If we sweep this and other atrocities from the previous wars under the carpet, then we can’t learn from the mistakes and ensure they aren’t repeated. We don’t like to admit they happen, but happen they do. Humanity in war is horrible, but it still doesn’t excuse the individuals when it happens. This is a two-part series. Next week, I’ll present an article outlining those atrocities committed by the VC/NVA. We still don’t know the underlying facts of why this order was given in the first place. This article is lengthy but quite thorough.


The Mỹ Lai massacre was the mass murder of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians by United States troops in Sơn Tịnh district, South Vietnam, on 16 March 1968 during the Vietnam War. U.S. Army soldiers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment and Company B, 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division killed between 347 and 504 unarmed people. Victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated, and some soldiers mutilated and raped children who were as young as 12. Twenty-six soldiers were charged with criminal offenses, but only Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a platoon leader in C Company, was convicted. Found guilty of murdering 22 villagers, he was originally given a life sentence but served three-and-a-half years under house arrest after President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence.

This war crime, which was later called “the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War”, took place in two hamlets of Sơn Mỹ village in Quảng Ngãi Province. These hamlets were marked on the U.S. Army topographic maps as Mỹ Lai and Mỹ Khê.

The U.S. Army slang name for the hamlets and sub-hamlets in that area was Pinkville, and the carnage was initially referred to as the Pinkville Massacre. Later, 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 Mỹ Lai Massacre in the United States and called the Sơn Mỹ Massacre in Vietnam.

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

The massacre prompted global outrage when it became public knowledge in November 1969. The massacre contributed to domestic opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, both because of the scope of killing and cover-up attempts.

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 (D–SC), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Thirty years later, these servicemen were recognized and decorated, one posthumously, by the U.S. Army for shielding non-combatants from harm in a war zone.

Mỹ Lai is the largest publicized massacre of civilians by U.S. forces in the 20th century.


Sơn Mỹ operations, 16 March 1968

Charlie Company, 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 contact with People’s Army of Vietnam or Viet Cong (VC) forces, by mid-March the company had suffered 28 casualties involving mines or booby-traps.

During the Tet Offensive in January 1968, attacks were carried out in Quảng Ngãi by the VC 48th Local Force Battalion. U.S. military intelligence assumed that the 48th 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 Mỹ Lai (6) – were suspected of harboring the 48th. Sơn Mỹ was located southwest of the Batangan Peninsula, a VC stronghold throughout the war.

Sơn Mỹ operations, 16 March 1968

In February and March 1968, the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) was aggressively trying to regain the strategic initiative in South Vietnam after the Tet Offensive, and the search-and-destroy operation against the 48th Battalion thought to be located in Sơn Mỹ became a small part of the US military’s overall strategy. Task Force Barker (TF Barker), a battalion-sized ad hoc unit of 11th Brigade, was to be deployed for the operation. It was formed in January 1968, and composed of three rifle companies of the 11th Brigade, including Charlie Company, led by Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Frank A. Barker. Sơn Mỹ village was included in the area of operations of TF Barker. The area of operations (AO) was codenamed Muscatine AO, after Muscatine County, Iowa, the home county of the 23rd Division’s commander, Major General Samuel W. Koster.

In February 1968, TF Barker had already tried to secure Sơn Mỹ, with limited success. After that, the village area began to be referred to as Pinkville by TF Barker troops.

On 16–18 March, TF Barker planned to engage and destroy the remnants of the 48th Battalion, allegedly hiding in the Sơn Mỹ village area. Before the 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 turn, LTC Barker reportedly ordered the 1st Battalion commanders to burn the houses, kill the livestock, destroy food supplies, and destroy and/or poison 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 07:00, and that any who remained would most likely be VC or VC sympathizers. He was asked whether the order included the killing of women and children. Those present later gave differing accounts of Medina’s response. Some, including platoon leaders, testified that the orders, as they understood them, were to kill all VC 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 quoted as saying, “They’re all VC, 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 Calley’s trial, one defense witness testified that he remembered Medina instructing to destroy everything in the village that was “walking, crawling or growling”.

