Born in 1943
American soldier who led the My Lai Massacre
William Calley is one of the Vietnam War's most infamous figures. In 1968 he led American troops in an attack that led to the slaughter of hundreds of defenseless Vietnamese peasants in My Lai, a small farming village. In many people's minds, this massacre stands as the single most horrible event of the entire war.
Joins the army after early struggles
William Laws Calley, Jr., grew up in a comfortable neighborhood in Miami Shores, Florida, where his father worked as a machinery salesman. Calley—who acquired the nickname "Rusty" as a child—was a poor student who had occasional discipline problems in school. He attended high school at Florida Military Academy, from which he graduated in 1962. He enrolled in Palm Beach Junior College in Florida but dropped out after a few months. Calley then spent the next few years moving from job to job.
In the meantime, American involvement in the Vietnam War was escalating rapidly. In the late 1950s the U.S. government sent generous military and financial aid packages to the young country of South Vietnam to help it establish a strong economy and a democratic government. But by the early 1960s America had become gravely concerned that South Vietnam was on the verge of falling to the Communist nation of North Vietnam and its Viet Cong allies in the South. U.S. analysts claimed that if the South were overrun by the Communists, other nations would become more vulnerable to a Communist takeover. This fear convinced U.S. President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) to send American combat troops to fight on the side of South Vietnam in 1965.
In 1966 Calley voluntarily left civilian life to enlist in the U.S. Army. He supported American intervention in Vietnam and hoped to make a career for himself in the military. After undergoing basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, he successfully completed officer school. "When he became a lieutenant, it was the most important thing in the world to him," recalled one of Calley's friends in a 1989 People Weekly article. "He wanted to do the best possible job . . . . He was going to fight Communism. He believed in the war. Absolutely."
Calley goes to Vietnam
After completing his training, Second Lieutenant Calley was transferred to Vietnam, where he joined C Company (also known as Charley Company), a combat infantry unit within the U.S. Army's 20th Infantry Division. He was assigned to command one of three platoons within C Company. Calley's performance as an officer during his first months in Vietnam received mixed reviews. Some soldiers who served with Calley believed that he conducted himself well. But others thought that he was incompetent. They charged that he did not possess the intelligence or military knowledge to effectively lead troops in battle.
Calley served in Vietnam at a time when the conflict was rapidly turning into a grim war of "attrition" (a military strategy of grinding down the enemy until it is unable or unwilling to fight any longer). The United States and its South Vietnamese allies held a tremendous advantage over their Communist foes in terms of military firepower. But North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces used guerrilla tactics, their superior knowledge of Vietnam's terrain, and their ability to blend in with Vietnamese civilians to cancel out this advantage. As a result, the war turned into a stalemate, with neither side able to gain a meaningful advantage.
As the war continued and American frustration increased, the U.S. military adopted increasingly ruthless measures to defeat the Communists. For example, they approved the use of so-called "free-fire zones" in Vietnam. Areas received this designation when military authorities decided that they were probably inhabited only by enemy soldiers. American soldiers were free to attack any Vietnamese they saw in a free-fire zone. But in many cases, areas were given "free-fire zone" status despite the continued presence of civilians. As a result, Vietnamese civilians who lived in or passed through free-fire zones came under attack from U.S. forces.
Another controversial element of the U.S. war effort was its reliance on "body counts." The U.S. military kept track of enemy casualties (killed and wounded) as a way of gauging its progress in the conflict. But as opposition to the war increased in America, U.S. troops were encouraged to take the view that all dead Vietnamese—even women and children—should be counted as Viet Cong guerrillas. Officials hoped that the inflated body count statistics would reassure both Congress and the American public that it was marching to victory in Vietnam. But the use of "body count" statistics came under harsh criticism. Critics argued that the military's decision to use such information as a measurement of progress proved that the war was immoral. Many observers also claimed that the emphasis on body counts eroded the morale and spirit of American troops and actually encouraged them to take the lives of innocent civilians.
