What Really Happened on 16 March 1968? What Lessons Have Been Learned? A Look at the My Lai Incident Fifty Years Later

Written By: Fred L. Borch

On 16 March 1968—fifty years ago—First Lieutenant William L. “Rusty” Calley, Jr., and his platoon murdered at least 300 Vietnamese civilians (and perhaps as many as 500) at a small South Vietnamese sub-hamlet called My Lai. This article examines what really happened in the “My Lai Incident,” or the “My Lai Massacre” as it is sometimes called. It will then look at the court-martial of Lieutenant Calley before discussing how the Army learned lessons from this tragedy, and took actions that not only ensured that there would be no more war crimes like My Lai, but also made the Army a more ethical and professional institution. The result is that fifty years after My Lai, some genuine good has come out of a very dark episode in U.S. Army history.

My Lai was a sub-hamlet of the village of Song My located in Quang Ngai Province, Republic of Vietnam. (U.S. Army)

Early in the morning on 16 March 1968, Lieutenant Calley and his platoon were airlifted by helicopter to My Lai, a sub-hamlet of the village of Song My in Quang Ngai Province, Republic of Vietnam. They believed that their platoon, and the other two platoons of Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade, 23d Infantry Division (Americal), were about to take offensive action against the 48th Viet Cong (VC) battalion. The Americans also believed that since the VC battalion had a base camp near Song My, and that because enemy guerrillas had controlled the area for twenty years, that Company C could expect heavy resistance and would be outnumbered more than two to one.

Calley’s unit had not experienced much combat prior to this time, but it had suffered some casualties. In late February 1968, the company had become ensnared in a minefield; two soldiers were killed and thirteen wounded. Just two days earlier, on 14 March, a popular sergeant in the company’s 2d Platoon had been killed and three other men wounded by a booby trap. Consequently, the soldiers faced this upcoming operation against the 48th VC battalion with both anticipation and fear, mindful of the recent casualties in their unit.

Imagine the surprise of Calley and his men when, despite expecting heavy resistance, they entered My Lai without receiving any fire. There were no mines or booby traps. There was no need to call for mortar fire from the weapons platoon or any fires from artillery units in direct support. The soldiers found no VC. The only people that Calley’s platoon encountered were unarmed, unresisting, and frightened elderly men, women, children, and babies. The villagers were found in their homes eating breakfast and beginning their daily chores.

Calley and his soldiers, who had been expecting to engage the 48th VC Battalion, were not sure what to do in the absence of any enemy, much less any resistance to their entry into My Lai. Yet some villagers were shot by the platoon members when they first entered the sub-hamlet. Other soldiers stopped to kill livestock—cows, pigs, chickens and ducks. Still others searched huts and buildings for evidence of an enemy presence. The troops yelled into the small dwellings (called “hootches”) for their inhabitants to come out. If they got no answer from the hootches, the Americans threw hand grenades into them.

Ultimately, the American soldiers herded the civilian villagers in several locations. Between thirty and forty people were collected in a clearing in the center of the sub-hamlet. More were assembled near some rice paddies on the south side of My Lai. Still others were gathered together near a ditch on the east side of the sub-hamlet. None of the groups of villagers included military-age males.

Captain Edwin L. Medina was Calley’s company commander and would later face a court-martial for his actions at My Lai. (Ron Sherman)

Some hours after having gathered the villagers together, Calley approached Private First Class Paul Meadlo, who was watching the Vietnamese. Calley asked Meadlo “if he could take care of that group.” Calley then walked away but returned a few minutes to ask Meadlo why he had not taken care of the villagers. Meadlo replied,  “We are. We are watching them.” Calley responded, “No, I mean kill them.” Calley and Meadlo then opened fire on the unresisting, unarmed villagers with their M16 rifles, killing the entire group.

