American Massacre of Vietnamese Civilians at My Lai Is Revealed

In 1968, U.S. Army soldiers, led by Second Lieutenant William Calley, marched into the small Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai in search of Viet Cong guerrilla fighters and summarily killed hundreds of civilian men, women, and children. Word of the massacre quickly spread in the U.S. media and led to an intense public scandal. Calley was tried for the killings. Because he was a junior officer, many claimed he was used as a scapegoat.

Summary of Event

The My Lai Massacre occurred on March 16, 1968, as three companies of the first battalion, Twenty-third Infantry Division, marched into the small Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai on a search-and-destroy mission. The soldiers were looking for guerrillas, referred to as Viet Cong, associated with the National Front for Liberation of South Vietnam. [kw]My Lai Is Revealed, American Massacre of Vietnamese Civilians at (Nov. 13, 1969)
Calley, William
My Lai massacre
Vietnam War;My Lai massacre
Song My massacre
Calley, William
My Lai massacre
Vietnam War;My Lai massacre
Song My massacre
[g]Asia;Nov. 13, 1969: American Massacre of Vietnamese Civilians at My Lai Is Revealed[01320]
[g]Vietnam;Nov. 13, 1969: American Massacre of Vietnamese Civilians at My Lai Is Revealed[01320]
[c]Military;Nov. 13, 1969: American Massacre of Vietnamese Civilians at My Lai Is Revealed[01320]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;Nov. 13, 1969: American Massacre of Vietnamese Civilians at My Lai Is Revealed[01320]
[c]Violence;Nov. 13, 1969: American Massacre of Vietnamese Civilians at My Lai Is Revealed[01320]
[c]Publishing and journalism;Nov. 13, 1969: American Massacre of Vietnamese Civilians at My Lai Is Revealed[01320]
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Medina, Ernest
Barker, Frank A.
Thompson, Hugh, Jr.
Ridenhour, Ronald
Hersh, Seymour

William Calley at his court-martial at Fort Benning, Georgia.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The company of twenty-five soldiers, led by Second Lieutenant William Calley, was on a mission coordinated by Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Barker with instructions from their commanding officer to aggressively seek out Viet Cong and engage the enemy. The battalion-sized U.S. Army unit was code-named Task Force Barker Task Force Barker and comprised three infantry companies (A, B, and C). Barker ordered commanders of the first battalion to burn houses, kill livestock, and destroy foodstuffs to keep supplies out of enemy hands.

Charlie Company moved first through the hamlet’s south section; Lieutenant Brooks, Stephen K. Stephen K. Brooks’s second platoon went through the north. Lieutenant LaCroix, Larry Larry LaCroix’s third platoon remained in reserve close by. The soldiers of Charlie Company expected to encounter two armed Viet Cong companies. Captain Ernest Medina, commander of Charlie Company, had instructed his officers to burn the houses and destroy the livestock, crops, and foodstuffs in My Lai. Several men from Company C later testified that Medina had instructed them to kill civilians found in the hamlets. Medina later denied such statements.

Soldiers from first platoon, Charlie Company, entered the village after a barrage of artillery and helicopter gunfire but could not find any Viet Cong or other enemy combatants. The U.S. soldiers suspected Viet Cong guerrillas were hiding in the village homes or storehouses. The U.S. soldiers began a brutal spree of violence against the unarmed villagers that included murder, gang Rape;at My Lai massacre[My Lai massacre] rape, sexual molestation, mutilation, and beatings. In what remains perhaps the most remembered atrocity at My Lai, soldiers herded villagers into an irrigation ditch and then shot and killed them. According to reports, first platoon leader Calley took a weapon from one of his subordinates—a soldier who had refused further involvement in the killing spree—and shot a group of approximately seventy to eighty people in the center of the village.

As the first platoon made its way through the village, soldiers of second platoon were just beginning their sweep through the northern portions of My Lai and the small hamlet of My Khe. Here too, U.S. soldiers raped, shot, and burned their way through the area. The villagers who survived the massacre by hiding beneath dead bodies later testified that they saw the American soldiers rape women, kill women who were pregnant, shoot small children and babies, and mutilate villagers. These accounts were later supported with images snapped by American war photographers.

The third platoon, led by Lieutenant Larry LaCroix, was charged with managing any remaining resistance by enemy combatants. The American soldiers killed civilians who had been wounded and all remaining livestock. Evidence would later show that third platoon massacred a group of seven to twelve women and children who had been hiding in the village.

