History Podcasts

My Lai Massacre

My Lai Massacre

In 1968, Ron Ridenhour, an infantryman in Vietnam, wrote a letter to President Nixon detailing the murder of 500 civillians by the U.S. Army in what would come to be known as the My Lai Massacre.

My Lai: America's Village of Shame

War protests rocked America. These demonstrators had yet to hear about My Lai

By Ray Setterfield

March 16, 1968 — Considered by many to be one of the most shameful episodes in American military history, the My Lai massacre in Vietnam took place on this day. Hundreds of defenceless civilians &ndash mainly women and children &ndash were shot dead by US soldiers.

My Lai will forever remain a haunting event in America&rsquos conscience and will burn to the surface in any discussion or appraisal of this prolonged conflict.

The Vietnam War, as America knows it, or the &ldquoWar Against the Americans to Save the Nation&rdquo as Washington&rsquos former enemies called it, began in 1954 and lasted until 1975, although direct American involvement ended in 1973.

But there had been fighting in the country for decades, with the Vietnamese rebelling against French colonial rule.

In 1954, France decided to pull out and at the Geneva Conference that year it was agreed the country would be &ldquotemporarily&rdquo divided along the 17th parallel &ndash thus creating communist North Vietnam and non-communist South Vietnam. Much to the anguish of the United States.

The White House, fervently opposing communism, supported the &ldquodomino theory&rdquo which basically stated that if one country fell to communism, its neighbour would follow, then its neighbour, and so on.

Richard Nixon, vice-president at the time to President Eisenhower, explained the theory in more detail: &ldquoIf Indochina falls, Thailand is put in an almost impossible position. The same is true of Malaya with its rubber and tin. The same is true of Indonesia.

&ldquoIf this whole part of South East Asia goes under communist domination or communist influence, Japan, which trades and must trade with this area in order to exist, must inevitably be oriented towards the communist regime.&rdquo

True or not, North Vietnam had a single aim &ndash to unify the country under a communist regime modelled on those of Russia and China. South Vietnam preferred to align with the West.

The result was that the Soviet Union and China poured weapons, supplies and advisers into the North, while America supplied military advisers to the South. By 1959 there were about one thousand of them there, but President John F Kennedy, elected in 1960, had increased the number to 16,000 by the time of his death in 1963.

That same year North Vietnam sent 40,000 soldiers to fight in the South. In response, President Lyndon Johnson was to send in combat units for the first time. By 1964 there were 184,000 American troops in Vietnam &ndash a figure that would climb significantly year by year. By 1969 it had risen to more than 500,000.

As the vicious and ugly war wore on, shortly after dawn on March 16 1968, three platoons of US troops belonging to &ldquoCharlie Company&rdquo were dropped from helicopters into the Son My area. They were on a search-and-destroy mission with orders to kill National Liberation Front (North Vietnamese) soldiers &ndash called Viet Cong or VC by the US troops &ndash who were reported to have been active in the area.

US Army commanders had advised that all who were found in the area could be considered Viet Cong or active sympathisers, and the troops were ordered to destroy their village.

1 Platoon, commanded by Lieutenant William Calley, was sent to My Lai &ndash home to about 700 people. Calley was told he could expect to find members of the NLF in the area.

In fact, they found a village occupied only by women, children and old men &ndash all of whom were rounded up into groups. After a search of their huts revealed only three or four weapons and no sign of the enemy, Calley ordered his men to open fire on the villagers, he himself shooting indiscriminately into the groups.

Mothers tried to shield their children but were shot, and the little ones also gunned down as they tried to run away. Calley was reported to have dragged dozens of people, including young children, into a ditch before executing them with a machine gun. Many women were raped and the village was burned to the ground.

US soldier Varnado Simpson testified in December 1969: &ldquoEveryone who went into the village had in mind to kill. We had lost a lot of buddies and it was a VC stronghold. We considered them either VC or helping the VC.&rdquo

However, not a single Viet Cong combatant was found there. "As a matter of fact," Private Michael Bernhardt would testify, "I don't remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive.&rdquo

None of this became known to the outside world until November 1969 when a US soldier, Paul Meadlo, was interviewed on television and admitted killing &ldquoten or fifteen men, women and children&rdquo at My Lai. The full horror of the event then began to emerge and it soon became clear that many hundreds of villagers had been killed.

A number of US soldiers were charged with the killings but all &ndash except for Lieutenant William Calley &ndash were acquitted or had the charges against them dropped.

Calley, who had spoken earlier of &ldquomy troops getting massacred and mauled by an enemy I couldn&rsquot see, an enemy I couldn&rsquot feel, I couldn&rsquot touch. . .&rdquo put forward the defence that he was in My Lai to hunt out communists and to destroy communism and that he was &ldquoonly carrying out my orders, which were to hunt out the NLF.&rdquo

It was true that &ldquoCharlie Company,&rdquo to which Calley belonged, had earlier lost five men killed by booby traps and others had been wounded by these unseen weapons.

But Calley was found guilty of killing 109 civilians and sentenced to life imprisonment. However, after an intervention by President Richard Nixon this prison sentence was changed to house arrest. Three years later, Calley was granted his release by a federal judge.

The number of people killed at My Lai is disputed. A memorial there lists 504 names with ages ranging from one to eighty-two years. An official US army investigation settled on a figure of 347.

After the US withdrew its troops from the country in 1973, fighting continued until South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam on April 30, 1975. On July 2, 1976, Vietnam was reunited as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. It resumed diplomatic relations with the US in 1995.

The My Lai Massacre

On the 16th March 1968, the My Lai Massacre occurred in South Vietnam. 350-500 men, women, children and babies were brutally killed by US troops during a counterinsurgency operation. It was the worst war crime perpetrated by US forces during the Vietnam War. To try and find out what made those men snap and commit those terrible crimes I spoke to Erik Villard a Historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort McNair, DC. He talks us through the events of that fateful day, why he believes it took place and how these shocking events continue to influence US military operations today.
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Everybody welcomes dancers, history is today, the 16th of March, nineteen sixty eight, the My Lai massacre occurred in South Vietnam. U.S. troops kills between 250 and 500 unarmed people during a counterinsurgency operation. The victims include men, women, children and babies. It was a complete breakdown in order. And is widely regarded as the most shocking war crime perpetrated by U.S. troops in the whole of the Vietnam War. What made those men snap and commit those terrible crimes on this day in nineteen sixty eight?

Well, I talked to Eric Villainies, a historian of the US Army Center of Military History based at Fort McNair in D.C. And as you'll hear, it gives a fantastic summary of what happened and why he thinks it happened. As I mentioned many times, this podcast before, I joy discussions like this and learning about the changes that take place on the battlefields and in military planning departments to try and prevent things like this happening. And he's very interesting about its consequences.

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In the meantime, everybody here is Eric Vila's talking about the My Lai massacre.

All right, thanks so much for coming on the podcast. Thank you for having me. So let's start with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. End of January, turbulent year, 1968. That's the critical background to this event, right? It is. And the My Lai massacre really in a lot of ways comes out of those chaotic, turbulent, confusing days and months just before and during the Tet Offensive, the U.S. Army in January 68, they think they got the better of the Vietnamese or the Viet Cong is suffering.

What is that outlook in January 68? Yeah, OK. So if we're looking at it, say. Middle of January, you know, before the fighting breaks out, before the Tet Offensive. There is cautious optimism that the trends are looking up for the allies. There's nobody at Macfie headquarters, not General Westmoreland or anyone else, who has any illusion that this isn't going to continue the war for years and have a lot of casualties and there's no guaranteed outcome.

But over the last year or so, they have seen a lot of encouraging signs in the various programs. And so the trend lines were definitely moving in the right direction. And this is actually one of the reasons why the Vietcong and North Vietnamese decide to launch the Tet Offensive is they were beginning to lose some ground. They were beginning to lose control of some areas in South Vietnam. And they wanted to upend everything and they absolutely certainly did. This part of the country we're talking about is Gwangi Province.

This is of a northern part of South Vietnam, and it's in a zone called iCore as a South Vietnamese military zone. But iCore was one of the most dangerous places to be in the country. Lots and lots of fighting. This particular area where My Lai was located is this kind of peninsula and a bit under communist control since nineteen forty five. I mean, that's one thing to keep in mind. The Communists were always really in control of these hamlets and villages.

And so when the Tet Offensive happens and this is thirty one January sixty eight, so the whole country explodes in fighting. More than three hundred South Vietnamese cities come under attack. Ninety thousand Vietcong, the North Vietnamese soldiers invade Saigon way and a lot of other places. So it is absolute chaos. Now, from a military point of view, the allies get the upper hand pretty quickly. And from a accounting point of view, the communists lose incredible casualties, up to 40 thousand killed in a few weeks, and they're driven out of most of the cities quickly except for way, which, of course, takes about a month.

But the thing that a lot of people don't maybe know about this is one of the biggest impacts of the Tet Offensive, is that the security in the countryside takes a huge hit because when the fighting happens, a lot of those South Vietnamese units which had been out there defending villages and hamlets, they come back to the towns, they come back to the cities. And so there's a sort of security vacuum in many places. And so this is kind of setting up the context or in the operations following Tet.

