Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Into The Dark: The My Lai Massacre

Into the Dark

"There were so many people killed that day it is hard for me to recall exactly how some of the people died," U.S. Army Pvt. Harry Stanley said to C.I.D. investigators (as reported by Seymour M. Hersh).

US helicopters carried Company C (TIMPIX)
US helicopters carried Company C

When Capt. Medina's chopper hit the ground, he reported over the radio that the LZ was "cold," no incoming enemy fire. But that assessment quickly changed when Medina subsequently reported that elements of the attacking force were receiving enemy fire. Some of the attacking gunships reported suspected VC on the ground and fired upon the enemy as they raced for cover.

 Meanwhile, the 1st Platoon, commanded by Lt. Calley moved from the southeast into My Lai. "The first killing was an old man in a field outside the village who said some kind of greeting in Vietnamese and waved his arms at us...This was the first murder," Herbert L. Carter, a tunnel rat for Calley's 1st Platoon, later testified. As the platoon sought out secure positions, some of the local villagers began to emerge. They knew full well that if they ran, the Americans would consider them Viet Cong. Unknown to them, for this day, everyone was considered VC.

Soldiers from the 1st Platoon opened up on the Vietnamese farmers; at least 5-9 were immediately killed. Soon, the platoon broke down into small groups or squads and moved throughout the village, shooting into suspected enemy positions at random. All around the men gunfire continued to erupt as the advancing soldiers began to fire at anything that moved. Cows, pigs, chickens, water buffalo, birds and gravestones were blown apart by machine gun fire and M-79 grenade launchers.

My Lai victims (TIMPIX)
My Lai victims (TIMPIX)

Some villagers were accidentally hit by gunfire and went to the soldiers for help. The men of the 1st Platoon cut them down. "She came out of the hut with her baby and Widmer shot her with an M16 and she fell. When she fell, she dropped the baby and then Widmer opened up on the baby with his M16 and killed the baby too," said Carter in additional testimony to the Army C.I.D.

Another soldier, Pfc. Varnado Simpson, shot a woman, a baby. Afterwards, he went into a kind of shock. "The baby's face was half gone, my mind just went...and I just started killing. Old men, women, children, water buffaloes, everything...I just killed...That day in My Lai, I was personally responsible for killing about 25 people," said Simpson.

The platoon advanced further into My Lai without receiving any enemy fire at all. As they did, some of the men began to shoot inside the straw huts of the hamlet into what they considered "suspected enemy positions." As the villagers attempted to flee, they were pushed back into the huts and the soldiers tossed in grenades. The frenzy of killing picked up speed and each violent event began to build on the last. An old Vietnamese farmer was captured by the 1st Platoon and, for no apparent reason, was bayoneted in the chest and thrown into a well. Another farmer suffered the same fate and after the second man was thrown into the well, a grenade was tossed in afterwards. This incident was witnessed by several of Calley's men who later reported it to the C.I.D.

Women & children rounded up before they were murdered (TIMEPIX)
Women & children rounded up before
they were murdered

"In at least three instances inside the village, Vietnamese of all ages were rounded up in groups of 5-10 and were shot down...Women and children, many of whom were small babies, were killed sitting or hiding in their homes," later wrote Lt. General William Peers, who performed the Army's investigation into My Lai in 1970. Numerous rapes were committed against the young girls of the village, sometimes while their families were forced to watch. Everywhere, dead bodies of women and children littered the roads and fields of the burning hamlet. Captain Brian Livingston, a helicopter pilot and commander, wrote in a letter back home on that very day: "I've never seen so many people dead in one spot. Ninety-five percent were women and kids."

Ex-GI Paul Meadlo (TIMEPIX)
Ex-GI Paul Meadlo

Around 9:00 a.m., while the killing was at full throttle, members of the 1st and 2nd platoon rounded up some Vietnamese civilians. The soldiers brought them to the center of the village. This group consisted mostly of women, children, babies and old men who were too terrified to run away. They were eventually herded together in the middle of My Lai where they sat on the ground. Two soldiers from the 1st Platoon, Pfc. Dennis Conti and Pfc. Paul Meadlo, guarded the Vietnamese until Lt. Calley came along.

The civilians were then assembled into a large ditch. Unknown to them, Calley had just been reprimanded by Capt. Medina over the radio for his slow progress through the village. Calley saw the huge group of civilians, which at that time numbered about sixty.

"Take care of them!" Calley ordered the two soldiers and walked away.

Several minutes later, Calley returned and saw the civilians still alive. "I thought I told you to take care of them?" Meadlo responded by saying, "We are. We're watching over them."

"No, I want them killed!" Calley said. Then, as the terrified villagers cowered in fear deep inside the ditch, Calley lowered his M16 from approximately ten feet away and began to fire his weapon. Meadlo was ordered to do the same.

Later, he explained his actions to the Peers Commission in this way: "It's not your right to refuse that order, and you go out there and do it because you're ordered to." For several minutes Calley fired into the panic-stricken crowd as babies and old people were torn to shreds. Meadlo finally broke into a crying fit and could not continue. But Calley pressed on. One by one he killed each survivor who tried to stand including mothers who attempted to shield their children. Months later, the Army's investigative report summed up this event in very simple terms: "The villagers were herded into a ditch with the larger group of 60-70...At approximately 0900-0915 hours, Vietnamese personnel who had been herded into the ditch were shot down by members of the 1st Platoon."


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