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Monday, September 04, 2006

Lt. Calley Charged For My Lai Massacre, September 5, 1969

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Today in 1969, United States Army Lieutenant William Calley was charged with six counts of premeditated murder for his role in what would become known as the My Lai Massacre. Calley's actions as a platoon-level commander during the Vietnam War would help lend fuel to the anti-war fires burning in the United States and ignite the passions of many who, before that time, had not taken part in the debate over the war.

My Lai was a hamlet located in the Quang Ngai Province of South Vietnam. It was a known hotbed of Viet Cong activity, so much so that the area was frequently the target of air raids and artillery shelling. During the Tet Offensive in 1968, the Viet Cong carried out several operations in the province and then disappeared, seemingly into thin air. US Army intelligence believed that the Viet Cong forces had taken refuge in My Lai and several other nearby hamlets, and so the Army planned a March 16th offensive in the area.

Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, Americal Division was one of the units slated to participate in the offensive. One of the company's platoons was led by Lt. William Calley, who was given orders to destroy the hamlet once it was cleared of Viet Cong soldiers and sympathizers. It was believed that any innocent civilians would be out of the hamlet by 7AM.

Calley and his men found no Viet Cong in My Lai on the morning of March 16th, 1968. Frustrated at the lack of cooperation offered by the locals and by the loss of fellow platoon members to VC activity in the area, some of the soldiers began killing anyone they could find in the hamlet: men, women and children. Some were herded into nearby trenches and fired on with automatic weapons. Although the precise number of victims will never be known, sources put the number between 347 and 504.

Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson was flying above the hamlet in an Army OH-23 helicopter, where he saw the massacre occurring with his own eyes. He landed between a group of American soldiers and civilians and told the officers present that he would fire upon any American who attacked a civilian. He then reported the incident, whereupon the infantry received orders to cease fire in the area.

The massacre at My Lai would most likely have gone unreported and unpunished had it not been for a letter received by President Nixon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and members of Congress in March, 1969, a full year after the incident. The letter was written by Ron Ridenhour, who had learned about My Lai secondhand during his time in Vietnam. He talked to members of Charlie Company, some of whom readily admitted to participating in the events of that day.

And so, on September 5, 1969, Lt. Calley was charged with six counts of premeditated murder. 25 other officers and enlisted men would eventually be charged with various crimes; most of the charges would be dropped. Calley was the only soldier convicted of a crime related to My Lai. He served three and a half years under house arrest in the officers' quarters at Fort Benning, Georgia and was then ordered freed by a federal judge.

Calley's defense was based upon his belief that he was following the orders of his immediate superior, Captain Ernest Medina. Medina was acquitted of any wrongdoing at his own trial, but these two court rulings gave rise to what is known today as the Medina Standard, which states that a commanding officer who does not act to stop violations of human rights or war crimes is criminally liable.

William Calley lives today in Columbus, Georgia. Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who helped bring the massacre to an end, died in January of this year and was buried with full military honors. In 2004, he was interviewed for the news program "60 Minutes". When asked about his feelings towards the men who committed the massacre that day in 1968, he said:

"I wish I was a big enough man to say I forgive them, but I swear to God, I can't."

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