The Americans want to get the momentum back. They want to get the South Vietnamese forces back in the countryside as quickly as possible, working in pacification. And so there's a real energy and pressure on US commanders to make things happen. And that's sort of the setup for this particular operation. It was essentially an attempt to get control of areas where all the allied troops had basically moved out. And so this particular area, this product, Kingi Province, had been occupied by South Korean Marines, but they had recently moved.

So that's like on top of everything else, the troops that used to been there, they weren't there anymore. So from the American point of view, there was an opportunity, let's put it that way, opportunity to get in there, reassert control. And I think that's part of the thinking that led to this tragedy, this catastrophe, this desire to get back in. Come on, let's hurt the Viet Cong when they're down. Let's really put the pain on them.

And so I think that was part of the mentality going. And part of the reason these commanders and soldiers were so amped up is because they were kind of being coached to come on, let's do the knockout blow. Let's get into the weeds on counterinsurgency. Like what is a knockout blow like? Is it searching for weapons caches? It is intelligence led assassination. Is it village to village questioning? Who's Viet Cong around here? Like, what does that operation look like?

Right. It's something, of course, the army and well, militaries in general are still arguing about. But one thing I think the point out here is that Vietnam was a complex war that was operating on numerous levels. One level, there were conventional big unit battles between regular forces all the way down to the sort of guerrilla activities where a farmer decides to pick up old Springfield at night and take a few pot shots at the Americans and everything in between this area.

What we're talking about is this is a good example of the problems of pacification. You had a number of hamlets and villages, again, which were essentially under Vietcong control. The South Vietnamese government officials only showed up during the daytime and they didn't sleep. There was no security. So how do you get control of those people? Well, it's a combination of things. Part of it is you do have to figure out who's the bad guys, who are the good guys?

Do you need to develop information? That's where the actually the Phoenix program comes in. It was not a CIA assassination program. Like some people say. It was basically an effort to build a national database of the people in South Vietnam and then determine, are they a secret agent or are they simply criminal? Are the innocent civilian to do this, you need to, of course, question people, get information. And where the Americans come in is they would use Ordon operations.

So during an operation, the Americans would come in and create a perimeter around whatever village or hamlet that needs to be searched. Right. And find out who are the bad guys. And this was going on a lot during his time in the war. So you would have, for example, helicopters flying overhead. You would have Navy vessels off the coast and you would have a number of units which would land by helicopter, surround a certain area and then move through it.

Now, normally it was the South Vietnamese would be doing the question asking partly because the language. Right. But it's also their country. This is part of the reason why this military operation was unusual. And it was unusual in a lot of ways. One of the reasons is in this, what was supposed to be cordoned search operation, there were no South Vietnamese officials there to do any of the questioning, all that sort of thing that might happen.

And so when the Americans went in there, they had no way of knowing bad guy from good guy. Now, they've been told there was a Vietcong battalion in the area, the forty eighth local force battalion. And a local force battalion basically think of it as their full time soldiers, but they work for a district committee, so they're kind of like in the United States, if you think of a county. They'd be a county military force, a main force, and it would be like a state military unit.

This is a unit that operated fairly locally. They wear black pajamas and stuff, but they're recognizable soldiers. I mean, ammo, belts, hats, they don't look like just farmers. So the Americans knew that there was a unit like this in the area. So when they land or is the obvious thing to do is look for people holding weapons. Well, there really were none because the battalion wasn't there. It moved around a lot. And after the Tet Offensive, it actually only had about one hundred guys left because it had taken such heavy casualties.

So it was actually broken up into like 10, 15 people over like 50 kilometer radius. There was no unit to be found. They were all hiding. So when the Americans go in, in normal procedure, you round everyone up usually have like a medical clinic, you know, vaccinations and you fix teeth and you play music and you entertain the folks. You don't want to make an unpleasant experience. And then you have self-heating these officials go by and get information and check ID cards and that kind of thing.

None of that happened. The Americans go in there amped up. They're told there's nobody friendly in the area. Accounts differ, but some of them at least say that they were told that they had the authority to destroy anything of military value to the Vietcong because these folks were living in this area. They were supporting the Viet Cong. They were giving them rice act information. But you can't just go around burning houses, killing livestock, and you certainly can't kill civilians.

And so when the Americans went in, they were not supervised. And so this is the problem. If you talk counterinsurgency, this is not the way to do it. This is a heavy hand on steroids is part of the reason for that. They just been involved in this brutal, surprising weird's Tet Offensive fighting when even supposedly safe areas were insecure or if there was fighting in the ground. The U.S. embassy in Saigon and everyone knows from the extraordinary pictures, don't mccullom that way.

The U.S. Marines involved in fighting this was intense warfare with these soldiers. These individuals had they experienced that over the previous few months. That's one of the sort of surprising aspects of this. No, very few of them had ever been in combat. So this is a unit from the 20 30 Infantry Division or the Americal, as it was now is it was formed in the South Pacific in World War Two. So it's usually called the Americal, even though it is twenty third division.

It was an odd unit because it was actually formed in Vietnam. It was cobbled together from other units and assembled in country. It had a predecessor where they took existing units, but by this time they had three infantry brigades, 11th one ninety six and then one nine eight that were part of this division. But it had never traditionally worked together. And in fact, these brigades were spread out over a large area in the force that that went into My Lai.

It was one company from each of the battalions in the 11th Infantry Brigade. So this is a cobbled together force from a cobbled together division, also operating a place it had never operated before. This is not their normal area. This is where the South Korean Marines used to be and the Americans get permission to go in here. So on top of all those other things, most soldiers had not actually been in combat. Now they're reading the newspapers. They're watching the TV.

I mean, they know the country is wracked by fighting, but their own experience has mostly been booby traps and sniper fire. They'd taken some casualties from enemy mines and things like that. And that certainly wore on their mental attitude. If you've ever been in combat before. And actually I think that is a problem is if you're all amped up and you're told that this place is full of bad guys and you've never been in the same combat before, I think the opportunities for discipline problems magnified.

He was given Snow's history, we're talking about the My Lai massacre, which occurred on this day 16th March in 1968.

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Tell me about those problems. What happens when those guys go into this area and come into contact with Vietnamese civilians? So when they actually conduct this operation, which again, is unusual because it was all done verbally, they normally these operations, there's this whole staffing process and you have detailed records of the artillery. What are you going to do with the infantry you're going to do? They just did it verbally, which is part of the problem is we don't have those records.

So what happened is they basically landed several infantry companies in this general area with helicopters and it's called Sign Me Village, because it's a larger area that encompasses a number of smaller communities called Hamleys. We refer to it as My Lai, but they were, in fact, six Mylai hamlets, the one we're talking about. Where most of this happened was My Lai for. And the one company that we're really focusing on is a company from 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry.

That land is Mylie and then they sweep through this community. And as this is happening, there's other companies going in operations, other places, but this one particular company kind of breaks into platoons, some of those platoons, particularly like the one commanded by Lieutenant Calley. Just start murdering people, they're rounding people up, and these are old men, women, children and you no military age males and usually they seem to be a lot of shouting and they, hey, you know, where the weapons, where the bad guys.

But at a certain point, as they're rounding them up, in some cases, line them up by the side of the road and we don't know exactly who fired first or who ordered it. And there's different accounts. But basically some of these US soldiers, some of these squads just are gunning down these civilians in other cases. And this was not widely reported at the time. They sexually assaulted some of the women, some really, really, really horrible things were going on.

And so depending on where you were in this hamlet, either things look pretty normal or if you happen to be a hundred meters away. It was a horror show, so it just depended on these sections of platoons, but there end up killing dozens and dozens and dozens of people and the company commander is radioing back, but he's not saying that there's any problems. He's just saying we're counting light resistance. Things are going fine. I think the first person really to know something was wrong was it was a helicopter flying overhead observation helicopter, and the scout helicopter flew and lower.

And Hugh Thompson looked down and sees these bodies, Vietnamese bodies laying in a ditch and American soldiers are buying the looks and his two crewmen look out and then they see firing in some of these civilians following what they can't believe what he's seeing. So he actually lands his helicopter, gets out, pulls us forty five and aims it at the Americans there and says the next man who shoots a civilian is going to get a forty five to the temple. Now he just could not believe it.

And so he actually does where he lands. I mean he stops killing there, but he's got to get back in his helicopter and continue the mission. So he reports back to his superior almost immediately what he's seen. He's like something terrible's going on. And so that was really the first indication. And keep in mind here just how fragmented the command and control system is. You, Thompson's superior is the battalion commander of the aviation company, the helicopter company who is attached to the 11th Brigade, but not really in their chain of command.

So not like you. Thompson can get the division commander on the phone. He just has to tell whoever his boss is. And so when the division that General Koster and Colonel Henderson, the brigade commander, do a little investigation the next day, they conclude, oh, now a few civilians may have been killed by stray artillery rounds, but there was nothing really unusual. Of course, the truth is that up to four hundred civilians had been murdered this day in another area.

