The US Shame of My Lai in Vietnam

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On the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War, we honor the efforts of Army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson to stop the madness and endure the quest for truth, and share the Vietnamese-made 2000 documentary, The Sound of the Violin in My Lai.

Vietnam War, My Lai Massacre

Vietnamese civilians killed by US Army soldiers during pursuit of Vietcong militia, as per order of Lieut. Wm. Calley Jr. (later court-martialed), an incident which later became known as the My Lai Massacre, on March 16, 1968 in My Lai, South Vietnam. (Photo by Ronald S. Haeberle//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

War is Hell, and Other Stories

March 16, 1968, among the rice paddy fields in the shadow of misty mountains, U.S. soldiers attacked the hamlet of My Lai, in the Son My region near the Central Vietnamese coast, today known as the My Lai massacre. US soldiers believed the village of My Lai was populated by National Liberation Front guerrillas, also known as Viet Cong. They were told the women and children would be away at market, but really the village was only populated by unarmed, mostly women, children, and older men.

Nevertheless, soldiers slaughtered more than 500 civilians, and some women were raped and tortured before being killed. The slaughter finally ended when a flight crew led by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson intervened by landing his scout helicopter and ordering his door gunner, Lawrence Colburn, to cover him, and to fire on the offending Charlie Company if they begin killing the Vietnamese at the bunker. He also persuaded the pilots of other helicopters overhead to land and evacuate the civilians.

Careerist officers in the US Army covered up the massacre until it was discovered and reported in 1969 by a young reporter named Seymour Hersh. He would reveal a 26-year-old soldier named (Lieutenant) William Calley was being investigated for killing 109 Vietnamese civilians. News of the event and its cover-up was met with international outrage.


The Vietnamese film The Sound of the Violin in My Lai, directed by Tran Van Thuy and produced by Vietnam War veteran Mike Boehm of the My Lai Peace Park Project.

Calley’s company—Calley had a platoon. There were three platoons that went in. They rounded up people and put them in a ditch. … The other companies just went along, didn’t gather people, just went from house to house and killed and raped and mutilated, and had just went on until everybody was either run away or killed. Four hundred and some-odd people in that village alone, of the 500 or 600 people who lived there, were murdered that day, all by noon, 1:00. At one point, one [Army Warrant Officer] helicopter pilot, a wonderful man named [Hugh] Thompson, saw what was going on and actually landed his helicopter. He was a small combat—had two gunners [his crew chief, Glenn Andreotta, and his gunner, Lawrence Colburn]. He just landed his small helicopter, and he ordered his gunners to train their weapons on Lieutenant Calley and other Americans. And Calley was in the process of—apparently going to throw hand grenades into a ditch where there were 10 or so Vietnamese civilians. And he put his guns on Calley and took the civilians, made a couple trips and took them out, flew them out to safety. He, of course, was immediately in trouble for doing that.  — Seymour Hirsch on Democracy Now

On the 30th anniversary of the massacre, Thompson went back to My Lai and met some of the people whose lives he had saved. “There were real good highs,” he told UC Irvine History Professor Jon Weiner, who interviewed him on KPFK, “and very low lows. One of the ladies that we had helped out that day came up to me and asked, ‘Why didn’t the people who committed these acts come back with you?’ And I was just devastated. And then she finished her sentence: she said, ‘So we could forgive them.’ I’m not man enough to do that. I’m sorry. I wish I was, but I won’t lie to anybody. I’m not that much of a man.”

…while even today the massacre is often portrayed as having been perpetrated by a unit of misfits, the cause was a failure in leadership, from the commander of Captain [Ernest] Medina’s division, Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Koster, to the platoon leader most closely associated with the killings, Second Lt. William Calley.  — Christopher J. Levesque in The New York Times

The war would continue for another seven years. Some scholars estimate as many as 3.8 million Vietnamese died during the war. Up to 800,000 perished in Cambodia, another 1 million in Laos. The U.S. death toll was 58,000.

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About Jack Eidt

Novelist, urban theorist, and environmental journalist, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature's all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion -- Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Planners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow him on Twitter @WilderUtopia and @JackEidt