The Pacification of My Lai

A photograph of a display at the My Lai Memorial | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A Buddhist monk, donning a stark-white robe with graying hair on his face, was bent over a sick elderly woman, praying, when he heard the gruff voice of an American soldier demand, “VC Adai?” Not knowing where they could find the Viet Cong (VC), he replied, “No bitt.”1 He could tell by the dangerous look on the faces of the Americans surrounding him, as well as those standing watch over his fellow villagers, that he gave the wrong answer. Lieutenant William Calley strolled up to the monk, picked him up by the scruff of his robes, and smashed him across the face with the butt of his M-16, causing him to crumple back to the ground. Calley’s attention was drawn away from the monk when one of his soldiers shouted, “There’s a kid!”2 Calley turned around to see a two-year-old boy crawling out of the irrigation ditch, attempting to head back into the village. He casually strolled over to the boy, grabbed him, and flung him back into the muddy ditch. Calley shot the boy before walking back towards the monk, dragging him out into a field, then shooting him point-blank in the head. Upon returning to the group of Vietnamese villagers, he ordered his soldiers to “waste ‘em.”3 What followed was the indiscriminate slaughter of over one-hundred elderly men, women, and children in this remote village of My Lai in Vietnam.

On March 15, 1968, following a memorial service for George Cox, a well-liked sergeant, the more than one-hundred members of Task Force Barker’s Charlie Company shuffled into a tent where they were supposed to receive instructions for a new mission. Reading the sad and dispirited atmosphere in the room, Captain Ernest Medina knew he had to spur his men into action, partly because they were so dejected, but most importantly because they were tasked with the pacification of Pinkville. Pinkville was military slang for the small village of Song My because of its reddish-pink color on topographic maps. When Medina announced that they were going to make an assault on Pinkville, his men bolted upright at the prospect of revenge as well as their first real chance to fight. Up to this point, Charlie Company had lost over twenty men to an invisible enemy, meaning that they had never been in a head-on firefight with the Viet Cong. Charlie Company, after months of being target practice for snipers and fireworks for villagers after stumbling across a minefield, would finally have their chance to avenge all of their fallen comrades.4

Medina explained to Charlie Company that their role in the assault on Pinkville would start with two platoons entering My Lai, a sub-hamlet of Song My, on its western side followed by a third platoon to clean up any stragglers. According to information provided to Medina, the 48th Viet Cong Battalion would have around 450 soldiers stationed in Pinkville, and that the civilians of the My Lai village usually left around 0700 hours to go to the market.5 Believing only Viet Cong or Viet Cong sympathizers would be left in the village, Medina gave no instructions in regards to the handling of women and children. Testimonies of what Medina actually said vary widely, but, in the end, every soldier of Charlie Company shared the same sentiment: to kill or burn everything in sight.

Helicopters dropping off soldiers near LZ at My Lai 4 (Ronald Haeberle photo) | Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The peaceful morning of March 16, 1968 was rudely interrupted for the sub-hamlet of My Lai, when rounds of artillery fire landed in their village at 0700 hours. The explosions of artillery mixed with the rattle of machine-gun fire and rockets from gunships created a symphony of death that rang out across the village for twenty minutes. When the rollicking finale came to a conclusion, the stark silence was broken by the sound of helicopters landing some 300 feet outside the village. The helicopters provided cover-fire for Medina and the rest of Charlie Company as they disembarked, shooting into the bushes and rice paddies surrounding the village in case any VC were lurking in wait.6

Expecting immense return fire from the 48th Battalion, the two platoons of Charlie Company began a mad dash towards the village, firing into houses as they ran, while a third Platoon, accompanied by Medina and the command core, set up a base of operations just outside the village. The lack of return fire was noticed immediately and radioed in by Medina to tactical operations back at LZ Dottie. As soon as he reported this, a helicopter pilot who mistook the shooting of Charlie Company to be return fire, declared a negative on Medina’s statement. Medina then radioed to Calley’s 1st Platoon and Lieutenant Brooks’ 2nd Platoon that they were receiving return fire and to stay on guard as they moved into the village.7

At 0800 hours, both platoons entered the village and immediately acted upon Medina’s orders as they saw fit. Soldiers from 1st Platoon started chucking grenades into hootches and bunkers, shooting anyone who would try to flee. Children would run-up to the soldiers with their hands outstretched, expecting the usual gifts of candy or rations accompanied by a friendly smile. This time was different. The soldiers’ faces ranged from stone-cold to hysterics as the sound of their laughter was drowned out by the indiscriminate firing of their M-16s.8 The children who ran up to them would either be killed on sight or thrown into a growing group of villagers being evacuated to a trail leading out of the sub-hamlet.

