Thirty-two years ago this month, nine helicopters carrying members of Charlie Company landed in a rice paddy just south of the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. Four hours later, "My Lai was no more": its buildings were destroyed and its inhabitants--old men, women, children--lay dead or dying in ditches. No sooner had the massacre ended, than the cover-up began. Only because of the persistence and courage of two men, Hugh Thompson and Ronald Ridenhour, did what happen on the morning of March 16, 1968 come to light.
It would take three years, but finally the man who ordered the massacre of My Lai civilians, Lieutenant William Calley, would have his fate decided by a military jury in Fort Benning, Georgia following the longest court-martial in United States history. Rejecting Calley's defense of following superior orders, the jury in March, 1971 found Calley guilty of murder and sentenced him to life in prison. The verdict did not sit well with the American public (nearly 80% expressed disapproval), and represented a turning point in attitudes toward the Viet Nam war. Shortly after the Calley verdict, polls for the first time reported that a majority of Americans disapproved of the war in Southeast Asia.
The court-martial of William Calley is tough reading, but it is a story that contains lessons we should never forget.
University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law
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Two tragedies took place in 1968 in Viet Nam. One was the massacre by United States soldiers of as many as 500 unarmed civilians-- old men, women, children-- in My Lai on the morning of March 16. The other was the cover-up of that massacre.
U. S. military officials suspected Quang Ngai Province, more than any other province in South Viet Nam, as being a Viet Cong stronghold. The U. S. targeted the province for the first major U.S. combat operation of the war. Military officials declared the province a "free-fire zone" and subjected it to frequent bombing missions and artillery attacks. By the end of 1967, most of the dwellings in the province had been destroyed and nearly 140,000 civilians left homeless. Not surprisingly, the native population of Quang Ngai Province distrusted Americans. Children hissed at soldiers. Adults kept quiet.
Two hours of instruction on the rights of prisoners and a wallet-sized card "The Enemy is in Your Hands" seemed to have little impact on American soldiers fighting in Quang Ngai. Military leaders encouraged and rewarded kills in an effort to produce impressive body counts that could be reported to Saigon as an indication of progress. GIs joked that "anything that's dead and isn't white is a VC" for body count purposes. Angered by a local population that said nothing about the VC's whereabouts, soldiers took to calling natives "gooks."
Charlie Company came to Viet Nam in December, 1967. It located in Quang Ngai Province in January, 1968, as one of the three companies in Task Force Barker, an ad hoc unit headed by Lt. Col. Frank Barker, Jr. Its mission was to pressure the VC in an area of the province known as "Pinkville." Charlie Company's commanding officer was Ernest Medina, a thirty-three-year-old Mexican-American from New Mexico who was popular with his soldiers. One of his platoon leaders was twenty-four-year-old William Calley. Charlie Company soldiers expressed amazement that Calley was thought by anyone to be officer material. One described Calley as"a kid trying to play war." [LINK TO CHAIN OF COMMAND DIAGRAM] Calley's utter lack of respect for the indigenous population was apparent to all in the company. According to one soldier, "if they wanted to do something wrong, it was alright with Calley." The soldiers of Charlie Company, like most combat soldiers in Viet Nam, scored low on military exams. Few combat soldiers had education beyond high school.
Seymour Hersh wrote that by March of 1968 "many in the company had given in to an easy pattern of violence." Soldiers systematically beat unarmed civilians. Some civilians were murdered. Whole villages were burned. Wells were poisoned. Rapes were common.
On March 14, a small squad from "C" Company ran into a booby trap, killing a popular sergeant, blinding one GI and wounding several others. The following evening, when a funeral service was held for the killed sergeant, soldiers had revenge on their mind. After the service, Captain Medina rose to give the soldiers a pep talk and discuss the next morning's mission. Medina told them that the VC's crack 48th Battalion was in the vicinity of a hamlet known as My Lai 4, which would be the target of a large-scale assault by the company. The soldiers' mission would be to engage the 48th Battalion and to destroy the village of My Lai. By 7 A.M., Medina said, the women and children would be out of the hamlet and all they could expect to encounter would be the enemy. The soldiers were to explode brick homes, set fire to thatch homes, shoot livestock, poison wells, and destroy the enemy. The seventy-five or so American soldiers would be supported in their assault by gunship pilots.
