if maybe they had relatives or loved ones who were victims at Mỹ Lai. some of us will walk in the jungles and hear the cries of anguish for all eternity". [130]
  • PFC James Joseph Dursi – Rifleman killed a mother and child, then refused to kill anyone else even when ordered to do so by Lieutenant Calley. [131]
  • PFC Ronald Grzesik – a team leader. He claimed he followed orders to round up civilians, but refused to kill them. [citation needed]
  • SP4 Robert E. Maples – Machine gunner attached to SSG Bacon's squad stated that he refused an order to kill civilians hiding in a ditch and claimed his commanding officer threatened to shoot him. [132]
  • PFC Paul D. Meadlo – Rifleman said he was afraid of being shot if he did not participate. Lost his foot to a land mine the next day later, he publicly admitted his part in the massacre. David Mitchell – Squad Leader accused by witnesses of shooting people at the ditch site pleaded not guilty. Mitchell was acquitted. [133]
  • SP4 Charles Sledge – Radiotelephone Operator later a prosecution witness. Harry Stanley – Grenadier claimed to have refused an order from Lieutenant Calley to kill civilians that were rounded-up in a bomb-crater but refused to testify against Calley. After he was featured in a documentary and several newspapers, the city of Berkeley, California, designated 17 October as Harry Stanley Day. [134]
  • SGT Esequiel Torres – previously had tortured and hanged an old man because Torres found his bandaged leg suspicious. He and Roschevitz (described below) were involved in the shooting of a group of ten women and five children in a hut. Calley ordered Torres to man the machine gun and open fire on the villagers that had been grouped together. Before everyone in the group was down, Torres ceased fire and refused to fire again. Calley took over the M60 and finished shooting the remaining villagers in that group himself. [135] Torres was charged with murder but acquitted.
  • SP4 Frederick J. Widmer – Assistant Radiotelephone Operator Widmer, who has been the subject of pointed blame, is quoted as saying, "The most disturbing thing I saw was one boy—and this was something that, you know, this is what haunts me from the whole, the whole ordeal down there. And there was a boy with his arm shot off, shot up half, half hanging on and he just had this bewildered look in his face and like, 'What did I do, what's wrong?' He was just, you know, it's, it's hard to describe, couldn't comprehend. I, I shot the boy, killed him and it's—I'd like to think of it more or less as a mercy killing because somebody else would have killed him in the end, but it wasn't right." [136] Widmer died on 11 August 2016, aged 68. [137]

Before being shipped to South Vietnam, all of Charlie Company's soldiers went through an advanced infantry training and basic unit training at Pohakuloa Training Area in Hawaii. [138] [139] At Schofield Barracks they were taught how to treat POWs and how to distinguish VC guerrillas from civilians by a Judge Advocate. [129]

Other soldiers Edit

  • Nicholas Capezza – Chief Medic HHQ Company [140] insisted he saw nothing unusual.
  • William Doherty and Michael Terry – 3rd Platoon soldiers who participated in the killing of the wounded in a ditch. [80]
  • SGT Ronald L. Haeberle – Photographer Information Office, 11th Brigade was attached to Charlie Company. Then SGT Haeberle carried and operated two cameras during the operation: an official US Army-issued camera using black and white film, which was submitted as part of the report in the operation to brigade authorities, and a privately-owned camera loaded with colour film. Haeberle by his own testimony at the Courts Martial, admitted that official photographs generally did not include soldiers committing the killings and generally avoided identifying the individual perpetrators, while the colour camera contained numerous images of soldiers killing elderly men, women of various ages and children. Haeberle also testified that he destroyed most of the colour slides which incriminated individual soldiers on the basis that he believed it was unfair to place the blame only on these individuals when many more were equally guilty. He made attempts to sell these photographs to US newspapers on his return home and was investigated by the US Army for this. Considerable criticism has been levelled at Haeberle for remaining silent during the initial attempts at covering up the incident when he had considerable evidence in his possession, as well as his later seeming attempts to benefit financially from the sale of this evidence.
  • Sergeant Minh, Duong – ARVN interpreter, 52nd Military intelligence Detachment, attached to Task Force Barker confronted Captain Medina about the number of civilians that were killed. Medina reportedly replied, "Sergeant Minh, don't ask anything — those were the orders." [141]
  • SGT Gary D. Roschevitz – Grenadier 2nd platoon [142] according to the testimony of James M. McBreen, Roschevitz killed five or six people standing together with a canister shot from his M79 grenade launcher, which had a shotgun effect after exploding [143] also grabbed an M16 rifle from Varnado Simpson to kill five Vietnamese prisoners. According to various witnesses, he later forced several women to undress with the intention of raping them. When the women refused, he reportedly shot at them. [144] : 19–20
  • PFC Varnado Simpson – Rifleman 2nd Platoon admitted that he slew around 10 people in My Lai on CPT Medina's orders to kill not only people, but even cats and dogs. [145][146] He fired at a group of people where he allegedly saw a man with a weapon, but instead killed a woman with a baby. [36] He committed suicide in 1997, after repeatedly acknowledging remorse for several murders in Mỹ Lai. [citation needed]
  • SGT Kenneth Hodges, squad leader, was charged with rape and murder during the My Lai Massacre. In every interview given he strictly claimed that he was following orders. [147]