Within minutes of beginning the operation, a group of about fifty elderly men, women, and children had been herded onto the trail and told to squat down. Private Paul Meadlo and a few other soldiers had been standing watch over them when Calley showed up and said, “You know what to do with them, don’t you?”9 Before he could say anymore, Calley noticed a soldier, PFC Dennis Conti, trying to force a woman to perform oral sex by pointing his rifle at her 4-year-old child’s head. Calley was furious that one of his soldiers wasn’t doing their job and yelled at him to “Get over there where you’re supposed to be!” before turning around to head into another part of the village.10

Meadlo assumed Calley wanted them to remain on guard duty but was corrected fifteen minutes later when Calley returned and ordered the civilians put in a line and his soldiers to fire on his ready. They made quick work of it, setting their M-16s on automatic and emptying clip after clip into the group from ten feet away, methodically picking off the leftover children who were so small that the bullets grazed over them before moving on.11

Unidentified bodies of elderly men, women, and children after being slaughtered by American soldiers (Ronald Haeberle photo) | Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The troops met no resistance as they moved through the village, killing nonstop, almost in a business-life fashion. One method the soldiers employed was to set fire to a hootch, wait for the people to run out, then shoot.12 Another way was to gather people into groups before mowing them down. At one point, a group of soldiers stumbled across a Buddhist temple near the center of the village where a group of around twenty women and children knelt in prayer. Without hesitation, the soldiers open-fired.13

While 1st Platoon was busy in the center of the village, 2nd Platoon had diverged from them and was committing their own share of atrocities around the eastern edge of the village. At one point, 2nd Platoon had been tasked with retrieving the weapons of two armed VC from Binh Tay, a separate sub-hamlet to the north, who had wandered too close to My Lai.14 The Platoon figured that there must be more VC in the village and decided to go investigate. Instead of VC, they found the village full of elderly men, women, and children.

Taking the initiative upon themselves, the soldiers decided to continue their work from My Lai in this new village. One soldier in particular, SP Gary Roschevitz, grouped up twenty civilians to use as a practice target for his M-79 grenade launcher. Soon after this, Roschevitz had forced a group of seven women to strip naked before killing them because they refused to have sex with him.15 After being in Binh Tay for almost an hour and making their way halfway through the village, Medina ordered a ceasefire for 2nd Platoon at 0915 hours. By the end of their rampage, at least two gang rapes had been committed and over seventy men, women, and children murdered.16

A woman and her child are dragged out of their hut and murdered after their hut is set ablaze (Ronald Haeberle photo) | Courtesy of the Library of Congress

At the same time that the ceasefire for 2nd Platoon was issued, 1st Platoon was putting the finishing touches on their massacre at the irrigation ditch, when a helicopter landed near them. Its pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson, and his crew had been spurred into motion by the disgusting actions of the soldiers, and attempted to step in and save some wounded civilians. However, when Thompson began asking nearby soldiers for help, Calley stepped in and told off the pilot for interfering in infantry business. With nothing he could do, Thompson left and reported the mass murder of civilians back to LZ Dottie who failed to act on his information.17

Shortly after departing from the irrigation ditch, Thompson saw a small group of villagers being pursued by soldiers as they hurried towards a bunker. Not wanting to see more innocent civilians murdered, he landed his helicopter in-between the two groups and argued with the officer in charge to stand down his men. When the soldiers continued to approach the bunker, Thompson told his two crewmates to train their machine guns on the soldiers and to fire if they got any closer. Ultimately, they chose not to test Thompson and his crew, and stood down, opting for an early lunch break instead. When Thompson finally coaxed out every civilian from the bunker, he realized that there were too many to take in his already overloaded helicopter. He resorted to asking one of the gunships flying around My Lai to medevac the group to safety. After 30 minutes and two trips by the gunship, Thompson and his crew managed to protect nine innocent villagers from a terrible fate.18

