The My Lai “Massacre”: A Closer Examination


LIFE magazine My Lai

When the story on the My Lai massacre broke in 1969, none would be the wiser by the cover of that week’s LIFE magazine. But inside that week’s issue was a story of horror and savagery that turned the tide against the Vietnam War in the court of public opinion. When US citizens saw color pictures of the carnage (remember, this was a time when color images were just emerging in print media), public support plummeted. However, if one reads closely, this massacre had a different angle that, if one reads carefully, may shed some life on the seemingly “innocent” victims. (Viewers may want to first familiarize themselves with the tenets of guerilla warfare before reading the following article)

Before we take a closer look at the incident at My Lai, keep the following questions in mind.

[1] Was there was a “deliberate slaughter” of villagers that day?

[2] What was the company of soldiers ordered to do to My Lai 4?

[3] Who was lined up by the ditch?

[4] What happened to these “people” that were lined up by the ditch?

[5] Were there any enemy weapons found in the village?

[6] Were there any enemies in the village? If so, what were their rank(s)?

[7] What did the men of C Company do with the survivors of the massacre?


My Lai18Below is the text of the December 5, 1969 story on the My Lai incident. 


The Massacre at My Lai.

Source: LIFE magazine; Volume 67, # 23: December 5, 1969.

Americal Division

The action at My Lai received only a passing mention at The weekly Saigon briefing in March of 1968. Elements of the Americal Division had made contact with the enemy near Quangngai city and had killed 128 Vietcong. There were a few rumors of civilian deaths, but when the Army looked into them-a month after the incident-it round nothing to warrant disciplinary measures. The matter might have ended there except for a former GI, Ron Ridenhour, now a California college student. After hearing about My Lai from former comrades, he wrote letters to congressmen warning that “something rather dark and bloody” had taken place. Now an officer has been charged with murder of  “an unknown number of Oriental human beings” at My Lai, and 24 other men of Company C, First Battalion, 20th infantry are under investigation. Congressmen are demanding to know what happened at My Lai, who ordered it, and whether or not U.S. troops have committed similar acts in Vietnam.

Because or it impending courts-martial, the Army will say little. The South Vietnamese government, which has conducted its own investigation, states that My Lai was “an act of war” and that any talk of atrocities is just Vietcong propaganda. This is not true. The pictures shown here by Ronald Haeberle, an Army photographer who covered the massacre, and the interviews on the following pages confirm a story of indisputable horror the deliberate slaughter of old men, women, children and babies. These eyewitness accounts, by the men or Company C and surviving villagers, indicate that the American troops encountered little if any hostile fire, found virtually no enemy soldiers in the village and suffered only one casualty, apparently a self-inflicted wound. The people of My Lai were simply gunned down.

On the day before their mission the men of Company C met for a briefing after supper. The company commander, Captain Ernest Medina, read the official prepared orders for the assault against My Lai and spoke for about 45 minutes, mostly about the procedures of movement. At least two other companies would also participate. They, like Company C, were elements of Task Force Barker, named for its commander, Lt. Colonel Frank Barker, who was to die in action three months later. But only Company C would actually enter the cluster or huts known as My Lai 4.

“Captain Medina told us that this village was heavily fortified,” recalls one of his squad leaders, Sgt. Charles West. “He said it was considered extremely dangerous and he wanted us to be on our toes at all times. He told us there was supposed to be a part of the 98th NVA Regiment and the 48th VC Battalion there. From the intelligence that higher levels had received he said, this village consisted only of North Vietnamese army, Vietcong, and VC families. He said the order was to destroy My Lai and everything in it.”

Captain Medina was a stocky, crew-cut, hard- nosed disciplinarian whom his men called “Mad Dog Medina.” Men respected him: to Charles West he was one of “the best officers I’ve known.” Most of them had served under Medina since the company had formed the previous year in Hawaii as C Company, First Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Light Infantry Brigade.

11th Light Infantry Brigade

“As far as I’m concerned, Charlie Company was the best company to ever serve in Vietnam,” says West. “Charlie Company was a company, not just a hundred and some men they call a company. We operated together or not at all. We cared about each and every individual and each and every individual’s problems. This is the way that we were taught by Captain Medina to feel toward each other. We were like brothers.”

My Lai 4 was one of nine hamlets, each designated by a number, which were clustered near the village of Songmy, a name sometimes used also for the hamlets. The men of Company C called the area “Pinkville” because it was colored on their military maps and because these fertile coastal plains long had been known as Vietcong territory. “Pinkville” was only seven miles northeast of the provincial capital of Quangngai, where, during Tet Offensive only a month before, Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops had boldly occupied portions of the city. Soon Company C would use the name “Pinkville” not only for the entire area, but for the single hamlet My Lai 4.

