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  • James Houser

March 16, 1968 - My Lai Massacre

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

March 16, 1968. Something “dark and bloody” happens in the chaos of the Vietnam War. C Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment launches an assault into the South Vietnamese towns marked on the map as My Lai. What happens next will shock the world.

Again, ***TRIGGER WARNING, NO JOKE.*** Especially for pictures.

I really hate having to say that.

The Viet Cong/North Vietnamese attack known as the Tet Offensive (see my January 30 post) prompted major American counterstrikes across the country. Army intelligence believed that the 48th Viet Cong (VC) Battalion, after its attacks in the Quang Ngai province, had retreated and was hiding near the village of Son My, designated by the Americans as My Lai. My Lai was close to multiple VC strongholds, and rooting out the 48th Battalion became a new American objective.

The troops selected for the attack included C Company of the 1-20th Infantry, under the overall leadership of 11th Brigade and 23rd Infantry Division, Major General Samuel Koster commanding. Several attacks in February had swept the area around Son My with limited success. From these failures, Koster became convinced that the VC were concentrated in My Lai. He ordered that C Company go in to the Son My/My Lai area and “close with the enemy and wipe them out for good.” Off the record, he encouraged his officers to burn the houses, destroy the food, and destroy the water supply.

Location of My Lai

Captain Ernest Medina commanded C Company, and informed his men that all the civilians had evacuated Son My – anyone left was to be automatically treated as VC insurgent. When his soldiers asked him if the orders to kill everyone they found included women and children, he was quoted as saying “They’re all VC, now go and get them.” Another witness described Medina as telling his troops to kill anything that was “walking, crawling, or growing.”

It’s important to establish the state of the United States Army in Vietnam at this point. The discipline and morale of its soldiers had been eroded since the war first ramped up in 1965. Political turmoil and the unpopularity of the war at home, as well as widespread frustration and bitterness over the war, had sapped the military’s ethics and values. C Company had recently lost many soldiers, including a popular NCO to a land mine.

Observers have noted that the situation bears a large resemblance to the Black Hearts incident of 2006 (see my March 12 post.) A demoralized unit under heavy combat stress, with uncaring superiors in a situation of opportunity committed an awful act. The incident at My Lai, though, far outstrips Black Hearts in scale and command culpability. The constant American use of overwhelming firepower, blatant treatment of the civilian population as the enemy, and obsession with “body counts” as a means of measuring victory were all directed by general officers and above, not a function of the junior officers. The Army’s leaders in Vietnam created the conditions for what happened next.

On March 16 at 0730, 100 soldiers from Charlie Company landed from helicopters into My Lai – a beehive of villages, rice paddies, and ditches. Even though the soldiers were not fired on, they attested to several armed enemies in the village, though only one weapon was retrieved at the site. 1st Platoon, under Lieutenant William Calley, swept into the town with guns blazing. The platoons opened fire on anyone they saw outside the village, and herded the frightened Vietnamese civilians into the center of the settlement.

Witnesses said the killings started without warning. As the civilians were forced into a packed mass, one soldier slashed a civilian with his bayonet; another pushed a civilian down a well and followed with a grenade. A group of praying women and children were surrounded and killed with shots to the head, and then everything went mad.

Women and children at My Lai moments before death, 1968.

Lieutenant Calley and his platoon rounded up 70 to 80 villagers and led them to a ditch on the edge of the village. Calley ordered his soldiers to fire, then started firing himself. The women yelled “No VC” and tried to shield their children, but the officers had convinced the soldiers that any woman concealing a baby probably had a booby-trapped grenade. They were all shot down. When the children got up and began to run away, Calley shot them too.

The Dead of My Lai.

This was only one of many fronts to this massacre. The other two platoons of C Company also swept through the village, rounded up men, women, and children, and massacred them as well. When a helicopter pilot landed and asked Calley if the civilians needed any medical care, Calley responded that the only care they needed were grenades. As C Company slaughtered its way through My Lai, its soldiers committed gang rapes and sexual assaults in addition to horrific killings. The company even took a lunch break, sitting on the ruins of the village to wolf down K-rations, before returning to the slaughter.

Dead of the My Lai Massacre, photographed the subsequent day

Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, providing close air support in his OH-23 helicopter, observed saw dead and wounded civilians during one of his passes, and radioed for medical aid for the civilians. When Thompson landed his helicopter, Calley approached him and happily indicated the massacre. Shocked and disturbed, Thompson took off, but not before witnessing Captain Medina shooting an unarmed woman at point blank range.

Thompson became determined to end the massacre however he could. Several times, Thompson landed his helicopter between advancing soldiers and bodies of civilians, standing in front of the unarmed people as they loaded into his helicopter. Thompson may have saved around 17 people from the massacre. As soon as he returned to his base, low on fuel, Thompson ran to his commander and informed him of the “murders” he had seen.

When Thompson’s report made it to higher headquarters, they radioed Captain Medina to ask him what was going on. Medina ordered a cease fire and the troops began to withdraw from My Lai. Thompson’s intervention had stopped the horrific massacre.