Medina later said that his objective that night was to "fire them up and get them ready to go in there; I did not give any instructions as to what to do with women and children in the village." Although some soldiers agreed with that recollection of Medina's, others clearly thought that he had ordered them to kill every person in My Lai 4. Perhaps his orders were intentionally vague. What seems likely is that Medina intentionally gave the impression that everyone in My Lai would be their enemy.
At 7:22 A.M. on March 16, nine helicopters lifted off for the flight to My Lai 4. By the time the helicopters carrying members of Charlie Company landed in a rice paddy about 140 yards south of My Lai, the area had been peppered with small arms fire from assault helicopters. Whatever VC might have been in the vicinity of My Lai had most likely left by the time the first soldiers climbed out of their helicopters. The assault plan called for Lt. Calley's first platoon and Lt. Stephen Brooks' second platoon to sweep into the village, while a third platoon, Medina, and the headquarters unit would be held in reserve and follow the first two platoons in after the area was more-or-less secured. Above the ground, the action would be monitored at the 1,000-foot level by Lt. Col. Barker and at the 2,500-foot level by Oran Henderson, commander of the 11th Brigade, both flying counterclockwise around the battle scene in helicopters.
My Lai village had about 700 residents. They lived in either red-brick homes or thatch-covered huts. A deep drainage ditch marked the eastern boundary of the village. Directly south of the residential area was an open plaza area used for holding village meetings. To the north and west of the village was dense foliage [MAP].
By 8 A.M., Calley's platoon had crossed the plaza on the town's southern edge and entered the village. They encountered families cooking rice in front of their homes. The men began their usual search-and-destroy task of pulling people from homes, interrogating them, and searching for VC. Soon the killing began. The first victim was a man stabbed in the back with a bayonet. Then a middle-aged man was picked up, thrown down a well, and a grenade lobbed in after him. A group of fifteen to twenty mostly older women were gathered around a temple, kneeling and praying. They were all executed with shots to the back of their heads. Eighty or so villagers were taken from their homes and herded to the plaza area. As many cried "No VC! No VC!", Calley told soldier Paul Meadlo, "You know what I want you to do with them". When Calley returned ten minutes later and found the Vietnamese still gathered in the plaza he reportedly said to Meadlo, "Haven't you got rid of them yet? I want them dead. Waste them." Meadlo and Calley began firing into the group from a distance of ten to fifteen feet. The few that survived did so because they were covered by the bodies of those less fortunate.
What Captain Medina knew of these war crimes is not certain. It was a chaotic operation. Gary Garfolo said, "I could hear shooting all the time. Medina was running back and forth everywhere. This wasn't no organized deal." Medina would later testify that he didn't enter the village until 10 A. M., after most of the shooting had stopped, and did not personally witness a single civilian being killed. Others put Medina in the village closer to 9 A. M., and close to the scene of many of the murders as they were happening.
As the third platoon moved into My Lai, it was followed by army photographer Ronald Haeberle, there to document what was supposed to be a significant encounter with a crack enemy battalion. Haeberle took many pictures [HAEBERLE PHOTOS]. He said he saw about thirty different GIs kill about 100 civilians. Once Haeberle focused his camera on a young child about five feet away, but before he could get his picture the kid was blown away. He angered some GIs as he tried to photograph them as they fondled the breasts of a fifteen-year-old Vietnamese girl.
An army helicopter piloted by Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson arrived in the My Lai vicinity about 9 A.M. Thompson noticed dead and dying civilians all over the village. Thompson repeatedly saw young boys and girls being shot at point-blank range. Thompson, furious at what he saw, reported the wanton killings to brigade headquarters [THOMPSON'S STORY].