Company C had seen its first real combat in the previous weeks, all of it around “Pinkville”. A couple of weeks before, sniper fire from across the river had killed one man. His buddies believed the fire had come from My Lai 4. Two weeks before, enemy land mines had killed five men and wounded 22. Several days before, in a hamlet near My Lai 4, a booby trap made from an unexploded artillery shell had killed one of the GIs’ favorite squad leaders, Sgt. George Cox.

“I was his assistant squad leader,” recalls Charles West. “On the way back to camp I was crying. Everybody was deeply hurt, right up to Captain Medina. Guys were going around kicking sandbags and saying, ‘Those dirty dogs, those dirty bastards.'”

“You don’t call them civilians. To us they were VC.”


At the briefing, says West, “Captain Medina told us we might get a chance to revenge the deaths of our fellow GIs.” Afterward the men held a memorial service for George Cox, but the ritual of mourning was more like a pep rally for the forthcoming action.

“Captain Medina didn’t give an order to go in and kill women or children,” says West. “Nobody told us about handling civilians, because at the time I don’t think any of us were aware of the fact that we’d run into civilians. I think what we heard put fear into a lot of our hearts. We thought we’d run into heavy resistance. He was telling us that here was the enemy, the enemy that had been killing our partners. This was going to be our first real live battle, and we had made up our minds we were going to go in and with whatever means possible wipe them out.”

Shortly after, sunrise on March 16, 1968, a bright, clear, warm day, the helicopters began lifting approximately 80 men of Company C from the base camp at Landing Zone Dottie and delivering them 11 kilometers away in the paddies west of My Lai 4.

Army Photographer Sgt. Ron Haeberle and, both of the 31st Public Information Detachment, came in on the second helicopter lift. Haeberle, who had been drafted out of college, had only a week left on his tour in Vietnam. Neither man had seen much action. They had volunteered for this operation because the word was out that it would be “a hot one.” The squad the two were assigned to was getting its orders by walkie-talkie from Captain Medina. Haeberle was carrying three cameras-one for the Army, two of his own. (he turned in his black-and-white film to the Army. The Army took no action at that time but apparently intends to use the film as evivence in the court-martial proceedings.) Roberts, a college student who had volunteered for the draft, took pad and pencil. Their mission was to prepare news releases and a report for the brigade newspaper.

“We landed about 9 or 9:30 in a field of elephant grass,” says Varnado Simpson, then a 19-year-old assistant platoon leader from Jackson, Miss. Gunships had prepped the area with Miniguns and grenade launchers. It was clear and very warm and it got warmer. “Our landing zone was the outskirts of town, on the left flank. There were about 25 of us and we went directly into the village. There wasn’t any enemy fire. We’d come up on a hooch, we’d search it to see if there was someone in it. If there was no one in it, -we’d burn it down. We found people in some, and we took some back to the intelligence people for questioning. Some ran, we tried to tell them not to run. There were about 15. Some stopped. About five or six were killed.

“Off to the right,” says Haeberle, “a woman’s form. A head appeared from some brush. All the other GIs started firing at her aiming at her firing at her over and over again. She had slumped over into one of those things that stick out of the rice paddies so that her head was a propped-up target. There was no attempt to question her or anything. They just kept shooting at her. You could lee the bones flying, in the air chip by chip. Jay and I, we just shook our heads.”

Charles West led his squad of 13 men through the rice paddies and heard the sound of gunfire. They were coming down a sharp winding trail and were keeping a close watch for booby traps. They turned a curve in the trail and there. 25 feet ahead of them, were six Vietnamese, some with baskets, coming toward them. “These people were running into us,” he says. “away from us, running every which way. It’s hard to distinguish a mamasan from a papasan when everybody has on black pajamas.” He and his squad opened fire with their M-16s. Then he and his men kept going, down the road toward the sound of the gunfire in the village. “I had said in my heart already.” says West, “and I said in my mind that I would not let Vietnam beat me. I had two accomplishments to make. The first was to serve my government and to accomplish my mission while I was in Vietnam. My second accomplishment was to get back home.”

