The My Lai Massacre  
-- For those who may want to know more about March 16, 1968. . . 

"On the morning of March 16th. 1968, three companies of the 1st. Battalion / 20th. Infantry -- 11th. Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division launched a search and destroy operation in the My Son area. Company C's target was the VC 48th. Battalion, which intelligence believed was based in the hamlet marked on military maps as My Lai - 4. ( pronounced -  em li )". . .    Ninteen Months later, in September of 1969, Lieutenant William Calley was charged with horrific war crimes, and the people of this country could hardly believe what they were hearing. As a result of the actions of the officers and men of this unit a black cloud hung low over the 11th. LIB and the Americal Division for quite some time.

This information is not justification for the actions of members of the 1st. and 2nd. platoons, Lieutenant William Calley, or Captain Earnest Medina. This is rather an attempt to share some insight on events leading to that fateful day which may have resulted in the abhorrent behavior of soldiers in that company. Events that would have moved any rational human being a lot closer to the very edge of civilized behavior.

What may have affected the judgment and common sense of so many young men, to carry out the un-sound orders of an apparently incompetent commanding officer? I would wish that each of you could walk for a just a month in their boots, before you consider passing judgment on a single GI in either of the two platoons (For those of you with front-line combat experience, please draw from your own memories). 

It should be understood that there were individuals in both of these platoons who refused (under threat) to participate in what they witnessed on that morning. This was a fact not made entirely clear by the substantial publicity that this event generated.
-- Editor         

On the morning of March 16th. 1968, C company 1/20 (and two others assigned to Task Force Barker), was ordered back into the My Son area on a search and destroy mission. Company C's target was the VC 48th. Battalion. Intelligence reported that they were based in the hamlet of My Lai-4.  This area, in a "free fire zone" (see sidebar) was a VC strong-hold for 20 years and was completely controlled by the Viet Cong. 

All non-combatant civilians in the area were evacuated by the Vietnamese government long before this date (In guerrilla warfare, there were very few who could be described as civilians in a VC controlled village.)  Further, this village was the base of operations for the same VC Battalion responsible for the events detailed below.

One favorite strategy of the administration's Vietnam Campaign was to change the environment the war was fought in. They reckoned that if there were areas where they could kill anything that moved, we would win the war. Were they right, or did this strategy contribute to the events described in this commentary?

Free Fire Zones
The creation of "Free Fire Zones", within which US and allied forces could strike without worrying about the social or political consequences, was one of the most controversial aspects of the search and destroy strategy of the 1960's. In purely military terms, it made a lot of sense. If ground forces could sweep through a VC infested area, destroying all villages and removing ordinary civilians to 'safe' refugee centers, what remained should be nothing but the enemy or his hard-core supporters. Any signs of activity within the zone would therefore indicate enemy movement, which if attacked and destroyed, would seriously disrupt the VC

from "NAM - The Vietnam Experience" Barnes & Noble, Inc. ISBN 1-56619-949-2, C. 76, p212

Most of the members of C company (including officers), were new in country. In February of 1968, Lt. Calley's radioman took a bullet. The company tried to penetrate the My Son area for three days but was driven back by VC resistance. Two grunts were killed by booby traps, and another was taken out by a sniper. A patrol walked into a nest of booby traps, and although they managed to backtrack their way out,  two more men were lost  to sniper fire. On the company's next assignment, the rifle platoons were on their way to a rendezvous point when all hell started to break loose. They had walked into a minefield, and as the explosions began, those diving for cover, or rushing to help a wounded buddy set off mine after mine. It went on for close to two hours leaving 32 men killed or wounded.

In the first week of March, the company was mortared and lost most of their personal gear. Just two days prior to the operation in My Lia-4, three grunts and one of the last experienced sergeants were blown away by another booby trap.

In the 32 days immediately preceding this incident, Company C 1/20 - who's field strength was 90 to 100, suffered 42 casualties. For the most part, these casualties occurred in the three rifle platoons. One of the men assigned to Lt. Calley was captured by the VC. While the company was pined down and unable to respond, they all listened to him screaming through the night some distance away. The Viet Cong had skinned the GI alive leaving only his face and then soaked him in salty water. They continued to mutilate him through the night until he died. 

(Incident references verified from "NAM - The Vietnam Experience" Barnes & Noble, Inc. ISBN 1-56619-949-2, C. 76,p391-5 ) 

Return to Vietnam Letters