Coverup–I: The Army’s Investigation of the Son My Massacres of South Vietnamese Civilians by U.S. Troops on March 16, 1968

Seymour M. Hersh, Coverup-I: The Army’s Investigation of the Son My Massacres of South Vietnamese Civilians by U.S. Troops on March 16, 1968. The New Yorker, 22 January 1972. “This is the first of two articles on the Army’s investigation of the Son My massacres.” “Early on March 16, 1968, a company of soldiers in the United States Army’s Americal Division were dropped in by helicopter for an assault against a hamlet known as My Lai 4, in the bitterly contested province of Quang Ngai, on the northeastern coast of South Vietnam. A hundred G.I.s and officers stormed the hamlet in military-textbook style, advancing by platoons; the troops expected to engage the Vietcong Local Force 48th Battalion—one of the enemy’s most successful units—but instead they found women, children, and old men, many of them still cooking their breakfast rice over outdoor fires. During the next few hours, the civilians were murdered. Many were rounded up in small groups and shot, others were flung into a drainage ditch at one edge of the hamlet and shot, and many more were shot at random in or near their homes. Some of the younger women and girls were raped and then murdered. After the shootings, the G.I.s systematically burned each home, destroyed the livestock and food, and fouled the area’s drinking supplies. None of this was officially told by Charlie Company to its task-force headquarters; instead, a claim that a hundred and twenty-eight Vietcong were killed and three weapons were captured eventually emerged from the task force and worked its way up to the highest American headquarters, in Saigon. There it was reported to the world’s press as a significant victory.”

Excerpts from story:

The G.I.s mainly kept to themselves what they had done, but there had been other witnesses to the atrocity—American helicopter pilots and Vietnamese civilians. The first investigations of the My Lai case, made by some of the officers involved, concluded (erroneously) that twenty civilians had inadvertently been killed by artillery and by heavy cross fire between American and Vietcong units during the battle. The investigation involved all the immediate elements of the chain of command: the company was attached to Task Force Barker, which, in turn, reported to the 11th Light Infantry Brigade, which was one of three brigades making up the Americal Division. Task Force Barker’s victory remained just another statistic until late March, 1969, when an ex-G.I. named Ronald L. Ridenhour wrote letters to the Pentagon, to the State Department, to the White House, and to twenty-four congressmen describing the murders at My Lai 4. Ridenhour had not participated in the attack on My Lai 4, but he had discussed the operation with a few of the G.I.s who had been there. Within four months, many details of the atrocity had been uncovered by Army investigations, and in September, 1969, William L. Calley, Jr., a twenty-six-year-old first lieutenant who served as a platoon leader with Charlie Company, was charged with the murder of a hundred and nine Vietnamese civilians. No significant facts about the Calley investigation or about the massacre itself were made public at the time, but the facts did gradually emerge, and eleven days after the first newspaper accounts [13 November 1969] the Army announced that it had set up a panel to determine why the initial investigations had failed to disclose the atrocity. The panel was officially called the Department of the Army Review of the Preliminary Investigations into the My Lai Incident, and was unofficially known as the Peers Inquiry, after its director, Lieutenant General William R. Peers, “who was Chief of the Office of Reserve Components at the time of his appointment. The three-star general, then fifty-five years old, had spent more than two years as a troop commander in Vietnam during the late nineteen-sixties, serving as commanding general of the 4th Infantry Division and later as commander of the I Field Force. As such, he was responsible for the military operations and pacification projects in a vast area beginning eighty miles north of Saigon and extending north for two hundred and twenty miles.

Peers and his assistants, who eventually included two New York lawyers, began working in late November, 1969, and they soon determined that they could not adequately explore the coverup of the atrocity without learning more about what had actually happened on the day the troops were at My Lai 4. On December 2, 1969, the investigating team began interrogating officers and enlisted men in each of the units involved—Charlie Company, Task Force Barker, the 11th Brigade, and the Americal Division. In all, four hundred witnesses were interrogated—about fifty in South Vietnam and the rest in a special-operations room in the basement of the Pentagon—before Peers and a panel of military officers and civilians that varied in size from three to eight men. The interrogations inevitably produced much self-serving testimony. To get at the truth, the Peers commission recalled many witnesses for further interviews and confronted them with testimony that conflicted with theirs. Only six witnesses who appeared before the commission refused to testify, although all could legally have remained silent; perhaps one reason that Peers got such coöperation is that the majority of the witnesses were career military men, and few career military men can afford to seem to be hiding something before a three-star general.

