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My Lai Massacre

On 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.

The 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.

In 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.

In 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.

The 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.

The Cover-Up

The 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,

The 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 Lai.

New Investigations and Trials

On 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.

Army 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 massacre.

The 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.

For this part of the Vietnam eXploration:

1. Identify the diverse factors that contributed to the My Lai massacre
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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My Lai Chronology

Personal Acounts:


Polls of the American People

The Search for Consensus: Editorials of the My Lai Massacre

Law of War

United States v. Captain Ernest L. Medina

Resources (External Links):

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