Here is the second episode for May 2020, and this one is a hair-raiser for sure! Today we cover one of the Vietnam War’s most notorious events, the My Lai Massacre.
This episode is dedicated to Jeremy D., for making a generous donation to the podcast. The past couple months, in fact the whole time since the Corona virus lockdowns began, has been a dry spell for podcast donations, so thank you especially for contributing at this time. I have also appreciated your comments on the podcast’s Facebook page. Naturally I added your first name to the podcast’s Hall of Fame page as well. To everyone else listening to this, if you want to support the podcast too, stay tuned for instructions on how to do that at the end of the show. Now I know you’re all here to listen to this episode’s content, so let’s roll out the opening music!
Episode 90: The Second Indochina War, Part 17
or, The My Lai Massacre
Greetings, dear listeners! This episode was recorded during the Corona virus panic of 2020. It looks like the worst of the virus and the lockdown are behind us now, so I hope you are safe, healthy and happy as you listen to this. And I am glad you have chosen to devote some time to listening. If the virus has forced you to work at home, your commute has been cut down from an hour or so to 15 seconds, but rest assured, podcasters have not stopped talking into microphones. After all, the virus can’t travel from a microphone, to the recorded MP3 file, to your listening device, to you, so you’re as safe as always when listening to your favorite podcasts. In my case, I did not have a day job in the days right before the Corona virus trouble started, and I still don’t have one now, so I can make the case that my life hasn’t changed as much as yours, in recent months.
For today, we will begin with an announcement. The podcast is now available on Spotify! Last week, I finally got around to signing up for a Spotify account. Previously, I wasn’t inclined to do so because I already had enough to listen to from other music-playing websites, like Pandora and Soundcloud. Still, it came to my attention that while Spotify carried podcasts, this show wasn’t one of them. Therefore I submitted the podcast’s RSS feed, and now when you go to Spotify and type "History of Southeast Asia Podcast" into their search box, this show comes up. Happy listening!
Normally I like to record cheerful podcasts. You probably know that because I try to drop at least one music clip and a joke or two into each recording. However, it is hard to stay cheerful when your topic is the Vietnam War; that may be one of the reasons why there wasn’t much recorded in the podcast universe about the war, before I tried it. The other reason is that the war is still a controversial, emotion-gripping subject, forty-five years after it ended. And today’s topic is so grim, I decided to make it a separate episode, rather than talk about it as a footnote in the main narrative.
Atrocities committed are a regular feature of war stories; for that matter, war itself is an atrocity. Here in the United States, when you hear about war atrocities, they are usually committed by the enemy; you can’t tell the story of World War II, for instance, without talking about the atrocities committed by the Germans and the Japanese. Atrocities committed by our side, like the bombing of Dresden in February 1945, are rarely mentioned, and usually we didn’t hear about them until long after the war. Well, today we are talking about an incident where American soldiers, without an excuse, went into a South Vietnamese village and shot 300 to 500 of its residents in cold blood. And there was no way the Americans could claim they were lured into doing this by their communist opponents, because, as we will find out, the communists they were looking for weren’t there. When the news media revealed the massacre, we were shocked; in our eyes, the Americans were always supposed to be the good guys. This was not only the most notorious atrocity in the Vietnam War, but also one of the worst wartime atrocities committed by Americans anywhere.
A major reason for the massacre was fear of the unknown. When Americans fought in the Philippines during World War II, most of the Filipino peasants were on their side. I told you about some American soldiers who hid from the Japanese on Mindanao, the big southern island, and they liked their Filipino companions so much, that they chose to stay there, after the war ended and the Philippines became independent. But as we have seen in this podcast, Vietnam wasn’t like that. When Americans entered a village in Vietnam, they never knew which of the local residents were friendly, or if the village was loaded with booby traps. Those peasants who sympathized with the Viet Cong did not wear the characteristic black pajama uniforms, nor did they fly the red-and-blue Viet Cong flag. What usually happened was that in their search for enemies, traps and contraband weapons, the soldiers learned to shoot first and ask questions later. As a result, they treated the peasants so brutally, that if they weren’t previously with the Viet Cong, they would join them after the Americans moved on.
I will let you know up front, I don’t plan to dwell much on the killing and raping. I want to keep this a family-friendly podcast, so if you’re looking for gratuitous violence and sex, you won’t find that here. I will give you just the facts, as Jack Webb used to say on his TV show.