Rescue helicopter crew Edit

A photographer and a reporter from the 11th Brigade Information Office were attached to the Task Force Barker and landed with Charlie Company in Sơn Mỹ on 16 March 1968. However, the Americal News Sheet published 17 March 1968, as well as the Trident, 11th Infantry Brigade newsletter from 22 March 1968, did not mention the death of noncombatants in Mỹ Lai. The Stars and Stripes published a laudatory piece, "U.S. troops Surrounds Red, Kill 128" on March 18. [148]

On 12 April 1968, the Trident wrote that, "The most punishing operations undertaken by the brigade in Operation Muscatine's area involved three separate raids into the village and vicinity of My Lai, which cost the VC 276 killed". [149] On 4 April 1968, the information office of the 11th Brigade issued a press-release, Recent Operations in Pinkville, without any information about mass casualties among civilians. [150] Subsequent criminal investigation uncovered that, "Both individuals failed to report what they had seen, the reporter wrote a false and misleading account of the operation, and the photographer withheld and suppressed from proper authorities the photographic evidence of atrocities he had obtained." [151]

The first mentions of the Mỹ Lai massacre appeared in the American media after Fort Benning's vague press release concerning the charges pressed against Lieutenant Calley, which was distributed on 5 September 1969. [153]

Consequently, NBC aired on 10 September 1969 a segment in the Huntley-Brinkley Report which mentioned the murder of a number of civilians in South Vietnam. Following that, emboldened Ronald Ridenhour decided to disobey the Army's order to withhold the information from the media. He approached reporter Ben Cole of the Phoenix Republic, who chose not to handle the scoop. Charles Black from the Columbus Enquirer uncovered the story on his own but also decided to put it on hold. Two major national news press outlets — The New York Times and The Washington Post, received some tips with partial information but did not act on them. [154]

A phone call on 22 October 1969, answered by freelance investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, and his subsequent independent inquiry, broke the wall of silence that was surrounding the Mỹ Lai massacre. Hersh initially tried to sell the story to Life and Look magazines both turned it down. Hersh then went to the small Washington-based Dispatch News Service, which sent it to fifty major American newspapers thirty of them accepted it for publication. [155] New York Times reporter Henry Kamm investigated further and found several Mỹ Lai massacre survivors in South Vietnam. He estimated the number of killed civilians as 567. [156]

Next, Ben Cole published an article about Ronald Ridenhour, a helicopter gunner and an Army whistleblower, who was among the first who started to uncover the truth about the Mỹ Lai massacre. Joseph Eszterhas of The Plain Dealer, a friend of Ron Haeberle, knew about the photo evidence of the massacre and published the grisly images of the dead bodies of old men, women, and children on 20 November 1969. [43] Time Magazine's article on 28 November 1969 and in Life magazine on 5 December 1969, [157] finally brought Mỹ Lai to the fore of the public debate about Vietnam War. [158]

Richard L. Strout, the Christian Science Monitor political commentator, wrote: "American press self-censorship thwarted Mr. Ridenhour's disclosures for a year. 'No one wanted to go into it', his agent said of telegrams sent to Life, Look, and Newsweek magazines outlining allegations. " [159]

Afterwards, interviews and stories connected to the Mỹ Lai massacre started to appear regularly in the American and international press. [160] [48]

Concluding an ABC television news broadcast, anchor man Frank Reynolds sombrely informed his audience that, as a consequence of the allegations, ‘‘our spirit as a people is scarred.’’ The massacre, he believed, offered ‘‘the most compelling argument yet advanced for America to end its involvement in Vietnam, not alone because of what the war is doing to the Vietnamese or to our reputation abroad, but because of what it is doing to us.’’ [161]

Following the massacre a Pentagon task force called the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group (VWCWG) investigated alleged atrocities which were committed against South Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops and created a secret archive of some 9,000 pages which documents 320 alleged incidents from 1967-1971 including 7 massacres in which at least 137 civilians died 78 additional attacks targeting noncombatants in which at least 57 were killed, 56 were wounded and 15 were sexually assaulted and 141 incidents of U.S. soldiers torturing civilian detainees or prisoners of war. 203 U.S. personnel were charged with crimes, 57 of them were court-martialed and 23 of them were convicted. The VWCWG also investigated over 500 additional alleged atrocities but it could not verify them. [162] [163]

Music Edit

Over 100 songs were released about the My Lai massacre and Lt. William Calley. [164] During the war years (from 1969–1973), around half of the songs displayed support for Calley, while around half took an anti-war position and criticized the actions of Calley. [165] All the songs in the post-war era were critical of the actions of Calley and his platoon. Commercially, the most successful song was "The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley" by Terry Nelson, which peaked at # 37 in the Billboard Hot 100 on 1 May 1971, selling over 1 million records. [166] Despite success, Tex Ritter cancelled his cover of the song because his record label, Capitol, viewed it as controversial. [167] John Deer's cover of the song bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100 on 1 May 1971, at # 114. [168]

