On This Day

Ronald Haeberle My Lai, my lai massacre, my lai Haeberle photos
Ronald Haeberle/U.S. Army
My Lai villagers huddle together shortly
before being killed.

On This Day: American Soldiers Massacre Civilians at My Lai

March 16, 2012 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On March 16, 1968, U.S, troops carried out a massacre of around 500 men, women and children in the Vietnamese village of My Lai.

The My Lai Massacre

The C Company (better known as Charlie Company) of American Division's 11th Infantry Brigade spent the early months of 1968 tracking Viet Cong’s 48th Battalion in a region of Vietnam known to the U.S. military as Pinkville.

“The month of February has been devastating for Charlie Company. Frustration and anger from the loss of their companions led to aggression from traumatized soldiers,” writes PBS. On March 14, following the death of a sergeant from a booby trap, “In one of the first documented instances of outright aggression, frustrated and angry members of Charlie Company lash out—while passing through a Vietnamese village on their return to camp, troops shoot and kill a woman civilian working in a field.”

On the night of March 15, Capt. Ernest Medina, the commander of Charlie Company, told his men that all civilians would leave the village by 7:00 the following morning, leaving only VC soldiers and sympathizers. He ordered them to burn down the village, poison wells, and wipe out the enemy. Unbeknownst to the Army leadership, the 48th Battalion was nowhere near My Lai.

The following morning, after an aerial assault, Lt. William Calley’s 1st Platoon of Charlie Company led the attack on My Lai at 8:00 a.m. Expecting to encounter VC soldiers, the platoon entered the village firing. Instead, they found mostly women and children who denied that there were VC soldiers in the area. The American soldiers herded the villagers into groups and began burning the village. Calley gave explicit orders to kill and participated in the execution of unarmed villagers standing in groups and lying in ditches.

The New York Times provided an account of the massacre from a survivor in its Nov. 17, 1969 edition: “The three death sites were about 200 yards apart. When the houses had been cleared, the troops dynamited those made of brick and set fire to the wooden structures. They did not speak to the villagers and were not accompanied by an interpreter who could have explained their actions. Then the Vietnamese were gunned down where they stood. About 20 soldiers performed the executions at each of the three places, using their individual weapons, presumably M-16 rifles.”

The BBC describes, “Soldiers went berserk, gunning down unarmed men, women, children and babies. Families which huddled together for safety in huts or bunkers were shown no mercy. Those who emerged with hands held high were murdered. … Elsewhere in the village, other atrocities were in progress. Women were gang raped; Vietnamese who had bowed to greet the Americans were beaten with fists and tortured, clubbed with rifle butts and stabbed with bayonets. Some victims were mutilated with the signature ‘C Company’ carved into the chest.”

Few soldiers did anything to halt the massacre. One who did take action was Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, who witnessed the massacre from his helicopter. Realizing that civilians were being killed, he landed his helicopter near one of the ditches and rescued some survivors.

The Revelation of the My Lai Massacre and Trial

The Army initially portrayed the events as My Lai as a military victory with a small number of civilian casualties. A year later, Ronald Ridenhour, a discharged soldier who heard about the massacre from fellow soldiers, sent letters to leaders in Washington alerting them to the events. The Army opened an investigation and in September 1969 filed charges against Calley.

Two months later, in November 1969, the American public learned of the My Lai massacre as journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story. Several publications ran in-depth reports and published photographs taken by Army photographer Ronald Haeberle. The My Lai massacre intensified anti-war sentiment and raised questions about the quality of men being drafted into the military.

The Army would charge 25 officers, including Lt. Calley and Capt. Medina, for the massacre and its cover-up, though most would not reach court-martial. Lt. Calley, charged with premeditated murder, was the only man to be found guilty; he was initially given a life sentence, but after a public outcry he would serve just three and a half years of house arrest.

Historical Context: The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War claimed over 50,000 American and millions of Vietnamese lives. The conflict was mainly fought between the American military and guerillas aided by North Vietnam. The war continued until 1975, when U.S. forces withdrew and South Vietnam fell to the communist North Vietnamese.

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