The massacres in My Lai and My Khe were halted after a U.S. Navy helicopter pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., noticed a large number of dead and dying civilians as he flew over the villages. He landed his aircraft by a ditch full of bodies and asked a nearby soldier to assist with retrieving the survivors from the ditch. Thompson returned to his helicopter and took off to continue his scouting assignment. He would later recount that as he took off he saw soldiers firing into the ditch to kill off the survivors.

After a few flyovers of the village, Thompson saw a group of civilians, comprising old men, women, and children, being approached by soldiers. He landed his helicopter, instructing his men to open fire on any soldier firing at the villagers, and proceeded to coax the villagers into his helicopter. Thompson rescued more than one dozen people and flew them to safety. He returned and rescued a small girl from a ditch full of dead bodies. His testimony would later be supported by other pilots and crew.

The Army chose not to conduct a definitive body count. Most eyewitnesses estimate the body count to have been between 350 and 500. The memorial currently standing at the site of the massacre is engraved with the names of 504 persons, ranging in age from one to eighty-two years. The official death count by the U.S. Army is 347.

Initial investigations into the My Lai massacre were brief, despite letters and complaints by soldiers that brutality against Vietnamese civilians was common. Critics claimed incidents had been whitewashed to avoid public outcry. However, the atrocities at My Lai would first come to light outside the military through a March, 1969, letter written by Ronald Ridenhour—a veteran of Charlie Company—to U.S. president Richard Nixon, the Pentagon, the U.S. State Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several U.S. Congress members. Most authorities who received Ridenhour’s letter, which stated that “something very black indeed” had occurred at My Lai, chose to ignore the note. One person who paid attention was investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. He broke the story of My Lai in a three-part news report that began on November 13, 1969, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch with the article “Lieutenant Accused of Murdering 109 Civilians.” Hersh was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for the investigative series.

After numerous assertions that the atrocities were covered up, the U.S. Army began court-martial proceedings against thirty—mostly enlisted—soldiers, including two generals and three colonels. Ultimately, charges were dropped for those who already had been discharged from military service. The remaining nine enlisted soldiers and four officers faced courts-martial on March 17, 1970, in an inquiry headed by Lieutenant General William R. Peers.

Initially, seven enlisted soldiers from Charlie Company were charged by the Army with crimes including murder, rape, and assault. Charges against five were dropped and two soldiers were tried; Calley was one of them. On March 29, 1971, he was found guilty on three counts of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, but President Nixon intervened and released the officer pending appeal. In August, the Army reduced Calley’s sentence to twenty years, and in April, 1974, further reduced it to ten years. He was paroled in the fall of 1974.


The massacre at My Lai raised serious questions both within and beyond the armed services. First, at the social and cultural level, the massacre reinvigorated the antiwar movement. Many antiwar activists seized upon this single event to increase their demands for the removal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. Also, there was an increase in filings for conscientious-objector status by potential draftees.

Second, at the military level, some experts maintained that the My Lai massacre demonstrated that there was a need for better recruits and stronger leadership. The military had been experiencing a dearth of bright, intelligent recruits during the Vietnam War, as many young men were able to avoid the draft through attending college or a university. The massacre, they argued, showed a system gone wrong because of recruitment concerns and a lack of conscientious soldiering.

The massacre also led to debate over the military’s insistence on unconditional obedience to orders. Most of the soldiers tried for their deeds at My Lai testified that they simply had been following orders and were, therefore, not guilty of any wrongdoing. The massacre also led to debate over the military’s emphasis on kill ratios and body counts. Soldiers and their commanders were routinely rewarded for having high kill ratios, or body counts, in combat zones. Finally, the cover-up of evidence and witness reports from the massacre prompted critics to call for a change of official policy on handling complaints that allege brutality against civilian noncombatants. Calley, William
My Lai massacre
Vietnam War;My Lai massacre
Song My massacre

Further Reading

  • Anderson, David L., ed. Facing My Lai: Moving Beyond the Massacre. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. Details events leading up to the massacre and the resulting inquiry. Includes chapters by Seymour Hersh, Hugh Thompson, and Ronald Ridenhour.
  • Belknap, Michael R. The Vietnam War on Trial: The My Lai Massacre and the Court Martial of Lt. Calley. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002. Detailed treatment of the massacre and the court martial of Calley.
  • Oliver, Kendrick. The My Lai Massacre in American History and Memory. New York: Manchester University Press, 2006. Traces both the immediate and the lasting effects of the massacre and trial upon American culture and politics. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Olson, James, S., and Randy Roberts. My Lai: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998. A brief but complete detailing of the massacre and court martial. Includes photographs and primary source documents from the inquiry.
  • Peers, William R. The My Lai Inquiry. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. Excellent, indispensable examination of the My Lai inquiry. Includes military maps of Vietnam, photographs, and primary source documents.

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