The My Lai Massacre (Vietnamese: thảm sát Mỹ Lai [tʰɐ̃ːm ʂɐ̌ːt mǐˀ lɐːj], [mǐˀlɐːj]; English pronunciation: /ˌmiːˈlaɪ/, also /ˌmiːˈleɪ, ˌmaɪˈlaɪ/) was the Vietnam War mass murder of between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians in South Vietnam on March 16, 1968, by United States Army soldiers of "Charlie" Company of 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division. Most of the victims were women, children (including babies), and elderly people. Some of the bodies were later found to be mutilated. While 26 US soldiers were initially charged with criminal offenses for their actions at Mỹ Lai, only Second Lieutenant William Calley, a platoon leader in Charlie Company, was convicted. Found guilty of killing 22 villagers, he was originally given a life sentence, but only served three and a half years under house arrest.
The massacre took place in the hamlets of Mỹ Lai and My Khe of Sơn Mỹ village. The event is also known as the Sơn Mỹ Massacre (Vietnamese: thảm sát Sơn Mỹ) or sometimes as the Song Mỹ Massacre. The US military codeword for the "Viet Gong [sic] stronghold" was "Pinkville".
When the incident became public knowledge in 1969, it prompted widespread outrage around the world. The massacre also increased domestic opposition to the US involvement in the Vietnam War. Three US servicemen who had tried to halt the massacre and protect the wounded were later denounced by several US Congressmen. They received hate mail and death threats and found mutilated animals on their doorsteps. It was 30 years before they were honored for their efforts.
On the morning of March 16, Charlie Company landed following a short artillery and helicopter gunship preparation. Though the Americans found no enemy fighters in the village, many soldiers suspected there were NLF troops hiding underground in the homes of their wives or elderly parents. The US soldiers, including a platoon led by Second Lieutenant William Calley, went in shooting at what they deemed to be an enemy position.
Once the first civilians were wounded or killed by indiscriminate fire, the soldiers began attacking humans and animals alike, with firearms, grenades and bayonets. The scale of the massacre grew, the brutality only increasing with each killing. BBC News described the scene: "Dozens of people, herded into an irrigation ditch and other locations, were killed with automatic weapons."
A large group of about 70–80 villagers, rounded up by the 1st Platoon in the center of the village, were killed on an order given by Calley, who also participated. 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, as they swept through the northern half of Mỹ Lai 4 and through Binh Tay, a small subhamlet about 400 metres (1,300 ft) north of Mỹ Lai 4. The platoon suffered one dead and seven wounded by mines and booby traps.
After the initial "sweeps" by the 1st and 2nd Platoons, the 3rd Platoon was dispatched to deal with any "remaining resistance." They immediately began killing every living person and animal they could find. This included Vietnamese who had emerged from their hiding places as well as 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, the 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, was transported by air to its landing zone at between 08:15 and 08:30 and attacked the subhamlet of Mỹ Khe 4, killing as many as 90 people.
Over the following two days, both battalions were involved in additional burning and destruction of dwellings, as well as mistreatment of Vietnamese detainees. While most of the soldiers did not participate in the crimes, they neither protested nor complained to their superiors.
Warrant Officer One Hugh Thompson, Jr., a helicopter pilot from an aero-scout team, saw 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 being 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, then spoke with Second Lieutenant Calley, 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 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 12–16 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 Mỹ Lai, Thompson and other air crew members noticed several large groups of bodies. Spotting some survivors in the ditch, Thompson landed again. A crew member entered the ditch and returned with a bloodied but apparently unharmed child who was flown to safety. The child was thought to be a girl, but later turned out to be a four-year-old boy. Thompson then reported what he had seen to his company commander, Major Frederic W. Watke, using terms such as "murder" and "needless and unnecessary killings". Thompson's reports were confirmed by other pilots and air crew.
For their actions, Thompson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and his crew were awarded Bronze Star medals. Andreotta received his medal posthumously, as he was killed in action on April 8, 1968. As the DFC citation included a fabricated account of rescuing a young girl from My Lai from "intense crossfire" Thompson threw his medal away. He later received a Purple Heart for other services in Vietnam. In 1998, the helicopter crew's medals were replaced by the Soldier's Medal, "the highest the US Army can award for bravery not involving direct conflict with the enemy." The medal citations state they were "for heroism above and beyond the call of duty while saving the lives of at least 10 Vietnamese civilians during the unlawful massacre of non-combatants by American forces at My Lai". Thompson initially refused the medal when the US Army wanted to award it quietly. He demanded it be done publicly and that his crew also be honored in the same way. The veterans also made contact with the survivors of Mỹ Lai.
The first reports claimed that "128 Viet Cong and 22 civilians" were killed in the village during a "fierce fire fight". General William C. Westmoreland, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam commander, congratulated the unit on the "outstanding job". As related at the time by the Army's Stars and Stripes magazine, "U.S. infantrymen had killed 128 Communists in a bloody day-long battle." On March 16, 1968, in or around the official press briefing known as the “Five O’Clock Follies”, "a mimeographed release included this passage: 'In an action today, Americal Division forces killed 128 enemy near Quang Ngai City. Helicopter gunships and artillery missions supported the ground elements throughout the day.'
Independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, after extensive conversations with Calley, broke the Mỹ Lai story on November 12, 1969, on the Associated Press wire service; on November 20, Time, Life and Newsweek magazines all covered the story, and CBS televised an interview with Paul Meadlo, a soldier in Calley's unit during the massacre. The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) published explicit photographs of dead villagers killed at Mỹ Lai.
In November 1969, General William R. Peers was appointed to conduct a thorough investigation into the Mỹ Lai incident and its subsequent cover-up. Peers' final report, published in March 1970, was highly critical of top officers for participating in the cover-up and the Charlie Company officers for their actions at Mỹ 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 the commander of Task Force Barker, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker, who was killed in a mid-air collision on June 13, 1968.
On November 17, 1970, the United States Army charged 14 officers, including Major General Samuel W. Koster, the Americal Division's commanding officer, with suppressing information related to the incident. Most of those charges were later dropped. Brigade commander Henderson was the only officer who stood trial on charges relating to the cover-up; he was acquitted on December 17, 1971.
In a four-month-long trial, despite claims that he was following orders from his commanding officer, Captain Medina, Calley was convicted on March 29, 1971, of premeditated murder for ordering the shootings. He was initially sentenced to life in prison at hard labor. Two days later, however, President Richard Nixon made the controversial decision to have Calley released, pending appeal of his sentence. Calley's sentence was later adjusted, so that he would eventually serve three and one-half years under house arrest 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 Mỹ Lai had already left military service, and were thus legally exempt from prosecution. In the end, of the 26 men initially charged, Calley was the only one convicted.
Some have argued that the outcome of the Mỹ Lai courts-martial was a reversal of the laws of war that were set forth in the Nuremberg and Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals. 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.