By March 16, 1970, when the investigation ended, the Peers commission had compiled enough evidence to recommend to Secretary of the Army Stanley R. Resor and Army Chief of Staff William C. Westmoreland that charges be filed against fifteen officers…. Army officials revealed shortly after the charges were filed that the Peers commission had accumulated more than twenty thousand pages of testimony and more than five hundred documents during fifteen weeks of operation….

Over the past eighteen months [mid 1970-January 1972], I have been provided with a complete transcript of the testimony given to the Peers Inquiry, and also with volumes of other materials the Peers commission assembled, including its final summary report to Secretary Resor and General Westmoreland. What follows is based largely on those papers, although I have supplemented them with documents from various sources, including the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, which had the main responsibility for conducting the initial investigations into both the My Lai 4 massacre and its coverup. In addition, I interviewed scores of military and civilian officials, including some men who had been witnesses before the Peers commission and some who might have been called to testify but were not. I also discussed some of my findings with former members of the Army who had been directly connected with the Peers commission.

Unquestionably, a serious concern for the rights of possible court-martial defendants does exist at all levels of the Army. A careful examination of the testimony and documents accumulated by the Peers commission makes equally clear that military officials have deliberately withheld from the public important but embarrassing factual information about My Lai 4. For example, the Army has steadfastly refused to reveal how many civilians were killed by Charlie Company on March 16th—a decision that no longer has anything to do with pre-trial publicity, since the last court-martial (that of Colonel Oran K. Henderson, the commanding officer of the 11th Brigade) has been concluded. Army spokesmen have insisted that the information is not available. Yet in February, 1970, the Criminal Investigation Division, at the request of the Peers commission, secretly undertook a census of civilian casualties at My Lai 4 and concluded that Charlie Company had slain three hundred and forty-seven Vietnamese men, women, and children in My Lai 4 on March 16, 1968—a total twice as large as had been publicly acknowledged. In addition, the Peers commission subsequently concluded that Lieutenant Calley’s first platoon, one of three that made the attack upon My Lai 4, was responsible for ninety to a hundred and thirty murders during the operation—roughly one-third of the total casualties, as determined by the C.I.D. The second platoon apparently murdered as many as a hundred civilians, with the rest of the deaths attributable to the third platoon and the helicopter gunships. Despite the vast amount of evidence indicating that the murders at My Lai 4 were widespread throughout the company, only Calley was found guilty of any crime in connection with the attack. Eleven other men and officers were eventually charged with murder, maiming, or assault with intent to commit murder, but the charges were dropped before trial in seven cases and four men were acquitted after military courts-martial. In addition, of the fourteen officers accused by the Peers commission in connection with the coverup only Colonel Henderson was brought to trial. Even more striking was evidence that the attack on My Lai 4 was not the only massacre carried out by American troops in Quang Ngai Province that morning….

Again, it is impossible to determine how many Vietnamese citizens [of My Khe 4] were killed [on 16 March 1968] as they huddled inside their bunkers during Bravo Company’s march to the south. The G.I.s burned and destroyed almost every home they came to. Terry Reid, the private who told me that the My Khe 4 shooting seemed “insane” to him, had been considered a malcontent by his fellow-G.I.s, because he often criticized Bravo Company’s killing tactics. Of the march, he told me that he almost broke into tears as it continued. “We’d go through these village areas and just burn,” he said. “You’d see a good Vietnamese home—made with bricks or hard mud, and filled with six or seven grandmothers, four or five old men, and little kids—just burned. You’d see these old people watching their homes.” The Army’s practice of destroying bunkers and tunnels after burning the homes had always baffled him anyway, Reid said. “They call them bunkers and tunnels, but you know what they are—basements. Just basements.”

