March, 1968: My Lai Massacre Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The My Lai massacre occurred during the first hours of a March 16, 1968, operation carried out by a battalion-sized unit, code-named Task Force Barker, of the Americal Division of the U.S. Army. This unit, comprising three infantry companies (A, B, and C) supported by artillery, helicopters, and coastal patrol craft, was intended to sweep between two hundred and four hundred Viet Cong from a group of hamlets in the Son My subdistrict of Quang Ngai Province in South Vietnam.

The My Lai massacre occurred during the first hours of a March 16, 1968, operation carried out by a battalion-sized unit, code-named Task Force Barker, of the Americal Division of the U.S. Army. This unit, comprising three infantry companies (A, B, and C) supported by artillery, helicopters, and coastal patrol craft, was intended to sweep between two hundred and four hundred Viet Cong from a group of hamlets in the Son My subdistrict of Quang Ngai Province in South Vietnam.

Following the surprise Tet offensive launched by the Viet Cong on January 31, American commanders sought to reestablish control and to destroy known Viet Cong units. The Americal Division, including Task Force Barker, had been searching around Quang Ngai in February and March but encountered few Viet Cong.

On March 15, Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Barker announced a three-day sweep against the Viet Cong 48th Local Forces battalion operating in and around a large, coastal fishing village. This was the third such operation against this village since February. Barker planned to move his three infantry companies into place by helicopter about 8:00 a.m., following a short artillery barrage. Helicopters were to engage fleeing or fighting Viet Cong. Offshore, small Navy patrol craft blocked any escape through the eastern seaward end of the noose.

Company C landed at 7:30 a.m., just west of another hamlet, My Lai. Lieutenant William L. Calley’s platoon of twenty-five men moved first through the hamlet’s south section; Lieutenant Stephen Brooks’s platoon went through the north. Lieutenant Larry LaCroix’s platoon remained in reserve near the landing zone.

The men of Company C expected to encounter two armed Viet Cong companies. Captain Ernest Medina, commander of Company C, 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 Captain Medina, who stayed at the landing zone, had specifically instructed them to kill civilians found in the hamlets. Medina denied such statements.

Calley’s platoon slaughtered two large groups of villagers sometime between 7:50 a.m. and 9:15 a.m. In one instance, more than twenty people were gunned down on a pathway; in another, around 150 were systematically slaughtered with machine gun and small-arms fire in a ditch about one hundred meters east of the hamlet. Soldiers later testified that Calley ordered them to kill their civilian captives. Men from all three platoons of Company C committed murder, rape, and other atrocities that morning.

About 8:30 a.m. Brooks’s platoon turned northward on Medina’s command to recover the bodies of two Viet Cong killed by a helicopter gunship. Brooks’s platoon then entered Binh Tay, a hamlet a few hundred meters away, where they raped and murdered villagers before rejoining Company C around 10:00 a.m.

While this killing was going on, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, an experienced combat helicopter pilot, was flying close overhead in an armed observation craft. At various times from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., Thompson attempted to aid wounded South Vietnamese civilians in the fields around My Lai, saw Medina kill a wounded Vietnamese woman in a field, and landed his craft near the ditch where so many defenseless people were shot. He urged members of Company C to stop the killing, but killings resumed after he left. Around 10:00 a.m. he landed again to protect a group of women and children who were being herded toward a bunker by men of Company C. Thompson called in one of his gunships to evacuate some of the wounded civilians and then landed his own small helicopter to save one slightly wounded child from the heaps of bodies. In addition to his combat radio transmissions, Thompson made reports upon his return to base to his commander about the slaughter.

Cover-up

The truth of these events was covered up within the Americal Division for a year, until a letter from a Vietnam veteran, Ronald Ridenhour, to Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird in late March, 1969, claimed “something very black indeed” had occurred at My Lai. Laird ordered an investigation. In September, 1969, William Calley was charged with murdering more than one hundred civilians at My Lai. The full dimensions of the massacre became public knowledge in mid-November, 1969, when newspapers carried Seymour Hersh’s interviews with men from Company C, the CBS Evening News broadcast other interviews, and photographs of the massacred victims were printed in Life magazine.

Lieutenant General William R. Peers was assigned responsibility for conducting the official investigation of the incident. He learned that Hugh Thompson’s accusations of a civilian massacre, as well as reports by South Vietnamese officials of more than five hundred civilian deaths, were never properly investigated. Peers’s report of March, 1970, contained detailed findings about what happened at My Lai and a recommendation that thirty individuals be held for possible charges.

War Crimes Charges

The Army preferred charges against a total of twenty-five men: twelve for war crimes and thirteen for other military offenses. Four of the five men eventually tried on war crime charges were members of Company C. The fifth was Captain Eugene Kotouc, the staff intelligence officer of Task Force Barker. He was acquitted of torturing a prisoner. There was no evidence of any misdeeds by men from Company A, but Company B had been involved in killings of civilians at the hamlet of My Khe. Captain Earl Michles, in command of Company B, was killed in the same helicopter crash that killed Lieutenant Colonel Barker in June, 1968, so both of those men were beyond the reach of the law. Charges against Lieutenant Willingham of Company B were dismissed in 1970, in spite of evidence of between thirty-eight and ninety civilian deaths caused by his men in My Khe on the morning of March 16.