Charlie Company was to enter the village of Sơn Mỹ spearheaded by 1st Platoon, engage the enemy, and flush them out. The other two companies from TF Barker were ordered to secure the area and provide support if needed. They designated the area a free fire zone, where American forces were allowed to deploy artillery and air strikes in populated areas, without consideration of risk to civilian or non-combatant lives. Varnado Simpson, a rifleman in Charlie Company, said, “We were told to leave nothing standing. We did what we were told, regardless of whether they were civilians.”


South Vietnamese women and children in Mỹ Lai before being killed in the massacre, 16 March 1968.  According to court testimony, they were killed seconds after the photo was taken. The woman on the right is adjusting her blouse buttons following an attempted sexual assault that happened before the massacre

On the morning of 16 March at 07:30, around 100 soldiers from Charlie Company led by Medina, following a short artillery and helicopter gunship barrage, landed in helicopters at Sơn Mỹ, a patchwork of individual homesteads, grouped settlements, rice paddies, irrigation ditches, dikes, and dirt roads, connecting an assortment of hamlets and sub-hamlets. The largest among them were the hamlets Mỹ Lai, Cổ Lũy, Mỹ Khê, and Tu Cung.

Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go… There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted.  David H. Hackworth

The GIs expected to engage the Vietcong Local Force 48th Battalion, which was one of the Vietcong’s most successful units. Although the GIs were not fired upon after landing, they still suspected there were VC guerrillas hiding underground or in the huts. Confirming their suspicions, the gunships engaged several armed enemies in the vicinity of Mỹ Lai, killing four; later, one weapon was retrieved from the site.

According to the operational plan, 1st Platoon, led by Second Lieutenant (2LT) William Calley, and 2nd Platoon, led by 2LT Stephen Brooks, entered the hamlet of Tu Cung in line formation at 08:00, while the 3rd Platoon, commanded by 2LT Jeffrey U. Lacross, and Captain Medina’s command post remained outside. On approach, both platoons fired at people they saw in the rice fields and in the brush.

Instead of the expected enemy, the GIs found women, children and old men, many of whom were cooking breakfast over outdoor fires. The villagers were getting ready for a market day and at first did not panic or run away, as they were herded into the hamlet’s common spaces and homestead yards. Harry Stanley, a machine gunner from Charlie Company, said during the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division inquiry that the killings started without warning. He first observed a member of 1st Platoon strike a Vietnamese man with a bayonet. Then the same trooper pushed another villager into a well and threw a grenade in. Next, he saw fifteen or twenty people, mainly women and children, kneeling around a temple with burning incense. They were praying and crying. They were all killed by shots to the head.

Most of the killings occurred in the southern part of Tu Cung, a sub-hamlet of Xom Lang, which was a home to 700 residents. Xom Lang was erroneously marked on the U.S. military operational maps of Quảng Ngãi Province as Mỹ Lai.

A large group of approximately 70–80 villagers was rounded up by 1st Platoon in Xom Lang and led to an irrigation ditch east of the settlement. They were then pushed into the ditch and shot dead by soldiers after repeated orders issued by Calley, who was also shooting. PFC Paul Meadlo testified that he expended several M16 rifle magazines. He recollected that women were saying “No VC” and were trying to shield their children. He remembered that he was shooting old men and women, ranging in ages from grandmothers to teenagers, many with babies or small children in their arms, since he was convinced at that time that they were all booby-trapped with grenades and poised to attack. On another occasion during the security sweep of My Lai, Meadlo again fired into civilians side by side with Lieutenant Calley.

PFC Dennis Konti, a witness for the prosecution, told of 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 Mỹ Lai during the security sweep. To ensure the hamlets could no longer offer support to the enemy, the livestock was shot as well.

When PFC Michael Bernhardt entered the sub hamlet 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 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 herded south of Xom Lang and killed on a dirt road. According to U.S. Army photographer Sgt. Ronald Haeberle‘s eyewitness account of the massacre, in one instance,

“There were some South Vietnamese people, maybe fifteen of them, women and children included, walking on a dirt road maybe 100 yards [90 m] away. All of a sudden the GIs 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.”

