The incident prompted widespread outrage around the world. The massacre also reduced U.S. support at home for the Vietnam War. Three U.S. servicemen who made an effort to halt the massacre and protect the wounded were sharply criticized by US Congressmen, received hate mail, death threats and mutilated animals on their doorsteps. Only 30 years after the event were their efforts honored.
The massacre is also known as the Sơn Mỹ Massacre (thảm sát Sơn Mỹ) or sometimes as the Song My Massacre. The U.S. military codeword for the hamlet was Pinkville.
He fired at [the baby] with a .45. He missed. We all laughed. He got up three or four feet closer and missed again. We laughed. Then he got up right on top and plugged him.
During the Tet Offensive of January 1968, attacks were carried out in Quảng Ngãi by the 48th Battalion of the NLF (National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, commonly referred to by the Americans as the Viet Cong or Victor Charlie). U.S. military intelligence postulated that the 48th NLF Battalion, having retreated, was taking refuge in the village of Sơn Mỹ, in Quang Ngai Province. A number of specific hamlets within that village — designated My Lai 1, 2, 3, and 4 — were suspected of harboring the 48th.
U.S. forces planned a major offensive against those hamlets. Colonel Oran K. Henderson urged his officers to "go in there aggressively, close with the enemy and wipe them out for good. Lieutenant-Colonel Frank A. Barker ordered the 1st Battalion commanders to burn the houses, kill the livestock, destroy foodstuffs, and perhaps to close the wells.
On the eve of the attack, at the Charlie Company briefing, Captain Ernest Medina informed his men that nearly all the civilian residents of the hamlets in Sơn Mỹ village would have left for the market by 07:00 and that any who remained would be NLF or NLF sympathizers. He was also asked whether the order included the killing of women and children; those present at the briefing later gave different accounts of Medina's response. Some of the company soldiers, including platoon leaders, later testified that the orders as they understood them were to kill all guerrilla and North Vietnamese combatants and "suspects" (including women and children, as well as all animals), to burn the village, and pollute the wells.
Charlie Company was to enter the hamlet, spearheaded by its 1st Platoon. The other two companies that made up the task force were to cordon off the village.
Some of the people were trying to get up and run. They couldn't and fell down. This one woman, I remember, she stood up and tried to make it — tried to run — with a small child in her arms. But she didn't make it.|30px|30px|Army photographer Ronald Haeberle
Charlie Company landed following a short artillery and helicopter gunship preparation. The Americans found no enemy fighters in the village on the morning of March 16. Many soldiers suspected there were NLF troops in the village, hiding underground in the homes of their elderly parents or their wives. The U.S. soldiers, one platoon of which was led by Second Lieutenant William Calley, went in shooting at a "suspected enemy position".
After the first civilians were killed and wounded by the indiscriminate fire, the soldiers soon began attacking anything that moved, humans and animals alike, with firearms, grenades and bayonets. The scale of the massacre only spiraled as it progressed, the brutality increasing with each killing. BBC News described the scene:
Soldiers went berserk, gunning down unarmed men, women, children and babies. Families which huddled together for safety in huts or bunkers were shown no mercy. Those who emerged with hands held high were murdered. ... Elsewhere in the village, other atrocities were in progress. Women were gang raped; Vietnamese who had bowed to greet the Americans were beaten with fists and tortured, clubbed with rifle butts and stabbed with bayonets. Some victims were mutilated with the signature "C Company" carved into the chest. By late morning word had got back to higher authorities and a cease-fire was ordered. My Lai was in a state of carnage. Bodies were strewn through the village.
Dozens of people were herded into an irrigation ditch and other locations and killed with automatic weapons. A large group of about 70 to 80 villagers, rounded up by the 1st Platoon in the center of the village, were killed personally by Calley and by soldiers he had ordered to fire. Calley also shot two other large groups of civilians with a weapon taken from a soldier who had refused to do any further killing.
