My Lai: U.S. Soldiers Massacred 500 Vietnamese

March 16, 2012
U.S. Soldiers Massacre Vietnamese Civilians at My Lai
By THE LEARNING NETWORK
ARTICLE SOURCE: NEW YORK TIMES

The C Company, also known as the "Charlie Company," of the 11th Brigade, Americal Division, was ordered to My Lai to eliminate the Vietcong's 48th Battalion. On the night of March 15, Capt. Ernest Medina, the commander of Charlie Company, told his men that all civilians would leave the village by 7:00 the following morning, leaving only Vietcong soldiers and sympathizers. He ordered them to burn down the village, poison wells and wipe out the enemy.

The next day, at 8 a.m., after an aerial assault, Lieutenant Calley's 1st Platoon of Charlie Company led the attack on My Lai. Expecting to encounter Vietcong soldiers, the platoon entered the village firing. Instead, they found mostly women and children who denied that there were Vietcong soldiers in the area. The American soldiers herded the villagers into groups and began burning the village.

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

Lieutenant Calley gave explicit orders to kill and participated in the execution of unarmed villagers standing in groups and lying in ditches. There were also accounts of soldiers mutilating bodies and raping young women. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson watched the massacre from his helicopter. Realizing that civilians were being killed, he landed his helicopter near one of the ditches and rescued some survivors.


Hugh Thompson - courage extraordinary

There were heroes among the villains. Some soldiers committed murder at My Lai, but others refused to follow their clearly illegal orders. Hugh Thompson Jr., a Georgia-born helicopter pilot, landed amid the carnage that day and snatched a handful of civilians from certain death. He was awarded the Soldier's Medal for bravery, but not until 1998; and Pentagon bureaucrats, still afraid of publicity, tried to hand him the medal in a private meeting, with no media present. Thompson, displaying the same moral courage he showed in 1968, demanded a public ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Progressive Post Editor's note: Hugh Thompson is a very special hero among the Vets for Peace of San Diego County, who named their chapter "The Hugh Thompson Memorial Chapter". In every holocaust, every war, there are heroes, but few like like Hugh Thompson.


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

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

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


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