The Mỹ Lai Massacre was the Vietnam War mass killing of between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians in South Vietnam on March 16, 1968. It was committed by U.S. Army soldiers from the Company C of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division. Victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated. Twenty-six soldiers were charged with criminal offenses, but only Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a platoon leader in C Company, was convicted. Found guilty of killing 22 villagers, he was originally given a life sentence, but served only three and a half years under house arrest.
The massacre, which was later called “the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War”, took place in two hamlets of Sơn Mỹ village in Quảng Ngãi Province. These hamlets were marked on the U.S. Army topographic maps as My Lai and My Khe. The U.S. Army slang name for the hamlets and sub-hamlets in that area was Pinkville, and the carnage was initially referred to as the Pinkville Massacre. Later, when the U.S. Army started its investigation, the media changed it to the Massacre at Songmy. Currently, the event is referred to as the My Lai Massacre in the United States and called the Sơn Mỹ Massacre in Vietnam.
The incident prompted global outrage when it became public knowledge in November 1969. The My Lai massacre increased to some extent domestic opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War when the scope of killing and cover-up attempts were exposed. Initially, three U.S. servicemen who had tried to halt the massacre and rescue the hiding civilians were shunned, and even denounced as traitors by several U.S. Congressmen, including Mendel Rivers, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Only after thirty years were they recognized and decorated, one posthumously, by the U.S. Army for shielding non-combatants from harm in a war zone. Along with the No Gun Ri massacre in Korea eighteen years earlier, My Lai was one of the largest single massacres of civilians by U.S. forces in the 20th century.
Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division, arrived in South Vietnam in December 1967. Though their first three months in Vietnam passed without any direct enemy contact, by mid-March the company had suffered 28 casualties involving mines or booby-traps.
During the Tet Offensive of January 1968, attacks were carried out in Quảng Ngãi by the 48th Local Force Battalion of the National Liberation Front (NLF), commonly referred to by the U.S. Army as the Viet Cong. U.S. military intelligence assumed that the 48th NLF Battalion, having retreated and dispersed, was taking refuge in the village of Sơn Mỹ, in Quảng Ngãi Province. A number of specific hamlets within that village—designated My Lai (1) through My Lai (6) — were suspected of harboring the 48th.
In February and March 1968, the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam was aggressively trying to regain the strategic initiative in South Vietnam after the Tet Offensive, and the search-and-destroy operation against the 48th NLF Battalion thought to be located in Sơn Mỹ became a small part of America’s grand strategy. Task Force Barker (TF Barker), a battalion-sized ad hoc unit of the 11th Brigade, was to be employed for the job. It was formed in January 1968, composed of three rifle companies of the 11th Brigade, including Company C from the 20th Infantry, led by Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Frank A. Barker. Sơn Mỹ village was included in the area of operations of TF Barker codenamed Muscatine AO. (Muscatine County, Iowa was the home county of the 23rd Division’s commander, Major General (MG) Samuel W. Koster.) In February 1968, TF Barker had already tried to secure Sơn Mỹ, with limited success. After that, the village area began to be called Pinkville by TF Barker troops.
The men of Charlie Company were angry, frightened and struggling for survival in March 1968. Since their arrival 3 months prior, they had suffered over 40 casualties. Just two days before the massacre the company had lost a popular sergeant to a land mine. These events would have had a large contribution to the cause of the atrocity.
On March 16–18, TF Barker planned to engage and destroy the remnants of the 48th NLF Battalion, allegedly hiding in the Sơn Mỹ village area. Before engagement, Colonel (COL) Oran K. Henderson, the 11th Brigade commander, urged his officers to “go in there aggressively, close with the enemy and wipe them out for good”. In turn, LTC Barker reportedly ordered the 1st Battalion commanders to burn the houses, kill the livestock, destroy food supplies, and destroy the wells.
On the eve of the attack, at the Charlie Company briefing, Captain (CPT) Ernest Medina told his men that nearly all the civilian residents of the hamlets in Sơn Mỹ village would have left for the market by 07:00, and that any who remained would be NLF or NLF sympathizers. He was asked whether the order included the killing of women and children. Those present later gave differing accounts of Medina’s response. Some, including platoon leaders, testified that the orders as they understood them were to kill all guerrilla and North Vietnamese combatants and “suspects” (including women and children, as well as all animals), to burn the village, and pollute the wells. He was also quoted as saying, “They’re all VC, now go and get them”, and was heard to reply to the question “Who is my enemy?” by saying, “Anybody that was running from us, hiding from us, or appeared to be the enemy. If a man was running, shoot him, sometimes even if a woman with a rifle was running, shoot her.” At Calley’s trial, one defense witness testified that he remembered Medina instructing to destroy everything in the village that was “walking, crawling or growing”.