Hugh Thompson, Jr., photographed 1966

At first, the Army tried to cover up the crime. The “victory” at My Lai was reported to have killed 128 VC combatants, despite the fact that C Company had encountered no enemy fire and found no weapons in My Lai itself, and only one weapon in the whole village complex. General Koster sent a message of congratulation to C Company, and even General Westmoreland extolled them for their courage and for their “outstanding action.” Thompson’s report of the massacre was quashed, and the whole Army chain of command in Vietnam tried to cover up the incident. The commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade undertook a weak investigation before concluding that around 20 civilians had been killed in the crossfire, acceptable “wastage” in the face of a victory.

It is estimated that between 347 to 504 civilians were murdered at My Lai. This was not a secret that could be kept for long. Multiple soldiers, weighed down by the guilt of what they did and by the praise their unit received for the alleged triumph, began to write to their Congressmen. Specialist Ronald Ridenhour, a helicopter door gunner, wrote to several Congressmen about something “rather dark and bloody” that every soldier in Vietnam knew had happened at My Lai. While most Congressmen ignored it, Congressman Mo Udall and Senator Barry Goldwater both took notice and began pushing for an investigation.

By November 1969, the story had broken. Journalist Seymour Hersh interviewed Calley and filed his report with the AP; soon Time, Life, and Newsweek all carried stories about the My Lai Massacre and even obtained photographs of the dead villagers. The Army carried out an investigation that month, and soon found that top officers at brigade, division, and higher had participated in the cover-up of the My Lai Massacre. The report, however, tried to place the majority of the blame on officers that were already dead or had left the Army.

Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who had saved civilians and ended the massacre, was called to Washington as a witness. Thompson had broken his back in a crash landing and had received a Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions at My Lai, but the fabricated events in the award (for saving civilians “caught in intense crossfire” and “greatly enhancing Vietnamese-American relations in the operational area”) prompted him to toss the medal in the trash. Thompson had been disgusted with the massacre, and even though he had saved hundreds or even thousands of lives, he was mortified to be associated with the entire incident.

In late 1969, Thompson arrived in Washington for questioning by the Army’s investigators. He also appeared before a special closed hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, where he was jeered and accused of treason by several Congressmen who refused to believe American soldiers could have committed atrocities. Mendel Rivers of South Carolina publicly stated that, for turning his weapons on fellow Americans, Thompson was the true criminal at My Lai. For the rest of his life, Hugh Thompson received death threats over the phone, animal carcasses on his doorstep, and was vilified by many Americans as a traitor for his testimony against the perpetrators of the My Lai Massacre.

November 1970 finally saw a court-martial charge 14 officers, including General Koster, Captain Medina, and Lieutenant Calley. Most of the charges were dropped. No one was ever convicted of covering up the Massacre, and all the high-ranking officers involved in the event also walked. Of all the charges, only Calley’s actually found their way to conviction; based on Thompson’s testimony and that of others, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for premeditated murder. President Nixon ordered his sentence commuted to house arrest on Fort Benning, and the Army paroled Calley in September 1974.

The light punishments meted out for the My Lai Massacre stand as a dark, dark spot on the US Army. The Vietnam War is something that most who served in or around it would rather forget than commemorate, and My Lai is one of the worst things to remember. No justice was ever done, no restitution ever occurred, and the only hero of the whole affair was villainized by his countrymen.

Nevertheless, the Army learned from My Lai. As I noted above, the crime has been compared to the Black Hearts Massacre in terms of the impact poor morale, rotten discipline, and terrible leadership can have in stripping away humanity and opening the darkest recesses of cruelty locked away beneath our layers of civilization. After the Black Hearts affair, though, the Army reacted promptly. Almost all its leaders took the reports of the crime seriously as soon as they realized something was amiss, the unit was taken out of action, and the soldiers responsible were found guilty and remain confined to this day. Even if the actions could not be undone, the Army has regained its moral integrity and good faith when it comes to actions like these.

This integrity can only be undone when, say, a President pardons convicted war criminals. Hypothetically. If My Lai is any indication, the attitudes of superiors mean a lot when it comes to the integrity and honor of the armed services – and I’d encourage everyone who reads this to think long and hard about the importance of that integrity all the way at the top.

Hugh Thompson, Jr.

Hugh Thompson remained a helicopter pilot in civilian life, and soon began making the lecture circuit, giving speeches on military ethics at the service academies, Quantico, and in Europe. His reputation was resuscitated in the late 80s and early 90s, with President George H.W. Bush Sr. a major advocate for his rehabilitation. Thompson was awarded the Soldier’s Medal and became the subject of folk songs and a piano concerto. He and his crew have become a staple of military ethics manuals and paragons of moral courage to generations of officers since. Emory University to this day holds a manuscript and library collection dedicated to the lives of Thompson and his fellow crew members.

In 1998, Thompson and several of his other crew members returned to My Lai, where they met with some of the women they had helped save, Thi Nhung and Pham Thi Nhanh. He was overcome with emotion during their meeting, saying “I just wish our crew that day could have helped more people than we did." One of the women asked him why the perpetrators – Lieutenant Calley, Captain Medina, and the rest – hadn’t come back with him. When he failed to respond, she continued, “So we could forgive them.” Thompson later said, "I'm not man enough to do that. I'm sorry. I wish I was, but I won't lie to anybody. I'm not that much of a man."

Some things do not deserve to be forgiven, but that is not our decision to make.

Hugh Thompson passed away in 2006.

Book Recommendation: The My Lai Massacre is a complicated and difficult subject. For a balanced treatment that takes context into account, see Howard Jones, My Lai, Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

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