The My Lai Massacre was the mass murder conducted by a unit of the U.S. Army on March 16, 1968 of 347–504 unarmed citizens in South Vietnam, all of whom were civilians and a majority of whom were women, children (including babies) and elderly people.
“Soldiers went berserk, gunning down unarmed men, women, children and babies. Families which huddled together for safety in huts or bunkers were shown no mercy. Those who emerged with hands held high were murdered. ... Elsewhere in the village, other atrocities were in progress. Women were gang raped; Vietnamese who had bowed to greet the Americans were beaten with fists and tortured, clubbed with rifle butts and stabbed with bayonets. Some victims were mutilated with the signature "C Company" carved into the chest. By late morning word had got back to higher authorities and a cease-fire was ordered. My Lai was in a state of carnage. Bodies were strewn through the village.”
“The first time the Americans came the children followed them and they gave the children sweets to eat then they smiled and left. The second time we poured them water to drink , the third time they killed everyone, killed everybody and destroyed everything, nothing was left.”
Anonymous Vietnamese woman witness on BBC News
By 1968 the Vietnam War was well underway, and it was not going very well. People were beginning to question the war, and soldiers’ morale was dropping decidedly. Despite their unease, they were still soldiers taught to follow orders without question. Their purpose in Vietnam was to find the enemy and eliminate them. The higher the body count, the more successful a mission looked. For this reason, soldiers were encouraged to exaggerate their body counts. Also, non-combatant citizens were hard to distinguish from the guerilla warriors, and often were killed alongside them. This increased the anti-American sentiment in the area, and helped contribute to higher tensions between the natives and the American troops.
In December of 1967, Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, American Division arrived in Vietnam. After the Tet Offensive, the U.S. Army was sure the enemy had retreated to a village called “Son My,” which we know now as My Lai. They were instructed to go to the village and kill any insurgents or enemy sympathizers. It was difficult to tell between non-combatant civilians and insurgents, let alone civilians who sympathized with the enemy. Soldiers were told that anyone in the village after 7am could be assumed to be either Viet Cong members or active VC sympathizers - all of which were to be considered the enemy. The rationale was that other civilians would have gone to the public market by that time. Soldiers were instructed to destroy the village. It is debated whether they were instructed to kill women and children as well.
On March 16, 1968, soldiers went into My Lai and found no insurgents. They continued to follow orders, however, and proceeded to kill everyone they came across. Women, children and the elderly made up a lot of the dead. Some were tortured or raped. One platoon, led by Lt. Calley, killed hundreds of people, with Calley himself opening fire on a bunch of the villagers he forced to gather in a ditch. Depending on which source you read, anywhere from between 347 and 504 people.
A U.S. Army helicopter crew flew in a stopped the massacre. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., only 24 at the time, landed between the soldiers and the remaining villagers and told the American soldiers that he would open fire on them if they continued with the attacks. He then proceeded in overseeing an evacuation of the village. It was not until thirty years later that Thompson was recognized for his bravery when he received the Soldier’s Medal honoring bravery outside of contact with the enemy.
The incident was kept hushed from Americans until over a year later when some Vietnam veterans wrote letters to representatives that sparked investigative journalists to look into what happened at My Lai, such as the letter written by Ron Ridenhour in the participant accounts section. There were pictures, such as the photo of the soldier setting fire to the village or the photo of the people lying dead in the road, that provided undeniable proof of what went on there. Photos, like the photo of the scared group of Vietnamese women, showed what appeared to be innocent people, who ultimately were considered "the enemy" and thus were killed.
There are stories, such as the peronal account in the participant account section by Ha Thi Qui, that back up these pictures. The American public was shocked and horrified. Political cartoons, like this one in the editorial cartoons section of this site, mocked the American public's apparent loss of conscience during the My Lai incident.
Publications like the National Lampoon also satirized the My Lai incident and the court martial hearings following inquiries over what really happened there.
Though it happened more than 30 years ago, the My Lai massacre is still satirized today, which is seen in the Faux News screen shot in the editorial cartoons section.
In 1970, Lt. Calley was court marshaled and in 1971 convicted of premeditated murder for which he was sentenced a life term in jail. President Nixon, however, ordered him released from prison days later. Lt. Calley ended up only serving three and a half years house arrest for the crimes he was found to commit. Everyone else that was originally court marshaled got off untouched.