The My Lai massacre
In early 1968 Calley and the other members of C Company went on an extended mission into the South Vietnamese countryside, where they suffered several casualties from enemy land mines and booby traps. By mid-March, when the soldiers neared a village called Son My, they were feeling frustrated and vengeful. On the morning of March 16, 1968, the soldiers entered My Lai, a small hamlet that was part of Son My village. They entered My Lai because intelligence reports indicated that Viet Cong guerrillas were using it as a base of operations. When the U.S. troops looked around, they found no evidence of a Viet Cong presence. But rather than leave the village, the soldiers—led by Calley—turned their rifles on the unarmed villagers.
Over the next several hours, the American soldiers went on a murderous rampage. They killed hundreds of helpless women, children, and elderly people (the estimated number of civilians killed in the massacre is as high as 500) as well as most of the hamlet's livestock. Calley played a leading role in supervising and carrying out the massacre. He encouraged his men to shoot the unresisting villagers and personally gunned down a number of the victims.
Most of the terrified villagers were rounded up in ditches, then mowed down by Calley and other machine-gun wielding soldiers. Others were shot as they tried to escape or protect their families. In addition, a number of women and children were raped before they were shot. Finally, the soldiers set fire to most of the homes before departing. By the time Calley and the other soldiers of Company C left My Lai, the village had been transformed into a bloody, smoking ruin.
In the days and weeks after the slaughter, Calley's superior officers tried to cover up the incident. Both Captain Ernest L. Medina and Major General Samuel Koster submitted false and misleading reports about the massacre. In fact, reports on the My Lai incident stated that Calley and his men killed sixty-nine Viet Cong, not hundreds of unarmed civilians. In April 1969, however, Vietnam veteran Ronald Ridenhour called for an investigation into My Lai after hearing disturbing rumors about what happened. Ridenhour's letters led to a new U.S. Army investigation headed by Lieutenant General William R. Peers.
Debate over the My Lai massacre
Over the next several months, investigators determined that major atrocities (extremely cruel or brutal acts) had been committed at My Lai. They began quietly issuing criminal charges against Calley and other soldiers from Company C. But the massacre did not come to public attention until November 1969, when the New York Times published a full report on the incident.
News of the atrocities shocked the American people, who by 1969 had come to view the war as a nightmarish event that threatened to tear the country apart. Many Americans expressed shame and anger about the massacre, and antiwar leaders claimed that the incident showed that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was evil and immoral. Thousands of U.S. soldiers joined in the criticism, condemning the bloodthirsty behavior of Calley and his troops.
But millions of Americans who supported the war or disliked the antiwar movement refused to believe that the incident had even taken place. Many others excused the conduct of the soldiers. They either blamed the violence on the basic nature of warfare or insisted that the slain villagers had really been Viet Cong. These voices expressed particularly strong support for Calley, whose leading role at My Lai made him the focus for much of the public debate over the massacre. In fact, Calley assumed hero status among some Americans. These supporters bought "Free Calley" bumper stickers for their cars, wrote pro-Calley letters to their congressional representatives, and sang along to the "Battle Hymn of Lieutenant Calley," a pro-Calley country song that sold 200,000 copies in the first three days after its release.
Calley also received a surprising level of support from people who opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Antiwar Americans were disgusted and horrified by his actions, but they viewed him as a "pawn" (a powerless person being used by others) who was being unfairly targeted for his actions in a war that was itself immoral. In fact, many antiwar leaders charged that the true criminals were the U.S. political and military leaders who used "free-fire zones," "body counts," and other ruthless policies in conducting the war. Even Ron Ridenhour, the soldier who helped expose the massacre to the American public, charged that Calley was basically just following orders. "Calley may have been more zealous [fanatical or devoted to a goal] than others, but he was doing what was expected," Ridenhour said in People. "This was not the aberration [abnormal behavior] of one wild officer. My Lai was an act of policy. Calley had his guilt, but he was just one small actor in a very large play, and he did not write the script."
