Calley, William Laws, Jr.

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CALLEY, William Laws, Jr.

(b. 8 June 1943 in Miami, Florida), second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and, after the longest court-martial in military history, the only U.S. soldier convicted of a crime in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War.

Calley was the second of four children of William Laws Calley, who sold heavy construction equipment until his business went bankrupt, and his wife. He grew up in a relatively prosperous middle-class home and was characterized as somewhat of a loner and as a below-average student. During his high school years he attended Florida Military and Georgia Military Academies before graduating from Miami Edison Senior High School in 1962. After high school he spent one year at Palm Beach Junior College. He flunked out in 1963 and worked at odd jobs, including dishwasher, railroad switchman, and insurance appraiser. In 1964, as railroad switchman, Calley was arrested for allowing a forty-seven-car freight train to block traffic for nearly thirty minutes during rush hour at several downtown intersections, but he was cleared of the charges. Calley tried to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1964 but was rejected because of hearing problems. He wandered around doing other odd jobs before finding his roots in 1966 as an enlisted man in the army. (During the conflict in Vietnam, the army decided to reclassify certain formerly ineligible potential recruits.) His mother died of cancer shortly after he went into the army.

Calley's military career began in July 1966 with basic training in Fort Bliss, Texas, after which he was transferred to Fort Lewis, Washington, where he trained as a clerk-typist. On 16 March 1967 he went to the Fort Benning School for Boys in Fort Benning, Georgia, to attend Officers Candidate School (OCS), where, according to Calley, he learned to kill. OCS was a struggle for Calley, but training was accelerated in the summer, when the battalion was to be deployed earlier than had been expected. After OCS, Calley joined Charlie Company, First Battalion, Twentieth Infantry, in Hawaii, under the command of Captain Ernest Medina. He was given charge of the rifle company's first platoon. On 1 December 1967 Calley, now a lieutenant in the Eleventh Infantry, landed in Vietnam and immediately began to conduct patrol missions in the hills of northern South Vietnam. On 16 March 1968 Calley led a patrol into the village of My Lai in the Quang Ngai Province and participated in what became known as the largest massacre ever perpetrated by U.S. soldiers.

Knowing very little about combat, Calley, along with about eighty men of Company C, led search-and-destroy missions to force the Forty-eighth Vietcong to move. Calley's first platoon led the sweep into the hamlet of My Lai, an alleged Vietcong stronghold, and attacked the village shortly after sunrise. In the course of combat, villagers were gathered and taken to Calley for questioning before the alleged killings began on the early afternoon of 16 March 1968. Estimates of the number of people killed varied, but the final army estimate was 347. The five-foot, three-inch, twenty-four-year-old platoon leader, who wanted to make the military his career, stormed his way into international history by way of what came to be called My Lai Four (after the tiny hamlet where the massacre took place), an event that had an immeasurable impact on the 1960s, a decade labeled as the "decade of tumult and change."

The actions at My Lai received only a passing mention at the weekly Saigon military meeting in March 1968. In April the army looked into the rumors of civilian deaths in My Lai but found nothing to warrant disciplinary measures. Months after the My Lai massacre, the American public learned of what happened when the returning Vietnam veterans and news reporters began to piece together reports from Vietnamese refugees and U.S. soldiers who had been eyewitnesses to or heard of the massacre. According to these reports, the U.S. troops in My Lai encountered little if any hostile fire, found virtually no enemy soldiers in the village, and suffered only one casualty.

Soon after the My Lai massacre, Captain Medina had promoted Calley to first lieutenant, and Calley stayed in Vietnam on search-and-destroy missions for another year. He requested and received a transfer out of Charlie Company to Company G of the Seventy-fifth Rangers. Soon, however, a series of letters by a former soldier to government officials forced the army to take action. Early in June 1969, a month before his tour ended, Calley was pulled out of Vietnam and sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, with special orders to report to Washington, D.C. Accordingly, his request for a third tour of Vietnam was turned down. On 19 June 1969 Calley was advised that he might be charged with murder for his actions at My Lai Four.

In September 1969, to Calley's surprise, he was formally charged with the murder of civilians. In November 1969 the story of the My Lai massacre was on the front pages of newspapers and magazines around the world. Calley's court-martial began in November 1970. As he testified, "I was ordered to … destroy the enemy. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women, and children. They were all classified the same, … just enemy soldiers." On 29 March 1971 six army combat veterans found Calley guilty of the premeditated murder of at least twenty-two civilians and sentenced him to life imprisonment at hard labor. His sentence was later reduced to ten years, and in September 1974 a federal district court overturned the conviction. Released on parole in November and given a dishonorable discharge, Calley became a free man. He is the manager of a jewelry store in Columbus, Georgia.

Some say that what happened at My Lai was in part due to U.S. military policy. Moralists would claim Calley's actions were unconscionable. Still others would make the case that Calley was merely obeying orders—to destroy My Lai and everything in it. Although the My Lai massacre will remain in the historical records, the magnitude of its horror seems to have faded with the passing of the years.

Biographical information on Calley can be gleaned from various sources. John Sack, Lieutenant Calley: His Own Story (1971), gives Calley's thoughts on his life before My Lai through his trial for the massacre. Pertinent biographical information can be found in Richard Hammer, The Court-Martial of Lt. Calley (1971). Wayne Greenshaw, The Making of a Hero: The Story of Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr. (1971), provides details on Calley's emergence as a hero and discusses the reasons why some people consider him one.

Joyce K. Thornton

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Calley, William Laws, Jr.

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