<“Just the facts, M’aam”>
When we are done you will probably agree with me that justice was denied for the victims. I wish I could say there was a happy ending to this story. If there was a hero on the day of the massacre, it was Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot who used his flying machine to prevent further deaths. And speaking of stories, let’s begin. Our previous episode stopped at the end of 1969, so let’s rewind almost two years, to the beginning of the My Lai affair.
Oh, and one more thing. Did you hear in the title that this is Part 17 in our series on the Second Indochina War? If you missed the other episodes and are not familiar with this conflict, the previous episodes are 71 through 89 in this podcast, except for 76, 77, and 85, which covered special topics. Go listen to them and then get onboard for today’s narrative; we’ll wait for you.
It all started during the Tet Offensive in early 1968. If you want to hear the background to the massacre, we covered Tet in Episode 87 of this podcast.
My Lai was one of six hamlets that make up Son My, a village in Quang Ngai Province, on the northern coast of South Vietnam. It was roughly seven miles northeast of Quang Ngai city, and a hundred miles southeast of Da Nang, in an area American soldiers nicknamed “Pinkville” because it was colored pink on military maps, meaning it was a highly populated area. The name Pinkville was also appropriate because this area was a hotbed of Viet Cong activity, and the color pink is a lighter form of red. Bombs and herbicides like Agent Orange had already been dropped here, but as in other battles of the war, the communists came back later, making it necessary to attack them again.
In January 1968, three companies of American troops were assigned to an airborne, search and destroy mission. Their objective was to destroy the 48th Viet Cong Battalion, which was operating very successfully in Quang Ngai Province. US military intelligence assumed the battalion had dispersed and its members were hiding in the six hamlets of Son My. Incidentally, military maps named the hamlets My Lai 1 through 6, though My Lai was actually the name for only one of them. The company sent to the village was Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division of the US Army. It had only recently arrived from the United States, in December 1967, but it had already lost 28 of its members to death or injuries, and thus was down to 105 men.
On March 15, the day before they went into My Lai, Charlie Company’s commander, Captain Ernest Medina, told his men that they would finally be given the opportunity to fight the enemy that had eluded them for over a month. Medina believed that civilians had already left the area for Quang Ngai city, so he directed that anyone found in My Lai should be treated as a Viet Cong fighter or sympathizer. Therefore the soldiers were free to fire at everything and everybody. Moreover, the troops of Charlie Company were ordered to destroy crops and buildings and to kill livestock. Coming from a family of animal lovers, I find the last order especially outrageous, adding insult to injury, so to speak.
First, the village was bombarded by artillery, between 7 and 7:30 AM on March 16. This was supposed to clear a landing area for Charlie Company’s helicopters, but it forced those villagers who were leaving to come back to My Lai in search of cover. Next, Charlie Company’s 1st Platoon, led by Lieutenant William Calley, was inserted just to the west of a hamlet known locally as Xom Lang, but marked as My Lai 4 on maps. However, the Viet Cong weren’t there. In reality, the 48th Viet Cong Battalion was in the western Quang Ngai highlands, more than 40 miles away. Nor were there mines or booby traps in the hamlet. What the soldiers found were women, children and old men; many of them were getting breakfast ready. No military-age males were present.
The soldiers of Charlie Company rounded up the villagers into groups, and searched their huts for weapons. Only a few weapons were found, but Calley ordered his men to shoot the villagers anyway. Most of the villagers, including the children, were machine-gunned at close range. Many of the women were raped before they were killed, and some of the bodies were mutilated. At 9:00 AM Calley ordered the execution of as many as 150 civilians who had been herded into an irrigation ditch. In addition, the soldiers killed the animals they found – cattle, pigs, chickens and ducks – and set the huts on fire.
As the massacre was taking place, a scout helicopter was flying at low altitude overhead. The pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, saw what was happening, marked the locations of wounded civilians with smoke grenades, and radioed for troops on the ground to go those positions and give medical aid. After refueling, Thompson returned to My Lai only to see that the wounded civilians had already been killed. Spotting a squad of American soldiers converging on more than a dozen women and children, Thompson landed his helicopter between the two groups. He then ordered his door gunner, Larry Colburn, and his crew chief, Glenn Andreotta, to fire on the Americans if they continued to attack the civilians. After a tense confrontation with the officer leading the soldiers, Second Lieutenant Stephen Brooks, the Americans broke off their chase. Shortly thereafter, Thompson and his crew called for other helicopters to join them in evacuating the survivors, very likely saving them from serious bodily harm or death. In 1998 Thompson, Colburn, and Andreotta (posthumously) were awarded the Soldier’s Medal for acts of extraordinary bravery not involving contact with the enemy.