Meanwhile, the rampage below continued. Calley was at the drainage
ditch on the eastern edge of the village, where about seventy to eighty
old men, women, and children not killed on the spot had been brought.
Calley ordered the dozen or so platoon members there to push the people
into the ditch, and three or four GIs did. Calley ordered his men
to shoot into the ditch. Some refused, others obeyed. One who
followed Calley's order was Paul Meadlo, who estimated that he killed about
twenty-five civilians. (Later Meadlo was seen, head in hands, crying.)
Calley joined in the massacre. At one point, a two-year-old child who somehow survived the gunfire began running towards the hamlet. Calley grabbed the child, threw him back in the ditch, then shot him.
Hugh Thompson, by now almost frantic, saw bodies in the ditch, including a few people who were still alive. He landed his helicopter and told Calley to hold his men there while he evacuated the civilians. Thompson told his helicopter crew chief to "open up on the Americans" if they fired at the civilians. He put himself between Calley's men and the Vietnamese. When a rescue helicopter landed, Thompson had the nine civilians, including five children, flown to the nearest army hospital. Later, Thompson was to land again and rescue a baby still clinging to her dead mother.
By 11 A.M., when Medina called for a lunch break, the killing was nearly over. By noon, "My Lai was no more": its buildings were destroyed and its people dead or dying. Soldiers later said they didn't remember seeing "one military-age male in the entire place". By night, the VC had returned to bury the dead. What few villagers survived and weren't already communists, became communists. Twenty months later army investigators would discover three mass graves containing the bodies of about 500 villagers.
The cover-up of the My Lai massacre began almost as soon as the killing ended. Official army reports of the operation proclaimed a great victory: 128 enemy dead, only one American casualty (one soldier intentionally shot himself in the foot). The army knew better. Hugh Thompson had filed a complaint, alleging numerous war crimes involving murders of civilians. According to one of Thompson's crew members, "Thompson was so pissed he wanted to turn in his wings". An order issued by Major Calhoun to Captain Medina to return to My Lai to do a body count was countermanded by Major General Samuel Koster, who asked Medina how many civilians has been killed. "Twenty to twenty-eight," was his answer. The next day Colonel Henderson informed Medina that an informal investigation of the My Lai incident was underway-- and most likely gave the Captain "a good ass-chewing" as well. Henderson interviewed a number of GIs, then pronounced himself "satisfied" by their answers. No attempt was made to interview surviving Vietnamese. In late April, Henderson submitted a written report indicating that about twenty civilians had been inadvertently killed in My Lai. Meanwhile, Michael Bernhart, a Charlie Company GI severely troubled by what he witnessed at My Lai discussed with other GIs his plan to write a letter about the incident to his congressman. Medina, after learning of Bernhart's intentions, confronted him and told him how unwise such an action, in his opinion, would be.
If not for the determined efforts of a twenty-two-year-old ex-GI from Phoenix, Ronald Ridenhour, what happened on March 16, 1968 at My Lai 4 may never have come to the attention of the American people. Ridenhour served in a reconnaissance unit in Duc Pho, where he heard five eyewitness accounts of the My Lai massacre. He began his own investigation, traveling to Americal headquarters to confirm that Charlie Company had in fact been in My Lai on the date reported by his witnesses. Ridenhour was shocked by what he learned [RIDENHOUR'S STORY]. When he was discharged in December, 1968, Ridenhour said "I wanted to get those people. I wanted to reveal what they did. My God, when I first came home, I would tell my friends about this and cry-literally cry." In March, 1969, Ridenhour composed a letter detailing what he had heard about the My Lai massacre[LINK TO LETTER]and sent it to President Nixon, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and numerous members of Congress. Most recipients simply ignored the letter, but a few, most notably Representative Morris Udall, aggressively pushed for a full investigation of Ridenhour's allegations.
