Testimony regarding the My Lai Massacre Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On March 16, 1968, Charlie Company (First Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division) got summoned to My Lai to counteract Viet Cong activity in the area. By day's end, members of the unit had slaughtered hundreds of South Vietnamese civilians. More than a year passed before the US Army began an extensive investigation, at which point Herbert L. Carter's testimony was collected. When news of the events broke in late 1969, the reports shocked the international community and further depleted support for the war among the American public. The US government charged Lieutenant William L. Calley with six counts of premeditated murder. At his trial in late 1970 and early 1971, Robert Maples and Dennis Conti gave their testimonies. Although Calley was found guilty and given a life sentence, he was later released, having served only four months in prison. The massacre had a lasting effect on the American public, bringing the violence of the war into public view and support for the war to a new low.

Summary Overview

On March 16, 1968, Charlie Company (First Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division) got summoned to My Lai to counteract Viet Cong activity in the area. By day's end, members of the unit had slaughtered hundreds of South Vietnamese civilians. More than a year passed before the US Army began an extensive investigation, at which point Herbert L. Carter's testimony was collected. When news of the events broke in late 1969, the reports shocked the international community and further depleted support for the war among the American public. The US government charged Lieutenant William L. Calley with six counts of premeditated murder. At his trial in late 1970 and early 1971, Robert Maples and Dennis Conti gave their testimonies. Although Calley was found guilty and given a life sentence, he was later released, having served only four months in prison. The massacre had a lasting effect on the American public, bringing the violence of the war into public view and support for the war to a new low.

Defining Moment

American support for the war in Vietnam was already low and on the decline. As early as March 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara observed that the war was “unpopular” and “becoming increasingly unpopular as it escalates.” One year later, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched the massive Tet Offensive. Although the assault failed to obtain its military objectives, support for the war in the United States continued to decline.

The My Lai Massacre occurred in the wake of the Tet Offensive. On March 16, 1968, American troops from Charlie Company slaughtered hundreds of unarmed and innocent South Vietnamese citizens—including women and children. Officer Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot, witnessed part of the massacre and saved several civilians. He reported what he saw, but the follow-up investigation was cursory and dismissed his allegations. Another soldier, Ron Ridenhour, heard rumors of the massacre and began to collect evidence, mainly eyewitness testimonies. A little over a year after the massacre, he sent his findings to thirty Washington power brokers, including President Richard Nixon. His informal investigation prompted the Army's formal one, during which the testimony from Herbert L. Carter was collected. The Army decided to charge Lieutenant William Calley with six counts of premeditated murder. During Calley's trial in late 1970 and early 1971, both Robert Maples and Dennis Conti gave testimony as witnesses for the prosecution.

Out of the fourteen men court-martialed for their participation in the killings, Lieutenant Calley was the only one convicted. He was sentenced to life, but after a national backlash at his conviction, he ended up serving only four months. There were many reasons why Americans protested his conviction; among the most prominent was the thought that he was being used as a scapegoat for the crimes of many. Although the backlash illustrated the complexity of American public opinion, the aftermath of the My Lai Massacre brought the harsh realities and brutal violence of war to American living rooms like no other event during the Vietnam War and ultimately diminished support for the war.

Author Biography

In these testimonies, several people appear in different roles. Herbert L. Carter, Robert Maples, and Dennis Conti were GI's on the ground who witnessed the My Lai Massacre. Carter served as a ‘tunnel rat,’ a position specializing in subterranean search-and-destroy missions. Maples and Conti were a machine gunner and grenadier, respectively. Aubrey Daniels led the prosecution for the US government against William Calley, securing the only conviction in the proceedings. After President Richard Nixon reduced Calley's sentence, Daniels sent a letter to Nixon protesting this decision. George Latimer led Calley's defense team, which included, among others, Richard Kay.

Historical Document

[PFC Herbert L. Carter, from Wabash County, Indiana, describes atrocities committed at My Lai]

We were picked up by helicopters at LZ Dottie early in the morning, and we were flown to My Lai. We landed outside the village in a dry rice paddy. There was no resistance from the village. There was no armed enemy in the village. We formed a line outside the village.

The first killing was an old man in a field outside the village who said some greeting in Vietnamese and waved his arms at us. Someone—either Medina or Calley—said to kill him and a big heavyset white fellow killed the man. I do not know the name of the man who shot this Vietnamese. This was the first murder.

Just after the man killed the Vietnamese, a woman came out of the village and someone knocked her down and Medina shot her with his M16 rifle. I was fifty or sixty feet from him and saw this. There was no reason to shoot this girl. Mitchell, Conti, Meadlo, Stanley, and the rest of the squad and the command group must have seen this. It was pure out-and-out murder.