My Lai3

“There was a little boy walking toward us in a daze,” says Haeberle. “He’d been shot in the arm and leg. He wasn’t crying or making any noise.” Haeberle knelt down to photograph the boy. A GI knelt down next to him. “The GI fired three shots into the child. The first shot knocked him back, the second shot lifted him into the air. The third shot put him down and the body fluids came out. The GI just simply got up and walked away. It was a stroboscopic effect. We were so close to him it was blurred.”

“The people who ordered it probably didn’t think it would look so bad,” says Sgt. Michael A. Bernhardt who asserts he refused to take part in the killings.

As he entered the village, Bernhardt recalls, a plane was circling above warning the people in Vietnamese to leave. “Leaflets were dropped ahead of time. but that doesn’t work with the Vietnamese people. They have very few possessions. The village we went into was a permanent-type village. It had hard walls, tile roofs hard floors and furniture. The people really had no place to go. The village is about all they have. So they stay and take whatever comes.

“It was point-blank murder. Only a few of us refused. I just told them the hell with this, I’m not doing it. I didn’t think this was a lawful order.”

“To us they were no civilians.” says Varnado Simpson. “They were VC sympathizers. You don’t call them civilians. To us they were VC. They showed no ways or means that they wasn’t. You don’t have any alternatives. You got to do something. If they were VC and got away, then they could turn around and kill you. You’re risking your life doing that work. And if someone kills you, those people aren’t going to feel sorry for you.”

Varnado Simpson of Jackson, Miss. hasn’t forgotten the old woman and the child, dead in a smoldering doorway. “We saw a man running away from us, but he had a weapon. There were two running along with him. What else was there to do? Run up and beg them to stop? I had orders to shoot anyone that ran. They were about 20 yards away. I couldn’t see the child. I used my M-16 … I noticed it was a woman and child when I walked over. It’s hard to tell what they are from the back. The man? He got away.

“They can’t punish me for that. Big officials are saying it doesn’t matter that we were under orders, we’re still guilty-but I don’t see that. If you’re under orders, you’re going to be punished for not doing it and punished if you do. I didn’t like what happened, but I didn’t decide.”

Simpson’s grandmother saw this picture and said quietly, “Lord, have mercy.” William Calley Jr.’s platoon was the first to arrive in the center of My- Lai. “There was about 40, 45 people that we gathered in the center of the village,” ex-Pvt. Paul Meadio told CBS News. “And we placed them in there, and it was like a little island, right there in the center of the village, I’d say.

“Men, women, children. Babies. And we all huddled them up. We made them squat down, and Lieutenant Calley came over and said, “You know what to do with them, don’t you?” And I said yes. So I took it for granted that he just wanted us to watch them. And lie left, and came back about 10 or 15 minutes later, and said how come you ain’t killed them yet? And I told him that I didn’t think you wanted us to kill them, that you just wanted us to guard them. He said, “No, I want them dead.” He stepped back about 10, 15 feet, and he started shooting them. And he told me to start shooting. So I started shooting, I poured about four clips into the group.

“I fired them on automatic-you just spray the area and so you can’t know how many you killed ’cause they were going fast. “We’re rounding up more, and we had about seven or eight people. And we was going to throw them in the hootch, and well, we put them in the hootch and then we dropped a hand grenade down there with them. And somebody holed up in the ravine, and told us to bring them over to the ravine, so we took them back out, and led them over too-and by that time, we already had them over there, and they had about 70-75 people, all gathered up. So we threw ours in with them and Lieutenant Calley told me, he said, “Meadio, we got another job to do.” And so we walked over to the people, and he started pushing them off and started shooting … off into the ravine. It was a ditch. And so we started pushing them off and we started shooting them, so altogether we just pushed them all off, and just started using automatics on them. Men, women, and children.

And babies. And so we started shooting them, and somebody told us to switch off to single shot so that we could save ammo. So we switched off to single shot, and shot a few more rounds.”

There was no expression on the American faces,” says Haeberle. “I couldn’t believe it. They were destroying everything. They were doing it all very businesslike. The Vietnamese saw the Americans but didn’t run. They kept on walking until the GIs saw them and started shooting. Some of the people started pulling their animals off the road and hiding behind trees. The GIs were opening up with M-16s, machine guns and grenade launchers. The grenade launcher made a KAPLOW sound.”

Pfc. Charles Gruver of Tulsa, Okla., was the first eyewitness to report what he had seen to his old friend Ron Ridenhour, the man who set off the new Army investigation by writing to congressmen. Gruver says he had been in other operations around My Lai, “but we had never killed civilians before. We had never been under orders to wipe things out before.”

