In one of the most horrific acts of atrocity committed by military personnel, on the 16th March 1968, soldiers of Charlie Company of the Americal Division’s 11th Infantry Brigade brutally murdered almost the entire population of the small hamlet of My Lai in South Vietnam.
The My Lai hamlet was believed to be a Viet Cong stronghold and the men of Charlie Company, led by Lieutenant William Calley, were sent there on a search and destroy mission. Owing to inaccurate intelligence reports, they had been advised that all villagers were to be considered as rebels or sympathizers. The total destruction of the village was ordered in accordance with a scorched earth policy.
When they arrived, they found no Viet Cong but nevertheless rounded up and murdered hundreds of civilians, mostly women, children and older men in extremely brutal fashion – many were also raped and tortured. Calley himself was reported to have dragged dozens of women into a ditch before executing them with a machine gun before turning on their terrified children. He was also quoted as saying that the only medical help the wounded Vietnamese civilians needed was ‘a hand grenade’. His superior, Captain Medina, ordered a cease fire at 11 for a macabre lunch break before resuming the killings.
Amidst all the chaos, not a single shot was fired at the men of Charlie Company and as PFC Michael Bernhardt put it, ‘not a single military-aged male was to be found in the village’.The massacre was only put to end when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, a pilot on a reconnaissance mission, threatened to open fire on Charlie Company if they didn’t stop.
Knowing that news of the massacre would seriously hinder America’s war effort, there were immediate efforts to downplay the bloodshed. The cover up continued for over a year until Private Ron Ridenhour began a campaign to shed light on the events.
The story finally broke in November 1969. This forced the US Army to open an investigation. They charged 28 officers for their involvement in the cover-up, but only 14 men with crimes related to the murders at My Lai. All were acquitted except for Calley who received a life sentence, but was paroled in 1974.
The revelations of the My Lai massacre caused morale among troops to plummet even further as it called into question America’s purpose in Vietnam and led them to question their superiors’ authority. On the home front, the brutality of the massacre and the efforts to hide it had a massive impact as they exacerbated a growing anti-war sentiment. This also increased the bitter divide among the population regarding the continuing US presence in Vietnam; which eventually led to full American withdrawal from the area.