On television, film and video Edit

  • The 1971 documentary Interviews with My Lai Veterans won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subjects. In it, five American soldiers discussed their participation in the massacres. [169]
  • In 1975, Stanley Kramer and Lee Bernhard directed a docudrama, Judgment: The Court Martial of Lieutenant William Calley, with Tony Musante as Lieutenant Calley, and Harrison Ford as Frank Crowder. [170]
  • On 2 May 1989, the British television station Yorkshire Television broadcast the documentary Four Hours in My Lai, directed by Kevin Sim, as part of the networked series First Tuesday. Using eyewitness statements from both Vietnamese and Americans, the programme revealed new evidence about the massacre. The program was subsequently aired by PBS in the United States on 23 May as Remember My Lai (Frontline, Season 7). [171]
  • In 1994, a video film My Lai Revisited was aired on 60 Minutes by CBS. [172]
  • On 15 March 2008, the BBC broadcast the documentary The My Lai Tapes[173] on Radio 4 and subsequently on the BBC World Service, in both English [174] and Vietnamese, [175] that used never-before-heard audio recordings of testimony taken at The Pentagon during the 1969–70 Peers's Inquiry.
  • On 26 April 2010, the American PBS broadcast a documentary as part of its American Experience series, entitled The American Experience: My Lai. [176]
  • On 10 December 2010, Italian producer Gianni Paolucci released a movie entitled My Lai Four, [177] directed by Paolo Bertola, starring American actor Beau Ballinger as Calley, and adapted from the Pulitzer Prize–winning book by Seymour Hersh. [178]
  • In 2018, My Lai Inside, a documentary by Christoph Felder was released [179]

In theater Edit

The Lieutenant is a 1975 Broadway rock opera that concerns the Mỹ Lai massacre and resulting courts martial. It was nominated for four Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical. [180]

Photography Edit

The Mỹ Lai massacre, like many other events in Vietnam, was captured on camera by U.S. Army personnel. The most published and graphic images were taken by Ronald Haeberle, a U.S. Army Public Information Detachment photographer who accompanied the men of Charlie Company that day. [181]

In 2009, Haeberle said that he destroyed a number of photographs he took during the massacre. Unlike the photographs of the dead bodies, the destroyed photographs depicted Americans in the actual process of murdering Vietnamese civilians. [182] [183] According to M. Paul Holsinger, the And babies poster, which used a Haeberle photo, was "easily the most successful poster to vent the outrage that so many felt about the human cost of the conflict in Southeast Asia. Copies are still frequently seen in retrospectives dealing with the popular culture of the Vietnam War era or in collections of art from the period." [184]

In the hamlet where U.S. troops killed hundreds of men, women and children, survivors are ready to forgive the most infamous American soldier of the war

William Laws Calley Jr. was never really meant to be an officer in the U.S. Army. After getting low grades and dropping out of Palm Beach Junior College, he tried to enlist in 1964, but was rejected because of a hearing defect. Two years later, with the escalation in Vietnam, standards for enrollees changed and Calley—neither a valedictorian nor a troublemaker, just a fairly typical American young man trying to figure out what to do with his life—was called up.

Before the decade was over Second Lieutenant Calley would become one of the most controversial figures in the country, if not the world. On March 16, 1968, during a roughly four-hour operation in the Vietnamese village of Son My, American soldiers killed approximately 504 civilians, including pregnant women and infants, gang-raped women and burned a village to ashes. Calley, though a low-ranking officer in Charlie Company, stood out because of the sheer number of civilians he was accused of killing and ordering killed.

The red-haired Miami native known to friends as Rusty became the face of the massacre, which was named after one of the sub-hamlets where the killings took place, My Lai 4. His story dominated headlines, along with the Apollo 12 moon landing and the trial of Charles Manson. His case became a kind of litmus test for American values, a question not only of who was to blame for My Lai, but how America should conduct war and what constitutes a war crime. Out of the roughly  200 soldiers who were dropped into the village that day, 24 were later charged with criminal offenses, and only one was convicted, Calley. He was set free after serving less than four years.

Since that time, Calley has almost entirely avoided the press. Now 74 years old, he declined to be interviewed for this story. But I was able to piece together a picture of his life and legacy by reviewing court records and interviewing his fellow soldiers and close friends. I traveled to Son My, where survivors are still waiting for him to come back and make amends. And I visited Columbus, Georgia, where Calley lived for nearly 30 years. I wanted to know whether Calley, a convicted mass murderer and one of the most notorious figures in 20th-century history, had ever expressed true contrition or lived a normal life.

A present-day photo of the fields and water buffalo surrounding My Lai, collaged with a photo of a U.S. soldier firing an M-16 during the 1968 massacre. (Ronald S. Haeberle / The Life Images Collection / Getty Images Composite image by photographer Binh-Dang)

The landscape surrounding Son My is still covered with rice paddies, as it was 50 years ago. There are still water buffalo fertilizing the fields and chickens roaming. Most of the roads are still dirt. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, ten young men were drinking beer and smoking cigarettes at the side of one of those roads. A karaoke machine was set up on a motorbike, and the loudspeakers were placed next to a blink-and-you-miss-it plaque with an arrow pointing to a “Mass Grave of 75 Victims.”

Tran Nam was 6 years old when he heard gunshots from inside his mud and straw home in Son My. It was early morning and he was having breakfast with his extended family, 14 people in all. The U.S. Army had come to the village a couple of times previously during the war. Nam’s family thought it would be like before they’d be gathered and interviewed and then let go. So the family kept on eating. “Then a U.S. soldier stepped in,” Nam told me. “And he aimed into our meal and shot. People collapsed one by one.”

