Is the My Lai Massacre the greatest shame in the history of the U.S. military?
On March 16, 1968, U.S. Army soldiers acting on orders from their commanding officers massacred several hundred innocent Vietnamese civilians. The men were killed, while many of the women were also raped, their bodies mutilated, and their children slaughtered right in front of them. And only one of the men behind this atrocity, the My Lai Massacre, was ever punished.
In the months before the massacre, the American soldiers at fault had been repeatedly attacked by Viet Cong troops. They lost more than 40 men in three months, and they were sure that the guerrillas who'd made their lives hell were hiding in a small village called Son My.
The villagers were South Vietnamese, nominally allies of the Americans in the Vietnam War, and none had any association with the Viet Cong. But the American unit's paranoia was running rampant, and they had convinced themselves that the only way to safety was to wipe out every last person in Son My.
"Go in there aggressively," Col. Oran Henderson ordered his men. "Wipe them out for good."
The My Lai Massacre Begins
At first, the soldiers were only holding the villagers hostage. They herded people into the center of a small hamlet called My Lai and held them at gunpoint, ordering them to produce the hidden Viet Cong forces that the Americans imagined they were hiding.
The massacre began when one soldier — whose name has never been confirmed — suddenly stuck a Vietnamese man with his bayonet. After killing one, he dragged another from where he was sitting, threw the civilian in a well, and tossed a grenade in after him.
This wasn't exactly against orders. Before they entered the town, one of the soldiers had asked if they were to kill the women and the children. "They're all VC," his commanding officer, Captain Ernest Medina, had replied. They were to kill, he told them, anything "walking, crawling or growing."
The Murdered Children
The other soldiers then followed that first man's lead. Within seconds, they were gunning down a group of 15 to 20 women who'd been praying along with their children. Then they moved through the village, throwing the villagers into ditches and putting bullets in their head while they lay face-down in blood and dirt.
"A lot of women had thrown themselves on top of the children to protect them," a witness, Private Dennis Knoti, said afterward, testifying against William Calley, the only soldier who was ever convicted for the My Lai Massacre. "Then, the children who were old enough to walk got up and Calley began to shoot the children."
Calley wasn't the only one killing children, though. Several witnesses revealed the names of other soldiers who, they said, had massacred women and babies alike. In the end, hundreds of innocent civilians were dead — 347 according to the U.S. Army, 504 according to the Vietnamese government.
Meanwhile, only one American soldier was injured: Private Herbert Carter, who, in the confusion, accidentally shot himself in the foot.
Not a single Viet Cong combatant was found in the village. "As a matter of fact," Private First Class Michael Bernhardt, one of the men who revealed the massacre to the world, would later testify, "I don't remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive."
The End Of The My Lai Massacre
Ultimately, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot named Hugh Thompson Jr. put an end to the killings. After helplessly watching the carnage from above and attempting to rescue the wounded, he landed his helicopter directly in the line of fire, all but daring his brothers in arms to shoot through him if they were going to keep the slaughter going.
When the killings were over, he reported what had happened. His superior, however, gave him a polite and quiet commendation, offering him a medal and a citation that falsified the events of the massacre. They expected Thompson to go along with the falsified citation. Thompson instead threw the citation away.
Even then, it took a full year before the truth came out.
At first, newspapers were reporting that 128 Viet Cong had been tracked down and killed in My Lai. Eventually, following reports from infantryman Tom Glen to his superiors, aviator Ronald Ridenhour contacted some 30 members of Congress and demanded that they blow the whistle on what actually happened. By the fall of 1969, the story was making headlines across the country.
The Trial of William Calley
Even after the truth came out, though, virtually no one was punished — except for platoon leader William Calley, who alone was given the full blame for the entire My Lai Massacre.
For the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, Calley was sentenced to nothing more than house arrest (he was originally sentenced to prison, but President Richard Nixon himself ordered the transfer). He only served three years before a federal judge granted his release.
Of the other soldiers charged in the massacre, all but Calley were either acquitted or had their charges dropped. In the case of the My Lai Massacre, justice never came.