Calley testified that he heard the shooting and arrived on the scene. He observed his men firing into a ditch with Vietnamese people inside, then began to take part in the shooting himself, using an M16 from a distance of no more than 5 feet (1.5 m). During the massacre, a helicopter landed on the other side of the ditch and the pilot asked Calley if they could provide any medical assistance to the wounded civilians in Mỹ Lai; Calley admitted, replying that “a hand grenade was the only available means he had for their evacuation”. At 11:00 Medina radioed an order to cease fire, and 1st Platoon took a break, during which they ate lunch.

An unidentified man and child who were killed on a road

Members of 2nd Platoon killed at least 60–70 Vietnamese, as they swept through the northern half of Mỹ Lai and through Binh Tay, a small sub-hamlet about 400 meters (1,300 ft) north of Mỹ Lai. The platoon suffered one dead and seven wounded by mines and booby traps. After the initial sweeps by 1st and 2nd Platoons, 3rd Platoon was sent in to deal with any “remaining resistance”. 3rd Platoon, which stayed in reserve, also reportedly rounded up and killed a group of seven to twelve women and children.

Since Charlie Company did not meet any enemy opposition at Mỹ Lai and did not request back-up, Bravo Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of TF Barker was transported by air between 08:15 and 08:30 3 km (2 mi) away. It attacked the sub hamlet My Hoi of the hamlet known as Cổ Lũy, which was mapped by the Army as Mỹ Khê. During this operation, between 60 and 155 people, including women and children, were killed.

Over the remaining day, both companies were involved in the further burning and destruction of dwellings, as well as the continued mistreatment of Vietnamese detainees. While it was noted in the later Courts Martial proceedings that some soldiers of Charlie Company did not participate in any killings, it was also noted that they neither openly protested against them nor filed complaints later to their superiors.

William Thomas Allison, a professor of Military History at Georgia Southern University, 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 itself”.

By the time the killings stopped, Charlie Company had suffered one casualty – a soldier who had intentionally shot himself in the foot to avoid participating in the massacre – and just three enemy weapons were confiscated.


According to the Peers Commission Investigation, the US government allocated a commission for inquiry into the incident, which concluded at least 20 Vietnamese women and girls were raped during the Mỹ Lai massacre. Since there had been little research on the case other than that of the Peers Commission, which solely accounts for the cases with explicit rape signs like torn cloth and nudity, the actual number of rapes was not easy to estimate. According to the reports, the rape victims ranged between the ages of 10 – 45, with nine being under 18. The sexual assaults included gang rapes and sexual torture.

No U.S. serviceman was charged with rape. According to an eyewitness, as reported by Seymour Hersh in his book on the massacre, a woman was raped after her children were killed by the U.S. soldiers. Another Vietnamese villager also noticed soldiers raped a 13-year-old girl.

Helicopter crew intervention

Warrant officer Hugh Thompson Jr. played a major role in ending the Mỹ Lai Massacre and later testified in the military prosecution against the war criminals responsible.

Warrant officer Hugh Thompson Jr. played a major role in ending the Mỹ Lai Massacre and later testified in the military prosecution against the war criminals responsible.

Warrant Officer 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 Sơn Mỹ, 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 they could discern movement by survivors. Thompson asked a sergeant he encountered there (David Mitchell of 1st Platoon) if he could help get the people out of the ditch; the sergeant replied that he would “help them out of their misery”. Thompson, shocked and confused, then spoke with 2LT Calley, who claimed to be “just following orders”. As the helicopter took off, Thompson saw Mitchell firing into the ditch.

Thompson and his crew witnessed an unarmed woman being kicked and shot at point-blank range by Medina, who later claimed that he thought she had a hand grenade. Thompson then saw a group of civilians at a bunker being approached by ground personnel. Thompson landed, and told his crew that if the soldiers shot at the villagers while he was trying to get them out of the bunker, then they were to open fire on the soldiers.

Thompson threatened to shoot any American soldier who continued to fire upon the civilians

Thompson later testified that he spoke with a lieutenant (identified as Stephen Brooks of 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 aircrew members noticed several large groups of bodies. Spotting some survivors in the ditch, Thompson landed again. A crew member, Specialist 4 Glenn Andreotta, entered the ditch and returned with a bloodied but apparently unharmed four-year-old girl, who was then flown to safety.

