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The My Lai Massacre: One Of America's Darkest Days

My Lai will forever remain a haunting event in America’s conscience and will burn to the surface in any discussion or appraisal of this prolonged conflict.

As the vicious and ugly Vietnam war wore on, shortly after dawn on March 16 1968, three platoons of US troops belonging to “Charlie Company” were dropped from helicopters into the Son My area. They were on a search-and-destroy mission with orders to kill National Liberation Front (North Vietnamese) soldiers – called Viet Cong or VC by the US troops – who were reported to have been active in the area.

US Army commanders had advised that all who were found in the area could be considered Viet Cong or active sympathisers, and the troops were ordered to destroy their village.

1 Platoon, commanded by Lieutenant William Calley, was sent to My Lai – home to about 700 people. Calley was told he could expect to find members of the NLF in the area.

At first, the soldiers were only holding the villagers hostage. They herded people into the centre of the small hamlet called My Lai and held them at gunpoint, ordering them to produce the hidden Viet Cong forces that the Americans imagined they were hiding.

The massacre began when one soldier — whose name has never been confirmed — suddenly stuck a Vietnamese man with his bayonet. After killing one, he dragged another from where he was sitting, threw the civilian in a well, and tossed a grenade in after him.

This wasn't exactly against orders. Before they entered the town, one of the soldiers had asked if they were to kill the women and the children. "They're all VC," his commanding officer, Captain Ernest Medina, had replied. They were to kill, he told them, anything "walking, crawling or growing."

The Murdered Children

The other soldiers then followed that first man's lead. Within seconds, they were gunning down a group of 15 to 20 women who'd been praying along with their children. Then they moved through the village, throwing the villagers into ditches and putting bullets in their head while they lay face-down in blood and dirt.

"A lot of women had thrown themselves on top of the children to protect them," a witness, Private Dennis Knoti, said afterward, testifying against William Calley, the only soldier who was ever convicted for the My Lai Massacre. "Then, the children who were old enough to walk got up and Calley began to shoot the children."

Calley wasn't the only one killing children, though. Several witnesses revealed the names of other soldiers who, they said, had massacred women and babies alike. In the end, hundreds of innocent civilians were dead — 347 according to the U.S. Army, 504 according to the Vietnamese government.

Meanwhile, only one American soldier was injured: Private Herbert Carter, who, in the confusion, accidentally shot himself in the foot.

Not a single Viet Cong combatant was found in the village. "As a matter of fact," Private First Class Michael Bernhardt, one of the men who revealed the massacre to the world, would later testify, "I don't remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive."

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.

Hugh Thompson Jr

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.

Photo taken by U.S. Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle on 16 March 1968, in the aftermath of the Mỹ Lai Massacre showing mostly women and children dead on a road

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.

The Trial of William Calley

Even after the truth came out, though, virtually no one was punished — except for platoon leader William Calley, who alone was given the full blame for the entire My Lai Massacre.

For the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, Calley was sentenced to nothing more than house arrest (he was originally sentenced to prison, but President Richard Nixon himself ordered the transfer). He only served three years before a federal judge granted his release.

Of the other soldiers charged in the massacre, all but Calley were either acquitted or had their charges dropped. In the case of the My Lai Massacre, justice never came.

US soldier Varnado Simpson testified 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.”

However, not a single Viet Cong combatant was found there. "As a matter of fact," Private Michael Bernhardt would testify, "I don't remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive.”

None of this became known to the outside world until November 1969 when a US soldier, Paul Meadlo, was interviewed on television and admitted killing “ten or fifteen men, women and children” at My Lai. The full horror of the event then began to emerge and it soon became clear that many hundreds of villagers had been killed.

Paul Meadlo

A number of US soldiers were charged with the killings but all – except for Lieutenant William Calley – were acquitted or had the charges against them dropped.

Calley, who had spoken earlier of “my troops getting massacred and mauled by an enemy I couldn’t see, an enemy I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t touch. . .” put forward the defence that he was in My Lai to hunt out communists and to destroy communism and that he was “only carrying out my orders, which were to hunt out the NLF.”

It was true that “Charlie Company,” to which Calley belonged, had earlier lost five men killed by booby traps and others had been wounded by these unseen weapons.

But Calley was found guilty of killing 109 civilians and sentenced to life imprisonment. However, after an intervention by President Richard Nixon this prison sentence was changed to house arrest. Three years later, Calley was granted his release by a federal judge.

The number of people killed at My Lai is disputed. A memorial there lists 504 names with ages ranging from one to eighty-two years. An official US army investigation settled on a figure of 347.


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