By late April, General Westmoreland, Army Chief of Staff, had turned the case over to the Inspector General for investigation. Over the next few months, dozens of witnesses were interviewed. It became apparent to all connected with the investigation that war crimes had been committed. In June, 1969, William Calley was flown back from Viet Nam to appear in a line-up for identification by Hugh Thompson. By August, the matter was in the hands of the army's Criminal Investigation Division for a determination as to whether criminal charges should be filed against Calley and other massacre participants. On September 5, formal charges, included six specifications of premeditated murder, were filed against Calley.
Calley hired as his attorney George Latimer, a Salt Lake City lawyer with considerable military experience, having served on the Military Court of Appeals. Latimer pronounced himself impressed with Calley. "You couldn't find a nicer boy," he said, adding that if Calley was guilty of anything it was only following orders "a bit too diligently."
Meanwhile, the issue of the My Lai massacre had gotten the attention of President Nixon. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird briefed Nixon at his San Clemente retreat. The White House proceeded with caution, sensing the potential of the incident to embarrass the military and undermine the war effort. The President characterized what happened at My Lai as an unfortunate aberration, as "an isolated incident."
In November, 1969, the American public began to learn the details of what happened at My Lai 4. The massacre was the cover story in both Time and Newsweek. CBS ran a Mike Wallace interview with Paul Meadlo. Seymour Hersh published in depth accounts based on his own extensive interviews. Life magazine published Haeberle's graphic photographs.
Reaction to the reports of the massacre varied. Some politicians, such as House Armed Services Subcommittee Chair L. Mendel Rivers maintained that there was no massacre and that reports to the contrary were merely attempts to build opposition to the Viet Nam war. Others called for an open, independent inquiry. The Administration took a middle course, deciding on a closed-door investigation by the Pentagon, headed by William Peers, a blunt three-star general.
For four months the Peers Panel interviewed 398 witnesses, ranging from General Koster to the GIs of Charlie Company. Over 20,000 pages of testimony were taken. The Peers Report criticized the actions of both officers and enlisted men. The report recommended action against dozens of men for rape, murder, or participation in the cover-up.
The Army's Criminal Investigation Division continued its separate
investigation. Most of the enlisted men who committed war crimes
were no longer members of the military, and thus immune from prosecution
A 1955 Supreme Court decision, Toth vs Quarles, held that military courts cannot try former members of the armed services "no matter how intimate the connection between the offense and the concerns of military discipline." Decisions were made to prosecute a total of twenty-five officers and enlisted men, including General Koster, Colonel Oran Henderson, Captain Medina. In the end, however, only few would be tried and only one, William Calley, would be found guilty. The top officer charged, General Samuel Koster, who failed to report known civilian casualties and conducted a clearly inadequate investigation was, according to General Peers, the beneficiary of a whitewash, having charges against him dropped and receiving only a letter of censure and reduction in rank. Colonel Henderson was found not guilty on all charges after a trial by court martial. Peers again expressed his disapproval, writing "I cannot agree with the verdict. If his actions are judged as acceptable standards for an officer in his position, the Army is indeed in deep trouble."
Captain Ernest Medina faced charges of murdering 102 Vienamese civilians. The charges were based on the prosecution's theory of command responsibility: Medina, as the officer in charge of Charlie Company should be accountable for the actions of his men. If Medina knew that a massacre was taking place and did nothing to stop it, he should be found guilty of murder. (Medina was originally charged also with dereliction of duty for participating in the coverup, but the offense was dropped because the statute of limitations had run.) Medina was subjected to a lie-detector test which tended to show he responded truthfully when he said that he did not intentionally suggest to his men that they kill unarmed civilians. The same test, however, tended to to show that his contention that he first heard of the killing of unarmed civilians about 10 to 10:30 A.M. was not truthful, and that he in fact knew non-combattants were being killed sometime between 8 A.M. and 9 A.M., when there would still have been time to prevent many civilian deaths. The prosecution, led by Major William Eckhardt, was unable, however, to get the damaging lie-detector evidence admitted. Medina's lawyer, flamboyant defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, conducted a highly successful defense, forcing the prosecution to drop key witnesses and keeping damaging evidence, such as Ronald Haeberle's photographs, from the jury. After fifty-seven minutes of deliberation, the jury acquitted Medina on all charges. (Months later, when a perjury prosecution was no longer possible, Medina admitted that he had suppressed evidence and lied to the brigade commander about the number of civilians killed.)