On March 18th [1968], the third day of the operation, Bravo Company’s mission suddenly changed. Task Force Barker called in medical units, and the men were ordered to round up the civilians for baths, examinations, and in some cases interrogation by intelligence officials. Between five hundred and a thousand civilians were treated for diseases or were given food and clothing by the G.I.s. “It seemed like we just changed our policy altogether that day,” Congleton [a radio operator] later told the Peers commission. “We went from a search-and-destroy to a pacification, because we went to this village and we washed all the kids. Maybe somebody had a guilty feeling or something like that.”…

On March 19th, Bravo Company was lifted by helicopter from the peninsula. A few of the Bravo Company soldiers later heard about the excesses committed by Charlie Company and about impending investigations there, but somehow there was little concern about the atrocities they themselves had committed….

By the time the Army’s charges against Lieutenant Calley became known in the United States, most of the men of Bravo Company were back home and out of the Army. Only a few associated their activities in Bravo Company on March 16th with the operation that Calley was accused of participating in. One who did was Reid. He walked into a newspaper office in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in November, 1969, a few days after the Calley story broke, and gave an interview about the atrocities he had observed while he was serving with the 11th Brigade. He told of one operation in which, after some G.I.s had been wounded by a booby trap, his company responded by killing sixty women, children, and old men. Reid told me not long ago that he didn’t realize until months later that what had happened in his outfit was directly connected with Task Force Barker’s mission in Son My on March 16th. “Sometimes I thought it was just my platoon, my company, that was committing atrocious acts, and what bad luck it was to get in it,” Reid said. “But what we were doing was being done all over.”

The incident at My Khe 4 would perhaps be just another Vietnam atrocity story if it weren’t for four facts: its vital connection with the My Lai 4 tragedy; the American public’s ignorance of it; the total, detailed knowledge of it among the Peers investigators, the Department of the Army, and higher Pentagon officials; and the failure of any of these agencies to see that the men involved were prosecuted….

By March, 1968, murder, rape, and arson were common in many combat units of the Americal Division—particularly the 11th Brigade, in hostile Quang Ngai Province—but there were no official reports of them at higher levels. Most of the infantry companies had gone as far as to informally set up so-called Zippo squads—groups of men whose sole mission was to follow the combat troops through hamlets and set the hamlets on fire. Yet Koster [Major General Samuel W. Koster, commanding general of the Americal Division at the time of My Lai 4], during one of his lengthy appearances before the Peers commission, calmly reported, “We had, I thought, a very strong policy against burning and pillaging in villages. Granted, during an action where the enemy was in there, there would be some destruction. But I had spoken to brigade commanders frequently, both as a group and personally, about the fact that this type of thing would not be tolerated. I’m sure that in our rules of engagement it [was] emphasized . . . very strongly.” The rules of engagement, a seven-page formal codification of the division’s “criteria for employment of firepower in support of combat operations,” were formally published March 16, 1968—the day of the massacre. They imposed stringent restrictions on the use of firepower and called for clearance before any firing on civilian areas. The rules, unfortunately for the Vietnamese, had little to do with the way the war was being fought.

Ironically, the publication of the rules of engagement allowed commanders to treat brutalities such as murder, rape, and arson as mere violations of rules, and in any event such serious crimes were rarely reported officially. Lieutenant Colonel Warren J. Lucas, the Americal Division’s provost marshal, or chief law-enforcement officer, told the Peers commission that most of the war-crimes investigations conducted by his unit involved the theft of goods or money from civilians or, occasionally, a charge that G.I.s had raped a prisoner of war at an interrogation center. The concept of murder during a combat operation simply wasn’t raised. Sometimes, Lucas said, he or his men would hear rumors or reports of serious incidents in the field, but, he added, “if it was declared a combat action, I did not move into it at all with my investigators.” Of course, the men who could report such incidents were the officers in charge; in effect, their choice was between a higher body count and a war-crimes investigation. Murder during combat and similarly serious violations of international law were never “reported through military-police channels,” Colonel Lucas told the Peers commission. Even if they had been, he could not have begun an investigation of such incidents without the approval of Chief of Staff Parson or General Koster. During his one-year tour of duty with the Americal, Lucas apparently never conducted such an investigation. What happened was that after the publication of the rules the military honor system went into effect. Under that system, as it was applied in the Americal Division, violations of the rules of engagement simply did not take place….