Gruver told Ridenhour of seeing a small boy, about three or four years old: “The boy was clutching his wounded arm with his other hand while blood trickled between his ringers. He just stood there with big eyes staring around like he didn’t understand. Then the captain’s RTO [radio operator] put a burst of 16 [M-16] fire into him.”

“On other missions,” says Sgt. West, “the GIs would take their fruit and maybe a can of pork and beans and give the rest to the Vietnamese people.” I always thought it would be a treat if I could give them my pears or my peaches or something like that. The people seemed like they appreciated it.

“Just about anywhere we went on an operation we always had kids following us, and most of the kids we would know by name. In a lot of cases I could actually say the people were actually looking out for us. Kids would meet us two or three miles outside a village. We didn’t have to use our mine-detecting machine to check out the trail because they would run their animals down the trail and walk behind them just to show us, GIs, we don’t want to hurt you and we know that you don’t want to hurt us.”

“We would tell the kids to eat the food and bring the cans back and dump them in a large pile. There was a saying that every time we ran into a booby trap, it turned out to be made of a can that we had given to the kids.”          

“Just outside the village,” says Reporter Jay Roberts, “there was this big pile of bodies. This really tiny little kid-he only had a shirt on, nothing else-he came over to the pile and held the hand of one of the dead. One of the GIs behind me dropped into a kneeling position, 30 meters from this kid, and killed him with a single shot.”

“I saw three heaps of bodies about the same size,” says Sgt. Bernhardt, “all with about 20 people. Thieu says the people were killed by artillery, which is ridiculous. The shell would have had to land dead zero to kill this many people in one spot, and it would have blasted them into the paddies.”

Haeberle and Roberts watched while troops accosted a group of women, including a teen-age girl. The girl was about 13 and wearing black pajamas. A GI grabbed the girl and with the help of others started stripping her.

“Let’s see what she’s made out of,” a soldier said.

“VC boom-boom,” another said, telling the 13-year-old girl that she was a whore for the Viet Cong.

“I’m horny,” said a third.

My Lai 9

As they were stripping the girl, with bodies and burning huts all around them, the girl’s mother tried to help her, scratching and clawing at the soldiers. Another Vietnamese woman, afraid for her own safety, tried to stop the woman from objecting. One soldier kicked the mother in the rear and another slapped her up a bit.

Haeberle jumped in to take a picture of the group of women. The picture shows the 13-year-old girl, hiding behind her mother, trying to button the top of her pajamas. “When they noticed Ron,” says Roberts, “they left off and turned away as if everything was normal.”

My Lai18

“I remember this man and his two small children,’ one boy and one girl, kept walking toward us on this trail,” says Haeberle. “They just kept walking toward us, you know, very nervously, very afraid, and you could hear the little girl saying, ‘No, no,’ in the Vietnamese tongue. The girl was on the right and the boy was on the left. All of a sudden, the GIs just opened tip and cut them down.”

Before noon Haeberle and Roberts left by chopper to cover another company and have lunch. Later that day, at another company, Haeberle heard a captain listening to a radio report. The report said 125 Vietcong had been killed. The captain didn’t know anything about tile incident, but he laughed and said, “Yeah, probably all women and children.”

Later, back at base camp, West talked to Haeberle. “He said he thought there was a whole lot of wrong-doing,” recalls West. “He had taken a whole lot of pictures of this. I stressed that I thought it was wrong that people should be walking around taking pictures of this. There were a whole lot of G Is going about taking pictures of dead bodies.

“Most of us felt that we were U.S. government property, which we were and still are. I tried to explain to the men at the time that you can’t sit there and blame yourself-you were on orders, you were on a search- and-destroy mission. If anyone was to he blamed or court-martialed, it has to be someone higher than our echelon. Calley and the sergeant shouldn’t be tried unless they try every man that was on that operation.”

“They captured three weapons [rifles],” says Roberts, “40 rounds or mortar ammo, grenades, web gear.

“We thought about My Lai a lot after we got back to Duchpho. But neither one of us was very much of a banner carrier.” When he wrote it up for the brigade newspaper, Roberts says, “I played it up like it was a big success.”

“The village was heavily fortified with rice,” says West. “They did find documents that there had been NVA and VC troops there. Also they found evidence That these people had been there not too long ago. I understand that they found ammunition and as far as Tunnels, I wouldn’t know because I checked into some tunnels and I ran into dead ends.”

