The Mỹ Lai Massacre was the Vietnam War mass murder of between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians in South Vietnam on March 16, 1968. It was committed by the U.S. Army soldiers from the Company C of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division. Victims included women, men, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated. Twenty six soldiers were charged with criminal offenses, but only Second Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a platoon leader in C Company, was convicted. Found guilty of killing 22 villagers, he was originally given a life sentence, but served only three and a half years under house arrest.
The massacre, which was later called “the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War”, took place in two hamlets of Son My village in Sơn Tịnh District of Quảng Ngãi Province on the South Central Coast of the South China Sea, 100 miles south of Da Nang and several miles north of Quảng Ngãi city east of Highway 1. These hamlets were marked on the U.S. Army topographic maps as My Lai (4) and My Khe (4). The U.S. military codeword for the alleged Viet Cong stronghold in that area was Pinkville, and the carnage became known as the Pinkville Massacre first. Next, when the U.S. Army started its investigation, the media changed it to the Massacre at Songmy. Currently, the event is referred to as the My Lai Massacre in America and called the Son My Massacre in Vietnam.
The incident prompted global outrage when it became public knowledge in November 1969. The My Lai massacre increased to some extent domestic opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War when the scope of killing and cover-up attempts were exposed. Initially, three U.S. servicemen who had tried to halt the massacre and rescue the hiding civilians were shunned, and even denounced as traitors by several U.S. Congressmen, including Mendel Rivers, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Only thirty years later they were recognized and decorated, one posthumously, by the U.S. Army for shielding noncombatants from harm in a war zone.
Charlie Companyof 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 enemy contact, by mid-March the company had suffered 28 casualties involving mines or booby-traps, which caused numerous body injuries and five deaths.
During the Tet Offensive of January 1968, attacks were carried out in Quảng Ngãi by the 48th Local Force Battalion of the National Liberation Front (NLF), commonly referred to by the U.S. Army as the Viet Cong or Victor Charlie from the initials corresponding with the NATO phonetic alphabet. U.S. military intelligence assumed that the 48th NLF 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 My Lai (6) — were suspected of harboring the 48th.
In February and March 1968, the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam was aggressively trying to regain strategic initiative in South Vietnam after the Tet Offensive, and the search-and-destroy operation against the 48th Local Force Battalion of Viet Cong supposedly located in Son My became a small part of America’s grand strategy. A Task Force (TF) BARKER, a battalion-size interim unit of the 11th Brigade, was to be employed for the job. It was formed in January 1968 and made up of three rifle companies of the 11th Brigade, including the Company C from the 20th Infantry, and led by Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Barker. Son My village was included into the area of operations of TF BARKER codenamed Muscatine AO. (Muscatine was the name of the home county of the AMERICAL Division commander Major General Samuel W. Koster.) In February 1968, TF BARKER already tried to secure Son My, however, with limited success. After that, the village area started to be called by American soldiers from TF Barker as Pinkville.
On March 16–18, TF Barker planned to engage and destroy the remnants of the 48th Viet Cong Local Force Battalion, allegedly hiding in the Son My village area. Before 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”. In his turn, colonel Barker reportedly ordered the 1st Battalion commanders to burn the houses, kill the livestock, destroy food supplies, and destroy the wells.
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 7 a.m., and any who remained would be NLF or NLF sympathizers. He was asked whether the order included the killing of women and children. Those present later gave different accounts of Medina’s response. Some, including platoon leaders, testified that the orders as they understood them were to kill all guerrilla and North Vietnamese combatants and “suspects” (including women and children, as well as all animals), to burn the village, and pollute the wells. He was also quoted as saying, “They’re all V.C., 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.” At Cally’s trial one defense witness testified that he remembered Medina instructing to destroy everything in the village that was “walking, crawling or growing”.
The Charlie Company was to enter the village of Son My spearheaded by its 1st Platoon, engage the enemy and flush it out. The other two companies from Task Force BARKER were ordered to secure the area and provide support if needed. They were all to act in the so-called free fire zone, where American forces were allowed to execute artillery and air strikes in populated areas. In 1966, Quảng Ngãi province witnessed two massacres conducted by South Korean troops – Binh Hoa massacre and Dien Nien-Phuoc Binh massacre. In February 1968, in neighboring Quảng Nam province, during the similar counterinsurgency search-and-destroy operation, the Phong Nhi and Phong Nhat massacre and the Ha My Massacre were perpetrated by the South Korean Marines. As for the U.S. military, seven months prior the My Lai Massacre on Robert McNamara’s order, Inspector General of the U.S. Defense Department investigated press coverage of the 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. It stated that part of the American troops did not fully understand the Geneva Conventions, however, no actions were taken.
