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By John Zutz
What Americans refer to as the My Lai Massacre happened in the quiet village of Son My, only a kilometer from the coast of Vietnam in Quang Ngai Province. On March 16, less than two months after the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese launched their famous 1968 Tet Offensive, Bravo and Charlie Companies of the 11th Infantry Brigade of the 23rd Infantry Division entered the hamlet of My Lai and killed at least 347 Vietnamese, mostly women and children. The official Vietnamese death toll is 504.
One American platoon forced over seventy civilians into a drainage ditch and shot them at close range. Another platoon advanced through the village shooting anything that moved, including surrendering families. A third platoon killed over ninety civilians in nearby My Khe hamlet.
Women were raped, men were beaten, livestock was killed and thrown into wells to poison the water. Even infants were included in the point blank executions.
Though the numbers were fudged in their official report, Charlie Company, under Captain Ernest Medina, captured three personal weapons (American), and suffered one casualty (self-inflicted in the foot) during the attack.
The incident was then covered up by several levels of the Division Command, apparently not through direct knowledge, but by failing to make direct inquiries.
In 1969, after being released from the service, Richard Ridenhour wrote letters to the Secretary of Defense and other officials describing what had happened. The Army investigated and the first public account of the incident was published in the New York Times in November of 1969. In December, Life magazine featured full color photos of the slaughter taken by an Army photographer.
Of the seventeen officers and NCOs subsequently court marshaled, eleven were dismissed for lack of evidence, five were acquitted. Only Lieutenant William Calley was found guilty of the premeditated murder of at least thirty-three Vietnamese non-combatants (after being charged with personally killing 109). He was dishonorably discharged and sentenced to life in Leavenworth. The sentence was reduced to twenty years by President Nixon.
Calley served three years under house arrest, and was then pardoned by Nixon.
In February 1971 Vietnam Veterans Against the War conducted the Winter Soldier Investigation: testimony by veterans who participated in war crimes, showing that the use of terror and mass destruction tactics against civilians was pervasive, and resulted directly from U.S. war policy.
Calley's trial ended in April 1971. Less than a month later VVAW protested, on the steps outside Congress, by discarding their wartime decorations and denouncing their participation in the war.
Opinions about the causes, effects and lessons learned from the My Lai massacre vary widely. It seems that only now, after thirty years, has the initial shock faded and knee-jerk attitudes softened enough to allow the incident at My Lai to be put into perspective. The Vietnamese, while remembering the negatives of the past, tend to focus more on the positive aspects of the future
The Soldier's Medal, America's highest non-combat military award, was recently given to ex-Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson who flew his light helicopter into the middle of the horror. Placing the chopper between the GIs and the civilians, he ordered his crew to shoot American troops if necessary, and flew numerous young children to a nearby hospital. He had earlier received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions that day.
Thompson refused to accept the Soldier's Medal unless it was presented in public, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, and successfully demanded that his crew be awarded the same medal.
In Vietnam, March 16, 1998 brought the dedication of a Vietnam-American Peace Park. Built by veterans who at one time fought each other, the 4.5 acre park is the latest effort to improve the economy of the My Lai area led by American veteran Mike Boehm and assisted by the Quakers. Included in the recovery and reconciliation efforts are a revolving loan fund, improvements to the local hospital, and raising funds to build a new school.
These efforts are ongoing. Please specify "My Lai Projects" on your check.
- Make checks payable to:
- Madison Friends Meeting
- 1704 Roberts Ct.
- Madison, WI 53711-2029
For more information, contact:
- Mike Boehm
- phone: (608)244-9505
- fax: (608)251-5457
- email: firstname.lastname@example.org
John Zutz is a member of the Milwaukee chapter and former VVAW Regional Coordinator.