My Lai Massacre - What Happened At Vietnam That Shook The World

The My Lai Massacre is considered to be one of the most heinous acts committed during a war, against an unarmed population. My Lai, a village in Vietnam, was attacked by American soldiers on March 16, 1968, during the Vietnam War. The Charlie Company, which is a unit of the Americal Division's 11th Infantry Brigade opened fire against an unarmed civilian population, killing hundreds of women, children and older men. The officials on the ground tried to cover up this event but when it came out a year later it was internationally condemned and further divided the American citizens on the topic of their involvement in the Vietnam War.

History of the My Lai Massacre

History of the Massacre
My Lai was a village which was located in Quang Ngai province. This province was considered to be the stronghold of the North Vietnamese communist militant group National Liberation Front (NLF) or Viet Cong (VC). It was therefore always on the radar of the South Vietnamese and America’s army present there. The Tet Offensive conducted by the Viet Cong had left killed around twenty to thirty soldiers of the 11th Brigade, reducing the number of American soldiers to hundred. The soldiers’ morale was down, and they were feeling frustrated, and many of the American soldiers in Vietnam were reported to be using drugs.

In March 1968, a report suggested that the 48th Battalion of Viet Cong which had been responsible for most of the deaths of the 11th Brigade of America had taken refuge in My Lai. On the eve of the massacre, Captain Ernest L. Medina told his troops, that the civilian population of the village would have left for the market by 7 am and everybody who would be left in the village will be either a Viet Cong militant or their  sympathiser. He had declared this as a search and destroy mission which was led by Lieutenant William Calley.

The Massacre

The Massacre
On March 16 1968, at 7:30 AM, Lt. Calley led the first platoon to the village. On reaching the town, they found that there was no military presence there. That it was a peaceful village with only older men, women and children, who were preparing their breakfast. There was hardly any male of combat age present in the village. On searching for the village they only found three weapons.

Even after seeing this, Calley commanded the forces to open fire. Though the soldiers baulked at first, within two to three hours, they had killed hundreds of innocent victims. A soldier present at the My Lai massacre accepted in a statement later on that they had raped and mutilated women and young girls. The soldiers had also brandished many people with the symbol "C company". Since there were no military-age men, they met no resistance from the villagers. Calley commanded a large number of villagers to line up in a ditch before killing them. They also burned their fields and killed the livestock and burned the village to the ground. They mostly used machine guns to carry on this slaughter.

Sgt. Michael Bernhardt, a soldier who was present at the scene, had described the event to a reporter. He had said, “I saw them shoot an M79 (grenade launcher) into a group of people who were still alive. But it was mostly done with a machine gun. They were shooting women and children just like anybody else."

Hugh Thompson

Hugh Thompson, My Lai Massacre
Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot of the American air force, had been deployed in along with his two-person crew to support the troops in the attack against Viet Cong. On reaching there, he said he could see dead bodies of the children, older men and women everywhere on the ground. They saw that some people were hiding in a ditch, and American soldiers were advancing towards them. On seeing this, they did one of the bravest things of the Vietnam war; he stationed his helicopter between the villagers and the American soldiers. He said that they would open fire on anyone who tried to shoot on the villagers. This finally brought the massacre to an end. He, along with his crew, flew many injured civilians to the nearest medical aid available. He was awarded the Soldier's Medal for “heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.”

Another American soldier whose name was unknown also refused to shoot on Vietnamese civilians even though his senior officers had a gun trained at him. These acts of humanity are the reason why this massacre is said to have been started by Americans and ended by Americans as well. 

The Cover-Up

The Cover Up
The higher officials immediately realised that this was a heinous crime committed against the rules of war and tried to cover it up. Captain E.L. Medina reported that they had killed several Viet Cong soldiers instead of the My Lai massacre. The higher officials managed to cover up the issue. Hugh Thompson complained against this massacre, but his pleas were dismissed by the more senior officials trying to cover up the scandal. It was finally brought to public notice almost a year later. Ron Ridenhour, a soldier of the 11th Brigade, wrote multiple letters to the officials in the Parliament and the then American President Nixon as well, in the end when he did not get any reply he broke the story to the press on November 1969. Other soldiers, including Hugh Thompson, also talked to the media.


Reaction to My Lai Massacre
When this story caught international public attention, US Army initiated an investigation under Lieutenant General William Peers. It was condemned internationally, and war cries for those who were against America's involvement in the Vietnam War.

In March 1970, this investigation released its report and found as many as 28 American soldiers guilty in this massacre. Only 14 of them were charged for this, and only Calley was convicted. He was given a life sentence in March 1971, which was first reduced to ten years' sentence. In the end, he was paroled in 1974. 

Number of People Killed

Number of People killed in My Lai Massacre
During the cover-up, it was reported that only 24 civilians were killed, but the amount which was published by the Vietnam officials was 504, and the village's total population was around 700 people. Out of the people who died, there were 56 infants and 17 pregnant women. As many as 176 children no older than ten were killed in the My Lai massacre.

There was only one casualty for the American soldiers when a soldier had shot himself in the foot while trying to clear his jammed gun.

In subsequent research and investigation, it has been hinted upon that during the Vietnam war, more such massacres took place. An army veteran from Vietnam had said that there was a My Lai every month. The authenticity of this fact cannot be guaranteed, but it raises an alarming issue and paints a very gory picture. 

Son My Memorial 

Son My Memorial
Located in T?nh Khê, S?n T?nh District, Qu?ng Ngãi Province, this memorial was built in 1978 in the memory of the innocent people killed in the My Lai Massacre. The monument has a sculpture made in the middle of a garden that portrays an older woman standing with a child in one hand and the other hand raised as a fist; she is surrounded by other people who are cowering down as if trying to protect themselves. The place is described as a solemn and peaceful destination by those who have visited it.
Location: Tinh Khe, Son Tinh District, Quang Ngai, Vietnam
Nevertheless, even till this date, America is quite familiar with the pictures of My Lai massacre and come to relate it strongly with images of the Vietnam war.

This post was published by Ananya Sinha

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