The My Lai Massacre in Vietnam on 16 March 1968

Seymour Hersh, The My Lai Massacre: An Atrocity Is Uncovered: November 1969. St. Louis Post-Dispatch (via, 13 November 1969. “The Army is completing an investigation [November 1969] of charges that [William Calley] deliberately murdered at least 109 Vietnamese civilians in a search-and- destroy mission in March 1968 in a Viet Cong stronghold known as “Pinkville.” Calley has formally been charged with six specifications of mass murder. Each specification cites a number of dead, adding up to the 109 total, and charges that Calley did ‘with premeditation murder… Oriental human beings, whose names and sex are unknown, by shooting them with a rifle.'”Hersh’s stories were published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on 13, 20 and 25 November 1969, and he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for International Reporting “for his exclusive disclosure of the Vietnam War tragedy at the hamlet of My Lai.”

Excerpts from stories:

“They simply shot up this village and (Calley) was the leader of it,” said one Washington source. “When one guy refused to do it, Calley took the rifle away and did the shooting himself.”

Asked about this, Calley refused to comment.

One Pentagon officer discussing the case tapped his knee with his hand and remarked, “Some of those kids he shot were this high. I don’t think they were Viet Cong. Do you?”…

Why did the Army choose to prosecute this case? On what is it basing the charge that Calley acted with premeditation before killing? The court-martial should supply the answers to these questions, but some of the men already have their opinions.

“The Army knew it was going to get clobbered on this at some point,” one military source commented. “If they don’t prosecute somebody, if this stuff comes out without the Army taking some action, it could be even worse.”

Another view that many held was that the top level of the military was concerned about possible war crime tribunals after the Vietnam war….

Three American soldiers who participated in the March 1968 attack on a Vietnam village called Pinkville said in interviews made public today that their Army combat unit perpetrated, in the words of one, “pointblank murder” on the residents. “The whole thing was so deliberate. It was point-blank murder and I was standing there watching it,” said Sgt. Michael Bernhardt,…

Bernhardt, interviewed at Fort Dix, said he had been delayed on the operation and fell slightly behind the company, then led by Calley’s platoon, as it entered the village. This is his version of what took place:

“They (Calley’s men) were doing a whole lot of shooting up there, but none of it was incoming—I’d been around enough to tell that. I figured they were advancing on the village with fire power.

“I walked up and saw these guys doing strange things. They were doing it three ways. One: They were setting fire to the hootches and huts and waiting for people to come out and then shooting them up. Two: They were going into the hootches and shooting them up. Three: They were gathering people in groups and shooting them.

“As I walked in, you could see piles of people all through the village. … all over. They were gathered up into large groups.

“I saw them shoot an M-79 (grenade launcher) into a group of people who were still alive. But it (the shooting) was mostly done with a machine gun. They were shooting women and children just like anybody else.

“We met no resistance and I only saw three captured weapons. We had no casualties. It was just like any other Vietnamese village—old Papa-san, women and kids. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive. The only prisoner I saw was about 50.”…

Another witness to the shootings was Michael Terry…. “I think that probably the officers didn’t really know if they were ordered to kill the villagers or not. …A lot of guys feel that they (the South Vietnamese civilians) aren’t human beings; we just treated them like animals.”…

Here is [Paul] Meadlo’s [eyewitness account] as given in interviews at his mother’s home near Terre Haute, [Indiana]:

“There was supposed to have been some Viet Cong in Pinkville and we began to make a sweep through it. Once we got there we began gathering up the people…started putting them in big mobs. There must have been about 40 or 45 civilians standing in one big circle in the middle of the village … Calley told me and a couple of other guys to watch them.

“ ‘You know what I want you to do with them’ he said,” Meadlo related. He and the others continued to guard the group. “About 10 minutes later Calley came back. ‘Get with it,’ he said. ‘I want them dead.’

“So we stood about 10 or 15 feet away from them, then he (Calley) started shooting them. Then he told me to start shooting them. … I started to shoot them, but the other guys (who had been assigned to guard the civilians) wouldn’t do it.

“So we (Meadlo and Calley) went ahead and killed them. I used more than a whole clip—actually I used four or five clips,” Meadlo said. (There are 17 M-16 shells in a clip.) He estimated that he killed at least 15 civilians-or nearly half of those in the circle.

Asked what he thought at the time, Meadlo said, “I just thought we were supposed to do it.” Later, he said that the shooting “did take a load off my conscience for the buddies we’d lost. It was just revenge, that’s all it was.”…

[Paul Meadlo’s mother, Mrs. Myrtle Meadlo, said] “I sent them a good boy, and they made him a murderer.”