Then our squad entered the village. We were making sure no one escaped from the village. Seventy-five or a hundred yards inside the village we came to where the soldiers had collected fifteen or more Vietnamese men, women, and children in a group. Medina said, “Kill everybody. Leave no one standing.” Wood was there with an M60 machine gun and, at Medina's orders, he fired into the people. Sgt. Mitchell was there at this time and fired into the people with his M16 rifle, also. Widmer was there and fired into

the group, and after they were down on the ground, Widmer passed among them and finished them off with his M16 rifle. Medina himself did not fire into this group.

Just after this shooting, Medina stopped a seventeen-or eighteen-year-old man with a water buffalo. Medina said for the boy to make a run for it—he tried to get him to run—but the boy wouldn't run, so Medina shot him with his M16 rifle and killed him. The command group was there. I was seventy-five or eighty feet away at the time and saw it plainly. There were some demolition men there, too, and they would be able to testify about this. I don't know any other witnesses to this murder. Medina killed the buffalo, too….

We went on through the village. Meadlo shot a Vietnamese and asked me to help him throw the man in the well. I refused and Meadlo had Carney help him throw the man in the well. I saw this murder with my own eyes and know that there was no reason to soot the man. I also know from the wounds that the man was dead.

Also in the village the soldiers had rounded up a group of people. Meadlo was guarding them. There were some other soldiers with Meadlo. Calley came up and said that he wanted them all killed. I was right

there within a few feet when he said this. There were about twenty-five people in this group. Calley said, “When I walk away, I want them all killed.” Meadlo and Widmer fired into this group with his M16 on automatic fire. Cowan was there and fired into the people too, but I don't think he wanted to do it. There were others firing into this group, but I don't remember who. Calley had two Vietnamese with him at this time and he killed them, too, by shooting them with his M16 rifle on automatic fire. I didn't want to get involved and I walked away. There was no reason for this killing. These were mainly women and children and a few old men. They weren't trying to escape or attack or anything. It was murder.

A woman came out of a hut with a baby in her arms and she was crying. She was crying because her little boy had been in front of her hut and between the well and the hut someone had killed the child by shooting it. She came out of the hut with her baby and Midmer shot her with an M16 and she fell. When she fell, she dropped the baby and then Widmer opened up on the baby with his M16 and killed the baby, too.

I also saw another woman come out of a hut and Calley grabbed her by the hair and shot her with a caliber .45 pistol. He held her by the hair for a minute and then let go and she fell to the ground. Some enlisted man standing there said, “Well, she'll be in the big rice paddy in the sky.”

Robert Maples, Witness for the Prosecution

Direct examination by Aubrey Daniels for the prosecution:

A: We were grabbing up people. We went into hooches, got some of the people there and shot at them. One woman come up and showed me her arm, where she had been shot. She was elderly. I couldn't see how old she was. The guys pushed these people up on the trail, a few women, kids. We just moved through the village. We came to this hold or ditch or something. I was with Bergthold. Calley was there at the ditch and he asked Stanley to interpret for him. We came up. They had people standing by the hold. Calley and Meadlo were firing at the people. They were firing into the hole. I saw Meadlo firing into the hole.

Q: Where was Lieutenant Calley?

A: There. Firing.

Q: Where was his weapon?

A: Pointing into the hole.

Q: Did you have any conversation with Lieutenant Calley at that ditch?

A: Yes

Q: What did he say?

A: He asked me to use my machine gun.

Q: At the ditch?

A: Yes.

Q: What did you say?

A: I refused.

Cross examination by George Latimer:

Q: Were they firing single shot or automatic?

A: I haven't any idea. Meadlo and Lieutenant Calley was both firing into that hole. I saw people go into that hole and no one come out. That's all I know.

Q: Well, you've changed your testimony, haven't you? Didn't you tell the Peers committee in January, 1970 that you never saw Calley pushing people into that hole?

A: I never paid it no mind. I just remembered now. I haven't changed my testimony. I remember Calley was pushing people into that hole. Over a period of time, you forget things then you remember.

Q And what else have you remembered that you saw?

A: I saw Meadlo crying.

Q: From seventy-five yards away?

A: Yes.

Q: You saw tears in his eyes?

A: Yes. I saw tears in Meadlo's eyes.

Q: He had on his helmet and his gear and you saw tears in his eyes?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you remember anything else?

A: No.

Q: Well, tell me, what was so remarkable about Meadlo that made you remember him?

A: He was firing and crying.

Q: He was pointing his weapon away from you and then you saw tears in his eyes?

A: Yes.

Dennis Conti, Witness for the Prosecution

Direct examination by Aubrey Daniels:

A: As I came up, he [Calley] said round up the people.