This, however, was only the beginning. Ultimately, Calley, Meadlo, and other soldiers in Company C would kill at least 300 civilians between 0700 and 1100 on 16 March 1968. Some witnesses later told of “huge holes being blown into bodies, limbs being shot off, and heads exploding.” Those identified as having murdered the villagers (besides Calley and Meadlo) included Sergeants Charles Hutto and David Mitchell.

While he had not accompanied Calley’s platoon into My Lai, Captain Ernest L. Medina, the Company C commander, was nearby; Medina and his first sergeant were in a field adjacent to the sub-hamlet. Medina apparently was frustrated with Calley’s slow progress. According to Calley, when Medina learned that a large group of Vietnamese civilians was responsible for the platoon’s slow movement, Medina told him to “get rid of them.” Calley later insisted that Medina’s directive to him was the impetus for the slaughter of most of the villagers at My Lai. Medina, however, always denied giving Calley any order to harm civilians. Later that day (he arrived in My Lai about 1100), Medina was himself involved in an unlawful killing when he fired his rifle and wounded a woman holding a small wicker basket. After he searched the basket and found syringes and other medical supplies, Medina shot the woman twice in the head.

Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson was piloting a helicopter over My Lai when he witnessed American soldiers pursuing Vietnamese civilians. Thompson placed his helicopter between the soldiers and civilians and prevented further carnage. He later reported what he witnessed to his unit’s commanding officer. (Stars and Stripes)

While the massacre was occurring, an observation helicopter piloted by Warrant Officer (later Lieutenant) Hugh C. Thompson was flying around the My Lai area at treetop level. Thompson was part of an aero scout unit from the Americal Division’s 123d Aviation Battalion and his mission was to locate enemy forces and relay this information to friendly ground forces. Thompson and his crew saw that a lot of people had been killed; there were as many as 150 dead in a ditch near the sub-hamlet. Thompson also could see that a large part of My Lai was on fire and was being systematically destroyed.

Upset about what he and his crew were seeing, Thompson landed his helicopter between fleeing Vietnamese and pursuing U.S. soldiers. He then ordered his door gunner, Specialist Four Larry Colburn, to fire on the Americans if they refused his direction to break off the chase. After a tense confrontation with the officer leading the soldiers, later identified as Second Lieutenant Stephen Brooks, the Americans ceased their pursuit. Shortly thereafter, Thompson and his crew also were able to evacuate a few living Vietnamese civilians, very likely saving them from serious bodily harm, if not death.

When Thompson finally returned to his base, he was angry and upset and reported what he had seen to his aviation unit’s commanding officer, Major Fredric Watke. Watke listened to Thompson and later claimed to have passed on Thompson’s report to Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Barker who, as Calley’s battalion commander, was responsible for the operation against My Lai. Watke, however, took no further action to report the war crime to higher headquarters, much less investigate it. He later explained that he thought Thompson had been “over-dramatizing” the situation.

A distraught Thompson also went to the division artillery chaplain, Chaplain (Captain) Carl E. Creswell. After he told Creswell what he had seen, the chaplain said he would make a report through chaplains’ channels. But Chaplain Creswell only relayed what Thompson had told him to his superior chaplain, Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Francis Lewis, and neither Creswell nor Lewis ever reported the war crime to higher headquarters as they were required to do.

Major Frederic Watke, commanding officer of the 123d Aviation Battalion, listened to Thompson’s claims and later stated that he passed the information to Calley’s battalion commander, but took no further action to report possible war crimes to higher headquarters. (U.S. Army)

Besides the killings witnessed by Thompson and his helicopter crew, Calley and his platoon also committed other crimes, including rapes and other sexual assaults. These are only sometimes mentioned in literature written about the murders at My Lai, and no soldier was ever charged, much less prosecuted, for these sex offenses.

Although Major General Samuel Koster, the Americal Division commander, and Colonel Oran Henderson, the 11th Infantry Brigade commander, received reports that more than 125 civilians had been killed at My Lai, many of whom were women and children, the two commanders failed to properly investigate the event. On 24 April 1968, a little more than a week after the incident, Colonel Henderson falsely reported to Major General Koster that “no civilians were gathered together and shot by US soldiers” and that the claim of a massacre at My Lai was “obviously a Viet Cong propaganda move to discredit the United States in the eyes of the Vietnamese people.”