Charlie Company was to enter the village of Sơn Mỹ spearheaded by its 1st Platoon, engage the enemy, and flush it out. The other two companies from TF Barker were ordered to secure the area and provide support if needed. The area was designated a free fire zone, where American forces were allowed to deploy artillery and air strikes in populated areas.
On the Saturday morning of March 16 at 07:30, around 100 soldiers from the Charlie Company led by CPT Ernest Medina, following a short artillery and helicopter gunship barrage, landed in helicopters at Sơn Mỹ, a patchwork of settlements, rice paddies, irrigation ditches, dikes, and dirt roads, connecting an assortment of hamlets and sub-hamlets. The largest among them were the hamlets My Lai, Co Luy, My Khe, and Tu Cung. Though the GIs were not fired upon after landing, they still suspected there were Vietcong guerrillas hiding underground or in the huts. Confirming their suspicions, the gunships engaged several armed enemy in a vicinity of My Lai; later, one weapon (a carbine) was retrieved from the site.
According to the operational plan, the 1st Platoon led by Second Lieutenant (2LT) William Calley and the 2nd Platoon led by 2LT Stephen Brooks entered the hamlet of Tu Cung in line formation at 08:00, while the 3rd Platoon commanded by 2LT Jeffrey U. Lacross and Captain Medina’s command post remained outside. On approach, both platoons fired at people they saw in the rice fields and in the brush.
The villagers, who were getting ready for a market day, at first did not panic or run away, and they were herded into the hamlet’s commons. Harry Stanley, a machine gunner from the Charlie Company, said during the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division’s (CID) inquiry that the killings started without warning. He first observed a member of the 1st Platoon strike a Vietnamese man with a bayonet. Then, the same trooper pushed another villager into a well and threw a grenade in the well. Further, he saw fifteen or twenty people, mainly women and children, kneeling around a temple with burning incense. They were praying and crying. They were all killed by shots in the head.
Most of the killings occurred in the southern part of Tu Cung, a sub-hamlet of Xom Lang, which was a home to 700 residents. Xom Lang was erroneously marked on the U.S. military operational maps of Quảng Ngãi Province as My Lai.
A large group of approximately 70–80 villagers was rounded up by the 1st Platoon in Xom Lang, and then led to an irrigation ditch to the east of the settlement. All detainees were pushed into the ditch and then killed after repeated orders issued by Lieutenant Calley, who was also shooting. Paul Meadlo, a Private First Class (PFC), testified that he expended several M16 magazines. He recollected that women were allegedly saying “No VC” and were trying to shield their children. He remembered that he was shooting into women with babies in their hands since he was convinced at that time that they were all booby-trapped with grenades and were poised to attack. On another occasion during the security sweep of My Lai, Meadlo again fired into civilians side-by-side with Lieutenant Calley.
PFC Dennis Konti, a witness for the prosecution, told about one especially gruesome episode during the shooting, “A lot of women had thrown themselves on top of the children to protect them, and the children were alive at first. Then, the children who were old enough to walk got up and Calley began to shoot the children”. Other 1st Platoon members testified that many of the deaths of individual Vietnamese men, women and children occurred inside My Lai during the security sweep. Livestock was shot as well.
When PFC Michael Bernhardt entered the subhamlet of Xom Lang, the massacre was underway:
I walked up and saw these guys doing strange things … Setting fire to the hootches and huts and waiting for people to come out and then shooting them … going into the hootches and shooting them up … gathering people in groups and shooting them … As I walked in you could see piles of people all through the village … all over. They were gathered up into large groups. I saw them shoot an M79 [grenade launcher] into a group of people who were still alive. But it was mostly done with a machine gun. They were shooting women and children just like anybody else. We met no resistance and I only saw three captured weapons. We had no casualties. It was just like any other Vietnamese village – old papa-sans, women and kids. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive.