On the Saturday morning of March 16 at 07:30, around 100 enlisted men and officers from the Charlie Company led by Captain Ernest Medina, following a short artillery and helicopter gunship barrage landed on helicopters in the spreading coastal village of Son My, a patchwork of settlements, rice paddies, irrigation ditches, dikes, and dirt roads, connecting an assortment of hamlets and sub-hamlets. The largest among them were the hamlets My Lai, Co Luy, My Khe, and Tu Cung. Though the G.I.s were not fired upon after landing, they still suspected there were Vietcong guerrillas hiding underground or in the huts. Confirming their suspicions, the gunships engaged several armed enemy in a vicinity of My Lai (4); later, one weapon (a carbine) was retrieved from the site.
According to the operational plan, the 1st Platoon led by Second Lieutenant William Calley and the 2nd Platoon led by Second Lieutenant Stephen Brooks entered the hamlet of Tu Cung in line formation at 08:00, while the 3rd Platoon commanded by Second Lieutenant Jeffrey U. Lacross and Captain Medina’s command post remained outside. While approaching, both platoons were firing at people they saw in the rice fields and in the brush.
The villagers, who were getting ready for a market day, at first did not panic or run away, as they were herded into the hamlet’s commons. Harry Stanley, a machine gunner from the Charlie Company, said during the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division’s (CID) inquiry that the killings started without warning. He first observed, how a member of the 1st Platoon struck a Vietnamese man with a bayonet. Then, the same individual pushed another villager into a well and threw a grenade down. Further, he saw fifteen or twenty people, mainly women and children, kneeling around a temple with burning incenses, who were praying and crying. They were all killed by shots in the head.
Most of the killings occurred in the southern part of Tu Cung, a sub-hamlet Xom Lang, which was a home to 700 residents. Xom Lang was erroneously marked on the U.S. military operational maps of Quang Ngai Province as My Lai.
A large group of approximately 70–80 villagers was rounded up by the 1st Platoon in Xom Lang, and then led to the irrigation ditch to the east of the settlement. All detainees were pushed into the ditch and then killed after repeated orders issued by Lieutenant Calley, who was also shooting. Paul Meadlo, a Private First Class, testified that he spent several M16 magazines. He recollected that women were allegedly saying “No VC” and were trying to shield their children. He remembered that he was shooting into women with babies in their hands since he was convinced at that time that they were all booby-trapped with grenades and were poised to attack. On another occasion during the security sweep of My Lai (4) Meadlo again fired into civilians side by side with Lieutenant Calley.
Private First Class Dennis Konti, a witness for the prosecution, told about 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”. Other 1st Platoon members testified that many of the deaths of individual Vietnamese men, women and children occurred inside My Lai (4) during the security sweep. Livestock was shot as well.
When Private First Class 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.
One group of 20-50 villagers was walked to the south of Xom Lang and killed on a dirt road. According to another eyewitness account of the massacre, Ronald Haeberle’s, in one instance,
There were some South Vietnamese people, may be fifteen of them, women and children included, walking on a dirt road may be 100 yards away. All of a sudden the G.I.s 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.
Lieutenant Calley testified that he heard the shooting and arrived on the scene. He observed his men firing into a ditch with Vietnamese people inside, and started shooting himself with M16 from a distance of 5 feet. Then, a helicopter landed on the other side of the ditch and a pilot asked Calley if he can provide any medical assistance to the wounded civilians in My Lai (4); Calley admitted replying that a hand grenade was the only available means that he had for their evacuation. After that, around 11:00 Captain Medina radioed to hold up the fire and the 1st Platoon took a lunch break.
