My Lai Massacre was an incident, that occurred during the Vietnam War on 16 March 1968, when a group of US soldiers killed 347 ordinary people, including women and children, in the Vietnamese village of My Lai. Later in 1971, the officer who ordered the attack, Lieutenant William Calley, was sent to prison for life, but this was later reduced to 10 years and he was in fact released in 1974 in just three years. Many Americans were shocked by the incident, and as a result protests against the war increased.
To put it in perspective it was a mass murder of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians by the U.S. troops in Son Tinh district in South Vietnam. In this horrific crime somewhere around 500 unarmed people were killed by the U.S. Army soldiers.
Victims included men, women, children and even infants. Some of the women were even gang-raped and their bodies were mutilated and that included children as young as twelve. Twenty-six soldiers were charged with criminal offences.
This war crime was later called ‘the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War. It took place in two hamlets of Son My village in Quang Ngai province. These hamlets were marked on the U.S. Army topographic maps as My Lai and My Khe.
The U.S. Army slang names, for the hamlets and sub-hamlets in that area were 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, this horrific 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 incident 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 had rescued the hiding civilians were shunned, and even denounced as traitors by several U.S. Congressmen. And it was only after 30 years that they were recognized and decorated, one posthumously, by the U.S. Army for shielding non-combatants from harm in a war zone. My Lai was one of the largest publicized massacres of civilians by U.S. forces in the 20th century.
On the morning of 16 March at 7:30 a.m., around 100 soldiers from Charlie Company led by Medina, following a short artillery and helicopter gunship barrage, landed in helicopters at Son My, 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 of My Lai, Co Luy, My Khe, and Tu Cung.
Although no ammunitions were fired on American soldiers after landing, the American troops, still suspected there were VC guerrillas (i.e. Viet Cong guerrillas, officially known as the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam) hiding underground or in the huts.
According to the operational plan, 1st Platoon, led by Second Lieutenant William Calley, and 2nd Platoon, led by 2LT Stephen Brooks, entered the hamlet of Tu Cung in a 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 bushes.
The villagers, who were getting ready for a market day, at first did not panic or run away, as they were herded into the hamlet’s commons. Harry Stanley, a machine gunner from Charlie Company, said during the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division inquiry that the killings started without warning. He first observed a member of 1st Platoon strike a Vietnamese man with a bayonet. Then the same trooper pushed another villager into a well and threw a grenade in it. Next, he saw some fifteen or twenty people, mainly women and children, kneeling around a temple with smouldering incense. They were actually praying and crying. Sadly, they were all killed by shots to their 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 Quang Ngai province as My Lai.
A large group of approximately 70–80 villagers were rounded up by 1st Platoon in Xom Lang and led to an irrigation ditch east of the settlement. They were then pushed into the ditch and shot dead by soldiers after repeated orders issued by Calley, who was also shooting himself. PFC (Private First Class a junior military rank) Paul Meadlo testified that he expended several M16 rifle magazines. He recollected that women were allegedly saying “No VC” (That they are not from Viet Cong) 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 in My Lai, Meadlo again fired at civilians side-by-side with Lieutenant Calley.
PFC Dennis Konti, a witness for the prosecution, especially spoke about, one 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 also”. 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. Over the next few days American army was involved in burning and destruction of dwellings, as well as mistreatment of Vietnamese detainees.
Warrant Officer 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 Son My, providing close-air support for ground forces.
Thompson and his crew witnessed an unarmed woman being kicked and shot at point-blank range by a soldier 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 villagers while he was trying to get them out of the bunker, then they were to open fire on their comrades.
Thompson later testified that he spoke with a lieutenant (identified as Stephen Brooks of 2nd Platoon) and told him there were women and children in the bunker, and asked if the lieutenant would help get them out. Thompson found 12–16 people in the bunker, he coaxed them out and led them to the helicopter, standing with them while they were flown out in two groups.
Further in My Lai, Thompson and other air crew members noticed several large groups of bodies. They spotted some survivors in the ditch. Thompson landed again. A crew member, Specialist 4 Glenn Andreotta, entered the ditch and returned with a bloodied but apparently unharmed four-year old girl, who was then flown to safety. Thompson then reported what he had seen to his company commander, Major Frederic W. Watke, using terms such as “murder” and “needless and unnecessary killings.” Thompson’s statements were confirmed by other helicopter pilots too and air crew members.
For his actions at Me My Lai, Thompson was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
It gives shivers when you think of such horrific crimes.
By Kamlesh Tripathi
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