Charges were brought in 1970 against thirteen officers in the Americal Division for various military offenses that were less than war crimes and did not involve murder or attempted murder. Charges were dismissed against several of the officers, and several had their cases resolved in other manners. Only four men were tried for the war crimes of murdering civilians, all were members of Company C: Captain Medina, the company commander; Lieutenant Calley, in command of one of the company’s platoons; Staff Sergeant David Mitchell, a squad leader in Calley’s platoon; and Staff Sergeant Charles E. Hutto, a squad leader from Brooks’s platoon. Lieutenant Brooks was killed in combat after the incident and so was not charged.

Initially, seven enlisted men from Company C had been charged by the Army with crimes including murder, rape, and assault. Charges against five were dropped and two men were tried.

Courts-Martial

The first court-martial resulting from My Lai was that of David Mitchell, a career soldier; it began in October, 1970, at Fort Hood, Texas. Mitchell was acquitted of all charges. While Calley’s trial was still in session, Charles Hutto was tried at Fort McPherson, Georgia, and found innocent. Medina’s trial took place at Fort McPherson in August and September, 1971, after Calley’s March, 1971, conviction. Medina was found not guilty of murder and assault.

Calley’s trial was the most prominent of all the courts-martial. He had been identified from the start as ordering the shooting of women and children and was tried under article 118 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for premeditated murder of more than one hundred Vietnamese. The trial at Fort Benning, Georgia, lasted about four months. On March 29, 1971, Calley was found guilty of three counts of murder by a panel of six officers. He was sentenced “to be confined at hard labor for the rest of [his] natural life; to be dismissed from the service; to forfeit all pay and allowances.” Two days later, President Richard M. Nixon ordered Calley released from the stockade and returned to his quarters to serve his sentence. In August, 1971, the Army reduced Calley’s sentence to twenty years, and in April, 1974, further reduced it to ten years. In the Army, prisoners become eligible for parole after one-third of their sentence is served. With Calley’s punishment reduced to ten years, he became eligible in the fall of 1974 and parole was granted in November.

Impact

The reactions both to the My Lai massacre and to Lieutenant Calley’s conviction cover a tremendous range. Most Americans and many people around the world expressed horror and distress at the massacre itself; yet a great many considered Lieutenant Calley to be a scapegoat. To some, it was not Lieutenant Calley or the others who were tried in courts-martial, but the United States that was on trial for its Vietnam war.

The outcome of the courts-martial reveals that no one–not the Army, the president, Congress, or the American public–relished punishing American fighting men for their conduct in Vietnam. The Army backed away from a joint trial of the accused and did not carry through the stern spirit of justice that pervades the official Peers Report.

American official and popular statements from the time typically express outrage toward the massacre itself but suggest that it would be best to reserve judgment about Calley’s or others’ guilt. Some veterans and Army members believed that Calley was being punished for one of the inevitable tragedies of war. Still others believed Calley had done only what the army had trained him to do: kill communists. Many believed, in contrast, that since the United States was fighting to protect Vietnam from communism, the Army should be saving, or at least protecting, Vietnamese civilians.

Ruined remains of My Lai in late 1969, one and one-half years after the massacre. (AP/ Wide World Photos)

Immediately following Calley’s conviction for murder, the White House and Congress received a strong wave of popular sympathy for him. It was believed that Calley’s conviction condemned, by implication, all Americans who had fought in Vietnam. Others believed that what occurred at My Lai were war crimes and that Calley, and others, should have been punished by death in the same way that German and Japanese war criminals were following World War II.

Beneath these opposing emotional calls for Calley’s release or execution, the My Lai massacre and the subsequent courts-martial had a profound impact on the United States and the Army. Knowledge of the massacre came twenty-one months after the Tet Offensive, but it was additional confirmation that hopes for an American victory in Vietnam were unfounded. If U.S. troops were slaughtering the South Vietnamese, how could the people ever be won over to the side of the United States?

People also wondered if My Lai was only the first of many such massacres that would come to light. In fact, evidence of thousands of unnecessary and unwarranted deaths of South Vietnamese civilians caused by U.S. and other allied units have been documented, but nothing quite so horrible as that at My Lai.

Reconsiderations of the War

Simply because of the questions raised about possible American atrocities in Vietnam, the whole discussion of the war itself took on a new color. The massacre gave proof to those antiwar protestors who called the war immoral and unjust. The atrocity marked an end, or at least a profound shock, to trust in American goodness and nobility of purpose.

During the 1970’s, evidence of various hidden schemes and deadly plans by the U.S. government came to light, many of them completely unconnected with My Lai. The My Lai massacre remains a key incident that loosed the tide of self-doubt and questioning about the American purpose and moral stature that marked much of national life in the 1970’s and 1980’s. One of the most profound and lasting impacts of the My Lai massacre and the Calley court-martial was the coldness and distaste Vietnam veterans encountered after 1969 upon return to the United States. Many Americans treated all veterans as if they had joined with Company C to abuse and murder Vietnamese women and children. For those remaining in the military service, the vision of a unit running amok killing civilians in Vietnam’s guerrilla war was one of several powerful forces that led to major reforms in Army military doctrine and the abandonment of the draft in favor of an all-volunteer armed services.

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