But it was absolutely horrifying experience. And some of the American soldiers who were in that company refused to take part. They just walked away. Some of them try to get their fellow soldiers to stop. Others took part reluctantly because they thought that was their orders. And a few of them seem to be really enthusiastic about it. So it ran the gamut, but the fact is it happened and it was barbaric, why did it happen here on this day and was it unusual and it was unusual?

Why did it happen? It is unusual. Some people are going to say, hey, you're an army historian, you're going to tow the company line. We army historians actually have the same standards of objective professionalism that any tenured academic does. The Army does not tell us what to write. We actually have a supervisory committee who makes sure that we have are independent. So I call it like I see it. Why this why here, why now?

Again, I think part of it is the fragmented command and control system, when you have a cobbled together task force that is operating in a place it's never been before. Offering over a pretty wide area, these companies were scattered in a lot of locations. And this is, again, an operation that was planned hastily. So all those things are kind of the setup. But there's still that question of if there are other operations like this in the war and it didn't happen.

I mean, this almost never happened on this scale with this ferocity. A lot of people want to point the finger at Cowley himself. And certainly he deserves all the blame that's coming to him. But he wasn't the only one and I think I don't want to psychoanalyze, but I think that when you create the conditions. Or chaos, you're likely to get them, and so this whole pep talk before they went into the operation, the officers like, all right, we're going to get in there, we're going to kick some ass and this is on the ropes and we're going to keep them down on the mat and look sharp.

And most these guys never been in combat. So there are a little apprehensive in here. They get this pep talk. We're going to go in and also, yeah, you know, we're going to shine because these companies and Task Force Barker, we're the best companies out of each of the battalions in 11th Brigade. I mean, these are not the cast off rejects. This was supposed to be a marquee operation, but they're pumped up and going in the area and I think in some of these locations with some of these groups.

As soon as the troops realized that they were being fired at, it was a firefight. But they have all this anxiety and rage, in some cases probably outright racism, right? And you've got these people who, you know, are supporting the Viet Cong. They know that they may not carry weapons, but they know that they are. And I think at some point someone pulls the trigger. And if you take a group mentality, it's easy to kind of lose your identity.

If you're part of a group and if other people are doing it, then you do it too. And I think that was the fateful moment. You had some individuals who I think just didn't have the self-control and the leadership in place. Because it was a long war and this is a pretty unusual situation. I just think that it was just badly planned. And once they got down there, these guys wanted to, I think, just wanted payback.

I think they just wanted like for the friend that had gotten his foot blown off by a mine or concerned, hey, if we don't throw this out, then the BCO maybe come back and kill me next month. It's hard to explain because it happens so infrequently and this is something the army is still wrestling with, in fact, our center held a discussion forum in twenty eighteen. We did a public one and then we did one at the Pentagon.

And this was our officers idea. We said we want to do something on Mylai. Because it is so awful, but it's unusual. What can we learn from it, right, that we're still asking those questions? And ultimately, what is the evil that resides in men's heart? I don't know. I honestly don't know. But it was not a commonplace event. And I will say this after Neily, the story doesn't come out for about a year.

There's rumors and stuff. But it wasn't until October sixty nine when Seymour Hersh actually breaks the story. The public learns about this and there's an actual reckoning. But after that, floodgates are open and in the army now the Army judge advocate general, their whole branch is shaped by My Lai, though, in the army. Now, every commander has a JAG as a legal person. By them, though, before they made these decisions, before they execute operations, before they pull the trigger, they check with the JAG, they're like, is this right?

I mean, I observed this in Camp Ashraf in Kuwait 2014. Three star general is looking at is a monitor. And there's a Predator drone up there and there's a single ISIS fighter theory somewhere. And that general had to look the JAG, the last thing you did said, is this a righteous act? The judge said, yeah, you cleared all the things you said, execute bomblet. That's the difference that it's made after me. The Army has put these Jags at all echelons because they realize they need the supervision.

So as I've already said, My Lai was a tragedy, it was a crime, but it was also a strategic event in modern US military history. You've said it's had on the US Army, but what effect did it have on the US public opinion relations Kinami and the public politicians and eventually public support for the war? Right. Rumors of this were circulating within division for months and months afterward, but it hadn't risen to public view. And it's interesting, I've actually read some accounts.

They were a number of South Vietnamese officials who said, no, no, that's the propaganda. They are actively trying to shoot down the claims that this had happened, but when the story finally breaks, agonises October sixty nine. This is five months after President Nixon has announced atomisation. He announced the United States is going to withdraw from the Vietnam War. When Seymour Hersh breaks the story in October, the first US units have already come back. Now it's a small number, but the United States was already headed down the road of a gradual withdrawal from Vietnam.

So in terms of public opinion, absolutely created outrage. It didn't accelerate the pace of U.S. withdrawal. I think the main thing it did was it further enraged people that the administration in previous administrations had been lying. I mean, you talk about this credibility gap with President Johnson. Well, here is something happened under President Johnson administration, not Nixon. But the blame goes all around. And so I think it doesn't have an effect on accelerating withdraw the United States.

But it has, of course, a long term impact because it really flies in the face of American society's view of the army in itself. Right. We're not like that. You know, the United States Army has always been very proud that it strives for a higher standard. We don't murder and slaughter people like some other armies. So I think that was a hard thing. That was a hard thing. And it's still a hard thing to kind of accept.

Unfortunately, it probably had the most negative effect on veterans themselves because after it came out, there were certain people, United States antiwar protesters conflated Mylai to the war. And so when you hear these stories of baby killer growing blood in veterans that are coming home, showing them My Lai contribute a lot to that, the idea that people who had not been in the war. Knowing the story, they look at these people differently and the soldiers coming home now, these soldiers may have not been in the unit in that area at that time.

Does it matter how this would work? As a citizen, you're like, holy cow, something that terrible could happen. What must these soldiers have seen and done? And so I think that was probably the most negative impact, is the public tended to kind of blame the soldiers, just all soldiers. And I think it made the reception coming home that much harder. It's a remarkable story. And thank you so much for coming on and telling me all about it.

How can people get hold of your book? So it is available to form free. If you go to our website, which is history that Ahmed Mail. I work for the United States Army Center of Military History, and the name of my book is staying the course of this type in Eric Villard Staying the Course You'll Find a link is a free PDF download Fixator and 80 pages plus. So it's a big one. Also could order it from Government Printing Office if you want it.

This would copy. Go to the website and you can download it as a PDF. You can also find video of the Neily discussion that we had in Washington, D.C., where I'm on the panel and we also had several JAG historians. It was a really great discussion. So that's another thing to get more information about this, we could never forget, never forget. Eric, that was so fascinating. I hope you come back on the Pulitzer. Let's talk about some of military history.

Absolutely a time. Thank you. Thanks, Mom.

Free speech found in the history of our country. Oh, my God. Hope you enjoyed the podcast just before you go a bit of a favor to ask. Totally understand. If you want to become a subscriber or pay me any cash, money makes sense. But if you could just do me a favor, it's for free. Go to iTunes or have you get your podcast. If you give it a five star rating and give it an absolutely glowing review, perjure yourself, give it a glowing review.

Really appreciate that stuff. Well, the law of the jungle out there and I need all the support I can get, so that will boost it up the charts. It's so tiresome. But if you do, I'll be very, very grateful. Thank you.

My Lai’s Ghostly Footprints

I visited the hamlet of My Lai, in the village of Son My, Vietnam, on March 16, 2018—the 50th anniversary of an American infantry company’s shameful massacre of unarmed civilians. Led by 2nd Lt. William L. Calley Jr. and Capt. Ernest L. Medina, about 100 men of the 23rd Infantry Division (Americal) entered the village and killed nearly everyone there. Hundreds died—347, the U.S. Army’s official number 504, according to the Vietnamese government’s list of people killed. Even pigs, chickens and water buffaloes were “wasted,” in the GI slang of the era. Why?

Supposedly the Americans were frustrated by the casualties they were taking in firefights with an enemy they couldn’t see, and My Lai was to make up for their loses. Because of those frustrations, they brutally gunned down innocent, helpless, defenseless women (some pregnant), children and old men.

As I walked the grounds of what was once a peaceful agricultural village along the coast of South Vietnam and now is a memorial, many sights haunted me. The memorial includes a re-creation of the 1968 village with most of the huts depicted as they looked after the Americans left—burned to the ground—but one hut shows how a home might have looked before the shooting started.

Entering the hut, my mind flashed back 50 years to when I was an 18-year-old infantryman in Vietnam. Although I wasn’t at the massacre, most Vietnamese huts I saw were built in the same fashion: straw-matted roofs held up by wooden poles, dirt floors, walls of dirt or bamboo, and a few pieces of wooden furniture and clay pots strewn about. On the outside, farming utensils hung from the side of a pen holding cattle or water buffalo, if the family was lucky enough to own any.

But of all the sounds and sights and smells I encountered at the memorial, one vision haunted me the most, indelibly etched in my brain—the footprints.

The re-creator of My Lai turned the original muddy footpaths into concrete walkways pocked with images of footprints pressed into the concrete. Footprints of children, mothers and old men are surrounded by the boot marks of soldiers who dragged them to their deaths. The path along the irrigation ditch where 170 villagers were systematically shot dead, shocked me the most as I looked down and saw hundreds of footprints in the mud, mostly small bare feet.

