The My Lai Massacre

On March 16, 1968, Charlie Company of the 11th Infantry Brigade of the United States Army entered the village of My Lai in Quang Ngai Province of South Vietnam. Like many missions, it was a search destroy mission. US soldiers were to search the village for elements of the 48th Vietcong Battalion. According to intelligence, My Lai was a haven for the 48th Vietcong Battalion. By the end of the day, over 500 villagers would be dead.

The Massacre would be covered up beginning that day and would last until the fall of 1969. Two men would not stand for that. One is Seymour Hersh who broke the story  in the newspaper over a year and half later. The other was pilot Hugh Thompson who filed a complaint with the Army.

Upon arrival in Vietnam, each soldier was given a booklet that had the rules for battle and what to do and what not do when dealing the enemy. Here is an example of one MACV Pocket Card. It reads:

“The Enemy In Your Hands”
As a member of the U.S. Military Forces, you will comply with the Geneva Prisoner of War Convention of 1949 to which your country adheres. Under these Conventions:
You can and will:
* Disarm your prisoner.
* Immediately search him thoroughly.
* Require him to be silent.
* Segregate him from other prisoners.
* Guard him carefully.
* Take him to the place designated by your commander.
You cannot and must not:
* Mistreat your prisoner.
* Humiliate or degrade him.
* Take any of his personal effects that do not have significant military value.
* Refuse him medical treatment if required and available.

The atrocities are hard to imagine. The platoons, under the command of Lt. William Calley and Lt. Stephen Brooks began the day with an eight minute flight from their camp to the village of My Lai. Lieutenant Calley took up a defensive position along the western edge of the village. This helped to secure a landing zone. Lieutenant Brooks did the same on the northwest side of the village. Several villagers attempted to escape and were shot. Hugh Thompson was a warrant officer assigned to scout the village in his helicopter during the conflict .

By 8:00 a.m., the two platoons had taken fire. The platoons began moving through the village.

Sergeant David Mitchell leads the first squad, followed by Lieutenant Calley and a squad of about 24 GI’s, then Sergeant L.G. Bacon’s squad and finally Sergeant Isaiah Cowan. As they move into My Lai the men shoot many fleeing Vietnamese and bayonet others. They throw hand grenades into houses and bunkers and destroy livestock and crops. The two platoons in the village begin rounding up approximately 20-50 civilians (mostly women, children and old men,) pushing them along trails to a dirt road south of the village, and placing them under guard. Another group of 70 civilians are moved to the east of the village. Soldiers begin killing the civilians without pretext. Men are stabbed with bayonets or shot in the head. One GI pushes a man down a well and throws an M26 grenade in after him. Over a dozen women and children praying by a temple are shot in the head by passing soldiers.

The day begins to be filled with atrocity after atrocity. Men, women, and are killed and one soldier even forced a woman  to perform oral sex on him while holding a gun to a four-year-old child’s head.

The soldiers begin rounding up civilians and shooting them.

Hugh Thompson describes the events of the day in his own words.

The village was prepped with artillery prior to the assault, and we went in right when the “slicks” —the troop-carrying aircraft that brought the Charlie company and Bravo company— landed simultaneously right in front of them. We started mak ing our passes, and I thought it was gonna be real hot that day. The first thing we saw was a draft-age male running south out of the village with a weapon and I tol m to et him. He tried, but he was a new gunner— he missed him. That was the only enemy person I saw that whole day.

We kept flying back and forth, reconning in front and in the rear, and it didn’t take very long until we started noticing the large number of bodies everywhere. Everywhere we’d look, we’d see bodies. These were infants, two-, three-, four-, five-year-olds, women, very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever. That’s what you look for, draft-age people. It came out in the interrogations that my crew and myself went through. My gunner’s big questions—were, “Were there weapons that day?” There was not the first weapon captured, to my knowledge, that day. I think a count has been anywhere from two to four hundred, five hundred bodies— it was that many. I think that’s a small count, including the three villages that were hit.

