The Long Shadow of My Lai
Merle Wilberding’s article on My Lai (“What Really Happened in Pinkville,” April) places the massacre at the feet of Lieutenant William Calley and a handful of grunts, even while downplaying the number of murdered Vietnamese. In fact, the massacre involved all C/1-20th Infantry (the company commander and all three rifle platoon leaders pulled triggers along with their men) plus a platoon from B/4-3rd, as well as gunship pilots who cut down those civilians fleeing the ground sweep. It involved the destruction of not only My Lai 4, but also neighboring My Khe 4 and Binh Tay.
In other words, two companies, being super vised from above by the task force commander, the brigade commander and the division commander, methodically shot and burned their way through three hamlets, leaving approximately 500 dead civilians in their wake. There were also numerous rapes. All of this was confirmed by the Army’s own investigation.
Perhaps it is easier to pin the tail on a donkey like Calley than to accept that a battalion-size unit conducted an illegal operation at the behest of officers who then played cover-up when certain outraged junior officers reported what they had witnessed. Those were tough times, and ugly things happened. It wasn’t just Calley, however consoling that thought.
Weldon Spring, Mo.
After reading Merle F. Wilberding’s article, I was left speechless—and angry! Does the author simply have no grasp of his material? Or does he set out to whitewash and reverse the facts?
The question “What really happened at Pinkville?” was answered a long time ago by extensive research, not only by journalists, but also by the American military itself. “Some say 20, some say 100, some say 500” were killed in My Lai? Dead wrong! Since the early 1970s, the verified number is known to be at least 350 in My Lai 4 alone, not taking into account other civilian deaths occuring only miles away at the same time.
The author’s attempt to link My Lai to the previous Tet Offensive is pure speculation and further serves to give the actions at My Lai some sort of excuse, if not justification.
Furthermore, Wilberding paints the whole incident more or less as the crime of a single man by putting Calley’s actions against those of several men who refused to participate in the killing. Dead wrong again! It wasn’t just Calley’s platoon, it was a company-size operation with more than 100 men participating. That’s to say nothing of the widespread rape and mutilations that took place during the operation—which Wilberding most certainly does not mention since it doesn’t serve his purpose.
Courage is not exclaimed, it’s exhibited. Hugh Thompson did what was right at My Lai, and the right thing is often the hardest to do. Fortunately for me, as an infantryman in Vietnam, I never encountered such a dilemma. I have no idea how I would have acted. I was 19 years old, and I had officers I admired. I cherished their respect for me, so if ordered to do something, I would have felt great pressure to follow their orders, and great pressure to do what my fellow soldiers were doing. No man wants to be viewed as a wimp, so some behave cowardly to show courage.
In the murky world of combat, camaraderie acts to counter fear. In that environment, errors in judgment occur, because false courage supersedes character. I don’t think I had in me what Hugh Thompson had; few did.
San Diego, Calif.
I found the article by Merle Wilberding too narrow in focus. It basically was a contrast between William Calley and Hugh Thompson, a legal view of black and white. But if you were in Vietnam, you know it was never that simple. I think a little context is in order. The 11th Light Infantry Brigade was formed in Hawaii. I was in Company A, and Calley was in Company C. I was not in My Lai and I have never spoken to Captain Ernest Medina. My comments are based on my knowledge of the individuals involved. When we hit Vietnam, Company C had its share of hardship.
One platoon leader was killed shortly after he arrived in country. It was a gruesome incident in which he pulled out punji stakes in a boobytrapped boobytrap. Another platoon leader was killed when he was shot through the neck by a sniper. At the time of My Lai, there were two other rifle platoon leaders with Calley, one being Steve Brooks. As Mr. Wilberding states, all the platoons were present in My Lai; but there is no mention of the activities of the other platoons.
I saw Brooks again that summer in Chu Lai. He told me something bad had happened, but he did not go into details. He did tell me that he had extended his tour, and there was angst in his voice, as if he could not go home. I found out later that he was KIA in 1969. For the record, Steve was a fine man and his life might have turned out differently if he had not been associated with Medina. His only crime was being young and impressionable.
I believe that Calley was young and impressionable also, and that his actions partly reflect his desire for approval from Medina. I have no idea why someone would shoot the innocent and the elderly, but I have seen incidents where such people became the focus of a soldier’s rage.
In one case, it was after a fellow soldier was killed by a boobytrap while eating his lunch. This time, however, another soldier stepped in, saying, “I know how you feel, but this is not the right thing to do.”
I consider My Lai a bizarre anomaly, something that should not have happened but did happen because of an unusual alignment of individuals, their personalities and the situation. There was, however, a definite depersonalization of the Vietnamese.
I was fortunate never to be exposed to such a circumstance.
Marco Island, Fla.
Author Merle Wilberding replies: The letters certainly reflect the intensity of the feelings about the events at My Lai.