I was riveted. What could have been, if those Vietnamese lives had not been snuffed out at such a young age? What was going through their minds as they were thrown into a ditch to be slaughtered with such savagery? We’ll never know.

But I also thought of the American soldiers. What was going through their minds as they were committing these dreadful acts? Were they just “following orders?” Or were they willing participants? Probably both.

But once again, why? How could one human commit such savagery upon another?

A possible answer is training. During basic training and advanced infantry training we were taught that we would fight a people who were subhuman: Our cadre of instructors often used terms such as gooks, dinks and slopeheads. Devaluing the lives of our enemy made it easier for us to kill them.

Even Gen. William Westmoreland, commanding general of all U.S. forces in South Vietnam, conveyed this demeaning attitude. “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner,” he said in a 1974 documentary film, Hearts and Minds. “Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.”

When I heard Westmoreland make that remark, I recalled a well-publicized photo of a Vietnamese father standing beside an American armored vehicle, holding his lifeless child in his arms, looking up at the GIs and pleading for help. That image didn’t jive with Westmoreland’s cavalier remarks.

The horrors that American soldiers inflicted at My Lai certainly represent the U.S. Army’s most abysmal failure of leadership at all levels during the war.

But each of us is responsible for our own “moral compass.” What happened to that when we went to Vietnam? Did we leave it at home?

The waste of all those lives at My Lai cannot be rectified. Nothing can undo those tragic, gruesome killings. How does one live with himself after committing such egregious acts?

When I walked through the front gate of My Lai on the solemn anniversary of the shootings, I was shocked to see so many people there, mostly Vietnamese, but also a few Westerners. Though it was a sad, reflective day, I saw a lot of smiles and witnessed many warm greetings. I was no more than 100 feet past the main gate when something unexpected happened. An elderly Vietnamese gentleman approached me, took my hands in his, looked deep into my eyes and mumbled a few words. I didn’t know the words he was speaking, but I could understand what he was saying. He was thanking me for coming to the memorial—and forgiving me for the senseless act of violence. As the kind man walked away, another held my hand and squeezed tightly, saying a few soft, gentle words.

The younger generation was much more gregarious. Kids approached me with big smiles on their faces. They spoke in English and wanted to have pictures taken with me. Initially, I was a little embarrassed. We were there for a somber occasion, and I didn’t want attention focused on me. But then I remembered that time goes on, and the young were born decades after the My Lai massacre. So I attempted to blend my presence with respect, reverence and a bit of good public relations by speaking with the children and discreetly posing for their photographs.

After several hours, I left My Lai—but the image of those ghostly footprints kept nagging at me. The poor bare feet. What pain they must have suffered. What cruelty. And the boot marks of the soldiers. Fifty years have passed, but the few short hours in March 1968 will linger forever in the minds of those soldiers who left their boot marks on the village of My Lai.

My Lai Massacre - HISTORY

Yet there had been no firefight with the enemy - not a single shot was fired at the soldiers of Charlie Company, a unit of the Americal Division's 11th Infantry Brigade.

The 48th Viet Cong Battalion - the intended target of the mission - was nowhere to be seen.

When the story of My Lai was exposed, more than a year later, it tarnished the name of the US army. Most Americans did not want to believe that their revered GI Joe could be a wanton murderer.

My Lai was the sort of atrocity American patriots preferred to associate with the Nazis.

Charlie Company had arrived in Vietnam three months before the My Lai massacre.

By then the US - fighting alongside the South Vietnamese army - was deeply entrenched in war against North Vietnam's communist forces. The United States's had deployed nearly 500,000 soldiers in Vietnam, a commitment which cost it $2 bn every month.

In January 1968 the Viet Cong guerrillas and the regular North Vietnamese Army launched a joint attack on US positions, known as the Tet Offensive. Washington maintained it could win the war, but on the ground morale among its troops was low.

Charlie Company was down to 105 men by mid-March of that year. It had suffered 28 casualties, including five dead. Some of its soldiers had already begun to drift towards brutal tactics for which they appeared to enjoy impunity.

The brief for its March 16 mission was to prise out the Viet Cong, whose elusive troops were thought to be hiding in My Lai - a hamlet of the Son My village.

Two platoons moved in shortly after 8pm in the morning, while a third held back for "mopping up" duties. Both platoons soon splintered and once the shooting started it seemed to spark a chain reaction.

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.

By late morning word had got back to higher authorities and a cease-fire was ordered. My Lai was in a state of carnage. Bodies were strewn through the village. The death toll totalled 504.

Only one American was injured - a GI who had shot himself in the foot while clearing his pistol.

My Lai Massacre - HISTORY

This June, Professor Emeritus Howard Jones published My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness , a look into one of the most infamous incidents in the Vietnam War.

On March 16, 1968, a group of American troops entered a South Vietnamese hamlet referred to as My Lai, the name of one of the hamlets. Within three hours, they had killed over five hundred unarmed civilians. Though the army attempted to suppress coverage of the event, helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson and door gunner Lawrence Colburn spoke out about what they saw. My Lai and the way it was handled by the U.S. government quickly became a national controversy. Dr. Jones says that no atrocity in the Vietnam War “came close to My Lai in either the number of victims or the deeply personal—the murderously intimate—nature of their killing. … My Lai had laid bare the war, revealing that it was unwinnable and that, in the process of fighting for democracy and a way of life, America had lost its moral compass.”

Compelling, comprehensive, and haunting, Howard Jones’ My Lai is based on both exhaustive archival research and extensive interviews with both American and Vietnamese participants and nonparticipants in the massacre, including Lawrence Colburn and Vietnamese survivors. Jones’ work will stand as the definitive book on one of the most devastating events in American military history.

New York Times book reviewer Thomas E. Ricks says that Jones’s work is “at once painful and useful,” adding that My Lia: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent Into Darkness is “likely to become the standard reference work” on the subject. John Williams, the Daily Books Editor for the Times, has included My Lia in his list of 󈫻 New Books We Recommend This Week.”

The BBC’s Max Hastings, writing in the London Review of Books, calls Jones’s work a “cool, comprehensive” and as thorough “account as we are ever likely to have of this defining act of military barbarism.”

My Lai Massacre - HISTORY

Thirty years later, memories of My Lai massacre remain fresh

MY LAI, Vietnam -- Truong Thi Le stares at a graphic photograph of the massacre's carnage, then points at the pile of corpses under which she hid for four hours, clutching her 6-year-old son. Her dead mother, brother and another son sprawl nearby.

"I feel pain in my heart when I look at this," she says, her voice choking. "I have to struggle not to cry. I still can't account for what happened."

Dredging up memories of the terrible events of March 16, 1968, is easy -- far too easy -- for Le, 70, and Ha Thi Quy, 73 ((see top photo). Dealing with the memories is another matter.

That long-ago day started mostly overcast and breezy, with some hot sun later around noon, the two women say. The 8,000 residents of the four My Lai hamlets were having breakfast or heading to the rice paddies. The winter crop, not one of the best, was almost ready for harvest.

When gunfire started, it wasn't a surprise. My Lai was in a war zone many residents had crude dirt shelters to huddle in during artillery attacks.

But this time was different. Within four hours, 504 men, women and children, by the residents' count, would lie dead after one of the U.S. Army's blackest days.

Quy speaks softly at first, recalling how American soldiers had visited My Lai hamlet No. 4 previously, giving away candy and cigarettes and getting water.

Her wrinkled face comes alive and her voice picks up intensity and agitation -- "I still feel frightened to tell the story," she says -- as she details how helicopters came in low around 6 a.m., followed by American infantrymen who gathered up the villagers.

As Quy was herded through the rice paddies, a bullet hit her thigh she thinks it was a stray because it didn't come from the soldier behind her.

She managed to keep walking until the group reached a newly dug ditch about 50 yards long.

"The villagers did not dare to resist," she says. "They had nothing to fight back. I prayed for them to spare me. They didn't say anything."

The first to be shot was a monk. In the ensuing barrage, Quy was hit in the buttocks, went down and passed out.

When Quy awoke, the soldiers were gone. They left behind 407 dead and dying, villagers said later. The Americans had moved on to My Lai hamlet No. 2, where they killed 97 more people.
Quy found herself in a pile of corpses, including her mother and eldest daughter, in the ditch where the blood was calf-deep.

"The dead bodies piled over me. That's why I survived. I was just lucky," she says. "I managed to pull myself out of the bodies and walked home. It was burned and all the cows and pigs were killed. We had nothing left."

Covered in blood, Quy walked to another village for clean clothes, a bath and an escape from the insanity.

Finally becoming widely known nearly two years later, the tale of the horrors at My Lai intensified the American public's ill feelings about the war. Returning servicemen were branded "baby-killers" even if they had been far from the battlefield.

"My Lai was an appalling example of much that had gone wrong in Vietnam," retired Army Gen. Colin Powell wrote in his book, "My American Journey."