The strongest government case was that against Lt. William Calley. On November 12, 1970, in a small courthouse in Fort Benning, Georgia, young Prosecutor Aubrey Daniel stood to deliver his opening statement: "I want you to know My Lai 4. I will try to put you there." Captain Daniel told the jury of six military officers the shocking story of Calley's role in My Lai's tragedy: his machine-gunning of people in the plaza area south of the hamlet; his orders to men to execute men, women, and children in the eastern drainage ditch; his butt-stroking with his rifle of an old man; his grabbing of a small child and his throwing of the child into the ditch, then shooting him at point-blank range. Daniel told the jury that at the close of evidence he would ask them to "in the name of justice" convict the accused of all charges.
Daniel built the prosecution's case methodically. For days, the grisly evidence accumulated without a single witness directly placing Calley at the scene of a shooting. One of the early witnesses was Ronald Haeberle, the army photographer whose pictures brought home the horror of My Lai [TESTIMONY OF HAEBERLE]. Another was Hugh Thompson, My Lai's hero. Defense attorney Latimer's handling on cross of Haeberle, Thompson, and other witnesses led many courtroom observers to conclude that his glowing reputation was undeserved. His questioning of Haeberle, whose credibility was largely irrelevant, was pointless. His attempt to question Thompson's heroism "failed utterly," according to Richard Hammer, author of The Court-Martial of Lt. Calley.
In the second week of the trial Daniel began to call his more incriminating witnesses. Robert Maples, a machine gunner in the first platoon, testified that he saw Calley near the eastern drainage ditch, firing at the people below. Maples said that Calley asked him to use his machine gun on the Vietnamese in the ditch, but that he refused [TESTIMONY OF MAPLES]. Dennis Conti provided equally damning evidence. Conti testified that he was ordered to round up people, mostly women and children, and bring them back to Calley on the trail south of the hamlet. Calley, Conti said, told us to make them "squat down and bunch up so they couldn't get up and run." Minutes later Calley and Paul Meadlo "fired directly into the people. There were burst and shots for two minutes. The people screamed and yelled and fell." Conti said that Meadlo "broke down" and began crying [TESTIMONY OF CONTI].
The prosecution's final witness was its most anticipated witness.
Paul Meadlo had been promised immunity from military prosecution in return
for his testimony in the Calley case, but when he was called earlier in
the trial, Meadlo had refused to answer questions about March 16, 1968,
claiming his fifth amendment right not to incriminate himself. Daniel
called Meadlo to the stand for a second time, and the ex-GI, who had lost
a foot to a mine shortly after the massacre, limped to the stand in his
green short-sleeve shirt and green pants. Judge Kennedy warned Meadlo
that if he refused to answer questions, two U. S. marshals would take him
Meadlo said he would testify. He told the jury that Calley had left him with a large group of mostly women and children south of the hamlet saying, "You know what to do with them, Meadlo." Meadlo thought Calley meant he should guard the people, which he did. Meadlo told the jury what happened when Calley returned a few minutes later:
He said, "How come they're not dead?" I said, I didn't
know we were supposed to kill them." He said, I want them
dead." He backed off twenty or thirty feet and started shooting into the people -- the Viet Cong -- shooting automatic. He was
beside me. He burned four or five magazines. I burned off a few, about there. I helped shoot �em.
Q: What were the people doing after you shot them?
A: They were lying down.
Q: Why were they lying down?
A: They was mortally wounded.
Q: How were you feeling at that time?
A: I was mortally upset, scared, because of the briefing we had the day before.
Q: Were you crying?
