My Lai as the Biggest Terror in Vietnam War

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The poem, My Lai Was Once A Small Village, was written in 1968 by Curtis D Bennett, a former marine and pilot in the Vietnam War, depicting how savage the men were in My Lai. The mass annihilation is a bloody blemish on America’s history. Second Lieutenant William Calley Jr. led the 1st Platoon of Charlie Company 1st Battalion 20th Infantry Regiment 11th Infantry Brigade 23rd Infantry Division to the hamlet of Son My in the Quang Ngai province of Vietnam where they had received intel from the US military that the Vietcong, a guerrilla communist group, had disguised in after their several devastating attack on the American presence in South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive assault. The First Platoon lost nearly 30 men leaving them with only close to a hundred at the time. The US wanted to counterattack and saw Son My as the perfect opportunity. The frustration of the soldiers earlier losses in the Tet Offensive was put on to the villagers of Son My labelled on American Army topographical maps as My Lai. The My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War in 1968 was because of poor intel from the company’s superiors and the inadequate, hastily trained soldiers’ with a hostile attitude towards all Vietnamese who concealed the event which caused Americans to want to pull out of the war. The quick war provided soldiers of low skill and military intelligence causing for faulty decisions which also comes from fighting for a long time and their festering hatred. Deception from the US Army led to Americans questioning tactics used overseas.

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“My Lai as the Biggest Terror in Vietnam War”

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The Vietnam War lasted from November 1, 1955 to April 30, 1975. The conflict was over the communist government in North Vietnam attempting to takeover South Vietnam. Many anti-communists countries intervened including the United States to help. The US had been supporting anti-communism in Vietnam since President John F. Kennedy. US did not formally intervene in the war until mid 1964 after Lyndon B. Johnson was installed as president directly after Kennedy. The United States financed “80 percent of the cost of the war” according to Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in efforts to finance the French to stop Chinese communism from spreading from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. The US was afraid that it would then spread to all of Southeast Asia. The Department of Defence stated that the “United States spent about $168 billion … in the entire war” (Rohn). Americans did not want to go to war. They did not want to intervene in Vietnam’s self-determination. The media did not help pro-war spirit either. The news depicted the war as a bloody endless cause instead of glorification as shown in previous wars. The Vietnam War is also referred to as “the television war” since by 1965 a majority of homes contained televisions for the first time. Americans were now able to see the scale and violence of war. They could not longer be fooled by what the government told them. They now had the ability to form their own opinions. Often times they were against government interest. Yet still Americans were forced into the war by draft. The need for soldiers in Vietnam caused the training to be speedy and oftentimes the soldiers ill-prepared for the battlefield. The schooling the draftees received was geared towards what the previous wars required not counterinsurgency which is what fighting against the highly skilled VietCong required. One of the trainees was William Laws Calley Jr. He originally attempted to join the war in 1944 then was rejected due to a hearing deficiency. In 1966 when the standards changed to get more draftees, Calley Jr was drafted. In six months of Officer Candidacy School he was promoted the Lieutenant of the First Platoon of the Charlie Company. His actions in My Lai will eventually cause him to be one of the most controversial figures in the Vietnam War.

The First Platoon was confident when first entering Vietnam in 1967. They had been awarded top ranks in training and felt ready for war.

Statistically, Charlie Company was slightly above average among the infantry companies serving in Southeast Asia during the war. Eighty-seven percent of the remaining noncommissioned officers had graduated from high school, a rate 20 percent higher than the average for line infantry companies. Seventy percent of the men in lower enlisted ranks had graduated from high school, also slightly above the average for soldiers serving in Vietnam. (Levesque)

In January 1968 the platoon joined the Task Force Barker. Led by Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker, the soldiers were meant to oppress a region called the Quang Ngai. The boys first realization of the reality of war was when they witnessed their radio telephone operator Ron Webber shot ripping out his liver, while trudging on top the top of a dike between rice paddies in order to avoid getting wet. He was the first death in the platoon. Later on March 14 when the popular Sargent George Cox died from a trap on a minefield the Platoon began to become savages. In Greg Olsen’s letter back to America he describes the death of Cox and the effects on the men:

Dear Dad: How’s everything with you?…One of our platoons went on a routine patrol today and came across a 155-millimeter round that was booby trapped. It killed one man, blew the legs off two others, and injured two more….On their way back to [base], they saw a woman working in the fields. They shot and wounded her. Then they kicked her to death and emptied their magazines into her head. They slugged every little kid they came across. (Lindsey)

Lieutenant Calley’s First Platoon had lost over half of its men. The death of Cox marked the 25th casualty of out of the original 45 men. The leader of the entire Charlie Company, Captain Ernest L. Medina held a memorial service for Cox on the 15th, that same night he briefed the grieving soldiers on their next mission: seek out all Vietcong hiding in the province of My Lai and kill all found. Gathered intelligence from Barker had told Medina that all the women and children would be at the market in the morning, therefore there would be no civilians present in the village. It was the company’s opportunity to avenge those who died. The bitterness instilled from previous events affected the soldiers personally and interfered with their original mission. Little did they know that there were no Vietcong present in My Lai.