Q: What did you do?

A: So I did, rounded up the people. There were five or six, mostly women and children. They were unarmed and huddled together.

Q: “What did you do with them?

A: I brought them back to Calley on the trail. There were others there. Thirty or forty. All women and children I remember one old man. They were in their sixties to infants.

Q: What were they doing?

A: Just standing there.

Q: Who was with them?

A: The only GI I remember was Meadlo.

Q: What happened then?

A: Calley told me and Meadlo to take the people off and push them in a rice paddy. We took them out there, pushed them off the trail and made them squat down and bunch up so they couldn't get up and run. We stayed there and guarded the. At this time, I see a young child running from a hootch toward us. He seen us and he took off. I dropped my gear and checked out a hootch with a woman and a child in it. There was an old woman in a under. I took her out and put her on the ground. Then I saw a man running away. I took the other woman and child to the group. The old woman wouldn't go, so I left her there.

Q: What was Meadlo doing at this time?

A: He was guarding the people?

Q: Where was he?

A: He was standing on the village side of the people.

Q: Then what happened?

A: Lieutenant Calley came out and said take care of these people. So we said, okay, so we stood there and watched them. He went away, then he came back and said, “I thought I told you to take care of these people. We said, “We are.” He said, “I mean, kill them. I was a little stunned and I didn't know what to do. He said, “Come around this side. We'll get on line and we'll fire into them.” I said, “No, I've got a grenade launcher. I'll watch the tree line. I stood behind them and they stood side by side. So they — Calley and Meadlo—got on line and fired directly into the people. There were bursts and single shots for two minutes. It was automatic. The people screamed and yelled and fell. I guess they tried to get up, too. They couldn't. That was it. They people were pretty well messed up. Lots of heads was shot off, pieces of heads and pieces of flesh flew off the sides and arms. They were all messed up. Meadlo fired a little bit and broke down. He was crying. He said he couldn't do any more. He couldn't kill any more people. He couldn't fire into the people any more. He gave me his weapon into my hands. I said I wouldn't. “If they're going to be killed, I'm not going to do it. Let Lieutenant Calley do it, I told him. So I gave Meadlo back his weapon. At that time there was only a few kids still alive Lieutenant Calley killed them one-by-one. Then I saw a group of five women and six kids—eleven in all—going to a tree line. “Get ‘em! Get ‘em! Kill ‘em! Calley told me. I waited until they got to the line and fired off four or five grenades. I don't know what happened….

Cross examination by Richard Kay:

Q: Did you see any dead bodies at My Lai?—How many?

A: Quite a few

Q: Were they sleeping or did they appear to be dead?

A: Well, they had holes in ‘em so I assumed they were dead…

Q: Were you under medical treatment that day?

A: No.

Q: Isn't it a fact that you were taking penicillin for venereal disease?

A: No.… Oh, yeah you're right. I was getting shots.

Q: Isn't it a fact that the medic was carrying penicillin to give you that day on the mission?

A: Yeah, I guess you're right.

Q: And weren't you under the influence of marijuana on March 16, 1968?

A: No.

Q: Didn't you smoke it the night before?

A: No.

Q: Didn't you smoke it before getting into the helicopters that morning?

A: No.

Q: Weren't you a constant marijuana smoker?

A: No.

Q: Did you ever open your pants in front of a woman in the village of My Lai?

A: No.

Q: Isn't it a fact that you were going through My Lai that day looking for women?

A: No.

Q: Didn't you carry a woman half-nude on your shoulders and throw her down and say that say was too dirty to rape? You did do that, didn't you?

A: Oh yeah, but it wasn't at My Lai….

Q: Didn't you cuss Lieutenant Calley out because he stopped you from performing a perverse, unnatural sex act at My Lai?

A: No

Q: Do you remember you went into a hootch and started to rape a woman and Lieutenant Calley told you to get out? Do you deny that occurred?

A: Yes.

Q: Didn't you go around and tell members of your platoon about the number of times you'd raped Vietnamese women?

A: No.

Q: You didn't like Lieutenant Calley, did you, Mr. Conti?

A: I didn't dislike him; I didn't like him. He was just there.

Q: As a matter of fact, you hated him didn't you?

A: No.

Q: Do you remember one night, you were on guard duty and had a M-79 and you shot all your ammunition so when it came time to go on patrol, you didn't have any ammunition left? You remember that night?

A: That's right I didn't have any ammunition left.

Q: Weren't you mad at Lieutenant Calley for reporting you?

A: I don't think so.

Q: You deny that?

A: Yes, I do.

Q: Mr. Conti, isn't it a fact that you'd like to see Lieutenant Calley hanged?

