Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Into The Dark: The My Lai Massacre

The Investigation

Over the summer of 1969, the Army conducted an investigation into the actions of the 1st Battalion at My Lai. Headed by a no-nonsense Army officer, Colonel William Wilson, the inquiry involved the first face-to-face interviews with the soldiers who were actually there on March 16, 1968. Colonel Wilson was a North Carolina native, a highly decorated Green Beret and combat veteran of World War II. He received a Purple Heart for war wounds and served in many combat zones throughout the years including the Congo in 1965. Among Army personnel, he was highly respected and regarded as a "soldier's soldier". He conducted his interviews in full uniform wearing a chest full of medals so that the young soldiers would feel that he was one of them, an infantryman who knew the devastating pressures of close up war.

He began by flying to Phoenix to interview Ridenhour. Together they went over the details of his letter: names of people involved, what each one did, who said what to whom. From Phoenix, Wilson went on a criss-cross journey across America locating former servicemen who were in My Lai that day and others who spoke of the incident while in Chu Lai or Duc Pho. The more he learned about the massacre, the more worried he became. "I had prayed to God that this thing was fiction, and I knew now that it was fact," Wilson wrote.

In June, 1969, Warrant Officer Thompson, the courageous pilot who threatened to turn guns on his own troops if they shot another civilian at My Lai, was brought to Washington, D.C. He was interviewed by Col. Wilson and supplied the details of his confrontation with a young lieutenant on the killing fields of My Lai. On June 13, he picked out Lt. William Calley from a line up. Thompson told Col. Wilson he estimated that there were between seventy-five and a hundred dead bodies in a nearby ditch, apparently shot by Calley and his troops.

Lt Gen William Peers, Dec 1969 (CORBIS)
Lt Gen William Peers, Dec
1969 (CORBIS)

After ten weeks of inquiry, Colonel Wilson completed his report and submitted it to Lt. Gen. William Peers, who was conducting another more extensive investigation that would become a minute-by-minute account of the entire operation on My Lai on March 16, 1968. Every minuscule detail of the event was examined and investigated. The commission also made a return trip to Vietnam where graves were dug up and evidence collected. No stone was left unturned in the Peers Report which eventually grew to several volumes that contained hundreds of interviews, photographs, recordings and testimony of virtually anyone who had anything to do with My Lai. The Peers Report was devastating.

Its conclusions supported and surpassed every fear anyone had about the massacre. "Its (1st Platoon) members were involved in widespread killing of Vietnamese inhabitants (compromised almost exclusively of old men, women and children)...members of the 2nd Platoon killed at least 60-70 Vietnamese men, women and children as they swept through the northern half of My Lai 4," wrote Gen. Peers. The report went on to detail many rapes, the shooting of old men and the killing and mutilation of babies. The Peers Report estimated the number of dead in the two locations where Calley fired his M-16 as between eighty and two hundred.

Richard M Nixon, 1969 (AP)
Richard M Nixon, 1969

In August of 1969, President Richard Nixon, on vacation in San Clemente, was told that Lt. William Calley and others would soon be charged with mass murder for the hundreds of killings at My Lai. Politically, it was a catastrophe for the Nixon White House. America was bitterly divided over the Vietnam War, Nixon was trying to drum up support for his policies and stifle the dissent at home. He also felt that the North Vietnamese would never fully negotiate if they knew that the American people were divided over the fate of the war. My Lai confirmed the worst fears of critics: that the war was senseless, brutal and fought against a backward people who were victimized by both sides.

Some of Nixon's advisors urged him to press forward with full disclosure and a concentrated effort to prosecute all those involved in the killings. The deeper implications of My Lai and what it meant to America on a spiritual level were enormous. Advisor to the President, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, wrote a memo to Nixon in which he said:

"It is clear that something hideous happened at My Lai...I fear and dread what this will do to our society unless we try to understand it...For it is America that is being judged. And America will be condemned, unless we undertake some larger effort than can be had from a court martial."

TIME cover, Lt. William Calley, Jr (TIMEPIX)
TIME cover, Lt. William
Calley, Jr

Many people believed the President should appoint a special investigator or a commission to show that the government was in control and the White House was showing true moral leadership. There were others who were deeply worried of what such a war crimes trial would mean. It would be America itself on stage; the whole Vietnam War issue would be explored, dissected, ripped apart in all its ugly truth. President Nixon decided to let the Army handle it with a court martial. On September 6, 1969, two days before he was to be released from the Army, Lt. William Calley was formally charged at Fort Benning, Georgia, with 109 murders.


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