As a result of Henderson’s false report, and Major General Koster’s failure to make adequate additional inquiries into what had occurred at My Lai, the incident remained hidden until April 1969, when an ex-soldier named Ronald L. Ridenhour wrote letters to the White House, the State Department, the Defense Department, and twenty-three congressmen, describing the murders. Ridenhour had not been present at the incident, but he had learned about it from other soldiers. When General William C. Westmoreland, then serving as Army Chief of Staff, saw Ridenhour’s letter, he forwarded it to Major General William A. Enemark, the Army’s Inspector General, with orders to investigate Ridenhour’s claims.

Ultimately, an investigation conducted by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command and an official inquiry headed by Lieutenant General William R. Peers resulted not only in charges against those officers and enlisted men who had been present in and around My Lai, but also against officers who participated in the cover-up of the war crimes, either because they failed to investigate reports of misdeeds at My Lai or failed to report the occurrence as required, or both.

Lieutenant General William Peers conducted an official inquiry into My Lai that led to charges not only against the officers and enlisted men involved in war crimes against Vietnamese civilians, but also against officers who attempted to cover up the crimes. (U.S. Army)

Thirteen officers and enlisted men were charged with “war crimes or crimes against humanity.” Another twelve officers were charged with having actively covered up the My Lai incident, including Major General Koster, Brigadier General George Young (Koster’s deputy), and Major Watke (to whom Thompson had complained). Yet only four officers and two enlisted soldiers were tried, while charges against twelve officers and seven enlisted men were dismissed on grounds of lack of evidence. In four cases, charges against officers were dismissed without even an Article 32 investigation.

Ultimately, the Army court-martialed Calley, Captain Ernest Medina (his company commander), Captain Eugene Kotouc (the battalion intelligence officer, charged with cutting off the finger of a VC prisoner during interrogation), and Colonel Oran Henderson (the brigade commander). Two noncommissioned officers also were tried by general courts-martial:  Sergeant David Mitchell and Sergeant Charles Hutto, both of whom were charged with shooting unarmed villagers. Lieutenant Colonel Barker, the battalion commander, was probably the most culpable officer in the subsequent cover-up of the war crime, but he escaped a court-martial because he was killed in a helicopter crash in June 1968.

All those court-martialed were found not guilty, except for Calley. He was tried by a general court-martial at Fort Benning, Georgia. Two relatively new judge advocate captains, Aubrey Daniel and John Partin, were the prosecutors; the Army lawyer with overall responsibility for the government’s case was Colonel Robert “Bob” Lathrop, the staff judge advocate. Calley was defended by George Latimer, a prominent civilian attorney and former judge on the Court of Military Appeals. He also had a military defense lawyer, Major Kenneth “Al” Raby. Colonel Reid W. Kennedy presided over the proceedings as the military judge.

The court-martial began on 17 November 1970 and the panel returned with its verdict on 29 March 1971, when it convicted Calley of the premeditated murder of twenty-two infants, children, women, and old men, and assault with intent to murder a child of about two years. The panel, consisting of officers who had experienced combat in Vietnam, sentenced Calley to be dismissed from the Army and to be confined at hard labor for life.

Calley, center, is shown here with his military defense lawyer, Major Kenneth “Al” Raby (left), 25 December 1969. (U.S. Army)

Three days later, the White House inserted itself in the judicial process by announcing that President Richard M. Nixon would personally review Calley’s case before the sentence took effect and that, in the interim, Calley would be under house arrest. On 20 August 1971, Lieutenant General Albert O. Connor, commanding general of Third U.S. Army, took action as the general court-martial convening authority. He approved the findings of premeditated murder and assault with intent but reduced Calley’s sentence to twenty years confinement. In April 1974, after both the Army Court of Military Review and the U.S. Court of Military Appeals had rejected Calley’s appeals, the new Secretary of the Army, Howard H. Callaway, reduced Calley’s sentence further to ten years confinement.

