Vietnam and the Court-Martial following the My Lai Massacre

About the My Lai Massacre in the Vietnam War where United States soldiers killed women and children, their court-martial and history.


Lieut. William L. Calley, Jr., and Charlie Company boarded helicopters for the village of My Lai in northeast South Vietnam at 7:30 A.M. on March 16, 1968. The night-before briefing of commander Capt. Ernest Medina warned of a head-on confrontation with the Viet Cong's 48th Battalion. The orders were: Kill the Viet Cong; destroy the village.

Over My Lai at 1,000', Col. Frank Barker headed the command copters. At 2,000' was Maj. Gen. Samuel Koster, commander of the Americal Division. At 2,500' was the commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade, Col. Oran Henderson. Photographer Ronald Haeberle and reporter Jay Roberts were to record the action of a major battle.

An hour and a half after Charlie Company landed, Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson arrived over My Lai in an observation copter. What he saw was not a battle but a massacre of running, screaming old men, women, and children being machine-gunned by American soldiers. A ditch filled with moaning, squirming, and bleeding bodies was a prime target.

While Charlie Company ate lunch, surrounded by dead Vietnamese, word came down from Medina to stop the attack. Not a single enemy shot had been fired all morning, but Americans had killed more than 100 unarmed civilians, including children. After the incident, there was more than the normal amount of scuttlebutt. Colonel Henderson advised Medina there would be an investigation. Medina told his men to clam up. Then talk about My Lai petered out; there was no investigation.

Back in the U.S., 18 months later, Robert Ridenhour, a nonparticipant at My Lai but a Vietnam veteran, broke the sordid story. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman L. Mendel Rivers, of South Carolina, spearheaded Pentagon action. A secret investigation by the Army followed.

The Court-Martial. On November 12, 1970, at Fort Benning, Ga., Lieutenant Calley heard the charges against him: premeditated murder of 30 Orientals at a trail junction south of the village; of 70 Orientals in a ditch on the east side; and of a monk and a 10-year-old boy.

The trial received national exposure. America listened. Four long, weary months of testimony was heard. In direct and cross-examination, contradictions were frequent. At one point, in answer to a direct question, Calley said: "It was no big deal, sir." America's Commander-in-Chief publicly stated: "What appears was certainly a massacre, and under no circumstances is justified.... We cannot ever condone or use atrocities against civilians." Finally, 3 years from the date Charlie Company landed at My Lai, Calley's trial went to the jury. The verdict: guilty. The sentence: hard labor for life, dismissal from service, and forfeiture of all pay.

Significance. For the 1st time in history, instant communication brought the horrors of armless, legless, burned, and bombed men, women, and children into American homes in living color--not after the fact, but from on the spot. Civilians had no stomach for the carnage of war. During the Calley trial, the public was bombarded daily with recaps of conflicting testimony and contradictions. By the hundreds and thousands, citizens' letters to senators, congressmen, newspapers, and the President, stated loud and clear that they did not approve of a system of military justice that punished the bottom man on the command totem pole while judging the upper echelon as lily-white. When the verdict was in, Commander-in-Chief Nixon couldn't sleep--he intervened--saying of the Calley trial:

"Having captured the attention of the American people to the degree that it has," it required "more than the technical review" provided by the Code of Military Justice. Senator Birch Bayh made this public statement: "Reluctantly, I have concluded that the President is determined to play politics with the Calley decision and the entire My Lai tragedy." Eventually, Calley's sentence was reduced from life to 10 years. After serving 1/3 of his sentence, he was freed by a civil court in November, 1974.

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