What Was the My Lai Massacre?

One of the Worst American-Committed Atrocities of the Vietnam War

On March 16, 1968, United States Army troops murdered several hundred Vietnamese civilians at the villages of My Lai and My Khe during the Vietnam War. The victims were mostly elderly men, women and children and all non-combatants. Many were also sexually assaulted, tortured or mutilated in one of the most horrifying atrocities of the entire bloody conflict.

The official death toll, according to the US government, was 347, though the Vietnamese government asserts that 504 villagers were massacred. In either case, it took months for U.S. officials to catch wind of the actual events of that day, later filing court-martials against 14 officers present during the massacre yet only convicting the second lieutenant to four months in military prison.

What Went Wrong at My Lai?

The My Lai Massacre took place early in the Tet Offensive, a major push by the Communist Viet Cong — National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam — forces to drive out the South Vietnamese government troops and the U.S. Army.

In response, the U.S. Army initiated a program of attacking villages that were suspected of harboring or sympathizing with the Viet Cong. Their mandate was to burn houses, kill off livestock and spoil crops and pollute wells in order to deny food, water and shelter to the V.C. and their sympathizers.

The 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd Infantry Division, Charlie Company, had suffered almost 30 attacks via booby-trap or land mine, resulting in numerous injuries and five deaths.

When Charlie Company received its orders to clear out possible V.C. sympathizers in My Lai, Colonel Oran Henderson authorized his officers to “go in there aggressively, close with the enemy and wipe them out for good.”

Whether the soldiers were ordered to kill women and children is a subject of dispute; certainly, they were authorized to kill “suspects” as well as combatants but by this point in the war Charlie Company evidently suspected all Vietnamese of collaborating — even 1-year-old babies.

The Massacre at My Lai

When the American troops entered My Lai, they did not find any Viet Cong soldiers or weapons. Nonetheless, the platoon led by Second Lieutenant William Calley began to fire at what they claimed was an enemy position. Soon, Charlie Company was shooting indiscriminately at any person or animal that moved.

Villagers who tried to surrender were shot or bayoneted. A large group of people were herded to an irrigation ditch and mowed down with automatic weapons fire. Women were gang-raped, babies shot at point-blank range and some of the corpses had “C Company” carved into them with bayonets.

Reportedly, when one soldier refused to kill the innocents, Lt. Calley took his weapon away and used it to massacre a group of 70 to 80 villagers. After the initial slaughter, the 3rd Platoon went out to conduct a mop-up operation, which meant killing any of the victims who were still moving amongst the piles of dead. The villages were then burned to the ground.

The Aftermath of My Lai:

Initial reports of the so-called battle at My Lai claimed that 128 Viet Cong and 22 civilians were killed — General Westmoreland even congratulated Charlie Company for their work and the Stars and Stripes magazine lauded the attack.

Several months later, though, soldiers who had been present at My Lai but refused to take part in the massacre began to blow the whistle on the true nature and scale of the atrocity. Privates Tom Glen and Ron Ridenhour sent letters to their commanding officers, the State Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and President Nixon exposing Charlie Company’s deeds.

In November of 1969, the news media got wind of the My Lai story. Journalist Seymour Hersh conducted extensive interviews with Lt. Calley, and the American public responded with revulsion to the details as they slowly filtered out. In November of 1970, the US Army began court-martial proceedings against 14 officers charged with participating in or covering up the My Lai Massacre. In the end, only Lt. William Calley was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for premeditated murder. Calley would serve only four and a half months in military prison, however.

The My Lai Massacre is a chilling reminder of what can happen when soldiers cease to regard their opponents as human. It is one of the worst known atrocities of the war in Vietnam.