Some soldiers could, of course, have been court-martialled for committing war crimes. This might have limited the number of violations, but it would also have signalled to higher headquarters that violations did occur. Koster’s efficacy as a commander would have been questioned, and the name of the division would have been sullied by the inevitable press reports. Thus, talk of war crimes simply wasn’t heard at Americal Division headquarters….

The freedom to kill with impunity inevitably led to the inadvertent murder of many civilians in violation of both the Geneva conventions and the division rules of engagement. The statistics tell the story: A consistent problem for the military throughout the war has been the great disparity between the number of Vietcong soldiers that have been reported killed and the number of weapons that have been captured. Although the obvious answer seemed to be that Vietcong were not the only victims of American gunfire, artillery, and gunship strikes, officers at the top headquarters commands simply could not—or would not—accept that answer….

[Colonel Oran K. Henderson] followed the usual commander’s practice of emphasizing body counts, so competition for enemy kills was constant among the battalions and companies of the 11th Brigade. There were three-day passes for the men who achieved high body counts; sometimes whole units would be rewarded. At one point, Henderson personally ordered a program set up offering helicopter pilots three- to five-day passes for bringing in military-age Vietnamese males for questioning. The program, which was initiated because the brigade was unable to develop reliable intelligence information on the Vietcong, was known informally among 11th Brigade air units as Operation Body Snatch. Within weeks, the operation had degenerated to the point where the pilots, instead of “snatching” civilians, were deliberately killing them, sometimes by running them down with their helicopter skids. Other pilots devised even more macabre forms of murder, one of which involved the use of a lasso to stop a Vietnamese peasant who was attempting to flee. Helicopter crewmen would then jump out, strip the victim, and replace the rope around his neck, and the helicopter would begin to move at low speed, with the Vietnamese running along. When the victim could no longer keep up, he would fall, snapping his neck.

Many witnesses told the Peers commission of having received no meaningful instruction in the Geneva conventions or in the proper treatment of prisoners of war during training in Hawaii or in South Vietnam….

There was no conspiracy to destroy the village of My Lai 4, or to kill the villagers; what took place there had happened before in Quang Ngai Province and would happen again—although with less drastic results. The desire of Colonel [Frank A.] Barker [the commander of the task force] to mount another successful operation in the area, with a high enemy body count; the belief shared by all the principals that everyone living in Son My was living there by choice, because of Communist sympathies; the assurance that no officials of the South Vietnamese government would protest any act of war in Son My; and the basic incompetence of many intelligence personnel in the Army—all these factors combined to enable a group of normally ambitious men to mount an unnecessary mission against a nonexistent enemy force and somehow find evidence to justify it….