Members of the 2nd Platoon killed at least 60–70 Vietnamese people, as they swept through the northern half of My Lai 4 and through Binh Tay, a small subhamlet about 400 meters north of My Lai 4.
After the initial "sweeps" by the 1st and the 2nd Platoons, the 3rd Platoon was dispatched to deal with any "remaining resistance". They immediately began killing every still-living human and animal they could find, including shooting the Vietnamese who emerged from their hiding places, and finishing off the wounded found moaning in the heaps of bodies. The 3rd Platoon also rounded up and killed a group of seven to twelve women and children.
Since Charlie Company had encountered no enemy opposition, 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, was moved into its landing zone between and attacked the subhamlet of My Khe 4, killing as many as 90 people. U.S. forces lost one man killed and seven wounded from mines and booby traps.
During the next two days, both battalions were involved in additional burning and destruction of dwellings, and in the mistreatment of Vietnamese detainees. Most of the soldiers had not participated in the crimes, but neither protested nor complained to their superiors.
"I would say that most people in our company didn't consider the Vietnamese human".
It looks like a bloodbath down there! What the hell is going on?|30px|30px|Unidentified helicopter pilot over My Lai
Warrant Officer One Hugh Thompson, Jr., a helicopter pilot from an aero-scout team, witnessed a large number of dead and dying civilians as he began flying over the village — all of them infants, children, women and old men, with no signs of draft-age men or weapons anywhere. Thompson and his crew witnessed an unarmed passive woman kicked and shot at point-blank range by Captain Medina (Medina later claimed that he thought she had a grenade). The crew made several attempts to radio for help for the wounded. They landed their helicopter by a ditch, which they noted was full of bodies and in which there was movement. Thompson asked a sergeant he encountered there (David Mitchell of the 1st Platoon) if he could help get the people out of the ditch, and the sergeant replied that he would "help them out of their misery". Thompson, shocked and confused, had then a conversation with Second Lieutenant Calley, Platoon Leader of 1st Platoon, who claimed to be "just following orders". As the helicopter took off, they saw Mitchell firing into the ditch.
Thompson then saw a group of civilians (again consisting of children, women and old men) at a bunker being approached by ground personnel. Thompson landed and told his crew that if the U.S. soldiers shot at the Vietnamese while he was trying to get them out of the bunker that they were to open fire at these soldiers. Thompson later testified that he spoke with a lieutenant (identified as Stephen Brooks of the 2nd Platoon) and told him there were women and children in the bunker, and asked if the lieutenant would help get them out. According to Thompson, "he [the lieutenant] said the only way to get them out was with a hand grenade". Thompson testified that he then told Brooks to "just hold your men right where they are, and I'll get the kids out". He found 12 to 16 people in the bunker, coaxed them out and led them to the helicopter, standing with them while they were flown out in two groups.
Returning to My Lai, Thompson and other air crew members noticed several large groups of bodies. Spotting some survivors in the ditch Thompson landed again and one of the crew members entered the ditch. The crew member returned with a bloodied but apparently unharmed child who was flown to safety. The child was thought to be a boy, but later investigation found that it was a 4-year-old girl. Thompson then reported what he had seen to his company commander, Major Watke, using terms such as "murder" and "needless and unnecessary killings". Thompson's reports were confirmed by other pilots and air crew.
In 1998, three former U.S. servicemen who stopped their comrades from killing a number of villagers, significantly reducing casualties at My Lai, were awarded medals in Washington D.C. The veterans also made contact with the survivors of My Lai.
I did not see anyone alive when we left the village.|30px|30px|Private First Class Robert MaplesOwing to the chaotic circumstances and the Army's decision not to undertake a definitive body count, the number of civilians killed at My Lai cannot be stated with certainty. Estimates vary from source to source, with 347 and 504 being the most commonly cited figures. The memorial at the site of the massacre lists 504 names, with ages ranging from one to 82 years. A later investigation by the U.S. Army arrived at a lower figure of 347 deaths, the official U.S. estimate.