The Sound of the Violin in My Lai. From Wikipedia: “The Sound of the Violin in My Lai is a short film that examines the history and legacy of the My Lai massacre, an incident of the Vietnam War in which hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were massacred by U.S. Army soldiers.” This documentary was directed by Tran Van Thuy and was released in November 1999.

Seymour Hersh, Letter from Vietnam. The Scene of the Crime: A reporter’s journey to My Lai and the secrets of the past. The New Yorker, 30 March 2015. “There is a long ditch in the village of My Lai. On the morning of March 16, 1968, it was crowded with the bodies of the dead—dozens of women, children, and old people, all gunned down by young American soldiers. Now, forty-seven years later, the ditch at My Lai seems wider than I remember from the news photographs of the slaughter: erosion and time doing their work. During the Vietnam War, there was a rice paddy nearby, but it has been paved over to make My Lai more accessible to the thousands of tourists who come each year to wander past the modest markers describing the terrible event. The My Lai massacre was a pivotal moment in that misbegotten war: an American contingent of about a hundred soldiers, known as Charlie Company, having received poor intelligence, and thinking that they would encounter Vietcong troops or sympathizers, discovered only a peaceful village at breakfast. Nevertheless, the soldiers of Charlie Company raped women, burned houses, and turned their M-16s on the unarmed civilians of My Lai. Among the leaders of the assault was Lieutenant William L. Calley, a junior-college dropout from Miami.”

In testimony before an Army inquiry, some of the soldiers acknowledged being at the ditch but claimed that they had disobeyed Calley, who was ordering them to kill. They said that one of the main shooters, along with Calley himself, had been Private First Class Paul Meadlo. The truth remains elusive, but one G.I. described to me a moment that most of his fellow-soldiers, I later learned, remembered vividly. At Calley’s order, Meadlo and others had fired round after round into the ditch and tossed in a few grenades.

Then came a high-pitched whining, which grew louder as a two- or three-year-old boy, covered with mud and blood, crawled his way among the bodies and scrambled toward the rice paddy. His mother had likely protected him with her body. Calley saw what was happening and, according to the witnesses, ran after the child, dragged him back to the ditch, threw him in, and shot him….

The Meadlos lived in a small house with clapboard siding on a ramshackle chicken farm. When I pulled up in my rental car, Myrtle [Paul Meadlo’s mother] came out to greet me and said that Paul was inside, though she had no idea whether he would talk or what he might say. It was clear that he had not told her much about Vietnam. Then Myrtle said something that summed up a war that I had grown to hate: “I sent them a good boy and they made him a murderer.”…

There was official testimony showing that Meadlo had in fact been extremely distressed by Calley’s order. After being told by Calley to “take care of this group,” one Charlie Company soldier recounted, Meadlo and a fellow-soldier “were actually playing with the kids, telling the people where to sit down and giving the kids candy.” When Calley returned and said that he wanted them dead, the soldier said, “Meadlo just looked at him like he couldn’t believe it. He says, ‘Waste them?’ ” When Calley said yes, another soldier testified, Meadlo and Calley “opened up and started firing.” But then Meadlo “started to cry.”…

In a local library [in 1969], I found a brief story buried in the Times about a Lieutenant Calley who had been charged by the Army with the murder of an unspecified number of civilians in South Vietnam. I tracked down Calley, whom the Army had hidden away in senior officers’ quarters at Fort Benning, in Columbus, Georgia. By then, someone in the Army had allowed me to read and take notes from a classified charge sheet accusing Calley of the premeditated murder of a hundred and nine “Oriental human beings.”…

In November, 1969, I wrote five articles about Calley, Meadlo, and the massacre. I had gone to Life and Look with no success, so I turned instead to a small antiwar news agency in Washington, the Dispatch News Service….

Combat reporters such as Homer Bigart, Bernard Fall, David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Malcolm Browne, Frances FitzGerald, Gloria Emerson, Morley Safer, and Ward Just filed countless dispatches from the field that increasingly made plain that the war was morally groundless, strategically lost, and nothing like what the military and political officials were describing to the public in Saigon and in Washington….