"The involvement of so many unprepared officers and noncoms led to breakdowns in morale, discipline and professional judgment -- and to horrors like My Lai -- as the troops became numb to what appeared to be endless and mindless slaughter."

Initial military reports claimed the massacre began when two Americans were killed and 10 wounded by booby traps. In reality, the only U.S. casualty was a soldier who shot himself in the foot.

The Army's court-martial proceedings ruled that platoon leader Lt. William Calley and his men, frustrated by losses from land mines, snipers and ambushes, killed at least 175 villagers and perhaps more than 400.
Calley was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Other officers were censured or demoted.
After a public outcry that Calley was being made a scapegoat, President Nixon reduced the sentence to 20 years, and Calley actually served just three years of house arrest before his conviction was overturned by a federal judge.

Ironically, the massacre was not such big news in Vietnam, especially in the war-ravaged region surrounding My Lai, where almost everyone lost a relative or friend to the war and where reports have persisted that this was far from the only atrocity.

Fierce battles followed around My Lai until 1971. Bulldozers flattened much of the area. Only about 500 villagers remained, working the rice paddies during the day and hiding nearby at night.

Quy was a hired worker in other villages for a while. One of her two sons lost an arm, a leg and an eye in a land-mine blast later in 1968. But her remaining relatives and her land were in My Lai, so she returned, even as the fighting continued.

"Most were too frightened to come back," she says. "And there was a bad smell from the bodies and the blood."

Though the country has no official religion, many Vietnamese believe in spirits. Both Le and Quy claim they and other survivors could hear faint screams and cries for years after the massacre.
"I think their souls were still wandering around late at night," Le says.

But they say the cries have faded since a memorial was erected in 1978. The spirits seem to be more at rest now.

The local population has grown to 13,125. The dirt road is paved. Once, only a handful of relatively rich families owned bicycles. Now there are 700 motorbikes and an average of four bicycles per household. Nearly a third of the homes have a TV.

But this is still a poor farming community -- average per-capita income $135 a year -- where most work is done by hand.

Freshly harvested peanuts dry in large flat baskets on the side of the road. Women ride bicycles bushy with yam leaves gathered for pig feed. The waist-high rice is weeks away from harvest.

The names of the massacre's victims are listed on a black plaque that looks like a small chunk of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. It hangs from a wall of the museum in the center of the My Lai memorial site.

Photos taken during the massacre by a U.S. military photographer show the carnage in stomach-churning detail. Gray statues and a mosaic portray victims, some dying, others comforting or defiant.
A couple of My Lai's artillery shelters were rebuilt. A dead tree, riddled with bullet holes, juts up beside one.

Pots of burnt joss sticks sit in front of headstones. One marks where 170 people were killed in the ditch, another where 15 women were raped and killed.

It took five years for Quy's physical wounds to heal the psychological ones are still fresh for her and Le.
"I felt very angry toward the American troops," Le says. "Of course I didn't believe all Americans were bad. It was just some of them. But I'm still trying to release my emotions."

Virtually everyone involved in My Lai or its aftermath expresses one hope: that the massacre will be a lesson never to be forgotten.

"Most of the families in the two communes lost someone," Quy says. "Those born since then have been told stories about the massacre. I hope children all over the world don't have to go through what we did."

My Lai Massacre – History

The My Lai massacre was a mass murder of innocent Vietnamese civilians. It is known as the worst atrocity of the Vietnam War. Lieutenant William Calley led the first platoon of Charlie Company during its service in the Quang Ngai province in Vietnam. The massacre took place in the hamlets of My Lai and My Khe of Son My village in South Vietnam (e.g. ‘Pinkville’). Before the My Lai massacre, the United States tactic was to kill ‘Viet Cong members’ until they gave up. Entire villages were destroyed to abolish Viet Cong sanctuaries and support. Civilian casualties in Quang Ngai reached 50,000 each year. 70% of villages in the province were already ruined by American air attacks. The Americans fought an industrialized war. They used B52 bombers, artillery, helicopters, Agent Orange and napalm. The Americans forced civilians to leave Viet Cong controlled areas to create ‘free fire zones’. The idea of ‘free fire zones’ was that it was an area where civilians had been removed.

The people left behind were thought to be part of the Viet Cong. The tactic of the Americans is to have ‘search and destroy’ missions in these areas. The Viet Cong took advantage of the jungle, hiding behind trees and hedges. The 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd Infantry Division and Charlie Company suffered 30 attacks from the Viet Cong (booby-traps and land mines) causing many injuries and five deaths. The American army’s comeback was to attack the villages suspected of containing to Viet Cong. They were to burn houses, kill off livestock, spoil crops, and pollute wells so it would deny essentials to the Viet Cong and their supporters. The purpose of the massacre was to kill the people that were part of the Viet Cong. They believed everyone in the My Lai was either Viet Cong or Viet Cong supporters and that actual civilians would be away at the markets.

The villagers hadn’t gone to the markets that day because they heard the shelling and helicopters, instead they were hiding in their homes. On the morning of March 16th Calley commanded the first group of men to land at My Lai after they had created a landing zone (firing 120 shells into rice paddies). His orders were to start killing villagers when they arrived at 7:30am. Calley ordered his men to enter the village firing, even though there was no report of opposing fire. It was a ‘search and destroy’ mission. The American troops killed between 347 and 504 un-armed civilians. The majority of civilians killed were women, children, infants and the elderly. Some of the women were gang raped, their bodies left mutilated on the ground. Many of the women were raped before they were killed.

Some of the soldiers treated the killings like a game, brutalizing the murders. They had carved ‘C Company’ or the shape of the ace of spades into the victim’s chests. As the murders continued, men started getting more comfortable with the idea, boasting about the number of Vietnamese they shot. Charlie Company assumed that all of the Vietnamese people were involved with the Viet Cong, even babies. Hugh Thomson stated that when he created flares to mark the locations of wounded civilians, soldiers came and killed the wounded. The American soldiers also fired machine guns into huts. The U.S. army tried to cover up and suppress information about the raping and murdering at My Lai. They downplayed the event saying that the majority of the people they killed were the Viet Cong.

Journalist Seymour Hersh released information on what really happened in November 1969. The army was under intense pressure from newspapers so they put William Calley on trial. On June 5th 1969 William Calley was called back to the U.S, as a suspect in an authorised army investigation. Eyewitnesses at the event later confessed that Calley had rounded villagers into a ditch and shot them all with a machine gun. Calley was at first charged with the murder of 109 civilians. There were many cases trialled with a jury of army officers in the end they dropped all charges against all the defendants (26 others were originally charged with criminal offences) except for Lieutenant William Laws Calley. He was charged with killing ‘at least 20 civilians’, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Calley ended up serving only three years, largely under house arrest, after his original life sentence was reduced by the Army.

The significance of My Lai massacre is that it is a reminder to armed forces around the world of what can happen when soldiers refer to their enemy as less than human. The Americans also realised that their military is flawed, that Americans are capable of committing atrocities. They realized that they are not always the hero’s, horrifying the general public. The My Lai massacre turned more citizens against the war, they now truly realised the cruelty and brutality of it. A mother of one of the soldiers accused of killing civilians stated that “I sent them a good boy, and they made him a murder”. Support for the Vietnam War never recovered, eventually leading onto the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. It had a huge affect on the Vietnamese, their despair turned into a strong hate towards the Americans.

The American soldiers took away their brothers and sisters, the civilians had to live with the memories and depression from the event. Troung Thi Le lost nine members of her family in the My Lai massacre. She spoke to the authors of ‘Four hours in My Lai’ saying “I won’t forgive. I hate them very much. I won’t forgive them as long as I live. Think of those children… still at their mother’s breast being killed… I hate them very much.” It is also significance because it enlightened the American public of the United States government’s policy of concealment – how well they had covered the event up for 18 months. It also shows the lack of truthfulness of the armed forces. The My Lai massacre is significant today because it educates the army to carry out missions within the expectations and standards of our society.

Lieutenant William Laws Calley

William Laws Calley is a convicted American war criminal and former U.S. army officer found guilty of murder for his role in the My Lai massacre on March 16th 1968. Calley led the first platoon of Charlie Company during its service in the Quang Ngai province in Vietnam. Calley commanded the first group of men to land at My Lai, ordering them to kill villagers. William believed that there was a massacre, but he was only following orders. After the memorial service on March 15th for the dead soldiers involved in Charlie Company (killed by mines, booby traps or snipers), Medina apparently briefed them on a three day ‘search and destroy’ mission to be put in place on March 16th.

“The men were hurt real bad, real bad,” said a member of the Company. Captain Ernest Medina was the commanding officer of Charlie Company, 1st battalion, 20th infantry of the 11th brigade and the Americal Division – the group accountable for the My Lai massacre. Numerous men claimed that Medina, in that briefing, ordered the killing of ‘every living thing in My Lai’. Also the burning of homes, killing of livestock, destruction of crops/other foodstuffs, closing of wells and killing of people found at My Lai. Calley believed that the people there would be a member of the Viet Cong (or Viet Cong supporters) and that actual civilians would be away at the markets. When Captain Medina was court martialled in 1971, he denied that was his instruction, stating that his men killed civilians under their own commands. In captain Medina’s testimony he stated that Colonel Barker had received permission from the Army public of Vietnam that My Lai could be destroyed as it was a Viet Cong stronghold. Lieutenant Colonel Barker was the task force commander.

