Reports of the Incident

1. Reports of Civilian Casualties

Commencing early in the operation, commanders began receiving reports of civilian casualties in My Lai (4). At about 0930 hours, MG Koster was advised by COL Henderson that he had observed 6 to 8 such casualties. The figure was increased when LTC Barker reported to Henderson during the afternoon that the total was 12 to 14, and was further increased to 20 in a report Barker made that evening. This last report was relayed to MG Koster at about 1900 hours. None of these reports was entered in unit journals or reported outside the Americal Division.

2. Observations and Complaints by Aviation Personnel

One element which provided combat support to TF Barker on 16 March was an aero-scout team from Company B, 123d Aviation Battalion. A pilot of this team, W01 (now lLT) Hugh Thompson, had been flying at a low altitude over My Lai (4) during the morning hours and had observed the actions of C/1-20 Inf. He became greatly concerned over the "needless and unnecessary killings" he had witnessed. He landed his helicopter several times to aid the inhabitants and in an attempt to stop the killing.

Shortly before noon, W01 Thompson returned to LZ Dottie and reported his observations to his company commander, MAJ Frederic Watke. The complaints of WO1 Thompson were confirmed by other pilots and crewmen who had also been over My Lai (4). The complaints were expressed in most serious terms; those who were present heard the terms "killing" and "murder" used freely with estimates of the dead in My Lai (4) running over 100. Upon receipt of this report, MAJ Watke went to the commander of TF Barker and advised him of the allegations. Watke stated that Barker then left for his helicopter, presumably to visit C/1-20 Inf. Watke considered the matter was "in the hands of the man who could do something about it" and took no further action at that time. Later that day, he again encountered Barker who advised him that he could find nothing to substantiate Thompson's allegations. while Watke testified that he was convinced at the time that LTC Barker was lying, he took no further action until 2200 hours that night when he reported to his battalion commander, LTC Holladay, and related for the second time the substance of what is hereafter referred to as the "Thompson Report."

3. The Order to Return to My Lai (4)

At about 1530 hours on 16 March, after receiving a second report of civilian casualties, COL Henderson stated he became suspicious and directed TF Barker to send a company back through My Lai (4) to ascertain the exact number of casualties and the cause of death. As the order was being transmitted to C/1-20 Inf by TF Barker, it was monitored by MG Koster, the commander of the Americal Division, who inquired concerning the reasons. After a brief explanation by the CO of C/1-20 Inf, during which time MG Koster was advised that 20-28 noncombatants had been killed, MG Koster countermanded the order and directed that COL Henderson be notified. There were no further efforts to make an on-site determination of the cause or extent of the civilian casualties.

4. The Thompson Report Reaches Division Headquarters

Because of the late hour at which LTC Holladay received the report from MAJ Watke, they waited until the following morning before reporting to BG Young, an Assistant Division Connander. Watke repeated his story, which both he and LTC Holladay agree contained the allegations that there had been "lots of unnecessary killing ... mostly women, children and old men" and that a confrontation had taken place between personnel of aviation and ground units; however, there is conflict as to the number of casualties mentioned. LTC Holladay and MAJ Watke also agree that BG Young was advised that the complaints made by Thompson had been confirmed by other aviation unit personnel.

At about noon on the 17th, BG Young reported to MG Koster the information he had received from MAJ Watke and LTC Holladay. There is substantive disagreement in testimony between what BG Young testified he received from Watke and Holladay and what the latter two state they reported. BG Young stated he was not apprised of any charge of indiscriminate or unnecessary killing of noncombatants. He further stated that it was his impression the matter of majorconcern was that there had been a confrontation between the ground forces aviation unit, resulting from an incident in which noncombatants had been caught in a cross fire between US and enemy forces.

BG Young contends that it was this lesser charge he brought to MG Koster, who directed BG Young to instruct COL Henderson to conduct a thorough investigation of the incident. MG Koster has confirmed parts of BG Young's account of this conversation but in a previous statement before the Criminal Investigation Division (CID), MG Koster stated that he had been advised of some indiscriminate shooting of civilians.

The Inquiry has concluded that the two general officers received a muted version of the Thompson Report from Watke and Holladay, but one that included the allegation that noncombatants had been indiscriminately killed. Upon receipt of the report, it seems most likely that they related it to the information MG Koster had received from TF Barker the previous day, that 20-28 noncombatants had been inadvertently killed. The information concerning noncombatant casualties had not been forwarded outside of the Division, although D4ACV and III MAF regulations required such action, or were the new allegations reported to higher headquarters. Adopting a "close hold" attitude concerning all information relating to this matter, MG Koster directed BG Young to have COL Henderson investigate the incident.

Copyright Digital History 2016