As we were flying back around the civilian people, there was one lady on the side of the road, and we knew something was going wrong by then. Larry Colburn, my gunner, just motioned for her to stay down; she was kneeling on the side of the road. We just ordered her to stay down; we hovered around everywhere, looking, couldn’t understand what was going on. We flew back over her a few minutes later and most of you all have probably seen that picture; she’s got a coolie hat laying next to her. If you look real close, some odd object laying right next to her— that’s her brains. It’s not pretty

We saw another lady that was wounded. We got on the radio and called for some help and marked her with smoke. A few minutes later up walks a captain, steps up to her, nudges her with his foot, steps back and blows her away.

We came across a ditch that had, I don’t know, a lot of bodies in it, a lot of movement in it. I landed, asked a sergeant there if he could help them out, these wounded people down there. He said he’d help them out, help them out of their misery, I believe. I was . . . shocked, I guess, I don’t know. I thought he was joking; I took it as a joke, I guess. We took off and broke away from them and my gunner, I guess it was, said, “My God, he’s firing into the ditch.” We’d asked for help twice, both times— well actually, three times by then, I guess— every time that people had been killed. We’d “help these people out” by asking for help.

Sometime later, we saw some people huddle in a bunker and the only thing I could see at that particular time was a woman, an old man, and a couple of kids standing next to it. We look over here and see them and look over there and see the friendly forces, so I landed the helicopter again. I didn’t want there to be any confusion or something; I really don’t know what was going on in my mind then.

I walked over to the ground units and said, “Hey, there’s some civilians over here in this bunker. Can you get them out?” They said, “Well, we’re gonna get them out with a hand grenade.” I said, “Just hold your people right here please, I think I can do better.” So I went over to the bunker and motioned for them to come out, everything was OK. At that time I didn’t know what I was going to do, because there was more than three or four there, more like nine or ten or something like that. So I walked back over to the aircraft and kind of kept them around me and called the pilot that was flying the low gunship and said, “Hey, I got these people here down on the ground, and you all land and get them out of here.” So he agreed to do that, which I think was the first time a gunship’s ever been used for that. There’s enough of them there that he had to make two trips and he picked them up and took them about ten miles or so behind the lines and dropped them off.

A short while later we went back to the ditch. There was still some movement in there. We got out of the aircraft and Androtta, my crew chief, walked down into the ditch. A few minutes later he came back up carrying a little kid. We didn’t know what we were gonna do with this one either, but we all get back in the aircraft and figure we’d get him back to the orphanage or hospital back over at Quang Ngai. In examining him in the aircraft that day, the kid wasn’t even wounded, or we didn’t see any wounds, I’ll put it that way. He was covered with blood, and the thought was going through my mind and my crew’s mind, “How did these people get in that ditch?”

After coming up with about three scenarios, one of them being an artillery round hit them, you wipe that out of your mind ’cause every house in Vietnam, I think, has a bunker underneath it. If artillery was coming there, they would go to the bunker; they wouldn’t go outside in the open area. Then I said, well, when artillery was coming, they were trying to leave and a round caught them in the ditch while they were going for cover. I threw that one out of my mind. Then something just sunk into me that these people were marched into that ditch and murdered. That was the only explanation that I could come up with.

Taking the child to the hospital was a day I’ll never forget. It was a very sad day, very mad day, very frustrated and everything. So later in the afternoon, (this was brought up when everything hit and became public during interrogations, the Department of the Army IG was asking me about the incident and I had totally blocked it out of my mind. I had no idea what this guy was questioning me for), after the mission that day, I went back to our operations area, which is over in LC Dottie and I was very upset. I was very mad.

I reported to my platoon leader. He said let’s go see the operations officer. In turn we went to our commander and the words were said for me that day that, you know, dean this up. “If this damn stuff is what’s happening here,” I told him, “You can take these wings right now ’cause they’re only sewn on with thread.” I was ready to quit flying.

My commander was very interested. Within a day or so— I don’t think it was that day, it was probably the next day— we were called up to the command bunker at LC Dottie and everybody gave their statements. This was a full colonel (a full colonel is next to a general); that means he can walk on water. He was very interested it seemed; I remember him taking notes and that was it, I do believe. I don’t know if I was called again to report to the commanding general.