Nam saw the bullet-ridden bodies of his family falling—his grandfather, his parents, his older brother, his younger brother, his aunt and cousins. He ran into a dimly lit bedroom and hid under the bed. He heard more soldiers enter the house, and then more gunshots. He stayed under the bed as long as he could, but that wasn’t long because the Americans set the house on fire. When the heat grew unbearable, Nam ran out the door and hid in a ditch as his village burned. Of the 14 people at breakfast that morning, 13 were shot and 11 killed. Only Nam made it out physically unscathed.

The six U.S. Army platoons that swept through Son My that day included 100 men from Charlie Company and 100 from Bravo Company. They killed some civilians straight off—shooting them point blank or tossing grenades into their homes. In the words of Varnado Simpson, a member of Second Platoon who was interviewed for the book Four Hours in My Lai, “I cut their throats, cut off their hands, cut out their tongue, their hair, scalped them. I did it. A lot of people were doing it, and I just followed. I lost all sense of direction.” Simpson went on to commit suicide.

Soldiers gathered together villagers along a trail going through the village and also along an irrigation ditch to the east. Calley and 21-year-old Pvt. First Class Paul Meadlo mowed the people down with M-16s, burning through several clips in the process. The soldiers killed as many as 200 people in those two areas of Son My, including 79 children. Witnesses said Calley also shot a praying Buddhist monk and a young Vietnamese woman with her hands up. When he saw a 2-year-old boy who had crawled out of the ditch, Calley threw the child back in and shot him.

Truong Thi Le, then a rice farmer, told me she was hiding in her home with her 6-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter when the Americans found them and dragged them out. When the soldiers fired an M-16 into their group, most died then and there. Le fell on top of her son and two bodies fell on top of her. Hours later, they emerged from the pile alive. “When I noticed that it was quiet, I pushed the dead bodies above me aside,” she told me. “Blood was all over my head, my clothes.” She dragged her son to the edge of a field and covered him with rice and cloth. “I told him not to cry or they would come to kill us.”

When I asked about her daughter, Le, who had maintained her composure up till that point, covered her face with her hands and broke down in tears. She told me that Thu was killed along with 104 people at the trail but didn’t die right away. When it was safe to move, Le found Thu sitting and holding her grandmother, who was already dead. “Mom, I’m bleeding a lot,” Le remembers her daughter saying. “I have to leave you.”

Nguyen Hong Man, 13 at the time of the massacre, told me he went into an underground tunnel with his 5-year-old niece to hide, only to watch her get shot right in front of him. “I lay there, horrified,” he said. “Blood from the nearby bodies splashed onto my body. People who were covered with a lot of blood and stayed still got the chance to survive, while kids did not. Many of them died as they cried for their parents in terror.”

(Guilbert Gates)

Initially, the U.S. Army portrayed the massacre as a great victory over Viet Cong forces, and that story might never have been challenged had it not been for a helicopter gunner named Ronald Ridenhour. He wasn’t there himself, but a few weeks after the operation, his friends from Charlie Company told him about the mass killing of civilians. He did some investigating on his own and then waited until he finished his service. Just over a year after the massacre, Ridenhour sent a letter to about two dozen members of Congress, the secretaries of state and defense, the secretary of the Army, and the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, telling them about a 𔄚nd Lieutenant Kally” who had machine-gunned groups of unarmed civilians.

Ridenhour’s letter spurred the inspector general of the Army, Gen. William Enemark, to launch a fact-finding mission, led by Col. William Wilson. At a hotel in Terre Haute, Indiana, Wilson spoke to Meadlo, the soldier who with Calley had gunned down the rows of villagers. Meadlo had been discharged from the Army because of a severe injury like many others who’d been at Son My, he was essentially granted immunity when the investigation began. As he described what he’d done and witnessed, he looked at the ceiling and wept. “We just started wiping out the whole village,” he told Wilson.

A subsequent inquiry by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command discovered that military photographer Ronald Haeberle had taken photos during the operation. In a hotel room in Ohio, before a stunned investigator, Haeberle projected on a hung-up bedsheet horrifying images of piled dead bodies and frightened Vietnamese villagers.

Armed with Haeberle’s photos and 1,000 pages of testimony from 36 witnesses, the Army officially charged Calley with premeditated murder—just one day before he was scheduled to be discharged. Eighteen months later, in March 1971, a court-martial with a jury of six fellow officers, including five who had served in Vietnam, found Calley guilty of murdering at least 22 civilians and sentenced him to life in prison.

The day the verdict came down, Calley defended his actions in a statement to the court: “My troops were getting massacred and mauled by an enemy I couldn’t see, I couldn’t feel and I couldn’t touch—that nobody in the military system ever described them as anything other than Communism. They didn’t give it a race, they didn’t give it a sex, they didn’t give it an age. They never let me believe it was just a philosophy in a man’s mind. That was my enemy out there.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence  that Calley had personally killed numerous civilians, a survey found that nearly four out of five Americans disagreed with his guilty verdict. His name became a rallying cry on both the right and the left. Hawks said Calley had been simply doing his job. Doves said Calley had taken the fall for the generals and politicians who’d dragged America into a disastrous and immoral conflict. In newspaper articles around the world, one word became entwined with Calley’s name: scapegoat.