Members of the 2nd platoon killed at least 60–70 Vietnamese, as they swept through the northern half of Mỹ Lai (4) and through Binh Tay, a small sub-hamlet about 400 metres (1,300 ft) north of Mỹ Lai (4). The platoon suffered one dead and seven wounded by mines and booby traps. After the initial sweeps by the 1st and 2nd platoons, the 3rd Platoon was dispatched to deal with any “remaining resistance”. The 3rd platoon, which stayed in reserve, also reportedly rounded up and killed a group of seven to twelve women and children.
Since Charlie Company had not met any enemy opposition at My Lai (4) and did not request back-up, the Bravo Company of the 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of Task Force BARKER was transported by air between 08:15 and 08:30 two miles away. It attacked the subhamlet My Hoi of the Co Luy hamlet, which was mapped by the Army as My Khe (4). During this operation, between 60 to 155 people, including women and children, were killed.
Over the next day, both companies were involved in additional burning and destruction of dwellings, as well as mistreatment of Vietnamese detainees. While a part of the Charlie Company did not participate in the crimes, they neither openly protested nor complained later to their superiors.
William Thomas Allison, a professor of Military History at Georgia Southern University, commenting on the actions of Charlie Company, 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 (4) itself”.
Helicopter crew intervention
Warrant Officer One 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 Son My providing close-air support for ground forces. 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 there was movement. Thompson asked a sergeant he encountered there (David Mitchell of the 1st Platoon) if he could help get the people out of the ditch, and the sergeant replied that he would “help them out of their misery”. Thompson, shocked and confused, then spoke with Second Lieutenant Calley, who claimed to be “just following orders”. As the helicopter took off, they saw Mitchell firing into the ditch.
Thompson and his crew witnessed an unarmed woman being kicked and shot at point-blank range by Captain Medina, who later claimed that he thought she had a hand grenade. Thompson then saw a group of civilians (again consisting of children, women, and old men) at a bunker being approached by ground personnel. Thompson landed and told his crew that if the soldiers shot at the Vietnamese while he was trying to get them out of the bunker that they were to open fire at these soldiers. Thompson later testified that he spoke with a lieutenant (identified as Stephen Brooks of the 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.
Returning to Mỹ Lai, Thompson and other air crew members noticed several large groups of bodies. Spotting some survivors in the ditch, Thompson landed again. A crew member entered the ditch and returned with a bloodied but apparently unharmed child who was flown to safety. The child was thought to be a boy, but later turned out to be a four-year-old girl. 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.
For the actions at My Lai (4), Thompson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and his crew members Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn were awarded Bronze Star medals. Glenn Urban Andreotta received his medal posthumously, as he was killed in Vietnam on April 8, 1968. As the DFC citation included a fabricated account of rescuing a young girl from My Lai from “intense crossfire” Thompson threw his medal away. He later received a Purple Heart for other services in Vietnam.
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”. Thompson initially refused the medal when the US Army wanted to award it quietly. He demanded it be done publicly and that his crew also be honored in the same way. The veterans also made contact with the survivors of Mỹ Lai.
After returning to their base at about 11:00, Thompson reported the massacre to his superiors. His allegations of civilian killings quickly reached Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker, the operation’s overall commander. Barker radioed his executive officer to find out from Captain Medina what was happening on the ground. Medina then gave the cease-fire order to Charlie Company to “knock off the killing”.
Since Thompson made an official report of the civilian killings, he was interviewed by Colonel Oran Henderson, the commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade (the parent organization of the 20th Infantry). 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, possibly preventing the additional massacre of hundreds, if not thousands, of Vietnamese civilians.
Despite Thompson’s revealing information, Colonel Henderson issued a Letter of Commendation to Captain Medina on March 27, 1968. On next day, March 28, 1968, Commander of the Task Force BARKER submitted a combat action report for March 16 Operation in which stated that operation in My Lai (4) was a success with 128 Viet Cong partisans killed. The AMERICAL Division commander Major General S. W. Koster sent a congratulatory message to Company C. General William C. Westmoreland, the head of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), also congratulated Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry for “outstanding action”, saying that they had “dealt the enemy a heavy blow”. Later, he reversed himself by 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”.
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, the official U.S. estimate. Nick Turse, an American historian and investigative journalist, in his book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (2013) wrote that in South Vietnam between 195,000 and 415,000 noncombatants were killed during the war years.