Upon returning to the LZ Dottie base in his OH-23, Thompson reported to his section leader, Captain Barry Lloyd, that the American infantry was no different from Nazis in their slaughter of innocent civilians:

“It’s mass murder out there. They’re rounding them up and herding them in ditches and then just shooting them.”

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”. Other helicopter pilots and aircrew members confirmed Thompson’s statements.

For his actions at Mỹ Lai, they awarded Thompson the Distinguished Flying Cross, while they awarded his crew members Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn the Bronze Star. Glenn Andreotta was awarded 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 Mỹ Lai from “intense crossfire”, Thompson threw his medal away. He later received a Purple Heart for other services in Vietnam.

In March 1998, the Soldier’s Medal, the highest the U.S. Army can award for bravery replaced the helicopter crew’s medals 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 to accept the medal when the U.S. 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 contacted the survivors of Mỹ Lai.


Dead bodies outside a burning home.

After returning to base at about 11:00, Thompson reported the massacre to his superiors. His allegations of civilian killings quickly reached LTC Barker, the operation’s overall commander. Barker radioed his executive officer to find out from Medina what was happening on the ground. Medina then gave the cease-fire order to Charlie Company to “cut [the killing] out – knock it off”.

Since Thompson made an official report of the civilian killings, he was interviewed by Colonel Oran Henderson, the commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade. 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. Despite Thompson’s revealing information, Henderson issued a Letter of Commendation to Medina on 27 March 1968.

The following day, 28 March, the commander of Task Force Barker submitted a combat action report for the 16 March operation, in which he stated that the operation in Mỹ Lai was a success, with 128 VC combatants killed. The Americal Division commander, General Koster, sent a congratulatory message to Charlie Company.

General William C. Westmoreland, the head of MACV, also congratulated Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry for “outstanding action”, saying that they had “dealt the enemy a heavy blow.” Later, he changed his stance, 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. The official estimate by the local government remains 504.

Investigation and cover-up

Initial reports claimed “128 Viet Cong and 22 civilians” were killed in the village during a “fierce fire fight”. Westmoreland congratulated the unit on the “outstanding job”. As relayed at the time by Stars and Stripes magazine, “U.S. infantrymen had killed 128 Communists in a bloody day-long battle.

On 16 March 1968, in 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 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 they inadvertently killed some 20 civilians during the operation. According to Henderson’s report, the civilian casualties that occurred were accidental and mainly attributed to long-range artillery fire. The Army 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 MACV commander. He described ongoing and routine brutality against Vietnamese civilians by American forces in Vietnam that he had 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 I have 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 that 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 serving as assistant chief of staff of operations for the Americal Division, was charged with investigating the letter, which did not specifically refer to Mỹ Lai, as 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.” A 2018 US Army case study of the massacre noted that Powell “investigated the allegations described in the [Glen] letter. He proved unable to uncover either widespread unnecessary killings, war crimes, or any facts related to My Lai …” some observers later characterized Powell’s handling of the assignment 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 Mỹ Lai. I got there after Mỹ Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.”

Seven months prior to the massacre at Mỹ Lai, on Robert McNamara’s orders, the Inspector General of the U.S. Defense Department investigated press coverage of alleged atrocities committed in South Vietnam. In August 1967, the 200-page report “Alleged Atrocities by U.S. Military Forces in South Vietnam” occurred.

Independently of Glen, Specialist 5 Ronald L. Ridenhour, a former door gunner from the Aviation Section, Headquarters Company, 11th Infantry Brigade, sent a letter in March 1969 to thirty members of Congress imploring them to investigate the circumstances of the “Pinkville” incident. He and his pilot, Warrant Officer Gilbert Honda, flew over Mỹ Lai 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 himself had not been present when the massacre occurred, but his account was compiled from detailed conversations with soldiers of Charlie Company who had witnessed and, sometimes, took part in the killing. He became convinced that something “rather dark and bloody did indeed occur” at Mỹ Lai, 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 and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the President. He included the name of Michael Bernhardt, an eyewitness who agreed to testify, in the letter.