By 11:00 AM it was all over. Medina arrived on the scene, ordered Charlie Company to break for lunch, and informed his superiors that the operation had been successful, with scores of Viet Cong killed. The only American casualty was a soldier who shot himself in the foot while trying to clear a jammed weapon.
The massacre at My Lai was only the first act in this story that was uncalled for; the outside world was also outraged by the cover-up that followed. The first mention of the operation in and around My Lai came later on March 16, when an official press briefing, the "Five O’Clock Follies", included this passage. Quote: "In an action today, Americal Division forces killed 128 enemy near Quang Ngai City. Helicopter gunships and artillery missions supported the ground elements throughout the day." End quote. When the official report of the battle of My Lai was released, on March 28, 1968, it stated that 69 Viet Cong soldiers were killed, and said nothing about civilian causalities. In other words, it was seen as another battlefield success.
Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who had saved the day at My Lai, reported when he returned to base that he had witnessed the widespread killing of civilians. Among those he told about the killings, were his aviation unit’s commanding officer, Major Fredric Watke, and the division artillery chaplain, Captain Carl E. Creswell. Watke passed Thompson’s report to Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Barker, Calley’s battalion commander, and Chaplain Creswell relayed what Thompson had told him to his superior chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Lewis. That was as far as the story got; Colonel Barker was killed in a helicopter crash the following June, and neither of the chaplains reported the war crime to higher headquarters, though they were required to do so. The official response to Thompson’s report came on April 24, when Colonel Oran Henderson, commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade, concluded that 20 civilians had been accidentally killed at My Lai, either in the opening artillery barrage or in crossfire between American and Viet Cong forces, and he declared that Thompson’s report was false. After that, Thompson found himself assigned to dangerous missions without sufficient air cover; he was shot down five times, breaking his back in the final crash.
And that was all that was heard for more than a year. Back in August 1967, seven months before the massacre, then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had ordered an investigation of the media’s coverage of alleged atrocities committed in South Vietnam. This produced a 200-page report, entitled "Alleged Atrocities by U.S. Military Forces in South Vietnam," and the report’s conclusion was that many American troops did not fully understand the Geneva Conventions. For the US government, that was the last word on the matter, and nothing else involving human rights in Vietnam was done for the rest of 1967 and 1968. That is why I did not talk about My Lai in either of the podcast episodes covering the war in 1968 – most people did not hear of My Lai until 1969 was nearly over.
It was the persistence of another soldier, Ronald Ridenhour, that revealed what really happened at My Lai. Ridenhour was a member of the 11th Brigade who had not been present at the Quang Ngai operation, and several days later, he and his pilot, Warrant Officer Gilbert Honda, flew over My Lai. They saw a scene of complete destruction, and at one point, they hovered over a dead Vietnamese woman with a patch of the 11th Brigade on her body. Over the next few months Ridenhour talked with members of Charlie Company, and learned from them that something "rather dark and bloody did indeed occur" at My Lai. At the end of 1968 he was discharged from the Army, but after returning to the United States he remained disturbed by what he had heard. Therefore he began a campaign to bring the events to light. In March 1969 he wrote letters to President Richard Nixon, the Pentagon, the State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff and twenty-three congressmen. In the letters he included the name of Michael Bernhardt, an eyewitness who agreed to testify.
Three congressmen responded to Ridenhour’s letters: Representative Morris Udall of Arizona, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, and Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts. Udall urged the House Armed Services Committee to call on Pentagon officials to conduct an investigation. Ridenhour, Medina, Thompson, and Calley were among those interviewed, and the US Army brought murder charges against Lt. William Calley on September 5, 1969. Acting on a tip, Seymour Hersh, an investigative journalist, contacted Calley’s defense team. It was Hersh who broke the story of the massacre on November 12, 1969. His Pulitzer Prize-winning account of “point-blank murder” at My Lai appeared in newspapers, along with photos of the dead victims, shocking the world. From there, the My Lai story quickly became front-page news and an international scandal.
The wheels of justice turn slowly, as the saying goes, and that was the case here. On November 24, 1969, Lt. Gen. W. R. Peers was directed by the Secretary of the Army to review, quote, “possible supression or witholding of information by persons involved in the incident." Unquote. After more than 26,000 pages of testimony from 403 witnesses were gathered, the Peers inquiry recommended that charges should be brought against 28 officers and two non-commissioned officers involved in a cover-up of the massacre.
