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29 Mar

My Lai …………….Remembering America’s Past

The Past Is Prologue

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Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

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This Day in History

Mar 29, 1971:

Calley found guilty of My Lai murders

The McGlynn: Calley was the only one convicted and served only about three years in prison. No others were even tried.

Lt. William L. Calley is found guilty of premeditated murder at My Lai by a U.S. Army court-martial at Fort Benning, Georgia. Calley, a platoon leader, had led his men in a massacre of Vietnamese civilians, including women and children, at My Lai 4, a cluster of hamlets in Quang Ngai Province on March 16, 1968.

The unit had been conducting a search-and-destroy mission to locate the 48th Viet Cong (VC) Local Force Battalion. The unit entered Son My village but found only women, children, and old men. Frustrated by unanswered losses due to snipers and mines, the soldiers took out their anger on the villagers, indiscriminately shooting people as they ran from their huts. The soldiers rounded up the survivors and led them to a nearby ditch where they were shot.

Calley was charged with six specifications of premeditated murder. During the trial, Chief Army prosecutor Capt. Aubrey Daniel charged that Calley ordered Sgt. Daniel Mitchell to “finish off the rest” of the villagers. The prosecution stressed that all the killings were committed despite the fact that Calley’s platoon had met no resistance and that he and his men had not been fired on.

The My Lai massacre had initially been covered up but came to light one year later. An Army board of inquiry, headed by Lt. Gen. William Peers, investigated the massacre and produced a list of 30 people who knew of the atrocity, but only 14 were charged with crimes. All eventually had their charges dismissed or were acquitted by courts-martial except Calley, whose platoon allegedly killed 200 innocents.

Calley was found guilty of personally murdering 22 civilians and sentenced to life imprisonment, but his sentence was reduced to 20 years by the Court of Military Appeals and further reduced later to 10 years by the Secretary of the Army. Proclaimed by much of the public as a “scapegoat,” Calley was paroled in 1974 after having served about a third of his 10-year sentence.

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My Lai Massacre
  

On March 16, 1968 the angry and frustrated men of Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, Americal Division entered the village of My Lai. “This is what you’ve been waiting for — search and destroy — and you’ve got it,” said their superior officers. A short time later the killing began. When news of the atrocities surfaced, it sent shockwaves through the US political establishment, the military’s chain of command, and an already divided American public.

My Lai lay in the South Vietnamese district of Son My, a heavily mined area of Vietcong entrenchment. Numerous members of Charlie Company had been maimed or killed in the area during the preceding weeks. The agitated troops, under the command of Lt. William Calley, entered the village poised for engagement with the elusive Vietcong.

As the “search and destroy” mission unfolded it soon degenerated into the massacre of over 300 apparently unarmed civilians including women, children, and the elderly. Calley ordered his men to enter the village firing, though there had been no report of opposing fire. According to eyewitness reports offered after the event, several old men were bayoneted, praying women and children were shot in the back of the head, and at least one girl was raped, and then killed. For his part, Calley was said to have rounded up a group of the villagers, ordered them into a ditch, and mowed them down in a fury of machine gun fire.

Word of the massacre did not reach the American public until November of 1969, when journalist Seymour Hersh published a story detailing his conversations with ex-GI and Vietnam veteran, Ron Ridenhour. Ridenhour learned of the events at My Lai from members of Charlie Company who had been there. Before speaking with Hersh, he had appealed to Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon to investigate the matter. The military investigation resulted in Calley’s being charged with murder in September 1969 — a full two months before the Hersh story hit the streets.

As the gruesome details of the massacre reached the American public serious questions arose concerning the conduct of American soldiers in Vietnam. A military commission investigating the My Lai massacre found widespread failures of leadership, discipline, and morale among the Army’s fighting units. As the war progressed, many “career” soldiers had either been rotated out or retired. Many more had died. In their place were scores of draftees whose fitness for leadership in the field of battle was questionable at best. Military officials blamed inequities in the draft policy for the often slim talent pool from which they were forced to choose leaders. Many maintained that if the educated middle class (“the Harvards,” as they were called) had joined in the fight, a man of Lt. William Calley’s emotional and intellectual stature would never have been issuing orders.

Calley, an unemployed college dropout, had managed to graduate from Officer’s Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1967. At his trial, Calley testified that he was ordered by Captain Ernest Medina to kill everyone in the village of My Lai. Still, there was only enough photographic and recorded evidence to convict Calley, alone, of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison, but was released in 1974, following many appeals. After being issued a dishonorable discharge, Calley entered the insurance business.


William Calley

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