In one of the most horrific incidents of violence against civilians during the Vietnam War, a company of American soldiers brutally killed the majority of the population of the South Vietnamese village of Mỹ Lai on 16 March 1968.
On the morning of 16 March, around 100 soldiers from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division were transported to the area by helicopter expecting to engage the Vietcong Local Force 48th Battalion.
According to the operational plan, 1st Platoon, led by Second Lieutenant William Calley, and 2nd Platoon, led by Second Lieutenant Stephen Brooks, entered the hamlet of Tu Cung while the 3rd Platoon, commanded by Second Lieutenant Jeffrey U. Lacross and Captain Ernest Medina’s command post remained outside. On approach, both platoons fired at people they saw in the rice fields.
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 US 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 the well. 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.
A large group of approximately 80 villagers was rounded up by 1st Platoon 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 were poised to attack.
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.
Though exact numbers were never confirmed, it is believed that as many as 500 people were killed in the Mỹ Lai Massacre, including women, children and the elderly.
The US 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.
Higher-ranking US Army officers managed to cover up the events of that day for a year before revelations by a soldier sparked a wave of international outrage and led to a special investigation into the matter.
The brutality of the Mỹ Lai killings and the extent of the cover-up aggravated growing antiwar sentiment on the homefront in the United States and further divided the nation over the continuing American presence in Vietnam.
On 17 November 1970, a court-martial charged 14 officers, including Major General Koster, the Division’s commanding officer, with suppressing information related to the incident. Most of the charges were later dropped. 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; he was acquitted on 17 December 1971.
During the four-month-long trial, William Calley (pictured below) 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. Calley’s conviction was upheld by the Army Court of Military Review in 1973 and by the US Court of Military Appeals in 1974.
In August 1971, Calley’s sentence was reduced by the convening authority from life to twenty years. Calley would eventually serve just 3½ years under house arrest at Fort Benning including three months in a disciplinary barracks in 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 11th Brigade, was also court-martialed and found not guilty. Koster was demoted to brigadier general and lost his position as the Superintendent of West Point. His deputy, Brigadier General Young, received a letter of censure. Both were stripped of Distinguished Service Medals which had been awarded for service in Vietnam.
Of the 26 men initially charged, Calley was the only one convicted.