Initial investigations of the My Lai operation were undertaken by the 11th Light Infantry Brigade's commanding officer, Colonel Henderson, under orders from the Americal Division's executive officer, Brigadier General George H. Young. Henderson interviewed several soldiers involved in the incident, then issued a written report in late April claiming that some 22 civilians were inadvertently killed during the operation. The army at this time was still describing the events at My Lai as a military victory that had resulted in the deaths of 128 enemy combatants.
Six months later, Tom Glen, a 21-year-old soldier of the 11th Light Infantry Brigade, wrote a letter to General Creighton Abrams, the new overall commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, accusing the Americal Division (and other entire units of the U.S. military) of routine and pervasive brutality against Vietnamese civilians. The letter was detailed and its contents echoed complaints received from other soldiers.
Colin Powell, then a 31-year-old Army Major, was charged with investigating the letter, which did not specifically reference My Lai (Glen had limited knowledge of the events there). In his report Powell wrote: "In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent." Powell's handling of the assignment was later characterized by some observers as "whitewashing" the atrocities of My Lai. In May 2004, Powell, then United States Secretary of State, told CNN's Larry King, "I mean, I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.
The carnage at My Lai might have gone unknown to history if not for another soldier, Ron Ridenhour, a former member of Charlie Company, who, independently of Glen, sent a letter detailing the events at My Lai to President Richard M. Nixon, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and numerous members of Congress. The copies of this letter were sent in March 1969, a full year after the event. Most recipients of Ridenhour's letter ignored it, with the notable exception of Congressman Morris Udall (D-Arizona). Ridenhour learned about the events at My Lai secondhand, by talking to members of Charlie Company while he was still enlisted.
Eventually, Calley was charged with several counts of premeditated murder in September 1969, and 25 other officers and enlisted men were later charged with related crimes. It was another two months before the American public learned about the massacre and trials.
Independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, after extensive conversations with Calley, broke the My Lai story on 12 November 1969; on 20 November, Time, Life and Newsweek magazines all covered the story, and CBS televised an interview with Paul Meadlo. The Cleveland Plain Dealer published explicit photographs of dead villagers killed at My Lai. As is evident from comments made in a 1969 telephone conversation between United States National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, revealed recently by the National Security Archive, the photos of the war crime were too shocking for senior officials to stage an effective cover-up. Secretary of Defense Laird was heard to say, "There are so many kids just lying there; these pictures are authentic."
In November 1969, General William R. Peers was appointed to conduct a thorough investigation into the My Lai incident and its subsequent cover-up. Peers' final report, published in March 1970, was highly critical of top officers for participation in a cover-up and the Charlie Company officers for their actions at My Lai 4. According to Peers's findings:
[The 1st Battalion] members had killed at least 175–200 Vietnamese men, women, and children. The evidence indicates that only 3 or 4 were confirmed as Viet Cong although there were undoubtedly several unarmed VC (men, women, and children) among them and many more active supporters and sympathizers. One man from the company was reported as wounded from the accidental discharge of his weapon.However, critics of the Peers Commission pointed out that it sought to place the real blame on four officers who were already dead, foremost among them being the CO of TF Barker, LTC Frank Barker, who was killed in a mid air collision on June 13, 1968.
After a 10-month-long trial, in which he claimed that he was following orders from his commanding officer, Captain Medina, William Calley was convicted, on September 10, 1971, of premeditated murder for ordering the shootings. He was initially sentenced to life in prison. Two days later, however, President Nixon made the controversial decision to have Calley released from prison, pending appeal of his sentence. Calley's sentence was later adjusted, so that he would eventually serve four and one-half months in a military prison at Fort Benning.
In a separate trial, Captain Medina denied giving the orders that led to the massacre, and was acquitted of all charges, effectively negating the prosecution's theory of "command responsibility", now referred to as the "Medina standard". Several months after his acquittal, however, Medina admitted that he had suppressed evidence and had lied to Colonel Henderson about the number of civilian deaths.
