On the morning of 16 March 1968, a group of American soldiers — mostly members of Charlie Company, US 1st Battalion 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd Infantry Division — tortured and murdered hundreds of inhabitants of the tiny hamlets of My Lai and My Khe in the village of Son My, located in the northeast portion of what was then South Vietnam.
The majority of victims were women, children and the elderly. Many of the women and young girls were raped — some multiple times — and disfigured.
3 American soldiers tried to stop the rape and slaughter carried out at the hands of their own countrymen and eventually succeeded, though far too late.
Of the 26 men charged with criminal offences, only 1 man was ever convicted of any crime connected to the atrocity.
Innocent victims of bad intelligence, inhumanity or the reality of war?
Estimates of deaths among the victims at My Lai range between 300 and 507, all non-combatants, unarmed and unresisting. The few that managed to survive did so by hiding beneath dead bodies. Several were also rescued.
According to sworn testimony, Captain Ernest Medina told the soldiers of Charlie Company that they would not encounter innocents in the village on 16 March because the civilian residents would have left for the market by 7 AM. Only enemies and enemy sympathisers would be left.
Some accounts claimed that Medina elaborated on the identity of the enemy using the following description and instructions:
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.
Others attested that orders included killing children and animals and even polluting the village wells.
Lieutenant William Calley, leader of the Charlie Company’s 1st Platoon and the 1 person convicted of any crime at My Lai, told his men to enter the village while firing. No enemy fighters were encountered and no shots were fired against the soldiers.
Calley himself was witnessed dragging small children into a ditch and then executing them.
Cover-up, press exposure and trials
US military authorities received many letters detailing brutal, illegal atrocities committed by soldiers in Vietnam, My Lai included. Some were from soldiers, others from journalists.
Initial statements by the 11th Brigade described a fierce firefight, with ‘128 Viet Cong and 22 civilians’ dead and only 3 weapons captured. When questioned, Medina and 11th Brigade Colonel Oran K Henderson maintained the same story.
A young GI named Ron Ridenhour, who was in the same brigade but a different unit, had heard of the atrocity and gathered accounts from several eyewitness and perpetrators. He sent letters about what he had heard really happened at My Lai to 30 Pentagon officials and members of Congress, exposing the cover-up.
Helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, who was flying over the site at the time of the slaughter, spotted dead and wounded civilians on the ground. He and his crew radioed for help and then landed. He then questioned members of Charlie Company and witnessed more brutal killings.
Shocked, Thompson and crew managed to rescue several civilians by flying them to safety. He reported what happened several times by radio and later in person to superiors, pleading emotionally. This lead to the end of the massacre.
Furthermore, the killings were documented by Army photographer Ron Haeberle, whose personal photos were published nearly a year later by various magazines and newspapers.
Haeberle destroyed photos actually showing soldiers in the act of killing, leaving those of civilians, both alive and dead, as well as soldiers setting fire to the village.
After lengthy interviews with Calley, Journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story on 12 November 1969 in an Associated Press cable. Several media outlets picked it up afterwards.
Putting My Lai in context
While the killing of innocent people is commonplace in all warfare, this does not mean it should considered normal, much less when it is deliberate murder. The My Lai massacre represents the worst, most dehumanising kind of civilian wartime death.
The horrors of war and confusion over who and where the enemy was certainly contributed to an atmosphere of paranoia among the US ranks, which were at their numerical height in 1968. So did official and unofficial indoctrination intended to incite hatred of all Vietnamese, including children who ‘were very good at planting mines’.
Many veterans of the Vietnam War have attested that what happened at My Lai was far from unique, but rather a regular occurrence.
Though far removed from the horrors of the battlefield, years of propaganda similarly affected public opinion back in the US. After the trial, there was a large public objection to Calley’s conviction and life sentence for 22 counts of premeditated murder. A poll found that 79% strongly objected to the verdict. Some veterans’ groups even suggested he receive a medal instead.
In 1979 President Nixon partially pardoned Calley, who only ever served 3.5 years of house arrest.