My Lai Massacre:
On Mar. 16, 1968, a unit of the U.S. army America division, led by Lt. William L. Calley, invaded the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, an alleged Viet Cong stronghold. In the course of combat operations, unarmed civilians, including women and children, were shot to death; estimated to be about 500. This incident was known as the My Lai Massacre. However, this incident was not revealed to the public until the fall of 1969.
My Lai was a suspected Viet Cong Hideout and was divided into many different parts; this incident took place in My Lai sector 4, from here on, to be referred as My Lai. (Map here). My Lai village had about 700 residents. They lived in either redbrick 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.
The root of My Lai massacre happened when a small squad from "C" Company ran into a booby trap, killing a popular sergeant, blinding one GI and wounding several others. The memorial service was held the following evening. When it ended, Captain Medina rose to give the soldiers a pep talk and discuss the next morning's mission. Medina told them that My Lai was a Viet Cong stronghold village and told them to be very careful. Medina also intentionally made the order to be vague, making the soldiers to believe that the entire village was occupied by enemy soldiers.
Around 8 AM, Lt. Calley's platoon entered the town and encountered women cooking rice in front of their houses. The soldiers then started the search for Viet Congs but no military-aged men were seen. After their search was unsuccessful, 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 the bodies of those less fortunate covered them.
The massacre at the plaza was not the only war crimes committed in My Lai. Rape was also widespread. According to the army photographer Ronald Haeberle, some soldiers were furious when he tried to photograph them fondling the breasts of a 16-years-old Vietnamese.
Lt. Calley continued the massacre and told many villagers to go next to the drainage ditch on the eastern border. With Calley's order, his men pushed the villages down into the ditch and start firing into it.
If it was not for Hugh Thompson, the survivors of My Lai might not have been as lucky. Thompson was the chief warrant officer who piloted a helicopter on the day of killing. He reached My Lai around 9 AM, when the intense killing was taking place. Thompson noticed dead and dying civilians all over the village. He 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.
Hugh Thompson, by now almost frantic, discovered the bodies pushed into the ditch and found 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 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 AM, the killing stopped, however, the village of My Lai was burned to ground. Most of its villagers were dead or dying. The soldiers recall that they didn't see any military-aged man throughout the whole incident. It was believed that the Viet Cong returned at night and buried the body of the relatives. Later, mass graves containing the bodies of the villagers were found. An estimation of approximately 500 people was killed.
The cover-up of the massacre began right after the killing. It was reported that the operation ended in a victory for the army with 128 Vietcong dead and 1 American casualty (a soldier shot himself in the foot). However, after Thompson filed numerous complaints to the officials concerning the war crimes that took place, the army ordered an investigation. An order issued by Major Calhoun to Captain Medina to return to My Lai to do a body count. Major General Samuel Koster countermanded the order and asked how many civilians have been killed. "Twenty to twenty-eight," Medina replied.
Colonel Henderson was order to investigate this case, however, he intended to help the cover-up. Henderson interviewed few soldiers and declared that only 20 something villagers were inadvertently killed in the incident. No attempts to question the survivors were made. Meanwhile, Michael Bernhart, a Charlie Company GI, was severely troubled by what he witnessed at My Lai and discussed his plan with other GIs, which was 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.
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If not for the determined efforts of the 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. Ridenhour then started his own investigation. Later, after he had enough information, he sent a letter 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.
Finally in April 1969, General Westmoreland turned the case to the inspector general for investigation. In June, Calley was called back to the US for a line-up 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, including six specifications of premeditated murder, were filed against Calley.
Photos Courtesy of Archive Photos
Photos Courtesy of Archive Photos