History>eXplorations>The Vietnam War as History
the morning of March 16, 1968, soldiers of Charlie Company,
a unit of the Americal Division's 11th Infantry Brigade
arrived in the hamlet of My Lai in the northern part of
South Vietnam. They were on a “search and destroy”
mission to root out 48th Viet Cong Battalion thought to
be in the area.
unit met no resistance in My Lai, which had about 700 inhabitants.
Indeed, they saw no males of fighting age. They only found villagers
eating breakfast. Nevertheless,
over the next three hours they killed as many as 504 Vietnamese
civilians. Some were lined up in a drainage ditch before being
shot. The dead civilians included fifty age 3 or younger, 69 between
4 and 7, and 27 in their 70s or 80s.
addition, Vietnamese women were raped; other civilians were clubbed
and stabbed. Some victims were mutilated with the signature "C
Company" carved into the chest. One soldier would testify
later, "I cut their throats, cut off their hands, cut out
their tongues, scalped them. I did it. A lot of people were doing
it and I just followed. I lost all sense of direction." Only
one American was injured - a GI who had shot himself in the foot
while clearing his pistol.
one incident, a soldier, Robert Maples, refused an order to fire
his machine gun on people in a ditch, even when his commanding
officer trained his own weapon on him. Hugh Thompson, a helicopter
pilot, had threatened to fire on the American troops in order to
rescue Vietnamese women and children from the slaughter. After
seeing U.S. troops advancing on a Vietnamese family, he landed
his helicopter, called in gunships to rescue the civilians, and
ordered his gunner to fire on any American who interfered.
My Lai massacre took place shortly after the Tet offensive. Late
in January 1968, Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers
had launched attacks on urban areas across South Vietnam. Charlie
Company had arrived in Vietnam three months before the My Lai
massacre. Charlie Company had suffered 28 casualties, including
five dead. Just two days before the massacre, on March 14, a "C"
Company squadron encountered a booby trap, killing a popular sergeant,
blinding one GI and wounding several others.
11th Brigade claimed to have killed 128 Viet Cong during the operation,
which would have been the largest number killed by the Brigade
in a 24 hour period. Curiously, the Brigade reported only 3 weapons
captured. When Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot, claimed that
civilians had been murdered, Charlie Company’s commanding
officer, Ernest Medina, was asked how many civilians had been
killed. Even though he had personally seen at least 100 bodies,
he maintained that between 20 and 28 civilians had been killed
by gunship and artillery fire. That conclusion was echoed in a
report submitted a month later by the commander of the 11th Infantry
Brigade, Col Oran K Henderson. He claimed that 20 civilians had
been killed inadvertently,
massacre was covered up until a 22-year-old helicopter gunner
in another unit, Ron Ridenhour, wrote letters to 30 congressional
and military officials a year later detailing the events at My
Investigations and Trials
November 24, 1969, Lt. Gen. W.R. Peers was directed by the Secretary
of the Army to review “possible supression or witholding
of information by persons involved in the incident." After
more than 26,000 pages of testimony from 403 witnesses were gathered,
the Peers inquiry recommended that charges should be brought against
28 officers and two non-commissioned officers involved in a cover-up
of the massacre. The Peers report concluded that the brigade commander,
Col. Oran Henderson, and the commanding officer, Lt Col Frank
Barker, had substantial knowledge of the war crime, but did nothing
about it. In the end, Army lawyers decided that only 14 officers
should be charged with crimes. Meanwhile, a separate investigation
by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division concluded
that there was evidence to charge 30 soldiers with the crimes
of murder, rape, sodomy, and mutilation. Seventeen men had left
the Army, and charges against them were dropped.
investigators concluded that 33 of the 105 members of Charlie
Company participated in the massacre, and that 28 officers helped
cover it up. Charges were brought against only 13 men. In the
end, only one soldier – Lt. William Calley - was convicted.
Calley was charged with murdering 104 villagers in the My Lai
My Lai massacre became a defining symbol of the Vietnam war. Some
deemed the massacre as an aberration; others called it a symptom
of deeper problems—of leadership, training, and morale.
this part of the Vietnam eXploration:
1. Identify the diverse factors that contributed to the My Lai
2. In what ways did the soldiers at My Lai actions violate the
laws of war?
3. Describe the cover-up that followed the massacre. Why did
the cover-up fail?
4. Who should have been held accountable for events at My Lai?
5. How did newspapers respond to reports of the My Lai Massacre
and the subsequent investigation and trial?
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Thompson, an army pilot who landed his craft in between
villagers and the rampaging soldiers. He ordered his gunner,
Lawrence Colburn, to fire on any soldier who continued pursuing
the fleeing villagers. Thompson and Colburn radioed two more
helicopters to the scene and airlifted a dozen villagers to
Ridenhour, a former GI who wrote to his congressman, after
hearing stories of a terrible massacre from his fellow soldiers.
LT Tran Ngoc Tan's Letters to Province Chief,
account: Thirty years later,
memories of My Lai massacre remain fresh
of the American People
Search for Consensus: Editorials of the My Lai Massacre
States v. Captain Ernest L. Medina
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