My Lai Massacre Details: How The U.S. Became War Criminals During The Vietnam War
Have you ever wondered why Vietnam veterans are regarded as "baby killers" by certain political factions? It was because of the My Lai massacre, which was so horrific that it literally changed the way we teach war. In barest detail, a company of American soldiers killed 504 unarmed civilians—including over 170 children, 17 pregnant women, and 56 infants—in the village of My Lai on March 16, 1968. The massacre and subsequent cover-up deepened the bitter divide between doves and hawks on American soil.
Who Was Involved In The My Lai Massacre?
A group called Task Force Barker, named after Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Barker, was given the job of flushing out the Viet Cong from the area around My Lai in an effort to gain the upper hand after the Tet offensive. Formed in January 1968, it consisted of three rifle companies from the 11th Brigade, including 100 men from Charlie Company and another 100 from Bravo Company. The 11th Brigade commander, Colonel Oran K. Henderson, reportedly told his officers to "go in there aggressively, close with the enemy, and wipe them out for good," while the aforementioned Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Barker urged his men to "burn the houses, kill the livestock, destroy food supplies, and destroy the wells." To cap all this off, at the briefing the night before, Captain Ernest Medina assured his men that civilians would have left and anyone remaining was likely a V.C. member or sympathizer. Former Private 1st Class from Second Platoon Dennis Bunning phrased Medina's game plan this way:
"We’re going to get even with them for all the losses we've had. We're going in there, we're killing everything that's alive. We're throwing the bodies down the wells, we're burning the villages, and we're wiping them off of the map.”
Though perhaps too violent to be called a pep talk, Charlie Company certainly needed one. They were already down 28 men due to death or injury. Those who were left could reasonably be called "boys"—the group's average age was only 20 years old. Ron Haeberle, whose photographs would rock the world once the operation's cover was blown, was only 28. Lieutenant William Calley, who was ultimately the only one convicted, was even younger—just 24 years old—when he became notorious for the number of unarmed civilians he had slain and the extent of his actions.
What Happened In The My Lai Massacre?
Around 8:00 A.M. on March 16th, 1968, Charlie Company's Captain Medina led about 100 men into the village of Son My. Second Lieutenant William Calley led 1st Platoon and Second Lieutenant Stephen Brooks led 2nd Platoon into Tu Cung, while 3rd Platoon, commanded by Second Lieutenant Jeffrey U. Lacross, stayed back with Captain Medina. The soldiers shot briefly into the rice paddies on the way to the village, doubling back over a ditch to avoid attracting the purported enemy's attention.
Accounts differ over when the killing started. According to Harry Stanley, a machine gunner from Charlie Company, there was no warning. Other members of the 1st Platoon testified that Vietnamese casualties had already started racking up by the end of the first security sweep. The soldiers were indiscriminate—women, children, the elderly, and livestock were all gunned down. Private First Class Michael Bernhardt gave the following testimony:
"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."
Not three hours later, 1st Platoon took a lunch break in the middle of the carnage after Medina ordered them by radio to halt based on information given by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson. 2nd Platoon killed 60–70 Vietnamese people in the northern half of My Lai, what had been nicknamed Pinksville before the attack. They followed a similar scorched-earth policy, while 3rd Platoon was dispatched to take care of any "remaining resistance," which ended up meaning killing a group of 7–12 women and children. Having met no resistance, due in large part to the fact that the citizens were not part of the Viet Cong and had no weapons, Charlie Company had not called for backup. As a result, Bravo Company was transported 2 miles away, where they killed between 60–155 people, also largely women and children.
Who Is Second Lieutenant William Calley?
While members of both 1st and 2nd Platoon were responsible for the killings, Second Lieutenant William Calley drew the most attention for his part in the massacre. Not only was he in command of the 1st Platoon, stories of his personal role in the massacre paint a lurid picture. He and Private First Class Paul Meadlo used primarily M-16s to kill as many as 200 people in those two areas of Son My, including 79 children. Witnesses said Calley murdered a praying Buddhist monk and a young woman who had raised her hands in supplication. When he saw a two-year-old boy who had crawled out of the gory ditch where many villagers had already been mown down, they said, Calley threw the child back in and shot him. When Meadlo was asked about what happened, he broke into tears and replied "We just started wiping out the whole village."
Who Intervened In The My Lai Massacre?
Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Specialist Four Lawrence Colburn, and Specialist Four Glenn Andreotta were flying a reconnaissance mission by helicopter when they spotted what was going on below. "We kept flying back and forth," Thompson explained at a My Lai conference at Tulane University in 1994. "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."
Once they realized what was happening, Thompson landed the helicopter between Charlie Company and the civilians and ordered the soldiers to stop shooting on penalty of death. When Thompson asked Sergeant David Mitchell of the 1st Platoon for help getting people out of the ditch, Mitchell replied he would "help them out of their misery." Thompson followed up on that with Second Lieutenant Calley, who insisted he was just following orders.
In response, Thompson and his crew began helping survivors out of bunkers and ditches, ultimately flying at least 10 citizens to safety and medical care. For this, Thompson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, while Andreotta and Colburn were awarded the Bronze Star (in Andreotta's case, posthumously). Not willing to hold onto a medal that invented a crossfire at the slaughter, Thompson threw it away. Thirty years later, in 1998, he and his crew were awarded the Soldier's Medal, the highest U.S. Army award for bravery not involving direct conflict with the enemy. Thompson demanded that he and his crew receive the award publicly. You can hardly blame him, given the length and scale of the cover-up.
From the start, the My Lai massacre was framed as just another successful military event. According to the statement in the Five o' Clock Follies:
"In an action today, American Division forces killed 128 enemy near Quang Ngai City. Helicopter gunships and artillery missions supported the ground elements throughout the day."
This stance was repeated by the commander of Task Force Barker, whose combat action report stated that the mission was a success and that they had killed 128 Viet Cong. Colonel Henderson was put in charge of the first inquiry under orders from Brigadier General Geore H. Young, and after speaking with some of the soldiers involved, Young issued a written report capping off the civilian death toll at around 20 people. Six months later, Tom Glen of the 11th Light Infantry Brigade wrote to General Creighton Abrams to point out that American soldiers were not paying as much attention to the Geneva Conventions as they should. Army Major Colin Powell followed up with Glen's letter and ultimately reported that, in general, Americans and the Vietnamese people were getting along well.
Fortunately, yet another member of the 11th Brigade demanded a closer look at the soldiers' conduct at My Lai. Ron Ridenhour had heard rumors of the atrocities at My Lai, and while not actually present, he was convinced that it needed attention. He wrote to President Nixon, the State Department, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and multiple congressmen before his complaints were finally taken seriously by journalist Seymour Hersh, who published the story in November 1969.
After Inspector General William Enemark and Colonel William Wilson went together to investigate Ridenhour's claims, they spoke with Meadlo and found the ultimate evidence in the form of Ronald Haeberle's photos. They recommended that 28 officers be charged with crimes related to the massacre, but only 14 were, and just one—Second Lieutenant William Calley—was found guilty. Despite insisting that he was just following orders, Calley was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Why Did Calley Get Parole?
Surprisingly, Calley had widespread public support from people on both sides of the war. Pro-war folks thought he was just doing his duty, while the peaceniks believed that he was a scapegoat for the men in power who were actually responsible for the war. Not months after his conviction, the White House received over 300,000 letters in support of Calley, and he received more than 10,000 himself. Two musicians in Alabama wrote a song for him, and a professional showman from Georgia buried himself alive for nearly three months to raise money for Calley. Politicians joined in, with Indiana Governor Edgar Whitcomb asking for the flags to fly at half-staff, Governor John Bell Williams of Mississippi threatening to secede, and Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia beseeching his fellow citizens to "honor the flag as Rusty had done." (Rusty was once Calley's nickname.) Nixon ultimately caved to the public pressure and reduced Calley's life sentence to 10 years, but he ultimately served only three and a half before making parole.
What Were The Repercussions?
Prior to 1968, the Vietnam War had already begun to lose favor in the U.S. Once the My Lai massacre became public knowledge in late 1969, approval dove even lower. Soldiers lost morale, and a growing number ended up addicted to drugs. What little silver lining there is concerns the effect the events in My Lai had upon the Army's future.
In the words of Ike Wilson, a former Army colonel, "My Lai has been a centerpiece with regards to the ethics of war." According to Wilson, My Lai influenced the end of the draft, as volunteer officers tend to know (and hopefully act) better. Meanwhile, Air Force Major Logan Sisson, an ethics teacher in Colorado Springs, is careful to emphasize to his students that the only heroes at My Lai were the men in the helicopter who ended the brutality.