At 7:30 am of the March 16, 1968 the Charlie Company flew in a helicopter to My Lai. They began shooting away from the huts in the rice paddies some soldier mistaked their own machine guns and helicopter ammunition of Vietcong and moved closer towards the homes of villagers. The first kill was a farmer in the fields putting his hands up to signify his innocence. Calley’s platoon was one of the first to arrive. The company found people hiding in their huts afraid of the military men. They put civilians in a pit by the masses and shot them to death or used M79 grenade launchers to kill them. Eyewitness account from of a survivor of the My Lai Massacre. Pham Thi Thuam, describes his experience “In the ditch I pushed my daughter down under my stomach and told her not to cry….I pretended to be dead and dared not move. The Americans were waiting to see if anyone moved, and then they shot them. I put a hand over my child’s mouth to prevent her from crying. She was covered in blood” (Lindsey). Not only were people killed but the company had also murdered the livestock and burned the village down. They also gang raped and sexually tortured women ranging from the ages of 10-45 before maliciously killing them.

The same night before Captain Earl Michles was also giving orders to assist the Charlie Company to his 123rd Aviation Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Division company named Bravo. Among pilots was Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson and his two door gunners named Specialist Glenn Andreotta and Specialist Lawrence Colburn. Flying in an OH-23 Raven from the landing base named Dottie to My Lai he sees what he assumed to be ‘Vietcong’ running south in black pajamas. His team fires at them and returns back to Dottie to refuel. On his way he noticed wounded Vietnamese in a ditch and radioed Lieutenant Colonel Barker for their medical assistance. When flying back to My Lai, Thompson saw that the people in the ditch he called in were now dead, killed by the Charlie Company. He did not understand why they were unnecessarily killing civilians. He landed his helicopter in northeast My Lai in between a standoff with the 2nd Platoon and a small homemade bomb bunker containing about 13 people containing elderly, children, and women. He wanted to save the innocent. Thompson, not wanting to witness another disaster “[he] turned to Colburn and Andreotta and told them that if the Americans began shooting at the villagers or him, they should fire their M60 machine guns at the Americans: ‘Y’all cover me! If these bastards open up on me or these people, you open up on them. Promise me!’” (The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story). He safely evacuated the Vietnamese villagers and called upon two UH-1 Huey gunships to help him get them to medical assistance.

Approximately at 11 am, after getting the injured to the AVRN hospital for 4 miles away from My Lai, he returned to Dottie to report to the company commander Major Fred Watke about the mass murders which eventually got passed to Barker who told Medina of the Charlie Company to stop the attacks. Warke reported that only 25 civilians died and Medina reported 90 enemies eliminated that day. Warke did not think Thompson’s claims were valid due to believing he was too inexperienced to tell how they died. The until 18th the fighting continued. Colonel Oral Henderson of the 11th Brigade conducted incomprehensive investigation on the supposed actualities on the 16th. He interrogated Captain Medina who told his men to conceal the truth. In the official report by Barker it indicated that: “’This operation was well planned, well executed, and successful. Friendly casualties were light and the enemy suffered heavily. The infantry unit on the ground and helicopters were able to assist civilians in leaving the area in caring for and/or evacuating the wounded’” (Charlie Company and the Massacre). In following years it was revealed that close to 500 villagers were killed. Some of the victims included seventeen unarmed pregnant mothers and one hundred and eighty two children since all the able bodies were enlisted in war. The US had no casualties. Only three old M1 Garand rifles were obtained from the people of My Lai otherwise defenseless against the violence. (Levesque) Captain Medina helped cover up the My Lai Massacre by saying that the Vietcong was in My Lai in the beginning then ran away only leaving the vulnerable to General Koster, the division commander. Lieutenant Colonel Barker too kept quiet over My Lai. He saw the My Lai mission as a step towards becoming a full Colonel.