He was in control of A Company, B Company and C Company, and many other divisions. Medina also said that he was not aware of his men’s atrocities until it was too late. He stated that he informed his men that the residents might be Viet Cong or sympathizers. The prosecutor thought it was ‘incredible’ that Captain Medina had constant radio communication with Charlie Company, but yet had no idea of the crimes the soldiers were committing. Calley had testified at his trial that he was ordered by Captain Ernest Medina to kill everyone in the village. The trial over William Calley ran for 77 days, it occurred in late 1970 to early 1971. Over 20 Charlie Company soldiers declared to the court that Medina sent out instructions to slaughter everybody in the village.

William Calley referred to himself as a dutiful soldier – “I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy. That was my job on that day….I carried out the orders that I was given, and I do not feel wrong in doing so, sir.” Psychiatrists inspected Calley testifying that ‘he did not feel as if he were killing human beings but rather that they were animals with whom one could not speak of reason.’ Calley and his platoon overlooked the humanity of the villagers because they believed that all Vietnamese people were the ‘enemy’. They were thought as less than human because the American military policy secured the stereotypes/beliefs. All ranks of the US forces called them ‘gooks’, racism was very common.

‘The mere gook rule’ developed in Vietnam. Vivienne Sanders believed that dead bodies meant ‘promotions’ for American soldiers. ‘If it is dead and Vietnamese, it’s Viet Cong”. Calley believed that he was a scape goat of the United States policies. The army had been pressured by the American media, so they had put him on trial to cover up everybody else’s crimes. Even though his charges are justified, more people needed to be sentenced that were involved in the My Lai massacre. He believed this because he had watched many others commit atrocities. The soldiers took their own initiative the majority of the men apparently did not need Lieutenant Calley’s encouragement or directions to commit murders.

Lieutenant Calley recalled seeing one of the members of his platoon raping a woman. He told the soldier to “get his pants back up and get over to where he was supposed to be”. Every soldier had been trained according to the Geneva conventions, so they certainly knew them. Calley defended himself at the trial stating that the army trained him to hate the Vietnamese. He was told that the Vietnamese children were very good at planting mines. Fred Widmer (radio operator with Charlie Company) defended William Calley’s decision by stating “When we first started losing members of the Company, it was mostly through booby traps and snipers… We had heard a lot about women and children being used as booby traps and being members of the Vietcong… There was no question they were working for the Vietcong… you didn’t trust them anymore. You didn’t trust anybody… And I would say that in the end, anybody that was still in that country was the enemy.” Before William Laws Calley was assigned into the army he had dropped out of school and was unemployed.

The general public wondered why Calley had been assigned his position in the army, due to his bad emotional and intellectual stature. Despite his high rank, the men in his platoon felt resentful towards him. Some of them reported to army officials that Calley lacked common sense and could not read a map and compass properly. Many members of Charlie Company witnessed Captain Ernest Medina treat Calley with disrespect. As Lieutenant Calley was an officer that was not respected, some soldiers had a history of antagonizing him about instructions they had found foolish. Lieutenant Calley’s plans would have been abandoned if the other soldiers did not agree, so it was unfair to give him the entire blame. Calley wanted to earn respect from Medina so he followed all orders accordingly. Lieutenant Calley believed that he was as innocent as the soldiers he was only following orders like they were. Calley stated “When my troops were getting massacred and mauled by an enemy I couldn’t see, I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t touch… nobody in the military system ever described them anything other than communists”.

Calley’s comments gained sympathy from the American public. Calley was “as much as a victim as the people he shot” according to Seymour Hersh. Jerry Cramm (a student from Oklahoma City) sent a letter to life magazine during December 1969 stating “Under no circumstances do I think a person placed in the situation of being required to kill should be punished for killing the wrong people”. The ‘Ledger-Enquirer ‘published that William Calley publicly apologized for his actions at My Lai during the week of the 21st August 2009 in Columbus. “There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” Calley told members of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus on Wednesday. His voice started to break when he added, “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.” He admitted to thinking the people in My Lai were part of the Viet Cong but now had realised they were civilians. Ronald Lee Ridenhour

Ronald Lee Ridenhour was a helicopter door gunner who served in the 11th infantry brigade during the Vietnam War he flew over My Lai a few days after the massacre noticing the destruction. He played an immense role in the investigation of the My Lai massacre. On March 18th 1969, after he was discharged from the army (December 1968), he wrote a letter with all of the evidence he had found concerning ‘Pinkville’. In early April 1969 he sent letters to 30 government leaders, including President Richard Nixon, Secretary of Defence Melvin Laird and other members of congress. The letters prompted an official investigation against the accused, leading to the conviction of Lieutenant William Laws Calley. If Ron Ridenhour hadn’t made an effort on exposing the My Lai event, it may have stayed a secret. Ronald’s perspective on the event is that a massacre did occur and that the people involved should be punished.

Ronald stated that “I wanted to get those people. I wanted to reveal what they did”. (http://www.historynet.com/something-dark-and-bloody-what-happened-at-my-lai.htm). Ronald Lee Ridenhour first heard of the massacre from his friends when they were serving in Vietnam. He believed, according to his letter, that ‘something rather dark and bloody did indeed occur’ (https://sites.google.com/a/lakewoodcityschools.org/my-lai-massacre/massacre-ends/cover-up-failed). While Ron served in the army, he collected eyewitness and participant accounts from people involved in the My Lai massacre. When Ron returned to the United States he was determined to do something, the situation made him miserable “My God, when I first came home, I would tell my friends about this and cry—literally cry”. (http://www.historynet.com/something-dark-and-bloody-what-happened-at-my-lai.htm) Ronald stated in his letter that it was hard to believe that ‘not only had so many young American men participated in such an act of barbarism, but that their officers had ordered it’.

His perspective on the event is that people do anything authority tells them to. Ron Ridenhour talked about the cover up and peoples responses to authority to the Los Angeles times (on March 16th 1993) stating that “Some people—most it seems—will, under some circumstances, do anything someone in authority tells them to… Government institutions, like most humans, have a reflexive reaction to the exposure of internal corruption and wrong doing: No matter how transparent the effort, their first response is to lie, conceal and cover up. Also like human beings, once an institution has embraced a particular lie in support of a particular cover up, it will forever proclaim its innocence.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Ridenhour). One of Ron Ridenhour’s closest friends in the army was called Mike Terry. He had spent four months away from Ronald in Lieutenant Calley’s platoon before they were both assigned to the LRRP (long-range reconnaissance patrol unit). He told an account of My Lai, how his company massacred forty women and kids from a small hamlet one night.

After being questioned of how he could do it, he said that “I just closed my eyes and followed orders’”. Ronald Ridenhour’s other perspective on the event was that all of the soldiers were trained to be racially prejudiced towards the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese were called ‘gooks’. Ron stated in ‘Nobody gets off the bus: The Vietnam generation big book’ that one of his first drill sergeants had said to him “When you get to Vietnam, you’ll have one job. Killing gooks” (http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Texts/Narrative/Ridenhour_Jesus_01.html) When Ron was situated in Vietnam late 1967, all of the soldiers were speaking about killing gooks. Ron did not understand how soldiers could tell the difference between the Viet Cong and the good Vietnamese, as time passed he realised that they didn’t, ‘all gooks were VC when they were dead’. All of the ranks in the United States army reflected racism. The word ‘gook’ is traced far back to 1912 with Americans involvement in Nicaragua. Not all of the soldiers thought with that scheme though. Ronald Ridenhour’s letter contained evidence that one man in the company shot himself in the foot so he didn’t have to take part in the My Lai massacre.

The common way for the soldiers was to just follow orders. Ron Ridenhour’s introduction to the dreadfulness of Vietnam was when a pilot called to the officers in the ground company. He asked frantically for them to help a Vietnamese man, the infantry officer got more frustrated as he ran to him. When the officer found him after twenty minutes, he took a look and shot him in the head. The officer then said to the pilot “This man no longer needs any help” (http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/myl_hero.html). Ronald Ridenhour also recalled flying over civilians that were bleeding to death. Ronald believed that the Congress of the United States should be taking action. In Ronald’s letter he wrote that the reason he sent it to the congress instead of the media was because he didn’t want to damage the image of American servicemen.

In the letter he stated “I remain irrevocably persuaded that if you and I do truly believe in the principles, of justice and the equality of every man, however humble, before the law, that form the very backbone that this country is founded on, then we must press forward a widespread and public investigation of this matter with all our combined efforts.”. Ronald wanted to work with the government to catch whoever was to blame for the My Lai massacre. Even though their response was slow, Ronald Ridenhour’s letter pressured the government into launching an investigation. The army inspector general’s office and its criminal investigative division examined the event eventually, leading to the conviction of Lieutenant William Laws Calley. Members of the army tried very hard to cover up the event.


