Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Into The Dark: The My Lai Massacre

Cover Up

The cover up for what happened at My Lai began on the day of the killings. Calley's soldiers who did not participate in the slaughter and the vast majority of Charlie Company who did not kill any civilians were so frightened and shocked by what they saw, they literally lost all sense of reason. It is important to remember that no single person who was present that day at My Lai knew the totality of what happened, not even Calley.

For the better part of the morning, the squads were separate from each other and out of sight of one another. Some killings took place inside the huts or in the bush where no one could see. Some soldiers saw only a few killings; others saw many. But no one saw all the killing.

The dimensions of the slaughter were so enormous, that the exact number of dead will never be known. The Peers Report later estimated the loss of life in the hundreds: " is evident that by the time C Company was prepared to depart the area, its members had killed no less than 175-200 Vietnamese men, women and children."

The Criminal Investigation Division of the U.S. Army estimated 374 dead, not including personnel from Binh Tay, a nearby hamlet where additional killings took place. But the Vietnamese themselves, through an official report made to the Province chief and later forwarded to Division Headquarters at Chu Lai, charged that U.S. troops "assembled the people, and shot and killed more than 400 people at Tu Cung hamlet and 90 more in Co Luy hamlet." The official memorial in the village of My Lai lists 504 killed, "182 women, of whom 17 were pregnant, and 173 children, of whom 56 were of infant age. Sixty of the men were over 60 years old..."

South Vietnam Flag
South Vietnam Flag

By the afternoon of March 16, while the operation was still in progress, 11th Brigade headquarters at Duc Pho knew that something drastic had happened at My Lai 4. In the following days, officers of the Americal Division met several times at Chu Lai to discuss the operation. Although inquiries were made about the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, no disciplinary action was taken.

The internal investigations were mostly of a superficial nature and surmised that the dead at My Lai were accidental due to artillery fire preceding the ground attack. The Peers Report concluded in 1970 that the inquiries at Divisional level "appear to have been little more than a pretense of an investigation and had as their goal the suppression of the true facts concerning the events of 16 March."

In 1968, a soldier who completed his tour of duty in Vietnam wrote a letter to General Creighton Abrams, the commander of American Forces, about the mistreatment of the Vietnamese people by G.I.s. He received this reply from the assistant Chief of Staff of the Americal Division and future Secretary of State, then Major Colin L. Powell: "...relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."

The cover up continued for months and into 1969. Lies were told, false reports were filed and omissions were made by U.S. Army personnel. Some people claimed that there was no proof of an atrocity committed by the U.S. military. But one man knew better.

Only one person had the proof of what happened on March 16, 1968. Only one man had the irrefutable evidence of the killing and incredible brutality at My Lai. That man was Ron Haeberle, the Army photographer who witnessed the bloodbath, and his shocking photographs of the carnage would shame a nation and break the heart of America in a way it had never experienced before.



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