A: No.

Glossary

hooch/hootch: a thatch house or “hut”

LZ: landing zone

Document Analysis

This document is made up of three different testimonies, all transcripts of oral exchanges. They come in two types: The first constitutes general testimony Herbert L. Carter gave to investigators in an interview. The other two are court transcripts from the direct and cross examination of Robert Maples and Dennis Conti. This difference in type of testimony accounts for variations in structure and content. In the latter two, the lawyers speak as interlocutors, and their motives can be discerned from their statements.

Carter's testimony stands apart from the other two in structure and content. It includes no interlocutors, but rather a continuous summary of the actions Carter had witnessed. In the latter two testimonies, the direct examination by Aubrey Daniels steers the two witnesses to a similar summary of events, but are not as long or as detailed as that of Carter. Although some themes extend across all three testimonies (see “essential themes” below), the differences are significant. For example, Carter repeatedly calls the killings “murder.” He establishes his perspective with his frequent use of that word. The word does not appear in the two formal court testimonies, where its use would likely be more limited.

In the latter two documents, the lawyers' motives can be discerned from their statements. Both Maples and Conti are witnesses for the prosecution. Daniels' aims to guide his witnesses into a descriptive account of the events that both incriminates Calley and attempts to depict the brutality of that day. The defense team attempts to discredit the two witnesses in different ways. George Latimer accuses Maples of changing his testimony: “Well, you've changed your testimony, haven't you? Didn't you tell the Peers committee in January, 1970 that you never saw Calley pushing people into that hole?” Maples counters Latimer's assertion with another detail that he did not include in his former testimony, arguing that “you forget things then you remember.”

On the other hand, the defense attempts to discredit Conti by smearing his character. By his fourth question, Richard Kay demonstrates an aggression that is palpable: “Isn't it a fact that you were taking penicillin for venereal disease?” The question is not really about Conti's conditions or about medical treatments that might prevent him from being a capable witness; rather, it is intended to smear his character and reveal libertine sexual behavior. Though Conti assents to this loaded question, he refuses two later accusations. Kay accuses him of being a “constant marijuana smoker” and a rapist. Both accusations are intended to blacken Conti's character, and the latter provides a motive for Conti to resent Calley. According to Kay's vivid questioning, Calley “stopped [Conti] from performing a perverse, unnatural sex act at My Lai,” and Conti therefore resented Calley.

One of the defense's main arguments was that Calley simply followed orders. This should be considered in light of the fact that each of these three witnesses refused orders to some degree. Many participants in the massacre did not testify out of fear of incriminating themselves; therefore, it should come as no surprise that the ones who did testify were those more resistant to the killings. Only Carter's testimony includes no sign of his refusal, but later in the sequence of events he shot himself in the foot (literally) in order to be removed from the situation. His account of events should be considered in light of this indirect refusal to participate in the events. The other two testimonies show direct evidence of the witnesses' refusals. In direct examination, Maples bluntly states “I refused.” Conti first establishes his separation from Calley by explaining how he misunderstood Calley's order to “take care of these people.” Later in his testimony, he cites his weapon, a grenade launcher, as a reason to watch the tree line instead of firing into innocent civilians. However, this plan falters when some civilians escape toward the tree line and Calley orders Conti to kill them. He hesitates but no longer refuses.

Essential Themes

The scene, obviously, is one of aggression, confusion, death, and horror at what was taking place. Any number of emotional signatures can be found in the events at My Lai, and a number of these signatures carry over (albeit in subdued fashion) in the soldiers' accounts.

The question of whether the shooters' weapons were set to automatic appears in all three testimonies. George Latimer prods Robert Maples with a question about this detail, which Maples says he does not remember. In the testimonies of Herbert L. Carter and Conti, the witnesses freely offer the information that the shooters were firing with their weapons set to automatic. They emphasize this fact to show the shooters' eagerness to shoot and inexactness in aiming.

Gender functions the same way in different situations throughout the three testimonies. All the speakers are men, but women play a central role in the accounts of the massacres. In every testimony, women, sometimes in conjunction with children, appear in the narrative as victims. Their gender establishes their status as noncombatants, and the witnesses sometimes emphasize their gender to underscore the heinousness of the killings. The only other appearance of women in the testimonies comes in Richard Kay's cross examination of Dennis Conti. They again play the role of victims as Kay accuses Conti of rape.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Allison, William Thomas. My Lai: An American Atrocity in the Vietnam War. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012. Print.
  • Bilton, Michael & Kevin Sim. Four Hours in My Lai. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.
  • Hersh, Seymour M. Cover-Up. New York: Random House, 1972. Print.
  • ___________. My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath. New York: Random House, 1970. Print.
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