The assault on My Lai 4 began [on 16 March 1968], like most combat assaults in Vietnam, with artillery and helicopters. Colonel Barker arrived over My Lai 4 in his command-and-control helicopter just in time to see the first barrage of artillery shells fall into the hamlet. Colonel Henderson’s helicopter—filled with high-ranking officers—flew over the hamlet a few minutes later; trouble with a helicopter had delayed the Colonel’s takeoff from his headquarters, at Duc Pho. General Koster flew in and out of the area throughout the early morning, watching the men of Charlie Company conduct their assault. The task-force log for March 16th, which was submitted to the Peers commission in evidence, shows that Lieutenant Calley’s first platoon landed precisely at 7:30 A.M. at the landing zone outside My Lai 4. There were nine troop-carrying helicopters, and they were accompanied by two gunships from the 174th Aviation Company, which, with their guns blazing,..crisscrossed the landing zone moments before the combat troops landed, firing thousands of bullets and rockets in a fusillade designed to keep enemy gunmen at bay. Of course, there were no enemy gunmen, but it didn’t matter that day: within minutes the statistics began filling the task-force daily log. At seven-thirty-five, Charlie Company officially claimed its first Vietcong; the victim was an old man who had jumped out of a hole waving his arms in fear and pleading. Seven minutes later, the gunships—known as Sharks—claimed three Vietcong killed; the dead men were reportedly seen with weapons and field gear. By eight, seventeen more Vietcong were said to have been killed. At three minutes past eight, Charlie Company said that it had found a radio and three boxes of medical supplies. At eight-forty, Charlie Company notified headquarters that it had counted a total of eighty-four dead Vietcong. By this time, My Lai 4 was in ruins. Lieutenant Calley and a number of the men in his platoon were already in the process of killing two large groups of civilians and filling a drainage ditch with the bodies. The second and third platoons were also committing wholesale murder, and some men had begun to set fire to anything in the hamlet that would burn. Wells were fouled, livestock was slaughtered, and food stocks were scattered….

Warrant Officers Jerry R. Culverhouse and Daniel R. Millians were piloting a helicopter that morning [16 March 1968] in support of Charlie Company…. Culverhouse and Millians…were attached to the 123rd Aviation Battalion…. The pilots usually teamed up with a second gunship, and both usually flew above a small observation helicopter. On the morning of March 16th, the observation helicopter was manned by Chief Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson, Jr., of Atlanta…. Culverhouse and Millians arrived at their duty station sometime after nine and joined up with Captain Livingston [a pilot from the 123rd Aviation Battalion]. The hamlet was still aflame. They began flying back and forth across My Lai 4 and the nearby paddy fields, on the prowl for Vietcong. Culverhouse later told the Peers commission, “It appeared to us there it was fairly secure. We heard no shooting and didn’t receive any fire ourselves . . . And we immediately noted the bodies surrounding the village. . . . there were numerous bodies scattered both in the inner perimeters of the village and in the outer perimeters leaving the village. . . . I was especially . . . amazed at one group of bodies encountered . . . over on the east side of the village there was an irrigation ditch, which appeared to me to be about six or seven feet wide. . . . [and] probably five or six feet deep. . . . there were numerous bodies that appeared to be piled up. In some places, I don’t know, maybe four or five or I suppose as high as six deep. . . . For an area about—around thirty to thirty-five yards the ditch was almost completely filled with bodies.”

Later, at Thompson’s insistence, Culverhouse and Millians landed their helicopter and removed some civilians from a bunker. Thompson was in a rage: he had spent the morning watching Charlie Company commit murder. Finally, observing about ten women and children huddled in fear as Lieutenant Calley and his men approached them, Thompson landed his craft, ordered his two machine gunners to train their weapons on Calley, and announced that he was going to fly the civilians to safety. “The only way you’ll get them out is with a hand grenade,” Calley replied. Thompson radioed to Culverhouse and Millians and asked them to land their helicopter to begin evacuating the civilians. They descended. For combat helicopter pilots, the decision to land was heresy, because the aircraft are exceptionally vulnerable to enemy fire during the slow moments of descent and ascent. As the helicopter landed, Thompson and his door gunner began coaxing the civilians into the craft.

In addition to starting a chain of events that led to the distortion in news reports of what happened that day [16 March 1968], Colonel Barker had taken three other steps that, in effect, obscured the truth about My Lai 4: he had indicated to his artillery liaison officer, Captain Vazquez, that the report of sixty-nine Vietcong deaths resulting from artillery fire should be accepted without question; he had assured Major Watke that Warrant Officer Thompson’s report of the killing of civilians was unfounded; and, going over Colonel Henderson’s head, he had urged General Koster to countermand an order from Henderson that would have sent Captain Medina and Charlie Company back into My Lai 4 to examine the destruction there.

Part Two of this article, published on 29 January 1972, is available only to subscribers of The New Yorker in their archive viewer. (1 April 2015)