Within three months of the verdict, the White House received more than 300,000 letters and telegrams, almost all in support of the convicted soldier. Calley himself received 10,000 letters and packages a day. His military defense counsel, Maj. Kenneth Raby, who spent 19 months working on the court-martial, told me Calley received so much mail that he had to be moved to a ground-floor apartment at Fort Benning where the deliveries didn’t have to be carried up the stairs.

Some of Calley’s supporters went to great lengths. Two musicians from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, released a recording called “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley,” which included the line, “There’s no other way to wage a war.” It sold more than a million copies. Digger O’Dell, a professional showman based in Columbus, Georgia, buried himself alive for 79 days in a used-car lot. Passersby could drop a coin into a tube that led down to O’Dell’s “grave,” with the proceeds going toward a fund for Calley. He later welded shut the doors of his car, refusing to come out until Calley was set free.

Politicians, noting the anger of their constituents, made gestures of their own. Indiana Gov. Edgar Whitcomb ordered the state’s flags to fly at half-staff. Gov. John Bell Williams of Mississippi said his state was “about ready to secede from the Union” over the Calley verdict. Gov. Jimmy Carter, the future president, urged his fellow Georgians to “honor the flag as Rusty had done.” Local leaders across the country demanded that President Nixon pardon Calley.

Nixon fell short of a pardon, but he ordered that Calley remain under house arrest in his apartment at Fort Benning, where he could play badminton in the backyard and hang out with his girlfriend. After a series of appeals, Calley’s sentence was cut from life to 20 years, then in half to ten years. He was set free in November 1974 after serving three and a half years, most of it at his apartment. In the months after his release, Calley made a few public appearances, and then moved a 20-minute drive down the road to Columbus, Georgia, where he disappeared into private life.

Situated along the Chattahoochee River, Columbus is first and foremost a military town. Its residents’ lives are linked to Fort Benning, which has served as the home of the U.S. Infantry School since 1918 and today supports more than 100,000 civilian and military personnel. “The Army is just a part of day-to-day life here,” the longtime Columbus journalist Richard Hyatt told me. “And back in the day, William Calley was part of that life.”

Two faces of William Calley: (far left) at the Kiwanis Club in Columbus, Georgia, in 2009, where he spoke publicly about My Lai for the first time (left) at a pretrial hearing at Fort Benning in 1970. (Bettman / Getty Images AP Photo / The Ledger-enquirer Composite image by photographer Binh-Dang)

Bob Poydasheff, the former mayor of Columbus, says there was controversy when Calley moved to town. “There were many of us who were just horrified,” he told me, raising his voice until he was almost shouting. “It’s just not done! You don’t go and kill unarmed civilians!”

Still, Calley became a familiar face around Columbus. In 1976, he married Penny Vick, whose family owned a jewelry shop frequented by members of Columbus’ elite. One of their wedding guests was U.S. District Judge J. Robert Elliott, who had tried to get Calley’s conviction overturned two years earlier.

After the wedding, Calley began working at the jewelry shop. He took classes to improve his knowledge of gemstones and got trained to make appraisals to increase the store’s business. In the 1980s, he applied for a real estate license and was initially denied because of his criminal record. He asked Reid Kennedy, the judge who had presided over his court-martial, if he’d write him a letter. He did so, and Calley got the license while continuing to work at the shop. “It’s funny isn’t it, that a man who breaks into your house and steals your TV will never get a license, but a man who’s convicted of killing 22 people can get one,” Kennedy told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in 1988.

Al Fleming, a former local TV news anchor, described Calley as a soft-spoken man. When I met Fleming in Columbus over a steak dinner, one of the first things he told me was, “I’m not going to say anything bad about Rusty Calley. He and I were the best of friends for a long time. We still are, as far as I’m concerned.” (Calley left town some years back and now lives in Gainesville, Florida.) Fleming described how Calley used to sit with him at the restaurant he owned, Fleming’s Prime Time Grill, and talk late into the night about Vietnam. He told Fleming that Charlie Company had been sent to My Lai to “scorch the earth,” and that even years after his conviction, he still felt he’d done what he’d been ordered to do.

After our dinner, Fleming gave me a tour in his tiny red Fiat, pausing to point out the house where Calley lived for nearly 30 years. He also pointed out an estate nearby that had appeared in The Green Berets, a pro-war 1968 film starring John Wayne. The Army had participated heavily in the production, providing uniforms, helicopters and other equipment. The battle scenes were filmed at Fort Benning, and a house in Columbus was used as a stand-in for a Viet Cong general’s villa. In the 1980s, the Green Beret house caught fire. When the neighbors rushed out to form a bucket brigade, Calley was right there with everyone else, trying to put out the flames.

During his time in Columbus, Calley mostly succeeded in keeping himself out of the national spotlight. (Hyatt, the journalist, used to go to V.V. Vick Jewelers every few years, on the anniversary of the massacre, to try to get an interview with Calley, but was always politely denied.) Calley and Penny had one son, William Laws Calley III, known as Laws, who went on to get a PhD in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech. But divorce documents I found at the Muscogee County clerk’s office present a dismal picture.