One group of 20–50 villagers was walked to the south of Xom Lang and killed on a dirt road. According to Ronald Haeberle’s eyewitness account of the massacre, in one instance,
There were some South Vietnamese people, maybe fifteen of them, women and children included, walking on a dirt road maybe 100 yards [90 m] away. All of a sudden the GIs just opened up with M16s. Beside the M16 fire, they were shooting at the people with M79 grenade launchers … I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
Lieutenant Calley testified that he heard the shooting and arrived on the scene. He observed his men firing into a ditch with Vietnamese people inside and he then started shooting, with an M16, from a distance of 5 feet. Then, a helicopter landed on the other side of the ditch and a pilot asked Calley if he could provide any medical assistance to the wounded civilians in My Lai; Calley admitted replying that a hand grenade was the only available means that he had for their evacuation. After that, around 11:00, Captain Medina radioed to cease fire and the 1st Platoon took a lunch break.
Members of the 2nd platoon killed at least 60–70 Vietnamese, as they swept through the northern half of Mỹ Lai and through Binh Tay, a small sub-hamlet about 400 metres (1,300 ft) north of Mỹ Lai. 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”. The 3rd platoon, which stayed in reserve, also reportedly rounded up and killed a group of seven to twelve women and children.
Since Charlie Company had not met any enemy opposition at My Lai and did not request back-up, Bravo Company of the 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of TF Barker was transported by air between 08:15 and 08:30 3 km (2 mi) away. It attacked the subhamlet My Hoi of the Co Luy hamlet, which was mapped by the Army as My Khe. During this operation, between 60 and 155 people, including women and children, were killed.
Over the next day, both companies were involved in additional burning and destruction of dwellings, as well as mistreatment of Vietnamese detainees. While some soldiers of Charlie Company did not participate in the crimes, they neither openly protested nor complained later to their superiors.
William Thomas Allison, a professor of Military History at Georgia Southern University, wrote, “By midmorning, members of Charlie Company had killed hundreds of civilians and raped or assaulted countless women and young girls. They encountered no enemy fire and found no weapons in My Lai itself”.
Warrant Officer (WO1) Hugh Thompson, Jr., a helicopter pilot from Company B (Aero-Scouts), 123rd Aviation Battalion, Americal Division, saw dead and wounded civilians as he was flying over the village of Sơn Mỹ providing close-air support for ground forces. 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 2LT Calley, who claimed to be “just following orders”. As the helicopter took off, Thompson saw Mitchell firing into the ditch.
Thompson and his crew witnessed an unarmed woman being kicked and shot at point-blank range by Captain Medina, who later claimed that he thought she had a hand grenade. 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 on 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, Glenn Andreotta entered the ditch and returned with a bloodied, but apparently unharmed child who was flown to safety. The child was thought to be a boy, but later turned out to be a four-year-old girl. Thompson then reported what he had seen to his company commander, Major (MAJ) Frederic W. Watke, using terms such as “murder” and “needless and unnecessary killings”. Thompson’s statements were confirmed by other helicopter pilots and air crew members.
For the actions at My Lai, Thompson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and his crew members Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn were awarded Bronze Star medals. Glenn Andreotta was awarded his medal posthumously, as he was killed in Vietnam 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 March 1998, the helicopter crew’s medals were replaced by the Soldier’s Medal, “the highest the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
After returning to base at about 11:00, Thompson reported the massacre to his superiors. His allegations of civilian killings quickly reached LTC Barker, the operation’s overall commander. Barker radioed his executive officer to find out from Captain Medina what was happening on the ground. Medina then gave the cease-fire order to Charlie Company to “knock off the killing”.
Since Thompson made an official report of the civilian killings, he was interviewed by Colonel Oran Henderson, the commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade (the parent organization of the 20th Infantry). Concerned, senior American officers canceled similar planned operations by Task Force Barker against other villages (My Lai 5, My Lai 1, etc.) in Quảng Ngãi Province.
Despite Thompson’s revealing information, Colonel Henderson issued a Letter of Commendation to Captain Medina on March 27, 1968. The next day, March 28, 1968, the commander of Task Force Barker submitted a combat action report for the March 16 operation in which he stated that the operation in My Lai was a success with 128 Viet Cong partisans killed. The American Division commander, Major General S. W. Koster, sent a congratulatory message to Company C. General William C. Westmoreland, the head of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), also congratulated Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry for “outstanding action”, saying that they had “dealt [the] enemy [a] heavy blow”. Later, he reversed himself by writing in his memoir that it was “the conscious massacre of defenseless babies, children, mothers, and old men in a kind of diabolical slow-motion nightmare that went on for the better part of a day, with a cold-blooded break for lunch”.