There was one thing in my mind that I think, but I can’t be positive. Our two units were like sixty miles away. So we didn’t have contact with these ground people every day. A lot of people don’t understand that sixty miles into Vietnam is a long way away You just don’t go there. I guess I assumed something was being done. It wasn’t a colonel’s position to come down to a Wl and inform him of his investigation, that just was unheard of. It seemed like it was just dropped after that.

Approximately two years later is when it was broke publicly and that’s when all the investigations started. I was called before the US Senate, the Department of the Army IG and for every one of the court-martial investigations. They appointed Lieutenant General Peers to investigate this. I honestly think the Army thought they had a ‘yes-man’ when they got Lieutenant General Peers and found out when he released his final report that he was not a “yes-man.” I think he made a fairly accurate report of what happened that day.

I believe too, as everybody says, there was a cover-up and everybody’s talked about that the cover-up started on the ground. In my mind, I’m not real sure that’s where the cover-up started. I would not be the least bit surprised if this cover-up started “up” and worked its way all the way back down.

It was probably one of the saddest days of my life. I just could not believe that people could totally lose control and I’ve heard people say this happened all the time. I don’t believe it. I’m not naive to understand that innocent civilians did get killed in Vietnam. I truly pray to God that My Lai was not an everyday occurrence. I don’t know if anybody could keep their sanity if something like that happens all the time. I can see where four or five people get killed, something like that. But that was nothing like that, it was no accident whatsoever. Pure premeditated murder. And we’re trained better than that and it’s just not something you’d like to do.

What would possess men do commit such horrors? The day before, Captain Medina was briefed with intelligence that pointed to  My Lai as the haven for the 48th Vietcong Battalion. Company Commander, Colonel Oran Henderson led the briefing. Henderson stated that the company would have the opportunity to “meet the enemy head on” and encouraged his platoon leaders to be more aggressive. Lt. Barker and Captain Kotouc informed the troops civilians will have left for the markets in nearby Quang Ngai City when the attack is scheduled. Any civilians remaining in the villages would be considered Vietcong or actively sympathetic to the Vietcong. A recon flight of My Lai to scout landing zones took place that afternoon.

Captain Medina addressed Charlie Company after the reconnaissance flight.

Medina “embellishes”Barker’s orders and adds a “revenge element” in his briefing. He tells his men they will be outnumbered two to one, with 250 to 280 members of the 48th hiding outside of Son My. Charlie Company will be airlifted south of the village and will attack Son My, destroying the enemy forces. Medina encourages his men to destroy the crops and kill any livestock seen.

Within less than a month, Charlie Company is disbanded. The investigation into the incident would last a year. Calley and 25 others would face trial but only Calley would be found guilty.

The outrage over My Lai was limited to a small portion of the public. The majority of Americans believed it to be an isolated incident or some sort of conspiracy to make American troops look bad. Unfortunately, it did happen. It was an atrocity that was covered up and made “hush hush” in a time when America was on the verge of breaking in two over Vietnam.

Calley was seen a scapegoat by many. President Nixon received thousands of letters for Calley’s release and eventually the sentence was reduced from Life in Prison to 20 years, then to ten years, and eventually he was released in 1974.

Hugh Thompson was recognized for his courage and honesty with the Soldier’s Medal in 1998. 60 Minutes ran a story on Thompson and covered Thompson’s trip back to Vietnam.

Calley has only spoken once (2009) about the events of the day. He states:

“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”

And so too are we.

On April 26, 2010, American Experience on PBS will air a new program about the My Lai Massacre. It should be interesting. He is an old documentary on the subject.

For further reading and trial transcripts, see Douglas Linder’s Great Trials Site.

2 thoughts on “The My Lai Massacre

  1. While I know beyond any doubt that, had I been at My Lai, I would have done anything I could to stop it — and failing that to make the events public knowledge — at the same time, I believe in wiping out the enemy and all support or potential support for the enemy. I’m going to need better proof that My Lai wasn’t all those things. So, I guess, I will always have mixed emotions and conflicted opinions about My Lai.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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