When, in 1971, an Army jury convicted Calley of mass murder and sentenced him to life at hard labor, Nixon intervened, ordering Calley to be released from an Army prison and placed under house arrest pending review. Calley was freed three months after Nixon left office and spent the ensuing years working in his father-in-law’s jewelry store, in Columbus, Georgia, and offering self-serving interviews to journalists willing to pay for them. Finally, in 2009, in a speech to a Kiwanis Club, he said that there “is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse” for My Lai, but that he was following orders—“foolishly, I guess.” Calley is now [2015] seventy-one. He is the only officer to have been convicted for his role in the My Lai massacre.

In March, 1970, an Army investigation filed charges ranging from murder to dereliction of duty against fourteen officers, including generals and colonels, who were accused of covering up the massacre. Only one officer besides Calley eventually faced court-martial, and he was found not guilty….

I visited My Lai (as the hamlet was called by the U.S. Army) for the first time a few months ago, with my family. Returning to the scene of the crime is the stuff of cliché for reporters of a certain age, but I could not resist. I had sought permission from the South Vietnamese government in early 1970, but by then the Pentagon’s internal investigation was under way and the area was closed to outsiders. I joined the Times in 1972 and visited Hanoi, in North Vietnam. In 1980, five years after the fall of Saigon, I travelled again to Vietnam to conduct interviews for a book and to do more reporting for the Times. I thought I knew all, or most, of what there was to learn about the massacre. Of course, I was wrong….

There was more to learn from the comprehensive statistics that Cong [Pham Thanh Cong, director of the My Lai Museum] and the museum staff had compiled. The names and ages of the dead are engraved on a marble plaque that dominates one of the exhibit rooms. The museum’s count, no longer in dispute, is five hundred and four victims, from two hundred and forty-seven families. Twenty-four families were obliterated—–three generations murdered, with no survivors. Among the dead were a hundred and eighty-two women, seventeen of them pregnant. A hundred and seventy-three children were executed, including fifty-six infants. Sixty older men died. The museum’s accounting included another important fact: the victims of the massacre that day were not only in My Lai (also known as My Lai 4) but also in a sister settlement known to the Americans as My Khe 4. This settlement, a mile or so to the east, on the South China Sea, was assaulted by another contingent of U.S. soldiers, Bravo Company. The museum lists four hundred and seven victims in My Lai 4 and ninety-seven in My Khe 4.

The message was clear: what happened at My Lai 4 was not singular, not an aberration; it was replicated, in lesser numbers, by Bravo Company….

On my recent trip, I spent five days in Hanoi, which is the capital of unified Vietnam. Retired military officers and Communist Party officials there told me that the My Lai massacre, by bolstering antiwar dissent inside America, helped North Vietnam win the war. I was also told, again and again, that My Lai was unique only in its size. The most straightforward assessment came from Nguyen Thi Binh, known to everyone in Vietnam as Madame Binh. In the early seventies, she was the head of the National Liberation Front delegation at the Paris peace talks and became widely known for her willingness to speak bluntly and for her striking good looks. Madame Binh, who is eighty-seven [in 2015], retired from public life in 2002, after serving two terms as Vietnam’s Vice-President, but she remains involved in war-related charities dealing with Agent Orange victims and the disabled.

“I’ll be honest with you,” she said. “My Lai became important in America only after it was reported by an American.” Within weeks of the massacre, a spokesman for the North Vietnamese in Paris had publicly described the events, but the story was assumed to be propaganda. “I remember it well, because the antiwar movement in America grew because of it,” Madame Binh added, speaking in French. “But in Vietnam there was not only one My Lai—there were many.”…

The U.S. dropped three times the number of bombs by weight in Vietnam as it had during the Second World War. Between the end of the war [in 1975] and 1998, more than a hundred thousand Vietnamese civilians, an estimated forty per cent of them children, had been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance. For more than two decades after the war, the U.S. refused to pay for damage done by bombs or by Agent Orange, though in 1996 the government began to provide modest funding for mine clearance….

On my recent visit to Hanoi, a government official asked me to pay a courtesy call at the provincial offices in the city of Quang Ngai before driving the few miles to My Lai. There I was presented with a newly published guidebook to the province, which included a detailed description of another purported American massacre during the war, in the hamlet of Truong Le, outside Quang Ngai. According to the report, an Army platoon on a search-and-destroy operation arrived at Truong Le at seven in the morning on April 18, 1969, a little more than a year after My Lai. The soldiers pulled women and children out of their houses and then torched the village. Three hours later, the report alleges, the soldiers returned to Truong Le and killed forty-one children and twenty-two women, leaving only nine survivors.

Little, it seemed, had changed in the aftermath of My Lai.