Owing to the chaotic circumstances of the war and the U.S. Army’s decision not to undertake a definitive body count of noncombatants in Vietnam, the number of civilians killed at Mỹ Lai cannot be stated with certainty. Estimates vary from source to source, with 347 and 504 being the most commonly cited figures. The memorial at the site of the massacre lists 504 names, with ages ranging from one to 82. A later investigation by the U.S. Army arrived at a lower figure of 347 deaths, the official U.S. estimate. The official estimate by the local government remains 504.
First reports claimed that “128 Viet Cong and 22 civilians” were killed in the village during a “fierce fire fight”. General Westmoreland, the MACV commander, congratulated the unit on the “outstanding job”. As relayed at the time by Stars and Stripes magazine, “U.S. infantrymen had killed 128 Communists in a bloody day-long battle.” On March 16, 1968, in 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.”
Initial investigations of the Mỹ Lai operation were undertaken by the 11th Light Infantry Brigade’s commanding officer, Colonel Henderson, under orders from the Americal Division’s executive officer, Brigadier General George H. Young. Henderson interviewed several soldiers involved in the incident, then issued a written report in late-April claiming that some 20 civilians were inadvertently killed during the operation. The Army at this time was still describing the event as a military victory that had resulted in the deaths of 128 enemy combatants.
Six months later, Tom Glen, a 21-year-old soldier of the 11th Light Infantry Brigade, wrote a letter to General Creighton Abrams, the new MACV commander. He described an ongoing and routine brutality against Vietnamese civilians on the part of American forces in Vietnam that he personally witnessed and then concluded,
It would indeed be terrible to find it necessary to believe that an American soldier that harbors such racial intolerance and disregard for justice and human feeling is a prototype of all American national character; yet the frequency of such soldiers lends credulity to such beliefs. … What has been outlined here I have seen not only in my own unit, but also in others we have worked with, and I fear it is universal. If this is indeed the case, it is a problem which cannot be overlooked, but can through a more firm implementation of the codes of MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) and the Geneva Conventions, perhaps be eradicated.
Colin Powell, then a 31-year-old Army major, was charged with investigating the letter, which did not specifically refer to Mỹ Lai, as Glen had limited knowledge of the events there. In his report, Powell wrote, “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal Division soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” Powell’s handling of the assignment was later characterized by some observers as “whitewashing” the atrocities of Mỹ Lai. In May 2004, Powell, then United States Secretary of State, told CNN’s Larry King, “I mean, I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.”
Independently of Glen, Specialist 5 Ronald L. Ridenhour, a former door gunner from the Aviation Section, Headquarters Company of the 11th Infantry Brigade, sent a letter in March 1969 to thirty members of Congress imploring them to investigate the circumstances surrounding the “Pinkville” incident. He and his pilot, Warrant Officer Gilbert Honda, flew over My Lai several days after the operation and observed a scene of complete destruction. At one point, they hovered over a dead Vietnamese woman with a patch of the 11th Brigade on her body. Ridenhour had learned about the events at Mỹ Lai secondhand from talking to members of Charlie Company over a period of months beginning in April 1968. He became convinced that something “rather dark and bloody did indeed occur” at Mỹ Lai, and was so disturbed by the tales he heard that within three months of being discharged from the Army he penned his concerns to Congress. He included the name of Michael Bernhardt, an eyewitness who agreed to testify, in the letter.
Most recipients of Ridenhour’s letter ignored it, with the exception of Congressman Mo Udall and Senators Barry Goldwater and Edward Brooke. Udall urged the House Armed Services Committee to call on Pentagon officials to conduct an investigation.
Independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, after extensive interviews 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.
As members of Congress called for an inquiry and news correspondents abroad expressed their horror at the massacre, the General Counsel of the Army Robert Jordan was tasked with speaking to the press. He refused to confirm allegations against Calley. Noting the significance of the fact that the statement was given at all, Bill Downs of ABC News said it amounted to the first public expression of concern by a “high defense official” that American troops “might have committed genocide.”