“William Calley, the former Army lieutenant convicted on 22 counts of murder in the infamous My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, publicly apologized for the first time this week while speaking in Columbus.”
The My Lai Massacre (Vietnamese: thảm sát Mỹ Lai; English pronunciation: /ˌmaɪˈleɪ, ˌmaɪˈlaɪ/ Vietnamese: [mǐˀlaːj]) was the mass murder conducted by a unit of the U.S. Army on March 16, 1968 of 347 to 504 unarmed citizens in South Vietnam, all of whom were civilians and a majority of whom were women, children, and elderly people.
Many of the victims were sexually abused, beaten, tortured, and some of the bodies were found mutilated. The massacre took place in the hamlets of Mỹ Lai and My Khe of Sơn Mỹ village during the Vietnam War. While 26 US soldiers were initially charged with criminal offenses for their actions at My Lai, only William Calley was convicted. He served only three years of an original life sentence, while on house arrest.
When the incident became public knowledge in 1969, it prompted widespread outrage around the world. The massacre also reduced U.S. support at home for the Vietnam War. Three U.S. servicemen who made an effort to halt the massacre and protect the wounded were denounced by U.S. Congressmen, received hate mail, death threats and mutilated animals on their doorsteps. Only 30 years after the event were their efforts honored.
The massacre is also known as the Sơn Mỹ Massacre (Vietnamese: thảm sát Sơn Mỹ) or sometimes as the Song My Massacre. The U.S. military codeword for the hamlet was Pinkville.
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” Calley told members of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus on Wednesday. His voice started to break when he added, “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”
“In March 1968, U.S. soldiers gunned down hundreds of civilians in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. The Army at first denied, then downplayed the event, saying most of the dead were Vietcong. But in November 1969, journalist Seymour Hersh revealed what really happened and Calley was court martialed and convicted of murder. “
“Calley had long refused to grant interviews about what happened, but on Wednesday he spoke at a Columbus Kiwanis meeting. He made only a brief statement, but agreed to take questions from the audience.
He did not deny what had happened that day, but did repeatedly make the point — which he has made before — that he was following orders. “
“Calley explained he had been ordered to take out My Lai, adding that he had intelligence that the village was fortified and would be “hot” when he went in. He also said the area was submitted to an artillery barrage and helicopter fire before his troops went in. It turned out that it was not hot and there was no armed resistance. But he had been told, he said, that if he left anyone behind, his troops could be trapped and caught in a crossfire.
Asked about American casualties, Calley said there were two injuries, but neither was the result of enemy fire, adding, “They didn’t have time.”
One person asked about the story of a helicopter coming into My Lai during the massacre and its pilot threatening to open fire if the killing of civilians didn’t stop.
Calley said the pilot asked if he could take children out of the area and he relayed that request to his captain, who said the pilot could.
As far as any threats to fire on American soldiers by the pilot, or any threats of firing on the chopper, he said he does not recall hearing about that. He did say the helicopter was making a lot of noise during his conversation with the pilot.
Asked if the story about the threat to fire on troops killing civilians came from the pilot, Calley replied, “It certainly didn’t come from me.”
When asked if obeying an unlawful order was not itself an unlawful act, he said, “I believe that is true. If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a second lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them — foolishly, I guess.” Calley then said that was not an excuse; it was just what happened.
“The officer Calley said gave those orders was Capt. Ernest Medina, who was also tried for what happened at My Lai. Represented by the renowned Defense Attorney F. Lee Bailey, Medina was acquitted of all charges in 1971.
That same year, Calley didn’t fare as well.
After four months of testimony in a Fort Benning courtroom and almost two weeks of jury deliberation, he was convicted of premeditated murder. After the verdict was read, but before sentencing, Calley was allowed to address the court.
“I’m not going to stand here and plead for my life or my freedom,” Calley said. “If I have committed a crime, the only crime I have committed is in judgment of my values. Apparently I valued my troops’ lives more than I did those of the enemy …”
Calley was sentenced to life in prison, which was later shortened considerably.
Many at the time considered Calley a scapegoat, forced to take the fall for those above him. That sentiment had been very strong when the late federal Judge J. Robert Elliot released Calley from custody after a habeas corpus hearing. An appeals court reversed Elliot’s ruling and Calley was returned to Army custody, but the Army soon paroled him.
Calley then settled in Columbus, married a young woman named Penny Vick and worked in her father’s jewelry store here for years. He now lives in Atlanta with his 28-year-old son, Laws, who is doing doctoral work in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech.
Calley has been free now for years, but he remains stripped of some of his civil rights.
“No, I still cannot vote,” he said. “In fact, I’m not even supposed to go into the post office, I guess.”
“Powell has never been implicated in any of the wrongdoing involving My Lai. No evidence ties him to the attempted cover-up. But he was part of an institution (and a division) that tried hard to keep the story of My Lai hidden–a point unacknowledged in his autobiography. Moreover, several months before he was interviewed by Sheehan, Powell was ordered to look into allegations made by another former GI that US troops had “without provocation or justification” killed civilians. (These charges did not mention My Lai specifically.) Powell mounted a most cursory examination. He did not ask the accuser for more specific information. He interviewed a few officers and reported to his superiors that there was nothing to the allegations [see “Questions for Powell,” The Nation, January 8/15, 2001]. This exercise is not mentioned in his memoirs.
Powell notes that “My Lai was an appalling example of much that had gone wrong in Vietnam…. The involvement of so many unprepared officers and non-coms led to breakdowns in morale, discipline, and professional judgment–and to horrors like My Lai–as the troops became numb to what appeared to be endless and mindless slaughter.” Yet he is silent on how the military brass (including himself) responded to the horrors. Too often, in-the-field warriors who witnessed or engaged in tragedies or atrocities involving civilians–men like Bob Kerrey and his fellow SEALs–kept their secrets. Too often, their superiors–men like Powell–were not interested in unearthing these awful truths (which usually were the results of their orders and demands), and certainly they had no desire to share that side of the war with the public. The willful denial of the war’s managers is as much a part of the dark memory of Vietnam as the lethal misdeeds and mistakes of the soldiers.”