Calley had been moved from his on-post quarters at Fort Benning to the Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in June 1974. Callaway’s unprecedented reduction in his sentence made Calley eligible for parole in less than six months, and he was released on parol  in November 1974.

One of the most prevalent myths, often heard in media commentary on the Calley case, is that President Nixon “pardoned” Calley or “reduced” his sentence. This is incorrect; other than directing that Calley be released from the stockade and placed under house arrest, Nixon took no further action to affect Calley’s conviction.

While senior Army leaders were dismayed about what had happened at My Lai, and generally accepted Peers’s conclusion that the “principal causative factor in the tragic event” was a failure of leadership, these same leaders were just as upset about the cover-up of the war crime. The unlawful killing of noncombatants was bad enough, but the failure of the chain of command at all levels to fully and adequately investigate the events of 16 March 1968 might well indicate a moral and ethical failure within the institution itself. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Army’s leadership recognized that the crimes committed by Calley and his platoon had shocked the American public and that more than a few Americans no longer trusted the Army as an institution.

Raby (left) and Captain Aubrey Daniel, one of the Army’s prosecutors in the My Lai case, arrive at Chu Lai, Republic of Vietnam, 6 January 1970. (U.S. Army)

Over the past fifty years, as a direct result of a commitment to prevent another My Lai and ensure that all men and women in uniform conduct operations in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict, leaders in the Army have made important changes to both the Army’s culture and organization. At the strategic level, the Army reinvigorated the teaching of professional ethics and values. Of course high ethical and moral standards had always been important, but by the 1990s, the Army had developed “Army Values,” which it inculcated in every soldier. Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage were required of all men and women and it is no accident that, when read in sequence, the first letters of these values spell LDRSHIP.

The Army also developed an “Army Ethic,” which emphasized that soldiers must see themselves as “honorable servants of the Nation” and that they must “reject and report illegal, unethical or immoral orders and actions.” No doubt with My Lai in mind, the Army Ethic stresses that “in war and peace,” soldiers must recognize the “intrinsic dignity and worth of all people” and treat “them with respect.”

Ten years ago, to reinforce these values and provide a focal point for inculcation of the Army Ethic, Chief of Staff General George W. Casey, Jr., established the Army Center of Excellence for the Professional Military Ethic at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Known today as the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic or CAPE, its mission is to increase in every soldier an understanding—and internalization—of what it means for the Army to be a profession and for soldiers to be professionals of character.

Colonel Reid W. Kennedy presided over the court-martial of Calley as the military judge. (U.S. Army)

At the Army’s operational and tactical level, The Judge Advocate General’s Corps emerged as a key agent of change when it reconfigured its force structure—and culture—in ways that were designed to prevent another My Lai. Judge advocates had been stung by Lieutenant General Peers’s criticism that “neither units nor individual members” of Calley’s brigade had received “proper training in the Hague and Geneva Conventions.” Peers concluded that any training in the Law of War, if done at all, was done in a “lackadaisical manner.” Additionally, while Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, had printed 3 x 5 inch pocket cards containing rules for soldiers to follow (for example, “The Enemy in Your Hands”), these cards were of little value when distributed because they were not accompanied by any instruction. In any event, “after a couple of monsoon

Calley’s court-martial for his actions at My Lai began on 17 November 1970 Fort Benning, Georgia. (Courtroom sketch by Howard Brodie, Library of Congress)

rains, they became mangled and useless.”

In the early 1970s, Major General George S. Prugh, then serving as The Judge Advocate General (TJAG), spearheaded an initiative to create a Defense Department Law of War Program. As a result of Prugh’s efforts, judge advocates began reviewing existing operations plans for the first time in history, with a view toward ensuring that these plans complied with the Law of War.