Hugh Clowers Thompson Jr. was born on April 15, 1943, in Atlanta, Georgia, United States, to Wessie and Hugh Clowers Thompson. [3] : 39–40 [4] His ancestry can be traced back to the Mississippian culture era in North America, the British Isles, and the Province of Georgia. [3] : 39–40 His paternal grandmother was full Cherokee Native American and his ancestors were victims of the ethnic cleansing policies and actions that resulted from the Indian Removal Act, most notably the Trail of Tears. [3] : 39–40

Hugh Clowers Thompson Sr. was an electrician and served in the United States Navy during the Second World War. [3] : 39

In 1946, the Thompson family relocated from Atlanta to Stone Mountain, Georgia. [3] : 39 Thompson's brother and only sibling, Thomas Thompson, was born in 1938 and served in the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War. [3] : 40 Thompson was a member of the Boy Scouts of America and his family was actively involved in the Episcopal Church. [3] : 40 Hugh Clowers Thompson Sr. educated his children to act with discipline and integrity. The Thompson family denounced racism and ethnic discrimination in the United States and assisted many ethnic minority families in their community. [3] : 42 Coming from a working-class family, Hugh Clowers Thompson Jr. plowed fields and later worked as an assistant for a funeral mortuary to support his family during his adolescence. [3] : 44

Thompson graduated from Stone Mountain High School on June 5, 1961. [3] : 46 Following graduation, Thompson enlisted in the United States Navy and served in a naval mobile construction battalion at Naval Air Station Atlanta, Georgia, as a heavy equipment operator. Thompson married Palma Baughman in 1963. [3] : 47 In 1964, Thompson received an honorable discharge from the Navy and returned to Stone Mountain to live a quiet life and raise a family with his wife. He studied mortuary science and became a licensed funeral director. [3] : 47

When the Vietnam War began, Thompson felt obliged to return to military service. [5] : 135 [6] In 1966, Thompson enlisted in the United States Army and completed the Warrant Officer Flight Program training at Fort Wolters, Texas, and Fort Rucker, Alabama. [3] : 47 In late-December 1967, at the age of 25, Thompson was ordered to Vietnam and assigned to Company B, 123rd Aviation Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Division. [7]

On March 16, 1968, Thompson and his Hiller OH-23 Raven observation helicopter crew, Lawrence Colburn (gunner) and Glenn Andreotta (crew chief), were ordered to support Task Force Barker's search and destroy operations in Sơn Mỹ, Quảng Ngãi Province, South Vietnam. [3] : 59 Song My Village was composed of four hamlets, Mỹ Lai, Mỹ Khê, Cổ Lũy and Tư Cung, and was suspected by the United States Army Military Intelligence Corps to be a Viet Cong stronghold. [3] : 59

Army intelligence concerning the presence of Viet Cong in Sơn Mỹ was inaccurate, however, and the village's population was predominately composed of neutral, unarmed rice-farming families. Reconnaissance aircraft, including Thompson's OH-23 crew, flew over the Sơn Mỹ vicinity but received no enemy fire. [3] : 66 At 07:24, without validating intelligence reports, the United States Army shelled Sơn Mỹ, killing many Vietnamese civilians. Following the shelling, Company C (Charlie Company), 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment of Task Force Barker, led by Captain Ernest Medina, moved into Sơn Mỹ.

Upon entering Sơn Mỹ, officers and soldiers of Company C moved through the Song My Village and vicinity, murdering civilians, raping women, and setting fire to huts. [3] : 69 [5] : 137 [8] 1st Platoon of Company C, commanded by Lieutenant William Laws Calley Jr., forced approximately 70–80 villagers, mostly women and children, into an irrigation ditch and murdered the civilians with knives, bayonets, grenades, and small arms fire. [3] : 73

Thompson recounted at an academic conference on Mỹ Lai held at Tulane University in December, 1994: "We kept flying back and forth, reconning in front and in the rear, and it didn't take very long until we started noticing the large number of bodies everywhere. Everywhere we'd look, we'd see bodies. These were infants, two-, three-, four-, five-year-olds, women, very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever." [9]

Thompson and his crew, who at first thought the artillery bombardment caused all the civilian deaths on the ground, became aware that Americans were murdering the villagers after a wounded civilian woman they requested medical evacuation for, Nguyễn Thị Tẩu (chín Tẩu), was murdered right in front of them by Captain Medina, the commanding officer of the operation. According to Lawrence Colburn,

Then we saw a young girl about twenty years old lying on the grass. We could see that she was unarmed and wounded in the chest. We marked her with smoke because we saw a squad not too far away. The smoke was green, meaning it's safe to approach. Red would have meant the opposite. We were hovering six feet off the ground not more than twenty feet away when Captain Medina came over, kicked her, stepped back, and finished her off. He did it right in front of us. When we saw Medina do that, it clicked. It was our guys doing the killing. [10]

Immediately after the execution, Thompson discovered the irrigation ditch full of Calley's victims. Thompson then radioed a message to accompanying gunships and Task Force Barker headquarters, "It looks to me like there's an awful lot of unnecessary killing going on down there. Something ain't right about this. There's bodies everywhere. There's a ditch full of bodies that we saw. There's something wrong here." [3] : 75 Thompson spotted movement in the irrigation ditch, indicating that there were civilians alive in it. He immediately landed to assist the victims. Lieutenant Calley approached Thompson and the two exchanged an uneasy conversation. [3] : 77

Thompson: What's going on here, Lieutenant?

Calley: This is my business.

Thompson: What is this? Who are these people?

Calley: Just following orders.

Thompson: Orders? Whose orders?

Calley: Just following.

Thompson: But, these are human beings, unarmed civilians, sir.

Calley: Look Thompson, this is my show. I'm in charge here. It ain't your concern.

Thompson: Yeah, great job.

Calley: You better get back in that chopper and mind your own business.

Thompson: You ain't heard the last of this!

As Thompson was speaking to Calley, Calley's subordinate, Sergeant David Mitchell, fired into the irrigation ditch, killing any civilians still moving. [3] : 78 Thompson and his crew, in disbelief and shock, returned to their helicopter and began searching for civilians they could save. They spotted a group of women, children, and old men in the northeast corner of the village fleeing from advancing soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, Company C. Immediately realizing that the soldiers intended to murder the Vietnamese civilians, Thompson landed his helicopter between the advancing ground unit and the villagers. [3] : 79 He turned to Colburn and Andreotta and ordered them to shoot the men in the 2nd Platoon if they attempted to kill any of the fleeing civilians. [3] : 81 While Colburn and Andreotta focused their guns on the 2nd Platoon, Thompson located as many civilians as he could, persuaded them to follow him to a safer location, and ensured their evacuation with the help of two UH-1 Huey pilots he was friends with. [5] : 138–139

Low on fuel, Thompson was forced to return to a supply airstrip miles outside the village. Before they departed the village, Andreotta spotted movement in the irrigation ditch full of bodies. According to Trent Angers in The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story (2014),

The helicopter looped around then set down quickly near the edge of the ditch. Andreotta had maintained visual contact with the spot where he saw the movement, and he darted out of the aircraft as soon as it touched the ground. Thompson got out and guarded one side of the chopper and Colburn guarded the other. Andreotta had to walk on several badly mangled bodies to get where he was going. He lifted a corpse with several bullet holes in the torso and there, lying under it, was a child, age five or six, covered in blood and obviously in a state of shock.

The child, Do Ba, was pulled from the irrigation ditch and after failing to find any more survivors, Thompson's crew transported the child to a hospital in Quảng Ngãi. [3] : 215

After transporting the child to the hospital, Thompson flew to the Task Force Barker headquarters (Landing Zone Dottie), and angrily reported the massacre to his superiors. [5] : 176–179 His report quickly reached Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker, the operation's overall commander. Barker immediately radioed ground forces to cease the "killings". After the helicopter was refueled, Thompson's crew returned to the village to ensure that no more civilians were being murdered and that the wounded were evacuated. [3] : 89

After the massacre Edit

Thompson made an official report of the killings and was interviewed by Colonel Oran Henderson, the commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade (the parent organization of the 20th Infantry). [11] Concerned, senior American Division officers cancelled similar planned operations by Task Force Barker against other villages (Mỹ Lai 5, Mỹ Lai 1, etc.) in Quảng Ngãi Province, possibly preventing the additional massacre of further hundreds, if not thousands, of Vietnamese civilians. [3] : 219–220

Initially, commanders throughout the American chain of command were successful in covering up the Mỹ Lai massacre. Thompson quickly received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions at Mỹ Lai. The citation for the award fabricated events, for example praising Thompson for taking to a hospital a Vietnamese child ". caught in intense crossfire". It also stated that his ". sound judgment had greatly enhanced Vietnamese–American relations in the operational area". Thompson threw away the citation. [5] : 204–205

Thompson continued to fly observation missions in the OH-23 and was hit by enemy fire a total of eight times. In four of those instances, his aircraft was lost. [3] : 146 In the last incident, his helicopter was brought down by enemy machine-gun fire, and he broke his back in the resulting crash landing. This ended his combat career in Vietnam. He was evacuated to a hospital in Japan and began a long period of rehabilitation.

