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History remembers… My Lai
Maureen Zebian
3/16/2005

Nestled among other small hamlets in Central Vietnam lies the village of My Lai. Bulldozers can be seen shoveling dirt to make room for a new tourist development near the coastal beaches. Everything is changing in this small village, but the monuments honoring the 500 unarmed women, children, and elderly Vietnamese slaughtered by U.S. soldiers on March 16, 1968 will remain untouched.

In the weeks leading up to My Lai, the Charlie Company 11th Brigade, a unit of 120 men, had arrived in Vietnam less than three months and had already lost more than 40 men. Four men were dead and 38 were wounded by booby traps and snipers. The unit could not find an enemy to shoot back at and as their frustration started to mount they began to see the civilians as enemies.

When orders were issued to attack My Lai, thought to be the headquarters for a Viet Cong battalion, the soldiers were seeking revenge. They were prepared for a fight, but when they landed there was no one to fight. The Viet Cong had already left. But their commanding officers said, “This is what you’ve been waiting for- search and destroy- and you’ve got it.” Within a short period of time, the solders started unmercifully to kill, maim, rape and torture the unarmed village of women, children and elderly.

Hovering overhead in a helicopter was Officer Hugh Thompson’s crew. As they were reconnoitering the area of the mission they saw many dead civilian bodies. But it did not make sense for there to be a high number of casualties, yet virtually no retaliatory fire.

After landing the helicopter, Thompson repeatedly saw young boys and girls being shot at point-blank range. Piles of blood-soaked civilians lay in ditches. A U.S. army photographer reported that he took a picture of an older woman trying to protect a small child while another woman buttoning her blouse and holding an infant was pleading for her life. As soon as he walked away he heard firing. Looking over he saw the people just drop.

Thompson found a group of villagers in a bunker, and asked the commanding officer Lt. William Calley how he planned to get them out. Calley told him he will use a grenade. At that point, Thompson decided the situation was completely out of control and ordered his men to return fire on the Americans if they should fire on the Vietnamese group.

When the firing of guns came to a halt, Thompson and his men waded in ditches filled with gore up to their knees to rescue surviving women and children and fly them to the hospital.

After almost two years of covering up the story, the news of the horrific massacre finally broke out. The crimes included murders by individuals and groups, rape, sodomy, and the maiming and assault of civilians.

My Lai became a turning point in how Americans perceived the Vietnam War. As Americans became more aware of the gruesome details of the massacre, serious questions arose concerning the conduct of American soldiers in Vietnam.

In the end, Charlie Company’s commanding officer, Lt. Calley, was the only one to be convicted. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor. Within three years he was out of prison, pending an appeal, on the personal instructions of President Richard Nixon.

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