The major change in the delivery of legal advice in the Army, however, occurred in 1983 during Operation URGENT FURY, when the 82d Airborne Division’s staff judge advocate deployed for the first time with the division’s assault command post so that he could provide around-the-clock legal advice to Major General Edward L. Trobaugh, the division commander and his staff. This Army lawyer soon discovered that there were many unanticipated legal issues in Grenada, and that his presence on the island helped the 82d’s commander to achieve mission success.

After Grenada, the JAG Corps recognized that reviewing operations plans was not sufficient; judge advocates must deploy with commanders if timely and accurate legal advice was going to be available. While judge advocates had always had habitual relationships with brigades, when the Army underwent its modularity transformation in the early 2000s, the JAG Corps reconfigured its personnel assets so that every brigade combat team would have at least three Army lawyers (a brigade judge advocate, operational law judge advocate, and trial counsel/prosecutor) organic to it. Today, this means that uniformed lawyers are with commanders to ensure that all military operations are conducted in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict, thereby contributing to the prevention of another My Lai. They take an active part in the planning and execution of operations, and are often found in the tactical operations center, where they might advise on the lawfulness of attacking specific targets to ensure that collateral damage to civilians is minimized. These judge advocates also assist in the preparation of and training on rules of engagement. Commanders are still the decision-makers, but the advice they receive from lawyers is almost universally viewed as a good development.

Calley salutes the president of the six-officer jury after the guilty verdict was announced, 29 March 1971. (Courtroom sketch by Howard Brodie, Library of Congress)

As for My Lai itself, the incident remained a cautionary tale, especially for senior Army commanders who had served in Vietnam. In February 1991, the night before his subordinate brigade commanders launched their assault on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s forces, then Major General Ronald H. Griffith, commanding the 1st Armored Division, told them:  “No My Lais in this division—do you hear me?”

There also has been no hesitation in using the war crime as a vehicle for teaching. Some years ago, instructors at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (the former School of the Americas) set out the facts and circumstances of My Lai and then discussed with students the moral and ethical failures arising out of it. All this was done with a view toward challenging students to think about how the failure of Calley and his men to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants might be similar to military operations in their home countries, especially those involving fighting against gun-toting drug traffickers who hide in the larger civilian community.

The Army of 1968 was a very different institution from the Army of 2018. Today’s reinvigorated professional and ethical culture has prevented another My Lai. Additionally, the deployment of Army lawyers on military operations has ensured that commanders have advice and counsel when they need it. Finally, it must be said that the trust of the American public in the Army has been restored; American citizens generally have great respect and admiration for soldiers and soldiering. The bottom line is that today, some genuine good has come from a tragic event of fifty years ago.

Major General Samuel Koster, who commanded the 23d “Infantry Division (Americal) at the time of My Lai, never faced charges. However, Secretary of the Army Stanley R. Resor revoked Koster’s Distinguished Service Medal and reduced him to his permanent rank of brigadier general. (U.S. Army)

A postscript on some of the My Lai participants: Calley is still alive; he lives in Florida. As recently as 2009, Calley insisted that he was “only following orders” at My Lai. Ex-Private First Class Meadlo, who had joined Calley in shooting unarmed civilians, today lives in Indiana. Meadlo could not be tried by the Army for his war crimes because he had been honorably discharged and there was no longer any military criminal jurisdiction over him. Ernest Medina, Calley’s company commander, is also still alive.

The heroes of My Lai, Hugh Thompson and Larry Colburn, are both dead, with both dying of cancer. Before they passed away, however, the Army recognized their heroism with the award of the Soldier’s Medal, the Army’s highest military decoration for non-combat valor. Ron Ridenhour, whose letters triggered the investigation, also is deceased. As for then Major General Koster, he was never court-martialed; charges against him were dismissed after a pre-trial investigation. However, Secretary of the Army Stanley R. Resor revoked Koster’s Distinguished Service Medal and vacated his temporary rank of major general, reducing him to his permanent rank of brigadier general. Koster retired in 1973 and died in 2006 at the age of eighty-six.