Warm Southern Breeze

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This Day in History, March 16 — My Lai Massacre, 1968

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Thursday, March 16, 2023

The road out of My Lai littered with bodies.

On March 16, 1968, 55 years ago today, approximately 350-500 unarmed civilian men, women, children, and infants were slaughtered by U.S. Army soldiers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, and Company B, 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division (aka the “Americal Division”), in what quickly became known as the “My Lai Massacre.”

Initially reported by the US Army as a “day-long battle” against Communists, many women, and children as young as 12, were brutally gang-raped before being murdered, and their corpses mutilated. The massacre occurred in two hamlets of the Son My village in Quảng Ngãi Province, marked on U.S. Army maps as Mỹ Lai and Mỹ Khê in South Vietnam.

A woman and her child lie dead on the ground.

The crime scene and event was later called “the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War.”

A total of 26 American soldiers were charged with various criminal offenses, but only Lieutenant William Calley, Jr., a  platoon leader in C Company, was convicted of any crimes.

In a general court martial, he was found guilty of murdering 22 villagers, and sentenced to life in prison with hard labor at Fort Leavenworth, KS, the DOD’s maximum security prison, but 3 days after his conviction, POTUS Richard M. Nixon ordered him released, and commuted the sentence to 3.5 years of house arrest at Fort Benning, GA.

Though Army officials were aware of it, they had initially covered up the massacre, and had it not been for Ronald Lee Ridenhour, who at the time was serving in the United States 11th Infantry Brigade in Vietnam, the nation and world might not have ever known about those American war crimes. Upon first hearing about the events, he began to interview eye witnesses, and participants’ accounts shortly before his tour of duty concluded, and in April 1969, after returning stateside, nearly 13 months after the atrocities occurred, he wrote several letters to various government officials detailing his findings, including POTUS NIXON, 24 Members of Congress, as well as 5 Senior officials at the State Department, Secretary of Defense, and Joint Chiefs of Staff, all of which initiated a full-scale investigation into the matter.

A woman, Nguyen Thi Tau, murdered by U.S. soldiers, lies dead on the ground.

The trial was a public spectacle, and POTUS NIXON made several publicly prejudicial remarks supporting Calley, for which Army Prosecutor Aubrey M. Daniel III took him to task in a letter. Over 100 soldiers were called to testify, but many refused citing their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Only Private First Class Paul David Meadlo, who was granted immunity from prosecution, testified — after being threatened with contempt of court charges by the judge if he did not.

Following Lieutenant Calley’s conviction and sentence, law required a mandatory review by the United States Army Court of Military Review, and the United States Court of Military Appeals, both which sustained the conviction and sentence.

A man and his son lie dead in the dirt.

Many Americans thought his sentence was too harsh, including several states’ Governors, such as Indiana’s Governor Edgar Whitcomb, the Governors of Mississippi and Utah, Georgia’s Jimmy Carter, and Alabama’s George Wallace, who visited him in the stockades, and plead publicly for a Presidential Pardon. Of the communications received by the White House on the matter, the ratio was 100 to 1 favoring leniency, and public polling found that 81% of Americans asked thought so as well, and 69% thought he’d been made a scapegoat.

Calley exercised his Constitutional rights and appealed his conviction to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, where Judge J.Robert Elliott found he’d been improperly convicted — based upon findings of extensive pre-trial publicity, the military court’s refusal to permit certain witnesses for the defense, the refusal of the United States House of Representatives to release testimony taken in executive session about the My Lai massacre, and inadequate notice of charges — granted a writ of habeas corpus, and ordered him released on bail.

Dead bodies lie by a home, set on fire by American troops.

The Army appealed Judge Elliott’s decision, whereupon Secretary of the Army Howard H. “Bo” Callaway reviewed Calley’s conviction and sentence as required by law, and upon conclusion of the court martial and review, the Court of Military Review, and Court of Military Appeals, Secretary Callaway reduced Calley’s sentence to 10 years. But a 3-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the District Court’s ruling and returned Calley to custody. Again, Lieutenant Calley appealed to Judge Elliott, and asked Fifth Circuit Judge Lewis F. Powell, Jr. to set him free on bail as his appeal wound its way though the legal system, but was denied.

A man lies dead on the ground.

And again, the District Court found that he’d been improperly convicted based upon the previous findings of pre-trial publicity, denial of defense witnesses, and improperly drawn charges, and ordered him released. Whereupon the U.S. Government then appealed that decision, and again sent the case to Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard the Army’s appeal en banc, and ruled 8-5 to overturn the District Court’s decision, and ordered his conviction and sentence reinstated.

However, because there were only 10 days remaining in his commuted 3.5 year sentence of house arrest before being eligible for parole, and because Army Secretary Callaway expressed intention to parole him as soon as possible, the Army refused to incarcerate Calley for the remaining 10 days of his sentence. Calley then, yet again, appealed the Fifth Circuit Court’s ruling to the Supreme Court of the United States, which declined a hearing.

Thereafter he lived in Columbus, GA, was married, and Judge Elliott attended the small ceremony. He became a gemologist, obtained a real estate license, fathered one son, and was divorced around 2005 claiming prostate cancer and various gastrointestinal problems which rendered him incapable of supporting himself. And in 2009 he spoke publicly to the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus, GA and apologized for ordering the massacre.

Lt. William Calley arrives at a pre-trial hearing prior to his court martial for his involvement in the My Lai massacre. February 11, 1970.

Since 2018, he has resided in Gainesville, FL.

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