According to a legal brief filed by Calley’s attorney in 2008, he spent most of his adult years feeling powerless both at work and at home. It states that Calley did all the cooking, and all the cleaning that wasn’t done by the maid, and that he was their son’s primary caretaker. The jewelry store, according to the document, “was his life and, except for his son, was where he derived his self-worth. He even worked hard to try to infuse new ideas into the store to help it grow and be more profitable, all of which were rejected by Mrs. Calley.” In 2004, his wife, who inherited the store from her parents, stopped paying him a salary. He fell into a depression and moved to Atlanta to stay with Laws, living off his savings until it was gone. Calley and his son remain close.

The divorce documents provided little information about Penny Vick’s side of the story apart from two ambiguous details. (Vick and Laws also declined to be interviewed for this story.) His lawyer disputed one assertion—that Calley “had been backing away from his marital relationship” prior to separation—but confirmed the other assertion—that Calley “consumed alcoholic beverages in his own area of the home on a daily basis.”

In a strange twist, John Partin, the lawyer who represented Calley’s wife in the divorce, was a former Army captain who had served as an assistant prosecutor in Calley’s court-martial. “I’m proud of what we did,” Partin told me, referring to the nearly two years he spent trying to put Calley in prison. He and his co-counsel called about 100 witnesses to testify against Calley. When Nixon intervened to keep Calley out of jail, Partin wrote a letter to the White House saying that the special treatment accorded a convicted murderer had “defiled” and “degraded” the military justice system.

By the time the divorce was settled, according to the court documents, Calley was suffering from prostate cancer and gastrointestinal problems. His lawyer described his earning capacity as “zero based upon his age and health.” He asked Penny for a lump alimony sum of $200,000, half of their home equity, half of the individual retirement account in Penny’s name, two baker’s shelves and a cracked porcelain bird that apparently held emotional significance.

My Lai Massacre

The My Lai massacre is probably one of the most infamous events of the Vietnam War. The My Lai massacre took place on March 16 th 1968.

My Lai was a village of about 700 inhabitants some 100 miles to the southeast of the US base of Danang. Shortly after dawn on March 16 th , three platoons of US troops from C Company, 11 th Brigade, arrived in the Son My area having been dropped off by helicopters. 1 Platoon was commanded by Lieutenant William Calley and was ordered to My Lai village. They were part of Task Force Barker – the codename for a search and destroy mission. They had been told to expect to find members of the NLF (called Vietcong or VC by the US soldiers) in the vicinity as the village was in an area where the NLF had been very active.

When the troops from 1 Platoon moved through the village they started to fire at the villagers. These were women, children and the elderly as the young men had gone to the paddy fields to work. Sergeant Michael Bernhardt, who was at My Lai, was quoted in 1973 as stating that he saw no one who could have been considered to be of military age. He also stated that the US troops in My Lai met no resistance. An army photographer, Ronald Haeberie, witnessed a US soldier shoot two young boys who he believed were no more than five years of age. Other photos taken at the scene of the massacre show bodies of what can only be very young children.

Those who returned to the village claimed that it took three days to bury the bodies. They were later to report that some of the children had their throats cut and that some of the bodies had not just been shot but had also been mutilated.

What happened at My Lai only came to public light in November 1969 when a US soldier, Paul Meadlo, was interviewed on television and admitted killing “ten of fifteen men, women and children” at My Lai. His admission caused much shock and a great deal of pressure was put on the US military to launch an investigation. In fact, the US military was already aware of the allegations and had launched an investigation in April 1969, some six months before the public was made aware of what had gone on. It soon became clear that many hundreds of villagers had been killed. The actual number killed was never established but it was officially put as no less than 175 while it could have been as high as 504. The two most common figures put on casualties are 347 and 504. The memorial at My Lai itself lists 504 names with ages that range from one to eighty-two years. An official US army investigation came out with the figure of 347.

Though a number of US soldiers were charged, all with the exception of Lieutenant William Calley, were acquitted. Calley was sentenced to life in prison with hard labour. He served three years before he was released. However, Calley had his supporters and many believed that he was simply following orders. His defence, which was initially rejected, was that he was there in My Lai to hunt out communists and to destroy communism and that he was only carrying out his orders that were to hunt out the NLF. ‘The Battle Hymn of William Calley’, a record in support of Calley, sold over 200,000 copies.

Seymour Hersh, a journalist who was one of the first men to report the massacre to the public believed that Calley was “as much a victim as the people he shot.”

Calley himself commented about the reactions of his men in 1 Platoon at My Lai:

“When my troops were getting massacred and mauled by an enemy I couldn’t see, an enemy I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t touch…………nobody in the military system ever described them anything other than Communist.”

Why did the soldiers in My Lai react as they did?

After three years in Vietnam, the US Army knew that anyone could be a NLF fighter or sympathiser – regardless or age or gender. Invariably everyone in the villages of South Vietnam wore the same style clothing, so no one could be sure who was who in terms of the enemy. All US soldiers knew that any patrol they were sent on could be their last or that they might suffer horrendous injuries as a result of the NLF booby traps that littered South Vietnam. The stress of simply doing what they had to do may well have become too much for the troops who were in My Lai on March 16 th 1968. In their first few weeks in Vietnam the men in ‘Charlie Company’ had not experienced many problems with regards to fighting. However, after this settling period had ended, they, along with thousands of other US troops, began to experience life as a fighting soldier in South Vietnam. Within days of going on patrol, ‘Charlie Company’ had lost five men killed to booby traps and in the lead up to the massacre at My Lai others had been wounded by these unseen weapons.