Mr. Flynn correctly notes that my article concentrates on William Calley and Hugh Thompson—too much, in his view. More than a dozen books have been written about My Lai, and each of them adds a unique perspective to a different facet of My Lai. I chose to concentrate on the evidence presented in the Calley court-martial because I believe that it constitutes its own unique perspective on the events, particularly because the retelling of the events at his courtmartial was firsthand and presented as sworn testimony under penalty of perjury.
Mr. Gewinner’s concerns are a testament to the continuing controversy of the actions at My Lai, their treatment in history and their im pact on military training and military justice. Mr. Gewinner asserts that the “verified” number of dead victims was “at least 350 in My Lai 4 alone.” I said that the number of victims killed by Calley’s platoon in My Lai was “some say 20, some say 100, some say 500.” In the early 1970s there were estimates of 500 or more, which suggests that the reader’s point of 350 is within the purview of my statement. The number “veri fied” by the Calley prosecution was “not less than twenty.”
When Lieutenant Calley was charged with the murders by his platoon, he was charged in Specification 1 of “not less than 30” and in Specification 2 of “not less than 70” (total: 100). The court-martial at Fort Benning said “not less than 20” and so found in its guilty verdict. This number was affirmed by the Army Court of Military Review, 46 CMR 431 (1973) and by the U. S. Court of Military Appeals, 22 USCMA 534 (1973).
Mr. Gewinner wants more emphasis on other members of the platoon who participated in the killings but were not charged and, perhaps more to the reader’s point, were not named in the article. As I said in the article, “the primary reason that others were not convicted is that the most culpable individuals had already been discharged from the Army,” leaving the military without any jurisdiction to prosecute them.
As a prosecutor, the purpose of my article was not to justify the actions of Calley, his platoon or Charlie Company. Instead it was to focus on Calley and the continuing impact of his conviction in military law and in our society.
I drew from the facts in the trial transcripts and judicial opinions. One of the reasons for continuing controversy about My Lai is that different people draw different conclusions from those very same facts.
So, Where Was Pinkville?
The 1968 edition of AMS 1:50,000, Series L7014, Sheet 6739 II “Quang Ngai” shows clearly that the “reddish-pink” area referred to by the author was My Lai (1) and not the scene of the attack by Charlie Company, which was My Lai (4).
The issue is complicated because Vietnamese and American names for specific Vietnamese administrative divisions did not necessarily coincide, namely at the subhamlet level. South Vietnamese administrative divisions were composed of provinces, districts, villages, hamlets and sub-hamlets. There were also a number of autonomous municipalities such as Hue, Da Nang and Sai Gon.
The author correctly refers to Son My village (also known as Tinh Khe), but he incorrectly spells it Song My. Son My village was composed of four hamlets: (1) Tu Cung, (2) My Khe (also known as Truong Dinh), (3) My Lai and (4) Co Luy. Each hamlet was composed of a number of sub-hamlets.
One of the sub-hamlets of Tu Cung hamlet was Thuan Yen (also known as Xom Lang); on American maps this was designated My Lai (4). One of the sub-hamlets of My Lai hamlet was My Khe (not to be confused with My Khe hamlet); on Ameri – can maps My Khe sub-hamlet was labeled My Lai (1). My Lai (1) was a built-up area and colored reddish-pink on 1:50,000 topographic maps, thus “Pinkville.” Route 521 ran through My Khe sub-hamlet. My Lai (4) was two kilometers from My Lai (1).
The author mentions that “some say” 20 or 100 or 500 were killed in what came to be known as the “My Lai Massacre.” The present-day Son My Memorial has a “wall” that lists the names of 504 people allegedly killed on March 16, 1968. This includes the names of 97 people killed at My Hoi subhamlet of Co Luy hamlet; My Hoi subhamlet was designated My Khe (4) on American maps. My Hoi sub-hamlet was the scene of the attack by Bravo Company. It was about 21⁄2 kilometers from My Lai (4).
The “My Lai Massacre,” normally associated with Charlie Company, took place in Quang Ngai province, Son Tinh district, Son My village, Tu Cung hamlet, Thuan Yen (Xom Lang) sub-hamlet (My Lai (4)). The less well-known incident, associated with Bravo Company, took place in My Hoi sub-hamlet (My Khe (4)) of Co Luy hamlet. It seems that “My Lai” has become a generic term and synonymous with a village or a hamlet or “Pinkville.”
For additional reading, I recommend the report of the U.S. House of Representative’s Armed Service Committee, published in July 1970, “Investigation of the My Lai Incident” and the 2006 work by Kendrick Oliver, The My Lai Massacre in American History and Memory.
Daniel R. Arant
Any More Volunteers?
On September 22, 1969, I was inducted into the Army in Buffalo, N.Y. Standing at attention, a large Marine went down the line stopping in front of each of us. They were selecting “a few good men for the best team,” to quote him. He chose a handful, and I felt fortunate at the time to be among them. I was discharged in 1971 after serving a year in Vietnam.
Green Harbor, Mass.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.