Ron Ridenhour had trained with the men of the Charlie Company then was assigned to the 51st Infantry. In the April of 1968 he ran into Private “Butch” Grover with the 11th Brigade, the brigade that engaged in the My Lai Massacre. Grover asked Ridenhower if he had heard of Pinkville. Pinkville was the unofficial name of the murders at the time. Grover proceeded to tell Ridenhower how nearly 500 villagers died innocently at the hands of brutes and Ridenhower was appalled. He was astonished. He asked fellow soldiers that were reassigned from the 11th Brigade, despite Medina’s orders, supported Grover’s claims. He continued to gain evidence from the former 11th Brigade until he thought he had enough to expose the event. Ridenhower even flew over My Lai, not surprised to see the complete destruction of the village and even a women with a 11th Brigade patch on her body. In November 1968 he was discharged back to his American life in Arizona. Around the 1 year anniversary of the My Lai Massacre he wrote over letters to Congress detailing his finding in order to uncover what really happened the year before.

I have considered sending this to newspapers, magazines and broadcasting companies, but I somehow feel that investigation and action by the Congress of the United States is the appropriate procedure, and as a conscientious citizen I have no desire to further besmirch the image of the American serviceman in the eyes of the world. I feel that this action, while probably it would promote attention, would not bring about the constructive actions that the direct actions of the of the United States would (Ridenhower)

He also sent his letter to President Richard Nixon, the Pentagon, and Joint Chiefs of Staff except for anti-war Congressmen Mo Udall who want an official investigation by the Pentagon. Ridenhower eventually gave an interview to an investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh. He had tried to sell his story to Life and Look. They both rejected it. He was able to get his article to Dispatch News Service which from there they sent his story to fifty major publishing companies. Thirty companies accepted it. Hersh’s exposé released in November 1968 shocked the American public that had once revered the murders in My Lai but the backlash was international. Calley became a symbol of American slaughter. (Epps) The My Lai Massacre was one of the main reasons against US involvement in the Vietnam War. Protests against joining the war had already been occuring, when the public heard about the My Lai it only confirmed and riled up spirits against the war effort. It allowed for people to question the tactics of the United States intervention and if their imperial like takeovers were the right thing.

Lieutenant General William Peers led the investigation ordered by the US Army and tried many soldiers although only Second Lieutenant Calley was sentenced in March 1971. He had twenty-two accounts of premeditated murder against him. The penalty was to be death. Calley was depicted by the testaments of the soldiers as the most malicious. Grenadier for Calley, Dennis Conti, said “I saw women, children, and a couple of old men, just regular civilians. I saw a woman get up, and Calley shot her in the head” (Lindsey). His justification of the killings was that he was only following the orders of Captain medina which Medina denied giving. Peter Ross Range, TIME magazine correspondent got to personally know Calley while covering his trial. Range described Calley as “He was not the kind of guy who should be commanding other men in warfare, in my view. But he was probably not the only one out there like that, either… Calley just didn’t have the training or the backbone to question the orders he thought he had been given” (Range). His original sentence was for the death penalty. With Calley’s life in risk, some Americans returned the sentence with the Free Calley campaign. The public knew similar actions took place often but it happens that Calley was caught. Americans recognized that and did not want use him as a sacrifice to take the blame for military actions. Protesters united in attempts to bring awareness for Calley is many eye-catching ways.

Some of Calley’s supporters went to great lengths. Two musicians from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, released a recording called “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley,” which included the line, “There’s no other way to wage a war.” It sold more than a million copies. Digger O’Dell, a professional showman based in Columbus, Georgia, buried himself alive for 79 days in a used-car lot. Passersby could drop a coin into a tube that led down to O’Dell’s “grave,” with the proceeds going toward a fund for Calley. He later welded shut the doors of his car, refusing to come out until Calley was set free (Raviv).

Other soldiers even acknowledged how often crimes like Calley’s were committed cand asked to be locked up alongside him. “Immediately after Calley was convicted, several veterans of World War II and Korea turned themselves in to local jails, insisting that they should be locked up. They claimed to have committed war crimes that made them at least as guilty as Lt. Calley” (Nepalm). The public no longer wanted to be associated with America’s war efforts. They wanted to let Vietnam have self-determination. The protest even reached President Richard Nixon’s office. He received nearly 350,000 letters concerning the trial outcome. (Angers) Three days after the trial, President Nixon apardoned Calley reducing his sentence to house arrest in Fort Benning. The house arrest sentence was twenty years, then ten year but he ultimately only served three and a half years. In 1974, Calley was put on parole. Thompson and his two doormen, Androtta and Colburn received the Army’s highest award for bravery: Soldier’s Medal thirty years after the massacre.

The My Lai Massacre occurred from frustrated soldiers who were not trained well enough to create their own decisions causing for the murder of innocent villagers. Once exposed to the public Americans began to wonder if tactics used in war were just. Through the My Lai Massacre the public shifted their view on war from being overly glorified to wanting to pull from intervention of the Vietnam War and allow them to have self determination.  

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My Lai As The Biggest Terror in Vietnam War. (2021, May 30). Retrieved March 28, 2023 , from

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