One soldier who was at My Lai, Varnado Simpson, stated in December 1969:

“Everyone who went into the village had in mind to kill. We had lost a lot of buddies and it was a VC stronghold. We considered them either VC or helping the VC.”

Sergeant Isaiah Cowen stated in December 1969 that the men who arrived by helicopter in Son My had been told that everyone there was ‘VC’:

“He (a captain) stated that everything that was there was VC or VC sympathisers. There was no doubt in my men’s mind that they (the people in My Lai) were VC.”

Philip Caputo, a US Marine, also accused of murdering innocent Vietnamese civilians, wrote later that it was the nature of the war being fought in Vietnam that was to blame for so many civilians being killed:

“In a guerrilla war, the line between legitimate and illegitimate killing is blurred. The policies of free-fire zones, in which a soldier is permitted to shoot at any human target, armed or unarmed, further confuse the fighting man’s moral senses.”

My Lai: Massacre, Trial and Aftermath

Two tragedies took place in 1968 in Viet Nam. One was the massacre by United States soldiers of as many as 500 unarmed civilians-- old men, women, children-- in My Lai on the morning of March 16. The other was the cover-up of that massacre.

U. S. military officials suspected Quang Ngai Province, more than any other province in South Viet Nam, as being a Viet Cong stronghold. The U. S. targeted the province for the first major U.S. combat operation of the war. Military officials declared the province a "free-fire zone" and subjected it to frequent bombing missions and artillery attacks. By the end of 1967, most of the dwellings in the province had been destroyed and nearly 140,000 civilians left homeless. Not surprisingly, the native population of Quang Ngai Province distrusted Americans. Children hissed at soldiers. Adults kept quiet.

Two hours of instruction on the rights of prisoners and a wallet-sized card "The Enemy is in Your Hands" seemed to have little impact on American soldiers fighting in Quang Ngai. Military leaders encouraged and rewarded kills in an effort to produce impressive body counts that could be reported to Saigon as an indication of progress. GIs joked that "anything that's dead and isn't white is a VC" for body count purposes. Angered by a local population that said nothing about the VC's whereabouts, soldiers took to calling natives "gooks."

My Lai trial begins - HISTORY

My Lai Massacre

On the morning of March 16, 1968, soldiers of Charlie Company, a unit of the Americal Division's 11th Infantry Brigade arrived in the hamlet of My Lai in the northern part of South Vietnam. They were on a “search and destroy” mission to root out 48th Viet Cong Battalion thought to be in the area.

The unit met no resistance in My Lai, which had about 700 inhabitants. Indeed, they saw no males of fighting age. They only found villagers eating breakfast. Nevertheless, over the next three hours they killed as many as 504 Vietnamese civilians. Some were lined up in a drainage ditch before being shot. The dead civilians included fifty age 3 or younger, 69 between 4 and 7, and 27 in their 70s or 80s.

In addition, Vietnamese women were raped other civilians were clubbed and stabbed. Some victims were mutilated with the signature "C Company" carved into the chest. One soldier would testify later, "I cut their throats, cut off their hands, cut out their tongues, scalped them. I did it. A lot of people were doing it and I just followed. I lost all sense of direction." Only one American was injured - a GI who had shot himself in the foot while clearing his pistol.

In one incident, a soldier, Robert Maples, refused an order to fire his machine gun on people in a ditch, even when his commanding officer trained his own weapon on him. Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot, had threatened to fire on the American troops in order to rescue Vietnamese women and children from the slaughter. After seeing U.S. troops advancing on a Vietnamese family, he landed his helicopter, called in gunships to rescue the civilians, and ordered his gunner to fire on any American who interfered.

The My Lai massacre took place shortly after the Tet offensive. Late in January 1968, Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers had launched attacks on urban areas across South Vietnam. Charlie Company had arrived in Vietnam three months before the My Lai massacre. Charlie Company had suffered 28 casualties, including five dead. Just two days before the massacre, on March 14, a "C" Company squadron encountered a booby trap, killing a popular sergeant, blinding one GI and wounding several others.

The Cover-Up

The 11th Brigade claimed to have killed 128 Viet Cong during the operation, which would have been the largest number killed by the Brigade in a 24 hour period. Curiously, the Brigade reported only 3 weapons captured. When Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot, claimed that civilians had been murdered, Charlie Company’s commanding officer, Ernest Medina, was asked how many civilians had been killed. Even though he had personally seen at least 100 bodies, he maintained that between 20 and 28 civilians had been killed by gunship and artillery fire. That conclusion was echoed in a report submitted a month later by the commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade, Col Oran K Henderson. He claimed that 20 civilians had been killed inadvertently,

The massacre was covered up until a 22-year-old helicopter gunner in another unit, Ron Ridenhour, wrote letters to 30 congressional and military officials a year later detailing the events at My Lai.