Most recipients of Ridenhour’s letter ignored it, except for Congressman Mo Udall and Senators Barry Goldwater and Edward Brooke. Udall urged the House Armed Services Committee to call on Pentagon officials to investigate.

Public revelation and reaction

Under mounting pressure caused by Ridenhour’s letter, on 9 September 1969, the Army quietly charged Calley with six specifications of premeditated murder for the deaths of 109 South Vietnamese civilians near the village of Sơn Mỹ, at a hamlet called simply “My Lai”.

Calley’s Courts Martial was not released to the press and did not begin until over a year later. However, word of Calley’s prosecution found its way to American investigative reporter and freelance journalist Seymour Hersh. My Lai was first revealed to the American public on November 13, 1969—almost two years after the incident—when Hersh published a story through the Dispatch News Service. The article threatened to undermine the U.S. war effort and severely damage the Nixon presidency. Inside the White House, officials privately discussed how to contain the scandal. On November 21, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger emphasized that the White House needed to develop a “game plan”, to establish a “press policy”, and maintain a “unified line” in its public response to the incident. The White House established a “My Lai Task Force” whose mission was to “figure out how best to control the problem”, to make sure that administration officials “all don’t go in different directions” when discussing the incident, and to “engage in dirty tricks”. These included discrediting key witnesses and questioning Hersh’s motives for releasing the story. What soon followed was a public relations offensive by the administration designed to shape how My Lai would be portrayed in the press and understood by the American public.

After extensive interviews with Calley, Hersh broke the Mỹ Lai story in 35 newspapers on 13 November 1969; the Alabama Journal in Montgomery and the New York Times ran separate stories on the allegations against Calley on the 12th and 13th of November, respectively; on 20 November, TimeLife and Newsweek 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.

As members of Congress called for an inquiry and news correspondents abroad expressed their horror at the massacre, they tasked the General Counsel of the Army Robert Jordan with speaking to the press. He refused to confirm allegations against Calley. Noting the significance of the fact that the statement was given at all, Bill Downs of ABC News said it amounted to the first public expression of concern by a “high defense official” that American troops “might have committed genocide”.

In November 1969, the Secretary of the Army and the Army Chief of Staff appointed Lieutenant General William R. Peers to thoroughly review the My Lai incident, 16–19 March 1968, and its investigation by the Army. Peers’s final report presented to higher-ups on 17 March 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.

According to Peers’s findings:

[The 1st Battalion] members had killed at least 175–200 Vietnamese men, women, and children. The evidence shows that it confirmed only 3 or 4 as Viet Cong although there were undoubtedly several unarmed VC (men, women, and children) among them and many more active supporters and sympathizers. They reported one man from the company as wounded by the accidental discharge of his weapon. … a tragedy of major proportions had occurred at Son My.

In a 2003 US Naval Academy lecture Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson said of the Peers report:

The Army had Lieutenant General William R. Peers investigate. He conducted a very thorough investigation. Congress did not like his investigation at all, because he pulled no punches, and he recommended court-martial for I think 34 people, not necessarily for the murder but for the cover-up. Really, the cover-up phase was probably as bad as the massacre itself, because he recommended court-martial for some very high-ranking individuals.

In 1968, an American journalist, Jonathan Schell, wrote that in the Vietnamese province of Quang Ngai, where the Mỹ Lai massacre occurred, the air strikes and artillery bombardments destroyed up to 70% of all villages, 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 Mỹ Lai, he stated, “There can be no doubt that such an atrocity was possible only because several 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 took part in Operation Speedy Express wrote a confidential letter to then Army Chief of Staff Westmoreland describing civilian killings he said were on the scale of the massacre occurring as “a My Lai each month for over a year” during 1968–69. 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 common occurrences of civilian killings during population pacification operations. Army policy also stressed very high body counts, and this resulted in dead civilians being marked down as combatants. Alluding to indiscriminate killings described as unavoidable, the commander of the 9th Infantry Division, then Major General 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 examined the evidence collected by the Peers inquiry regarding possible criminal charges. Eventually, Calley was charged with several counts of premeditated murder in September 1969, and they later charged 25 other officers and enlisted men with related crimes.