Most of the enlisted men who were involved in the events at My Lai had already left military service, and were thus legally exempt from prosecution. In the end, of the 26 men initially charged, Calley's was the only conviction.
Some have argued that the outcome of the My Lai courts-martial was a reversal of the laws of war that were set forth in the Nuremberg and Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals. Those tribunals set a historic precedent, establishing the principle that no one may be excused from responsibility for war crimes because they were "following orders". Secretary of the Army Howard Callaway was quoted in the New York Times as stating that Calley's sentence was reduced because Calley honestly believed that what he did was a part of his orders — a rationale that stands in direct contradiction of the standards set at Nuremberg and Tokyo, where German and Japanese soldiers were executed for similar acts.
In the spring of 1972, the camp (at My Lai 2) where the survivors of the My Lai Massacre had been relocated was largely destroyed by Army of the Republic of Vietnam artillery and aerial bombardment. The destruction was officially attributed to "Viet Cong terrorists". However, the truth was revealed by Quaker service workers in the area, through testimony (in May 1972) by Martin Teitel at hearings before the Congressional Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees. In June 1972, Teitel's account of the events was published in the New York Times.
More than a thousand people turned out March 16 2008, forty years after the massacre, to remember the victims of one of the most notorious chapters of the Vietnam War. The memorial drew the families of the victims and returning U.S. war veterans alike.
The more pivotal shift, however, was in the attitude of the general public toward the war. People who previously had not been interested in the peace/war debates began to analyze the issue more closely. The horrific stories of other soldiers began to be taken more seriously, and other abuses came to light.
Some military observers concluded that My Lai showed the need for more and better volunteers to provide stronger leadership for the troops. As the Vietnam conflict dragged on, the number of well trained and experienced career soldiers on the front lines dropped sharply as casualties and combat rotation took their toll. These observers claimed the absence of the many bright young men who avoided military service through college attendance or homeland service caused the talent pool for new officers to become very shallow. They pointed to Calley, a young, unemployed college dropout, as an example of the raw and inexperienced recruits being rushed through officer training. Others pointed out problems with the military's insistence on unconditional obedience to orders while at the same time limiting the doctrine of "command responsibility" to the lowest ranks. Others saw My Lai and related war crimes as a direct result of the military's attrition strategy, with its emphasis on "body counts" and "kill ratios". The fact that the massacre was successfully covered up for 18 months was seen as a prime example of the Pentagon's "Culture of Concealment" and of the lack of integrity that permeated the Defense establishment. And the fact that Calley was the only officer convicted led many to see him as a scapegoat.
Calley and Meadlo were firing at the people. They were firing into the hole. I saw Meadlo firing into the hole. Q: Well, tell me, what was so remarkable about Meadlo that made you remember him?
A: He was firing and crying.
''Q: He was pointing his weapon away from you and then you saw tears in his eyes?
A: Yes.|30px|30px|Private First Class Robert Maples
30 years later the crew was decorated for their actions at My Lai with Soldier's Medals, the U.S. non-combat heroism awards (Andreotta, who was killed in action over Vietnam shortly after the events at My Lai, received the medal posthumously).
Another soldier, John Henry Smail, 3rd Platoon, took at least 16 color photographs depicting U.S. Army personnel, helicopters, and aerial views of My Lai. These, along with Haeberles photographs were included in the 'Report of the Department of the Army review of the Preliminary Investigations into the My Lai Incident'. Roger Louis Alaux, artillery lieutenant who was with CPT Medina during the massacre, also took some photographs that day, including aerial views of My Lai from a helicopter and of the LZ.
In 1989 the British television station Yorkshire Television broadcast the documentary Four Hours in My Lai as part of the ITV network series First Tuesday. Using eyewitness statements from both Vietnamese and Americans the programme revealed new evidence about the massacre.
Oliver Stone planned to start production on a film titled Pinkville about the investigation of General Peers into the My Lai Massacre, featuring Bruce Willis (as General William Peers), Woody Harrelson (as Col. Henderson). However, United Artists halted its December 2007 production start because of the 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America strike.