New Investigations and Trials

On November 24, 1969, Lt. Gen. W.R. Peers was directed by the Secretary of the Army to review “possible supression or witholding of information by persons involved in the incident." After more than 26,000 pages of testimony from 403 witnesses were gathered, the Peers inquiry recommended that charges should be brought against 28 officers and two non-commissioned officers involved in a cover-up of the massacre. The Peers report concluded that the brigade commander, Col. Oran Henderson, and the commanding officer, Lt Col Frank Barker, had substantial knowledge of the war crime, but did nothing about it. In the end, Army lawyers decided that only 14 officers should be charged with crimes. Meanwhile, a separate investigation by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division concluded that there was evidence to charge 30 soldiers with the crimes of murder, rape, sodomy, and mutilation. Seventeen men had left the Army, and charges against them were dropped.

Army investigators concluded that 33 of the 105 members of Charlie Company participated in the massacre, and that 28 officers helped cover it up. Charges were brought against only 13 men. In the end, only one soldier – Lt. William Calley - was convicted. Calley was charged with murdering 104 villagers in the My Lai massacre.

The My Lai massacre became a defining symbol of the Vietnam war. Some deemed the massacre as an aberration others called it a symptom of deeper problems—of leadership, training, and morale.

For this part of the Vietnam eXploration:

1. Identify the diverse factors that contributed to the My Lai massacre
2. In what ways did the soldiers at My Lai actions violate the laws of war?
3. Describe the cover-up that followed the massacre. Why did the cover-up fail?
4. Who should have been held accountable for events at My Lai?
5. How did newspapers respond to reports of the My Lai Massacre and the subsequent investigation and trial?

‘It was insanity’: At My Lai, U.S. soldiers slaughtered hundreds of Vietnamese women and kids

Early morning on March 16, 1968, helicopters carrying U.S. soldiers flew into a tiny village on the eastern side of South Vietnam, bordering the South China Sea. They’d arrived by a series of hamlets, known as My Lai, expecting to find a booby-trapped stronghold of their enemy, the Viet Cong. Instead, all they saw were noncombatants: women, children, elderly men. Many of them were preparing for breakfast.

The Americans, about 100 soldiers from the Army’s Americal division, proceeded to massacre them. Over the next several hours, the civilians in My Lai (pronounced “Me Lie”) and an adjacent settlement were shot and thrown in ditches. The body count: 504 people from more than 240 families. Some women were raped. Huts and homes were burned. Even the livestock was destroyed.

It was one of the worst American military crimes in history and still pierces the collective conscience of Vietnam War veterans. On Friday, an organization called the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee is scheduled to hold a vigil in Lafayette Square across from the White House to acknowledge the American war crimes at My Lai.

Right after the attack, the soldiers — who had been told by their superiors the night before that everyone they’d see would be a Viet Cong guerrilla or sympathizer — kept quiet about what they’d done. For more than a year and a half, the public wouldn’t know about the atrocity. Top military officials initially tried to keep a lid on the killings and commanders even touted the mission to the press as a tactical feat. A United Press International wire service account published in newspapers March 16 reported that U.S. infantrymen “tangled with Communist forces threatening the northern city of Quang Ngai Saturday and U.S. spokesmen reported 128 guerrillas slain in the bitter fighting.” But a few paragraphs later, the article, unwittingly, contained an ominous foreshadowing: “Details of the fighting near Quang Ngai were sketchy.”

Soon, a government whistleblower and a promising journalist would expose the atrocity. In early 1969, Ronald Ridenhour, a veteran from Arizona, wrote a letter to the White House, Pentagon, State Department and numerous members of Congress, revealing his conversations with soldiers who participated or saw the attack. Ridenhour’s letter included details that made the allegations credible and worthy of investigation, including map coordinates of My Lai, witness names and the identities of the perpetrators, according to a congressional probe.

Ridenhour’s letters sparked a military investigation. By early September 1969, First Lt. William Laws Calley Jr., a 26-year-old college dropout from Miami who’d served as a platoon leader in the attack, was charged with the premeditated murder of 109 civilians. But the military only released the fact that Calley had been accused of murdering an unspecified number of people. Without knowing the magnitude of his crimes, the New York Times, for instance, only ran a four-paragraph Associated Press article on his arrest, running it on page 14. The press information officer “declined to give details of the case other than to say that the incident occurred in March, 1968, in Vietnam, and that the charge involves the deaths of more than one civilian,” according to the article.

Shortly after Calley had been charged, Seymour Hersh, a freelance reporter and former news aide to antiwar presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, learned about My Lai from a lawyer opposed to the war. But he only got vague outlines. He started sniffing around. Eventually, he approached a Pentagon source. As he recalled in a New Yorker piece three years ago, the official slapped his hand against his knee, and said, “That boy Calley didn’t shoot anyone higher than this.”

Now Hersh had what he needed to crack the story wide open. Eventually, he found that tiny Times article noting Calley’s full name and arrest. Then he visited Calley at Fort Benning, Ga., where he was being held. Incredibly, the Army allowed Hersh to read and takes note from Calley’s classified charging sheet — the document that showed Calley had been accused of killing 109 people. Even more incredible was that when Hersh completed his exposé and took it to Life and Look magazines, the editors rejected him. So Hersh took his story to the Dispatch News Service, which he described to the New Yorker as “a small antiwar news agency” in Washington. The story broke on the wires Nov. 12, 1969, and appeared in newspapers the next day.

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