When news of the massacre publicly broke, Thompson repeated his account to then-Colonel William Wilson [5] : 222–235 and then-Lieutenant General William Peers during their official Pentagon investigations. [12] In late-1969, Thompson was summoned to Washington, DC to appear before a special closed hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. There, he was sharply criticized by congressmen, in particular Chairman Mendel Rivers (D-S.C.), who were anxious to play down allegations of a massacre by American troops. [5] : 290–291 Rivers publicly stated that he felt Thompson was the only soldier at Mỹ Lai who should be punished (for turning his weapons on fellow American troops) and unsuccessfully attempted to have him court-martialed. [4]

Thompson was vilified by many Americans for his testimony against United States Army personnel. He recounted in a CBS 60 Minutes television program in 2004, "I'd received death threats over the phone. Dead animals on your porch, mutilated animals on your porch some mornings when you get up." [13] [6]

After his Vietnam service, Thompson was assigned to Fort Rucker to become an instructor pilot and later received a direct commission, attaining the rank of captain and retired as a major. [14] His other military assignments included Fort Jackson, South Korea, Fort Ord, Fort Hood, and bases in Hawaii. He retired from the army in 1983.

Thompson became a helicopter pilot for the oil industry, operating in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1988 an English documentary film producer, Michael Bilton, working for Yorkshire Television, managed to contact Thompson via his mother, who was then widowed and living in Texas. At that point Thompson had all but disappeared from public life. Bilton had contacted former crew member Lawrence Colburn, and put Thompson and Colburn in touch with each other after a gap of nearly 16 years. Both Thompson and Colburn had been trying to find each other, but without success. Thompson was living in Lafayette, Louisiana, and Colburn near Atlanta, Georgia. They quickly arranged a reunion. Bilton spent a long weekend with Thompson discussing the events at Mỹ Lai. It proved the beginning of a long friendship which lasted until Thompson's death.

Both Thompson and Colburn were interviewed for the film Four Hours in My Lai (1989) (Remember My Lai? on PBS) – which went on to win a British Academy Award and an international Emmy award. The interview showed Thompson relating what he had witnessed at Mỹ Lai: "Here we were supposed to be the guys in the white hats. It upset me". [15] Bilton and his colleague Kevin Sim then began researching a book and Bilton conducted further interviews with Thompson and Colburn. When the book Four Hours in My Lai (1992) was published, it prompted a campaign to have the heroism of Thompson and his helicopter crew recognised. Several senior figures in the U.S. military supported the campaign, as did President George H. W. Bush. Thompson and Colburn were invited to speak to a wide range of audiences about the ethics of warfare including at West Point, a conference in Norway, and at Connecticut College in New London, where they were each awarded an honorary doctorate. [16]

In 1998, Thompson and Colburn returned to the village of Sơn Mỹ, where they met some of the people they saved during the killings, including Thi Nhung and Pham Thi Nhanh, two women who had been part of the group about to be killed by Brooks's 2nd Platoon. [3] : 77 Thompson said to the survivors, "I just wish our crew that day could have helped more people than we did." [17] He reported that one of the women they had helped out came up to him and asked, "Why didn't the people who committed these acts come back with you?" He said that he was "just devastated" but that she finished her sentence: "So we could forgive them." He later told a reporter, "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." [18] Thompson and Colburn lit incense sticks and placed them in an urn by a stone marker at the irrigation ditch where many were murdered. They also dedicated a new elementary school for the children of the village. [17]

Thompson later served as a counselor in the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs, and gave a talk at the United States Naval Academy in 2003 [19] and at West Point in 2005 on Professional Military Ethics. He also spoke at the United States Air Force Academy and to United States Marine Corps officers at Quantico. Thompson gave his first lecture to a U.S. Army audience, discussing physical and moral courage, at the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School, Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, in 1998. [20] Thompson and his crew's actions have been used as an example in the ethics manuals of U.S. and European militaries. [3] : 221 Thompson received an honorary degree from Emory University and The Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University holds a collection relating to the life and careers of Hugh Thompson and Lawrence Colburn. [21] In 2005, he retired from Louisiana Veterans Affairs.

At the age of 62, after extensive treatment for cancer, Thompson was removed from life support and died on January 6, 2006, at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Pineville, Louisiana. Colburn came from Atlanta to be at his bedside. Thompson was buried in Lafayette, Louisiana, with full military honors, including a three-volley salute and a helicopter flyover. [22] [ failed verification ] On February 8, Congressman Charles Boustany (R-La.) made a statement in Congress honoring Thompson, stating that the "United States has lost a true hero, and the State of Louisiana has lost a devoted leader and dear friend." [23]

In 1998, exactly 30 years after the massacre, Thompson and the two other members of his crew, Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn, were awarded the Soldier's Medal (Andreotta posthumously), the United States Army's highest award for bravery not involving direct contact with the enemy. "It was the ability to do the right thing even at the risk of their personal safety that guided these soldiers to do what they did", then-Major General Michael Ackerman said at the 1998 ceremony. The three "set the standard for all soldiers to follow". Additionally on March 10, 1998, Senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.) entered a tribute to Thompson, Colburn and Andreotta into the record of the U.S. Senate. Cleland said the three men were "true examples of American patriotism at its finest". [2]

In 1999, Thompson and Colburn received the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award. Later that year, both men served as co-chairs of STONEWALK, a group who pulled a one-ton rock engraved "Unknown Civilians Killed in War" from Boston to Arlington National Cemetery. In 2010, the Hugh Thompson Foundation was chartered in memory of Thompson's courage in halting the massacre. [24] His biography The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story by Trent Angers [3] was included on the U.S. Army Chief of Staff's professional reading list. [25]

Folk singer David Rovics wrote a song about the incident at Mỹ Lai titled "Song for Hugh Thompson". [26] Ryan Costello of The Oaks wrote a song commemorating Hugh Thompson's heroism in For Hugh Thompson, Who Stood Alone on the album Our Fathers and the Things They Left Behind. [27] Thom Parrott (also known as Tom Parrott) wrote the song "Pinkville Helicopter" about the massacre that is included on the Smithsonian Folkways CD collection Best of Broadside. [28] Jonathan Berger composed a piano concerto dedicated to Hugh Thompson. Commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts, it was premiered at the United Nations General Assembly on January 24, 2001. [29] A subsequent solo piano work, Elegy for the Victims of My Lai, adapted from the concerto was recorded and performed by pianist Sasha Toperich. [30] The Kronos Quartet used Berger's music along with a libretto by Harriet Scott Chessman to compose a "monodrama" with tenor Rinde Eckert. Along with the strings of the quartet and various Vietnamese instruments played by the musician Van-Anh Vo, Eckert sang about Thompson's encounter with the massacre and the effect of the encounter on himself. The composition was presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in September 2017. [31]

Today in History: My Lai Massacre is exposed to the American public.

The My Lai Massacre of 1968 is one of the most shocking and saddest chapters of the United States military’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Some people have argued that if it was not for the efforts of decorated investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, the incident and cover up that followed might have remained buried for years? Fortunately, it wasn’t.

Hersh was instrumental in exposing the story behind it to the public on November 12 th 1969, after he received a tip from a source, later revealed to be antiwar lawyer Geoffrey Cowan, who worked at the time for The Village Voice. Hersh’s investigation would go on to expose that some 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians (mainly the elderly, women and children) were murder on March 16, 1968, by an American contingent of around one hundred soldiers, known as ‘Charlie Company’. Among the chief ringleaders of the massacre was US Lieutenant William L. Calley.

As Hersh searched for clues he first found an obscure article buried in the Times in a local library that briefly outlined how Calley had been charged by the Army with the murder of unarmed Vietnamese civilians. He tracked Calley down in hiding at Fort Benning and spoke to him about the massacre. Hersh also spoke to another Charlie Company soldier by the name of Paul Meadlo, who eventually agreed to talk on national television about the massacre.

At first, when no one was interested in Hersh’s report in early November, he turned to a small antiwar newspaper in Washington. Eventually when the Dispatch News Service agreed to publish his article on November 12th 1969, it forever condemned the United States Army for covering up the details of the My Lai Massacre. (Interestingly, two days after Hersh’s article was published, Washington was swamped by over a half a million people who marched in protest.)

With the truth out, the public would learn that initially 26 soldiers were charged with crimes against the people of Vietnam, but Lieutenant Calley would be the only one eventually convicted of mass murder in 1971. They sentenced him to life in prison, but President Nixon for his own selfish reasons allegedly intervened and had him placed under house arrests. Lieutenant Calley would ultimately only serve 3 years of his sentence before being released.

In 2009, Calley issued his first public apology about the massacre.

“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai … I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families.

I am very sorry … If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a second lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them – foolishly, I guess.”

For the record, Calley didn’t deny taking part in the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968, but has always insisted that he was only following orders from his commanding officer Capt. Ernest Medina. It is a notion that many including the former prosecutor of the trial have repeatedly rejected.

In the decades since the massacre efforts at reconciliation has helped to ease the pain of survivors.

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Watch the video: The My Lai Massacre - Short History Documentary (January 2022).