The conclusion of Peers’ inquiry was that there had been massive command failures all the way up the chain of command. Among the factors cited were poor training in the Law of War and Rules of Engagement, a virulent anti-Vietnamese institutional culture in the 23rd Infantry Division, poor discipline and poor leadership at all levels, excessive fear of the enemy, and poor communications. What it didn’t mention was that the Army’s leadership training and selection process had declined so seriously that a man like Calley, who had never held a permanent job and had flunked out of a junior college, could receive a commission.
The Peers report also found that the brigade commander, Col. Oran Henderson, and the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Frank Barker, had substantial knowledge of the war crime, but did nothing about it. As a result, Army lawyers decided that only 14 officers should be charged with crimes. Meanwhile, a separate investigation by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division concluded that there was evidence to charge 30 soldiers with the crimes of murder, rape, sodomy, and mutilation. Seventeen men had left the Army by this time, and charges against them were dropped. In the end only fourteen men were charged with crimes related to what happened at My Lai.
The US Army brought murder charges against Captain Ernest Medina on March 31, 1970, a little more than two years after the massacre. Charges were also brought against Colonel Oran Henderson, for failing to carry out a thorough investigation of the killings, failing to report possible war crimes to his division commander, Major General Samuel Koster, and lying to a Pentagon inquiry. The military trial of Lt. William Calley, held at Fort Benning, Georgia, began on November 12, 1970, fourteen months after he had first been charged. Subsequent testimony pointed to Lt. Col. Frank Barker as the one who first gave the order to kill the villagers, but since he was already dead, he did not stand trial.
In all the trials that followed, the defendants were successfully able to argue that they simply had been following the orders given to them on March 16, 1968. Most of them were eventually acquitted, including Medina and Henderson. The only exception was Calley, because witnesses had seen him shooting villagers. On March 29, 1971, Calley was found guilty of the murder of 22 My Lai civilians. At first, he was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor; however, the sentence was later reduced to 20 years, then 10 years. Many Americans at the time believed that Calley had been made a scapegoat. For that reason, Calley was paroled on November 19, 1974. He had served only three and a half years, and that time was under house arrest, not in prison. Thus, he is alive and free as I record this episode.
General Koster, who flat-out lied to the investigators, was removed from his choice assignment as Superintendant of cadets at West Point. He was reduced one rank to Brigadier General, stripped of his Distinguished Service Medal, given a formal reprimand, and had his commission revoked as "services no longer required," which gave him an OTH, "Other Than Honorable" discharge, with loss of pension and veterans’ benefits. Most of the other officers who had been charged, and some that were not, found their promotion prospects reduced to zero, received reprimands, had major decorations rescinded, or some combination of the three. Eight enlisted men who had been prominent in the massacre were expelled from the Army with OTH discharges.
In 1976, one year after the war ended, a memorial was raised at My Lai. Over time the site grew to include a museum, gardens, and commemorative statues. There are also stelae, stone slabs, indicating the locations of mass burial sites, and a memorial wall lists the names of the known victims. The hamlet itself has been partially rebuilt, to show how it looked before the day of the massacre.
The actual number killed was never established. It was officially declared at no less than 175, and my sources give numbers ranging from 347 to 504. An official US army investigation came up with the figure of 347, while 504 is the number of names listed on the My Lai memorial wall.
I mentioned in previous episodes that morale among American soldiers slipped, when they realized they were not going to win the war. Now the revelations of the My Lai massacre caused morale to plummet even further, as GIs wondered what other atrocities their superiors were hiding. In the United States, the brutality of the My Lai massacre and the efforts made by higher-ranking officers to cover it up increased both the anti-war sentiment and the bitter feelings regarding the continuing US military presence in Vietnam.
Whew, I wish I could end this story on a happy note, but that’s the way it was. Join me next time as we look at a new front that opened in the Indochina War at the end of the 1960s – in Cambodia. It has been a long time since I had much to say about Cambodia, since Episode 67, in fact, so the next episode will be the time to catch up on that country.
Also, I have a special announcement. Six weeks from the day when I upload this, on June 27, 2020, there will be a podcasters’ convention, called the Intelligent Speech Conference. Last year it was held in New York City. This year, because of the Corona virus lockdown, it is being held online, so you won’t have to travel to attend it. I was invited to be one of the speakers in the panel discussions, so I am filling out the paperwork now. Here is the first trailer promoting it, to give you the details so far:
<Play Roifield’s trailer>
If you want to attend, virtually that is, start making plans.
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