Calley goes on trial
In 1970 Calley and twelve other soldiers from Company C went on trial for war crimes associated with the My Lai massacre. Calley alone was charged with 102 counts of murder. An additional twelve soldiers—including General Koster—were charged with offenses relating to the cover-up of the attack.
On March 29, 1971, Calley was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of twenty-two Vietnamese civilians. But he was the only participant at My Lai who was convicted. All the other soldiers brought to trial were acquitted (found not guilty) of the charges. These "not guilty" verdicts outraged both antiwar activists and millions of ordinary Americans.
Supporters of Calley, meanwhile, mobilized to protest his sentence. In the days immediately following Calley's conviction, President Richard Nixon (see entry) reportedly received 15,000 letters from around the country demanding the soldier's immediate release. In August Calley's sentence was reduced to ten years by Secretary of the Army Howard Calloway. On November 9, 1974, President Nixon ordered Calley released from prison with a dishonorable discharge from the army. After gaining his freedom, Calley settled in Columbus, Georgia, where he became a jeweler. In 1976 he married Penny Vick, with whom he had one child.
Calley has led a quiet existence out of the public eye for the past three decades. But the My Lai massacre continues to cast a dark shadow over the American people and the nation's military. "My Lai punctured the pristine myth of American 'goodness' in war," wrote Myra MacPherson in Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation. "GIs were not handing out bubble gum, they were slaughtering babies .... My Lai ... became the massacre that will be forever synonymous with the Vietnam War."
Bilton, Michael, and Kevin Sim. Four Hours in My Lai. New York: Viking, 1992.
Calley, William L., as told to John Sack. Lieutenant Calley: His Own Story. New York: Viking Press, 1971.
Hersh, Seymour M. My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath. New York: Random House, 1970.
Hewitt, Bill. "William Calley." People Weekly, November 20, 1989.
Knoll, Erwin, and Judith Nies McFadden. War Crimes and the American Conscience. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
MacPherson, Myra. Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.
Sack, John. Body Count: Lt. Calley's Story as Told to John Sack. London: Hutchinson, 1971.
Hugh C. Thompson: A Hero in My Lai
One of the few American soldiers who behaved honorably during the My Lai massacre was helicopter pilot Hugh C. Thompson. He and his two-man crew (Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta) spotted dozens of dead bodies while flying over the hamlet during a reconnaissance (information gathering) mission. They quickly radioed for help, then watched in disbelief as an American soldier executed a young Vietnamese girl. Horrified by what he witnessed, Thompson quickly landed his helicopter in the village. Once he landed, the pilot urged some of Calley's troops to help him rescue the remaining villagers. But when he was told that "the only help the villagers would get was a hand grenade," Thompson realized that Calley and his platoon intended to wipe out the entire village.
Thompson knew that he could not stop the slaughter by himself. But he immediately flew his helicopter between a group of terrified villagers and a line of advancing soldiers. "These people [the villagers] were looking at me for help, and there was no way I could turn my back on them," Thompson recalled in the National Catholic Reporter (March 20, 1998). The pilot then ordered his crew to aim their M-60 machine gun at the murderous U.S. troops. He instructed them to open fire if the soldiers tried to interfere with the rescue.
The threat worked. Calley and his soldiers backed off as Thompson loaded the Vietnamese civilians onto his helicopter and two other helicopter gunships that responded to his radio call. After airlifting the villagers to safety, Thompson returned to the hamlet and rescued a two-year-old boy who was clinging to his dead mother in a ditch.
Thompson submitted a report on the massacre, and he urged the army to investigate. But U.S. officials did not launch a full investigation until the following year, when Vietnam veteran Ron Ridenhour's letters finally sparked an inquiry. Thompson remained in the military for another thirteen years, then worked as a helicopter pilot for the oil industry. He now works in Louisiana as a counselor for military veterans.
Thompson's actions at My Lai have also been recognized by the U.S. Army. In 1974 Thompson received the Distinguished Flying Cross in recognition of his heroism at My Lai. In 1998 he was given the prestigious Soldier's Medal for bravery at a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.