Reporting, cover-up and investigation
The first reports claimed that “128 Viet Cong and 22 civilians” were killed in the village during a “fierce fire fight”. General William Westmoreland, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam commander, congratulated the unit on the “outstanding job”. As related at the time by Stars and Stripes magazine, “U.S. infantrymen had killed 128 Communists in a bloody day-long battle.” On March 16, 1968, in or around 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.'”
Initial investigations of the Mỹ Lai operation were undertaken by the 11th Light Infantry Brigade’s commanding officer, 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. The Army at this time was still describing the event as a military victory that had resulted in the deaths of 128 enemy combatants.
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 overall commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. He described an ongoing and routine brutality against Vietnamese civilians on a part of American forces in Vietnam that he 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”.
Colin Powell, then a 31-year-old Army major, was charged with investigating the letter, which did not specifically reference Mỹ Lai, since 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. 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 My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.”
Independently of Glen, Ronald L. Ridenhour, SP5, a former door gunner from the Aviation Section, Headquarters Company of the 11th Infantry Brigade, sent a letter in March 1969 to thirty members of Congress imploring them to investigate the circumstances surrounding the “Pinkville” incident. He and his pilot, Warrant Officer Gilbert Honda, flew over My Lai (4) 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. Ridenhour had learned about the events at Mỹ Lai (4) secondhand from talking to members of Charlie Company over a period of months beginning in April 1968. He became convinced that something “rather dark and bloody did indeed occur” at Mỹ Lai (4), 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. He included the name of Michael Bernhardt, an eyewitness who agreed to testify, in the letter.
Most recipients of Ridenhour’s letter ignored it, with the exception of Congressman Mo Udall and Senators Barry Goldwater and Edward Brooke. Udall urged the House Armed Services Committee to call on Pentagon officials to conduct an investigation.
Independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, after extensive interviews with Calley, broke the Mỹ Lai story on November 12, 1969, on the Associated Press wire service, on November 20, Time, Life and Newsweek magazines 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.
In November 1969, Lieutenant General William R. Peers was appointed by the Secretary of the Army and the Army Chief of Staffs to conduct a thorough review into the My Lai incident, March 16–19, 1968, and its investigation by the Army. Peers’ final report, presented to the higher-ups on March 17, 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 (4). According to Peers’ 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.
However, 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, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker, who was killed in a mid-air collision on June 13, 1968. Also, the Peers Report avoided drawing any conclusions or recommendations regarding the further examination of the treatment of civilians in a war zone. In 1967, an American journalist Jonathan Schell found out that in the Vietnamese province of Quang Ngai, where the My 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. Regarding the massacre at My 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”.
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 on the scale of the massacre occurring as “a My Lay each month for over a year” during 1968–1969. 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 routine civilian killings as a policy of population pacification. Army policy also stressed very high body counts and without regard to who was killed. Alluding to indiscriminate killings described as unavoidable, Commander of the Ninth Division, then Maj. Gen. 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.
In July 1969, the Office of Provost Marshal General of the Army started to examine the evidence collected by the General 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.
On November 17, 1970, a court-martial in the United States charged 14 officers, including Major General Samuel W. 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-rank commanding officer who stood trial on charges relating to the cover-up of the My Lai massacre; he was acquitted on December 17, 1971.
During the four-month-long trial, Lieutenant Calley consistently claimed that he was following orders from his commanding officer Captain Medina. Despite that, he was convicted to life in prison on March 29, 1971, after being found guilty of premeditated murder not less 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. Cally’s conviction was upheld by the Army Court of Military Review in 1973 and by the U.S. Court of Military Appeals in 1974. In August 1971, Calley’s sentence was reduced by the Convening Authority from life to twenty years. Cally 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.
In a separate trial, Captain 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 that he had suppressed evidence and had lied to Colonel Henderson about the number of civilian deaths. Captain Kotouc, an intelligence officer from the 11th Brigade, was also court-martialed as Medina and found not guilty, as well as his commander Colonel Henderson. Major General 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 their Distinguished Service Medals awarded for Vietnam.
Most of the enlisted men who were involved in the events at My Lai (4) had already left military service, and were thus legally exempt from prosecution. In the end, of the 26 men initially charged, Lieutenant Calley was the only one convicted.
