My Lai was a village of about 700 inhabitants some 100 miles to the southeast of the US base of Danang. Shortly after dawn on March 16th, three platoons of US troops from C Company, 11th Brigade, arrived in the Son My area having been dropped off by helicopters. 1 Platoon was commanded by Lieutenant William Calley and was ordered to My Lai village. They were part of Task Force Barker – the codename for a search and destroy mission. They had been told to expect to find members of the NLF (called Vietcong or VC by the US soldiers) in the vicinity as the village was in an area where the NLF had been very active.
When the troops from 1 Platoon moved through the village they started to fire at the villagers. These were women, children and the elderly as the young men had gone to the paddy fields to work. Sergeant Michael Bernhardt, who was at My Lai, was quoted in 1973 as stating that he saw no one who could have been considered to be of military age. He also stated that the US troops in My Lai met no resistance. An army photographer, Ronald Haeberie, witnessed a US soldier shoot two young boys who he believed were no more than five years of age. Other photos taken at the scene of the massacre show bodies of what can only be very young children.
Those who returned to the village claimed that it took three days to bury the bodies. They were later to report that some of the children had their throats cut and that some of the bodies had not just been shot but had also been mutilated.
What happened at My Lai only came to public light in November 1969 when a US soldier, Paul Meadlo, was interviewed on television and admitted killing “ten of fifteen men, women and children" at My Lai. His admission caused much shock and a great deal of pressure was put on the US military to launch an investigation. In fact, the US military was already aware of the allegations and had launched an investigation in April 1969, some six months before the public was made aware of what had gone on. It soon became clear that many hundreds of villagers had been killed. The actual number killed was never established but it was officially put as no less than 175 while it could have been as high as 504. The two most common figures put on casualties are 347 and 504. The memorial at My Lai itself lists 504 names with ages that range from one to eighty-two years. An official US army investigation came out with the figure of 347.
Though a number of US soldiers were charged, all with the exception of Lieutenant William Calley, were acquitted. Calley was sentenced to life in prison with hard labour. He served three years before he was released. However, Calley had his supporters and many believed that he was simply following orders. His defence, which was initially rejected, was that he was there in My Lai to hunt out communists and to destroy communism and that he was only carrying out his orders that were to hunt out the NLF. ‘The Battle Hymn of William Calley’, a record in support of Calley, sold over 200,000 copies.
Seymour Hersh, a journalist who was one of the first men to report the massacre to the public believed that Calley was “as much a victim as the people he shot."
Calley himself commented about the reactions of his men in 1 Platoon at My Lai:
“When my troops were getting massacred and mauled by an enemy I couldn’t see, an enemy I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t touch…………nobody in the military system ever described them anything other than Communist."
Why did the soldiers in My Lai react as they did?
After three years in Vietnam, the US Army knew that anyone could be a NLF fighter or sympathiser – regardless or age or gender. Invariably everyone in the villages of South Vietnam wore the same style clothing, so no one could be sure who was who in terms of the enemy. All US soldiers knew that any patrol they were sent on could be their last or that they might suffer horrendous injuries as a result of the NLF booby traps that littered South Vietnam. The stress of simply doing what they had to do may well have become too much for the troops who were in My Lai on March 16th 1968. In their first few weeks in Vietnam the men in ‘Charlie Company’ had not experienced many problems with regards to fighting. However, after this settling period had ended, they, along with thousands of other US troops, began to experience life as a fighting soldier in South Vietnam. Within days of going on patrol, ‘Charlie Company’ had lost five men killed to booby traps and in the lead up to the massacre at My Lai others had been wounded by these unseen weapons.
One soldier who was at My Lai, Varnado Simpson, stated in December 1969:
“Everyone who went into the village had in mind to kill. We had lost a lot of buddies and it was a VC stronghold. We considered them either VC or helping the VC."
Sergeant Isaiah Cowen stated in December 1969 that the men who arrived by helicopter in Son My had been told that everyone there was ‘VC’:
“He (a captain) stated that everything that was there was VC or VC sympathisers. There was no doubt in my men’s mind that they (the people in My Lai) were VC."
Philip Caputo, a US Marine, also accused of murdering innocent Vietnamese civilians, wrote later that it was the nature of the war being fought in Vietnam that was to blame for so many civilians being killed:
“In a guerrilla war, the line between legitimate and illegitimate killing is blurred. The policies of free-fire zones, in which a soldier is permitted to shoot at any human target, armed or unarmed, further confuse the fighting man’s moral senses."