While Thompson was in the standoff with the group of soldiers, 3rd Platoon had begun its cleanup operation in the village. Again, no resistance was met as they moved through the village, setting fire to hootches, killing off livestock, throwing grenades down wells, and shooting any villager they encountered. At one point, a group of seven villagers, a man, three women, and three children, had been forced out of their hootch by a group of six soldiers. The soldiers began tearing off the blouse of one of the women when Ba So, one of the women in the group, recognized the danger the soldiers posed and began fighting back, attempting to save the girl being assaulted.19

Ba So (in red), trying protecting to her young daughter, Ba Moi (in white), along with another girl, Do Thi Can (in black), moments before being killed (Robert Haeberle photo) | Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The rest of the villagers joined Ba So in her struggle, not only to save the girl being assaulted but their own lives. Their fight was short-lived as the soldiers quickly overpowered them and continued their assault on the young woman.20 It was at this moment that Robert Haeberle, an army photographer, happened to walk by and disrupt the scene, causing the soldiers to step away from the girl. Haeberle raised his camera and captured the moment just before the soldiers, not knowing what else to do, fired on the group of villagers.

Towards the end of the operation at 10:30 AM, Charlie Company experienced its first and only casualty when Herbert Carter accidentally shot himself in the foot while trying to unjam his gun.21 At 11:00 AM, all three platoons of Charlie Company met up for lunch around the irrigation ditch where so many villagers were dying or already dead. The assault finally ended when Medina ordered a ceasefire for the whole company when they finished their lunch around forty minutes later.22 After the two-and-a-half hour assault on My Lai4, more than 400 civilians had lost their lives.23

Charlie Company left My Lai4 and met up with Bravo Company, who had been tasked with attacking My Lai1, and headed northeast towards a beach next to the South China Sea. While the two companies were relaxing on the beach and going for a swim, the cover-up of the massacre at My Lai had already begun. The story reported to officials and to the press was that American troops had made a crushing victory, killing 128 Viet Cong and recovering 3 weapons while receiving no losses.24 The real story would not be told until March 29, 1969, when Ronald Ridenhour sent out thirty letters detailing the events of the massacre at My Lai that he had discovered during an impromptu investigation. The letters were sent to various congressmen, senators, and high officials in the army who took an extreme interest in Ridenhour’s accusations.25

On April 23, the Army began a full-scale investigation into the massacre, which ended on August 4, 1969 with Lieutenant William Calley being charged with the murder of 102 Vietnamese civilians as well as charges being brought against more than thirty-five soldiers who had participated in the massacre.26 Although many people were charged with crimes, Calley was the only one to be convicted in court and found guilty for the deaths of nineteen Vietnamese.27 His sentence would be reduced multiple times and he eventually got pardoned by President Nixon and only served four years under house arrest for his crimes. The justice system ironically failed to produce justice.

In order to prevent history from repeating itself, the Army uses the My Lai Massacre as an example for its troops in regards to basic humanity during times of war. It’s only when the dust settles and a victor is declared that we realize our enemies aren’t some sub-human creature devoid of emotions. Much like the My Lai Massacre, basic humanity should never be forgotten or thrown under the rug.

  1. Howard Jones, My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 83.
  2. Howard Jones, My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 83.
  3. Howard Jones, My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 83.
  4. Howard Jones, My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 42-43.
  5. Richard Hammer, One Morning in the War: The Tragedy at Son My (Toronto: Longmans Canada Limited, 1970), 110.
  6. Richard Hammer, One Morning in the War: The Tragedy at Son My (Toronto: Longmans Canada Limited, 1970), 118.
  7. Howard Jones, My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 62.
  8. Richard Hammer, One Morning in the War: The Tragedy at Son My (Toronto: Longmans Canada Limited, 1970), 125.
  9. Richard Hammer, One Morning in the War: The Tragedy at Son My (Toronto: Longmans Canada Limited, 1970), 134.
  10. Howard Jones, My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 66.
  11. Howard Jones, My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 66.
  12. Richard Hammer, One Morning in the War: The Tragedy at Son My (Toronto: Longmans Canada Limited, 1970), 125.
  13. Howard Jones, My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 65.
  14. Howard Jones, My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 75.
  15. Howard Jones, My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 78.
  16. Howard Jones, My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 82.
  17. Howard Jones, My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 90.
  18. Richard Hammer, One Morning in the War: The Tragedy at Son M. (Toronto: Longmans Canada Limited, 1970), 139.
  19. Howard Jones, My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 111.
  20. Richard Hammer, One Morning in the War: The Tragedy at Son My (Toronto: Longmans Canada Limited, 1970), 131.
  21. Howard Jones, My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 117.
  22. Howard Jones, My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 120.
  23. Greiner Bernd, “The March 1968 Massacre in My Lai and My Khe 4,” SciencesPo, Last modified October 5, 2009.
  24. Howard Jones, My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 122.
  25. Richard Hammer, One Morning in the War: The Tragedy at Son My (Toronto: Longmans Canada Limited, 1970), 169.
  26. Richard Hammer, One Morning in the War: The Tragedy at Son My (Toronto: Longmans Canada Limited, 1970), 171.
  27. Philip Beidler, “CALLEY’S GHOST,” The Virginia Quarterly Review 79, no. 1 (2003): 30-50, 46.