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. For example, Telford Taylor, 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 My Lai. The U.S. Secretary of the Army Howard Callaway was quoted in The New York Times 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. On the whole, other than My Lai court-martial, there were thirty six military trials held by the U.S. Army from January 1965 until August 1973 for crimes against civilians in Vietnam.
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 (South Vietnam) artillery and aerial bombardment, and remaining eyewitnesses were dispersed. The destruction was officially attributed to “Viet Cong terrorists”. The truth was revealed by Quaker service workers in the area through 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 of the events was published in The New York Times.
Many American soldiers who have been in My 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 L. 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.”
On March 16, 1998, a gathering of local people and former American and Vietnamese soldiers stood together at the place of the My 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”. 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”. American diplomats or any other officials did not attend the meeting.
More than a thousand people turned out March 16, 2008, forty years after the massacre, to remember the victims of one of the most notorious chapters of the Vietnam War. The Son My Memorial drew survivors of the massacre, the families of the victims and returning U.S. war veterans alike. One survivor, who was a 8-year girl on March 16, 1968, said, “Everyone in my family was killed in the My 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”. The U.S. was unofficially represented by a volunteer group from Wisconsin called Madison Quakers, who in 10 years built three schools in My Lai and planted a peace garden.
On August 19, 2009, Calley made his first public apology for the massacre in a speech to the Kiwanis club of Greater Columbus, Georgia:
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai”, he told members of the Kiwanis 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.”
Duc Tran Van, who was seven years old at the time of My 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 My Lai.
- Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Barker – commander of the Task Force BARKER, a battalion-sized unit, assembled to attack the 48th Battalion of the Viet Cong supposedly based in and around My Lai (4). 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 June 13, 1968, in a mid-air collision before the investigation had begun.
- Captain Kenneth W. Boatman – an artillery forward observer, was accused by the Army of failure to report possible misconduct, but charge was dropped.
- Second Lieutenant Stephen Brooks – the 2nd Platoon Leader, Charlie Company, turned a body count of 60 for the second platoon; later killed himself in Vietnam.
- Major Charles C. Calhoun – operations officer of Task Force BARKER, charges against him of failure to report possible misconduct were dropped.
- Second Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr. – platoon leader, 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, First Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division. Was charged in premeditating murder of 102 civilians, found guilty and sentenced to life. Was paroled in September 1974 by the Secretary of the Army Howard Callaway.
- Lieutenant Colonel 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.
- Colonel 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 allegation about the massacre and reporting to the superiors that indeed 20 people from My Lai died by accident. Was accused of alleged cover-up and false swearing by the Army; charges were dropped.
- Major General Samuel W. Koster – commander of the 23rd Infantry Division (United States) of the United States Army, known as AMERICAL Division, was not involved with the planning of the My Lai (4) search-and-destroy mission. However, during the operation he flew over My Lai (4) and monitored the radio communications. Afterward, Koster did not followed up with the 11th Brigade commander colonel Henderson on the initial investigation, and later was caught into 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.
- Captain Eugene M. Kotouc – military intelligence officer assigned to Task Force BARKER; 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.
- Captain 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.
- Second Lieutenant Jeffrey U. Lacross – platoon leader, 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company; testified that his platoon did not meet any armed resistance in My Lai (4), 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.
- Major Robert W. McKnight – operations officer of the 11th Brigade; was accused of false swearing by the Army, but charges were subsequently dropped.
- Captain Ernest L. Medina – commander of Company C, 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.
- Captain Earl Michaels – company commander during My Lai operation; he died in a helicopter crash three months later.
- Brigadier General 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.
- Major Frederic W. Watke – commander of Company B, 123rd Aviation Battalion, 23rd Infantry Division, providing helicopter support on March 16, 1968. Testified that he informed Colonel Henderson about killings of civilians in My Lai (4) as reported by helicopter pilots. He was accused of failure to obey lawful regulations and dereliction of duty; charges were dropped.
- Captain Thomas K. Willingham – Company B, Fourth Battalion, Third Infantry Division, assigned to Task Force BARKER; charged with making false official statements and failure to report a felony; charges were dropped.
Altogether, 14 officers directly and indirectly involved with the operation, including two generals, were investigated in connection with the My Lai massacre, except Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Barker, Captain Earl Michaels and Lieutenant Stephen Brooks, who had died before the beginning of the investigation.
