Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Into The Dark: The My Lai Massacre

A Bloodbath Down There

W.O. Hugh Thompson (AP)
W.O. Hugh Thompson

While the killings and the rapes continued unabated on the ground, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, 25, piloted an H-23 bubble helicopter a few hundred feet above the burning hamlet. As he orbited the area, Thompson and his two-man crew saw a wounded female in a rice paddy. As he maneuvered the chopper closer, Thompson saw an Army captain kick the woman and shoot her in the head. A few minutes later, the crew saw dozens of bodies in a ditch near a dirt road. The chopper set down several times to investigate. The crew saw American soldiers taking a smoke break and it was apparent there was no ongoing firefight with the Viet Cong.

The chopper took off again. A few hundreds yards away, the crew saw U.S. soldiers firing into another ditch filled with Vietnamese. Thompson became enraged. He couldn't believe what he was seeing. As he swept over the village, he saw about a dozen civilians splashing through the rice paddies. They were running for their lives from Charlie Company. Thompson landed his chopper between the civilians and the Americans. Calley showed up a minute later and had heated words with Thompson who was consumed with rage. He ordered his crew to turn their machine guns on the Americans and if the soldiers intervened, to fire on the young lieutenant. Thompson herded the terrified Vietnamese onto other gunships that offered assistance and flew them to safety to Quang Ngai City.

As W. O. Thompson's choppers took off with the rescued civilians, Calley and his men moved to the eastern end of the village. On the way, he encountered other villagers being held by members of the 1st Platoon. They were near the edge of a small bridge that crossed an irrigation ditch. There were approximately forty to fifty Vietnamese women and children, including an elderly Buddhist monk.

Upon questioning, the monk managed to convey that there were no weapons or VC in the village. It was not the answer Calley wanted to hear. Just at that moment, a small child crawled away from its mother out of the ditch. According to later testimony, Calley tossed the baby back into the hole and shot the child. He then pushed the monk into the ditch and shot him without provocation.

Within moments, the firing started. Machine guns poured a lethal wave of death into the pit as pieces of bone and flesh flew into the air. Some of the soldiers, like Pfc. Robert Maples, refused the order to fire. He later told investigators: "I do now remember that Meadlo was one of those firing and he was crying at the same time. I know that he or the others did not want to kill those persons. This is not true of Calley because he seemed to want to kill."

Civilians killed in ditches (TIMEPIX)
Civilians killed in ditches (TIMEPIX)

A short time later, the 3rd Platoon was sent into My Lai to clean up any "resistance" that remained. They immediately began to slaughter every human and animal they could find. One soldier jumped on the back of a water buffalo and stabbed the helpless animal with his bayonet. Any Vietnamese who survived the initial sweep by the 1st and 2nd platoons and emerged out from their hiding places were shot down immediately.

They "swept through the south side of My Lai 4 shooting anyone who tried to escape, bayoneting others, raping women, shooting livestock" and more. The entire village of My Lai was littered with corpses and dead animals. From the air, it looked like a huge killing field. Someone in a helicopter overhead shouted into the radio: "It looks like a bloodbath down there! What the hell is going on?"

But as far as anyone could tell, Charlie Company had not received even one round of enemy fire. The entire hamlet of My Lai 4, known as Tu Cung to the Vietnamese, had been wiped out. Families that had lived on this same ground for generations were eradicated. The village, except for the noise of the soldiers setting fire to the huts or farm animals thrashing about in the final throes of death, was quiet. Or as Pfc. Maples later told U.S. Army C.I.D. investigators: "I did not see anyone alive when we left the village."

Houses burned by soldiers, My Lai (TIMEPIX)
Houses burned by soldiers, My Lai



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