Court martial

On 17 November 1970, a court-martial in the United States charged 14 officers, including Major General Koster, the Americal Division’s commanding officer, with suppressing information related to the incident. They later dropped most of the charges. Brigade commander Colonel Henderson was the only high ranking commanding officer who stood trial on charges relating to the cover-up of the Mỹ Lai massacre; They acquitted him on 17 December 1971.

During the four-month-long trial, Calley consistently claimed that he was following orders from his commanding officer, Captain Medina. Despite that, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison on 29 March 1971, after being found guilty of the premeditated murder of not fewer than 20 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. The Army Court of Military Review upheld Calley’s conviction in 1973 and the U.S. Court of Military Appeals in 1974.

In August 1971, the convening authority reduced Calley’s sentence from life to twenty years. Calley would eventually serve three and one-half years under house arrest at Fort Benning including three months in the disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In September 1974, he was paroled by the Secretary of the Army, Howard Callaway.

In a separate trial, 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 he had suppressed evidence and had lied to Henderson about the number of civilian deaths.

Captain Kotouc, an intelligence officer from the 11th Brigade, was also court-martialed and found not guilty. They demoted Koster to brigadier general and lost his position as the Superintendent of West Point. His deputy, Brigadier General Young, received a letter of censure. They stripped both of Distinguished Service Medals which were awarded for service in Vietnam.

Of the 26 men initially charged, 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. Telford Taylor, a 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 Mỹ Lai.

Howard Callaway, Secretary of the Army, was quoted in The New York Times in 1976 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, aside from the Mỹ Lai courts-martial, there were 36 military trials held by the U.S. Army from January 1965 to August 1973 for crimes against civilians in Vietnam.

Some authors have argued that the light punishments of the low-level personnel present at Mỹ Lai and unwillingness to hold higher officials responsible was part of a pattern in which the body-count strategy and the so-called “Mere Gook Rule” encouraged U.S. soldiers to err on the side of killing suspected Vietnamese enemies even if there was a very good chance that they were civilians. This, Nick Turse argues, made lesser-known massacres similar to Mỹ Lai and a pattern of war crimes common 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 (ARVN) artillery and aerial bombardment, and remaining eyewitnesses were dispersed. They officially attributed the destruction to “Viet Cong terrorists”. Quaker service workers in the area gave 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 was published in The New York Times.

Many American soldiers who had been in Mỹ Lai during the massacre accepted personal responsibility for the loss of civilian lives. Some of them expressed regrets acknowledging no personal guilt, as, for example, Ernest 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.”

Lawrence La Croix, a squad leader in Charlie Company in Mỹ Lai, stated in 2010: “many people talk about Mỹ Lai, and they say, ‘Well, you know, yeah, but you can’t follow an illegal order.’ Trust me. There is no such thing. Not in the military. If I go into a combat situation and I tell them, ‘No, I’m not going. I’m not going to do that. I will not follow that order, well, they’d put me up against the wall and shoot me.”

On 16 March 1998, a gathering of local people and former American and Vietnamese soldiers stood together at the place of the Mỹ 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. Thompson saved her 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”. No American diplomats or any other officials attended the meeting.

More than a thousand people turned out on 16 March 2008, forty years after the massacre. The Sơn Mỹ Memorial drew survivors and families of victims and some returning U.S. veterans. One woman (an 8-year-old at the time) said, “they killed Everyone in my family in the Mỹ 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 Mỹ Lai and planted a peace garden.

On 19 August 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 Mỹ Lai”, he told members of the 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….If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a 2nd lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them—foolishly, I guess.”

Trần Văn Đức, seven years old at the time of the Mỹ 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 Mỹ Lai.

Here’s the link to the original article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%E1%BB%B9_Lai_massacre

If you are interested in reading more about the massacre and aftermath, then check out this second article on my website. Click here for access: https://cherrieswriter.com/2018/03/20/my-lai-a-stain-on-the-army/


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