1st Platoon, Charlie Company 1st Battalion 20th Infantry
- Michael Bernhardt – Private First Class; Rifleman; he dropped from the University of Miami to volunteer in the Army. Bernhardt refused to kill civilians in My Lai. Later, Captain Medina threatened Bernhardt trying to deter him from exposing the massacre; as a result, Bernhardt was given more dangerous assignments such as point duty on patrol. He would later be affected with a form of trench foot as a direct result. Bernhardt told Ronald Ridenhour, who was not present in My Lai during the massacre, about the events, thus, pushing him to continue his investigation. 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. Michael Bernhardt is a recipient of the New York Society for Ethical Culture’s 1970 Ethical Humanist Award.
- Herbert L. Carter – Private First Class; “Tunnel Rat”; he claimed he shot himself in the foot in order to be MEDEVACed out of the village when the killings started.
- Dennis L. Conti – Private First Class, Grenadier/Minesweeper; testified he initially refused to shoot, but later fired some M79 grenade launcher rounds at a group of fleeing people with unknown effect.
- Lawrence C. La Croix – SP4; 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 My Lai… some of us will walk in the jungles and hear the cries of anguish for all eternity”.
- James Joseph Dursi – Private First Class; Rifleman; killed a mother and child, then refused to kill anyone else even when ordered to do so by Lieutenant Calley.
- Ronald Grzesik – a team leader. He claimed he followed orders to round up civilians, but refused to kill them.
- Robert E. Maples – SP4; Machine Gunner; stated that he refused an order to kill civilians hiding in a ditch even being threatened by his commanding officer to be shot himself.
- Paul D. Meadlo – Private First Class; 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 – SSG; Squad Leader; accused by witnesses of shooting people at the ditch site; pleaded not guilty. Mitchell was acquitted. His attorney was Ossie Brown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who thereafter became the district attorney of East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana.
- Charles Sledge – SP4; Radiotelephone Operator; later prosecution witness.
- Harry Stanley – PV2; Grenadier; claimed to have refused an order from the lieutenant Calley to kill civilians that were rounded-up in a bomb-crater. Refused to testify against Calley. After he was featured in a documentary and several newspapers, the city of Berkeley, California, designated Oct. 17 as Harry Stanley Day.
- 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. Later he was ordered by Calley to shoot a number of people with a M60 machine gun; he fired a burst before refusing to fire again, after which Calley took his weapon and opened fire himself. Charged with murder, however acquitted.
- Frederick J. Widmer – SP4; 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.”
Before being shipped to South Vietnam, all Charlie Company’s soldiers went through an advanced infantry training and basic unit training at Pohakuloa Training Area in Hawaii. They were taught in Schofield Barracks how to treat prisoners and how to distinguish Vietcong guerrilla from a civilian by a Judge Advocate.
- Nicholas Capezza – Chief Medic; Charlie Company; insisted he saw nothing unusual.
- William Doherty and Michael Terry – soldiers on the 3rd Platoon, who participated in the killing of the wounded in a ditch.
- Ronald L. Haeberle – SGT; Photographer; Information Office, 11th Brigade; was attached to C Company.
- Minh, Duong – Sergeant; 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.”
- Gary D. Roschevitz – Sergeant; Grenadier; 2nd platoon; according to the testimony of James M. McBreen, Roschevitz killed five or six people standing together with a canister round, which had a shotgun effect after exploding; 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.
- Varnado Simpson – Private First Class; Rifleman; 2nd Platoon; admitted that he slew around 10 people in My Lai on Captain Medina’s orders to kill not only people, but even cats and dogs. He fired at a group of people where he allegedly saw a man with a weapon, but instead killed a woman with the baby. He committed suicide in 1997, after repeatedly acknowledging remorse for several murders in Mỹ Lai (4).
Rescue helicopter crew
- Warrant Officer One Hugh Thompson, Jr. – helicopter pilot who confronted the ground forces personally. Died 6 January 2006.
- Specialist Four Glenn Andreotta – crew chief. Killed In Action: 8 April 1968.
- Specialist Four Lawrence Colburn – door gunner.
