Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Into The Dark: The My Lai Massacre

Dawn at the LZ

Insignia of the 174th Helicopter Assault Group
Insignia of the 174th Helicopter
Assault Group

The early morning of March 16, 1968 in Southern Quang Ngai was calm and cool. For one brief moment at 5:30 a.m., the incessant chatter of the birds and monkeys was at rest. A light breeze rolled in from the China Sea and rustled through the swaying palms outside LZ Dottie.

The men of Charlie Company began to assemble. As the Huey transport copters from the 174th Helicopter Assault Company began to crank up their turbines, a vivid and luminous moon could still be seen in the twilight sky. The stars pulsated brilliantly above and to the drifting mind of a young soldier, it was easy to imagine a vacation in some distant tropical land, for despite the chaos that ripped the country apart, Vietnam could have that magic. All in all, a beautiful dawn it was.

At approximately 7:20 a.m., Lt. Calley walked over to the Huey chopper called a "slick" and with his right hand, pulled himself into the rear compartment where a door gunner was busy strapping himself in. The men of the 1st Platoon made their final check on ammunition and supplies. They quickly boarded the waiting aircraft, filled with the expectation that the company may be "getting even" with an enemy that was mostly unseen, mysterious and hated.

 The Stars and Stripes newspaper banner (AP)
The Stars and Stripes newspaper
banner (AP)

Also on board one of these nine choppers, frantically securing his own camera equipment, was Army photographer Ron Haeberle, assigned to record the event for Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper. Less than 15 miles away to the southwest, the people of My Lai 4 slept, unafraid, unsuspecting; their dreams were filled with visions of a peaceful future, unaware of the sword of vengeance that was about to fall upon them, a nightmare for which nothing could have prepared them. The choppers gently lifted off the tarmac and banked south into a neat, tight "V" formation.

Artillery on the move near My Lai, March, 1968 (Courtesy Mark Gado)
Artillery on the move near My Lai,
March, 1968 (Courtesy Mark Gado)

Other gunships from Chu Lai met up with the 174th a short distance from the western edge of My Lai. At approximately 7:45 a.m., artillery preparation of the landing zone began. On the ground, the residents of My Lai became aware of the pending attack. They were accustomed to running from the assaults of both the VC and the Americans. Villagers constructed bunkers and tunnels deep into the ground for many years, back to the time of the French when they ran from another enemy. Fleeing from the rice paddies, where they were already hard at work for hours, the inhabitants herded their children to safety until the attack was over. Even though no enemy personnel had been observed from the air, "Shark" gunships from the 174th descended on the scene and laid down a terrifying barrage of rockets and M-60 machine gun fire.

American helicopters during My Lai (TIMEPIX)
American helicopters during My Lai


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