TIME, November 28, 1969:
It passed without notice when it occurred in mid-March [March 16] 1968, at a time when the war news was still dominated by the siege of Khe Sanh. Yet the brief action at My Lai, a hamlet in Viet Cong-infested territory 335 miles northeast of Saigon, may yet have an impact on the war. According to accounts that suddenly appeared on TV and in the world press last week, a cam-company of 60 or 70 U.S. infantrymen had entered My Lai early one morning and destroyed its houses, its livestock and all the inhabitants that they could find in a brutal operation that took less than 20 minutes. When it was over, the Vietnamese dead totaled at least 100 men, women and children, and perhaps many more. Only 25 or so escaped, because they lay hidden under the fallen bodies of relatives and neighbors.
What put My Lai on the front pages after 20 months was the conscience of Richard Ridenhour, 23, a former SP4 who is now a student at Claremont Men's College in Claremont, Calif. A Vietnam veteran, Ridenhour had known many of the men in the outfit involved in My Lai. It was C Company of the American Division's 11th Infantry Brigade. Ridenhour did not witness the incident himself, but he kept hearing about it from friends who were there. He was at first disbelieving, then deeply disturbed. Last March--a year after the slaughter--he sent the information he had pieced together in 30 letters, addressed them to the President, several Congressmen and other Washington officials.
Ridenhour's letter led to a new probe--and to formal charges of murdering "approximately 100" civilians at My Lai were preferred against one of C Company's platoon leaders, 1st Lieut. William Laws Calley Jr., a 26-year-old Miamian now stationed at Fort Benning, Ga.
According to the survivors, who spoke to newsmen last week at their shabby refugee camp at nearby Son My, the operation was grimly efficient. The inhabitants, who had a long record of sheltering Viet Cong, scrambled for cover around 6 a.m. when an hour-long mortar and artillery barrage began. When it stopped, helicopters swooped in, disgorging C Company's three platoons. One platoon tore into the hamlet, while the other two threw a cordon around the place. "My family was eating breakfast, when the Americans came," said Do Chuc, a 48-year-old peasant who claims to have lost a son and a daughter in the shooting that followed. "Nothing was said to us," he said. "No explanation was given."
My Lai, March 16, 1968
Photograph by Ronald L. Haeberle.
The first G.I.s to enter the hamlet were led by Lieut. Calley, a slight, 5-ft. 3-in. dropout (with four Fs) from Palm Beach Junior College who enlisted in the Army in 1966 and was commissioned in 1967. Some of Calley's men raced from house to house, setting the wooden ones ablaze and dynamiting the brick structures. Others routed the inhabitants out of their bunkers and herded them into groups.
My Lai, March 16, 1968.
Photograph by Ronald L. Haeberle
Few were spared. Stragglers were shot down as they fled from their burning huts. One soldier fired his M-79 grenade launcher into a clump of bodies in which some Vietnamese were still alive. One chilling incident was observed by Ronald L. Haeberle, 28, the Army combat photographer who had been assigned to C Company. He saw "two small children, maybe four or five years old. A guy with an M-16 fired at the first boy, and the older boy fell over to protect the smaller one. Then they fired six more shots. It was done very businesslike."
Strafe the town and kill the people
Let's declare a massacre.
Lay napalm in the square,
So you'll know that Jake was there,
Drop the candy in the courtyard,
Let the kiddies gather 'round.
Crank your twenty-millimeter,
Gun the little bastards down.
Come 'round early Sunday morning,
Catch the village unaware.
Drop a bunch of cluster bomblets,
Get 'em while they kneel in prayer.