A photographer and a reporter from the 11th Brigade Information Office were attached to the Task Force BARKER and landed with Charlie Company in Son My on March 16, 1968. However, the AMERICAL News Sheet published on March 17, 1968, as well as the Trident, 11th Infantry Brigade newsletter from March 22, 1968, did not mention the death of noncombatants in great numbers in Mai Ly (4). The Star and Stripes published a laudatory piece “U.S. troops Surrounds Red, Kill 128” on March 18. On April 12, 1968, the Trident wrote that, “The most punishing operations undertaken by the brigade in Operation Muscutine’s area involved three separate raids into the village and vicinity of My Lai, which cost the VC 276 killed”. On April 4, 1968, the Information office of the 11th Brigade issued a press-release Recent Operations in Pinkville without any information about mass casualties among civilians. 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.”
The first mentions about the My 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 September 5, 1969. Consequently, NBC aired on September 10, 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 did not have enough resolve 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.
A phone call on October 22, 1969, answered by freelancing investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, and his subsequent independent inquiry broke the wall of silence that was surrounding the My Lai massacre. At first, Hersh tried to sell the story to Life and Look magazines, which turned it down. Unfazed, Hersh went to a small Washington-based Dispatch News Service which sent it to fifty major American newspapers; thirty of them accepted it for publication. The New York Times reporter Henry Kamm investigated further and found several My Lai massacre survivors in South Vietnam. He estimated the number of killed civilians as 567. Next, Ben Cole published an article about Ronald Ridenhour, a helicopter gunner and an Army whistleblower, who among the first started to uncover the truth about the Mai Ly massacre. Joseph Eszterhas of The Plain Dealer, who was friends with Ronald Haeberle and knew about the photo evidence of the massacre, published the grisly images with dead bodies of old men, women, and children on November 20, 1969. Time magazine’s article on November 28, 1969 and Life magazine on December 5, 1969, finally brought My Lai to the front of the public debate about Vietnam War.
Richard L. Strout, the Christian Science Monitor political commentator, emphasized that, “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”.
Afterward, interviews and stories connected to My Lai massacre started to appear regularly in the American and international press which continues until now.
On television, film and video
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.
In 1989, the British television station Yorkshire Television broadcast the documentary Four Hours in My Lai as part of the networked series First Tuesday. Using eyewitness statements from both Vietnamese and Americans, the programme revealed new evidence about the massacre.
In 1994, a video film My Lai Revisited was aired on 60 Minutes by CBS.
On March 15, 2008, the BBC broadcast the documentary The My Lai Tapes on Radio 4 and subsequently on the BBC World Service, in both English and Vietnamese, that used never before heard audio recordings of testimony taken at The Pentagon during the 1969–1970 Peers Inquiry.
On May 23, 1989, PBS aired a documentary Remember My Lai (Frontline, Season 7) directed by Kevin Sim.
On April 26, 2010, the American PBS broadcast a documentary as part of its American Experience series, entitled The American Experience: My Lai.
On December 10, 2010, Italian producer Gianni Paolucci released a movie entitled My Lai Four, directed by Paolo Bertola, starring American actor Beau Ballinger as Calley, and adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Seymour Hersh.
The My 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. Some of the black-and-white photographs he took were with an Army camera and were either subject to censorship or did not depict any Vietnamese casualties when published in an Army newspaper. Haeberle also took color photographs with his own camera while on duty the same day, which he kept and later sold to the media.”
The derision “baby killers” was often used by anti-war activists against American soldiers, largely as a result of the Mỹ Lai Massacre. Although American soldiers had been so taunted since at least 1966, the Mỹ Lai massacre and the Haeberle photographs both further solidified the stereotype of drug-addled soldiers who killed babies. 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.”
Another soldier, John Henry Smail of the 3rd Platoon, took at least 16 color photographs depicting U.S. Army personnel, helicopters, and aerial views of Mỹ Lai. These, along with Haeberle’s photographs, were included in the “Report of the Department of the Army review of the Preliminary Investigations into the My Lai Incident”. Former First Lieutenant Roger L. Alaux Jr., a forward artillery observer, who was assigned to Charlie Company during the combat assault on Ly Mai 4, also took some photographs from a helicopter that day, including aerial views of Mỹ Lai, and of the C Company’s landing zone.