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10 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed this article, It was a little disturbing to hear about My Lai Officer because in my opinion he was a good person with not many flaws. I was pleased to hear that he helped villagers. It means alot to me when people help others that are less privileged. I thought you described the scene well and I was able to get images in my head. I really thought that this article was very well written and you stayed on track and kept me very interested. Very good!

  2. Hey, Sterling.

    Every time I read or hear about the My Lai massacre, I feel an awful churning in my stomach. War is hell enough, especially between the men of the time — innocent women and children should not be subjected to such a level of brutality. The United States truthfully had no business in Vietnam, and this was no combat operation — it was a slaughter, an indiscriminate vengeful rampage on villagers whose only fault was living in their own country and find themselves in the path of a policy of containment at any cost.

  3. while “I was just following orders” is a reason given for committing some of the most irreprehensible actions in human history it is there job to do so and i don’t doubt that there was some who objected and did nothing, and those who gained PTSD from this. there is also the fact that things like this have happened many times in ancient history.

  4. Sterling, the Vietnam War is something that I regard as one of the greatest mistakes made by the United States. It is frustrating to read that some semblance of justice was about to be achieved through the prosecution of Calley only for his sentence to be reduce and even pardoned by Nixon. This article was hard to read, because of all of the atrocities that the United States army committed against the citizens of My Lai; however, like you noted, it is important that what happened at My Lai is remembered so that it never happens again. Unfortunately, in developing nations without infrastructure that provides it access to the outside world, atrocities like these continue to be committed against citizens, whether it be by the hands of their own government, an outside force, etc. It is important that we never turn a blind eye to what is happening outside of our country.

  5. This is a very informative article and I really enjoyed reading it! It is a very tragic event of history but definitely a world learning experience. This massacre was one of the most horrific incidents of violence committed against unarmed civilians during the Vietnam War. A company of American soldiers brutally killed. I think you did a great job describing the horrific even.

  6. Hey Sterling, your article is so touching because it is a real story, hundreds of innocent people lost their lives due to this. I cannot even put into words how terrible this is because this atrocity was committed by people who are supposed to protect the wellbeing of human beings. I’m glad you wrote this article because this topic should be talked about more so history does not repeat itself.

  7. This was a very informative article on the gruesome reality of the Vietnam war. It’s a harsh reality to realize that not many other people learn or hear about this to bring awareness on the ways wars dehumanize us. Although we still need to hold these troops accountable for these actions between them and innocent civilians. It has shown me an appreciation for the country, and safety I live in not having to fear if I will die or not.

  8. I think this article did a very good show of showing the forgotten lesser talked about side of war. This article remined a lot of the movie Casualties of War staring Michael J Fox. Its very hard to hear all the atrocities committed in war times especially to innocent women and children. I hope moving forward with hearing about these events, soldiers will think twice before before partaking in disgusting acts like these but I’m afraid that is very unlikely.

  9. Thank you for writing and recreating the fierce war in Viet Nam. That scene was a succintly story with haunting and tragic. I was hard to breath when reading each word describing how my past compatriots in My Lai tortured and massacred. From that, I respect more the peace we have today.

  10. Great article Sterling! It is so sad to hear about the monstrosity of My Lai. Officer Thompson was an amazing man. I am so glad that he saved a couple innocent villagers. It is awful to think about all of the other stories like this that we still know nothing about. It is so important that we hold our troops accountable for their actions towards innocent humans. I cannot believe that Calley was pardoned for such gruesome crimes. Overall, great job.

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