“Eventually we reached the beach,” says John Kinch. “We captured four suspects, one kid, one 15 to 27, one 40 to 55 and a girl in her twenties. They were being beaten kind of hard and the kid named the older man as an NVA platoon leader. Medina drew his .38, took out five rounds and played Russian roulette with him. Then he grabbed him by the hair and threw him up against a tree. He fired two shots with a rifle, closer and closer to the guy’s head, then aimed straight at him. The guy must have been very seared because he started rapping like hell. He turned out to be an NVA area commander. Then Medina had a picture of himself taken while he drank from a coconut with one hand and held a big sharp knife under the throat of the kid who was gagged and tied to a bamboo.

“When we got back to LZ Dottie, Captain Medina gave the company a briefing. He said, ‘They are running an investigation. As far as anyone knows, we ran into sniper fire and cut loose.’ As far as I am concerned there was no sniper fire.”

Charles West and his squad stayed in My Lai until about 5 that afternoon. They camped in the same area that night, before moving on to find Viet- Cong nearer the coast the next day. Some of the men talked about writing their congressmen to protest the action, but they never did. Some were quiet and grim, but not many. “A lot or people knew,” Charles West says, “that a lot of people had been killed who didn’t have to be killed,. but the average GI felt that it was part of our mission. We all wondered where the enemy went. We were all concentrating on finding where they went.”

At suppertime they set up bivouac in a little graveyard near My Lai. Children and old papasans were hovering nearby. When the GIs opened their C- rations, they shared their supper with these Vietnamese who had survived the massacre.


After closer examination, could the My Lai be considered an enemy village?

[1] There had been sniper fire from the village in the preceding weeks that had killed American soldiers.

VC sniper

[2] There were VC booby-traps that had killed American GIs.

VC booby trap

[3] They found more rice than was needed by the number of villagers in My Lai.

VC rice

[4] There were documents that had said the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) soldiers had been in the village in the days preceding the operation.

VC doc

[5] They found grenades and B-40 RPG rockets (Rocket Propelled Grenades).

B-40 RPG

[6] They found web gear.

web gear

[7] They also found an NVA area commander.

[8] They found tunnels.


LT Calley



       Lt Calley book

In LT Calley’s book, he talks about how his unit would enter a village and almost immediately one of his men would trip a booby-trap. However, the villagers never tripped any of these booby-traps. Soon he realized that these villagers never tripped the booby-traps because they KNEW WHERE THEY WERE. That begs the question, how did they know these booby-traps were there? LT Calley soon realized the villagers knew where they were because either they had planted them, or knew the person(s) who had planted them. Thus, he surmised that the villagers were VC or VC sympathizers.


Mark Lane wrote how these types of “My Lai” operations were NOT the exception to the rule on US military operations against the villages. Lane interviewed soldiers who had to deal with these Vietnamese “civilians” who looked identical to the VC guerillas. Many US soldiers who experienced similar combat operations came home with horrible cases of PTSD. In fact, when soldiers came home after surviving in this surreal combat environment, many US citizens (including family and friends) called them, “baby-killers” and treated them horribly. In many cases, Vietnam vets would hide the fact that they had served in Vietnam; out of fear of retaliation. This lead to many committing suicide. The suicide rate amongst Vietnam veterans is 3 times the combat death rate. Many Vietnam vets are still reluctant to talk about their war experiences with people who have no clue about guerilla warfare. Most of these GIs themselves had no clue about guerilla warfare until they were experiencing it first-hand.

  Calley TIME Calley NW 2 Cally NewsweekCalley arrested


After the media attention given to the My Lai incident, the anti-war protests grew to unprecedented heights. In fact, the anti-war sentiments were transformed into anti-draft feelings. The protesters figured if they could stop the draft, they would ultimately end the war itself. They were correct. In order to end the draft, the anti-war people came up with clever ways to highlight their message. In the example below, they tied sexual activities with protesting the draft/ war.


girls say yes


Even today if you Google My Lai, you will find that the incident is portrayed in a very negative light. Even the history books perpetuate the story as indiscriminate killing. I’m NOT summarily condoning what took place that day, but most people read that LIFE magazine article and didn’t recognize that there was some information that would have refuted the official version of the story that called it an outright massacre of “innocent” villagers. Was the event unfortunate? Of course it was. The entire war was unfortunate. It was unfortunate that young men and women had to go experience the horrors of war yet experience a guerilla war without really knowing about guerilla war itself. Many Vietnam vets couldn’t wrap their heads around the world they experienced in Vietnam. So next time you learn that someone is served in Vietnam, don’t be so eager to judge them and what they had to endure to survive in a war they barely understood.



pete padillla

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