A: I imagine I was....
Daniel then asked Meadlo about the massacre at the eastern drainage ditch, and in the same almost emotionless voice, Meadlo recounted the story, telling the jury that Calley fired from 250 to 300 bullets into the ditch. One exchange was remarkable:
Q: What were the children in the ditch doing?
A: I don't know.
Q: Were the babies in their mother's arms?
A: I guess so.
Q: And the babies moved to attack?
A: I expected at any moment they were about to make a counterbalance.
Q: Had they made any move to attack?
At the end of Meadlo's testimony, Aubrey Daniel rested the for the prosecution[MEADLO'S TESTIMONY].
The defense strategy had two main thrusts. One was to suggest that the stress of combat, the fear of being in an area thought to be thick with the enemy, sufficiently impaired Calley's thinking that he should not be found guilty of premeditated murder for his killing of civilians. Latimer relied on New York psychiatrist Albert LaVerne to advance this defense argument [LAVERNE TESTIMONY]. The second argument of the defense was that Calley was merely following orders: that Captain Ernest Medina had ordered that civilians found in My Lai 4 be killed and was the real villain in the tragedy.
On February 23, 1971, William Calley took the stand. He told the jury he couldn't remember a single army class on the Geneva Convention, but that he did know he could be court-martialed for refusing to obey an order. He testified that Medina had said the night before that there would be no civilians in My Lai, only the enemy. He said that while he was in the village, Medina called and asked why he hadn't "wasted" the civilians yet. He admitted to firing into a ditch full of Vietnamese, but claimed that others were already firing into the ditch when he arrived. Calley said, "I felt then--and I still do-- that I acted as directed, I carried out my orders, and I did not feel wrong in doing so" [CALLEY TESTIMONY].
Ernest Medina was called as a witness of the court. Medina directly contradicted Calley's testimony. Medina said he was asked at the briefing on March 15 whether "we kill women and children," and-- looking straight at Calley behind the defense table--he said to the GIs "No, you do not kill women and children...Use common sense." At the close of his testimony, Medina saluted Judge Kennedy, then marched past Calley's table without glancing at him [MEDINA TESTIMONY].
It was time for summations. George Latimer for the defense argued that Medina was lying about not giving the order to kill civilians, that Medina knew perfectly well what was going on in the village, and now he and the army were trying to make Calley a scapegoat[LATIMER SUMMATION]. Aubrey Daniel for the prosecution asked the jury who will speak for the children of My Lai. He pointed out that Calley as a U. S. officer took an oath not to kill innocent women and children, and told the jury it is "the conscience of the United States Army"[DANIEL SUMMATION].
After thirteen days of deliberations, the longest in U. S. court-martial history, the jury returned its verdict: guilty of premeditated murder on all specifications. After hearing pleas on the issue of punishment, jury head Colonel Clifford Ford pronounced Calley's sentence: "To be confined at hard labor for the length of your natural life; to be dismissed from the service; to forfeit all pay and allowances."
Opinion polls showed that the public overwhelmingly disapproved of the verdict in the Calley case [OPINION POLLS]. President Nixon ordered Calley removed from the stockade and placed under house arrest. He announced that he would review the whole decision. Nixon's action prompted Aubrey Daniel to write a long and angry letter in which he told the President that "the greatest tragedy of all will be if political expediency dictates the compromise of such a fundamental moral principle as the inherent unlawfulness of the murder of innocent persons" [AUBREY LETTER]. On November 9, 1974, the Secretary of the Army announced that William Calley would be paroled. In 1976, Calley married. He now works in the jewelry store of his father-in-law in Columbus, Georgia.
My Lai mattered. Two weeks after the Calley verdict was announced, the Harris Poll reported for the first time that a majority of Americans opposed the war in Viet Nam. The My Lai episode caused the military to re-evaluate its training with respect to the handling of noncombatants. Commanders sent troops in the Desert Storm operation into battle with the words, "No My Lais-- you hear?"