Lt. Calley’s Trial for My Lai Massacre Begins
In what remains a shameful and controversial episode in United States military history, American soldiers on the morning of March 16, 1968, attacked the My Lai area, a series of hamlets in Vietnam, and killed anywhere from 347 to 504 villagers (estimates vary). The soldiers were looking for Viet Cong enemy, but only found unarmed, defenseless villages filled primarily with women, children and elderly people. There was absolutely no hostile fire, but the Americans started shooting anyway, killing everything they saw, people as well as livestock, and torching the homes. They also sexually abused some of the women and girls, and tortured and mutilated other victims.
The perpetrators managed to keep the massacre quiet for a year and a half, but in the fall of 1969 the media broke the story and the news flashed around the world. The U.S. Army charged 26 soldiers for their involvement in the illegal killings, but only one, Lt. William Calley, was convicted. On March 29, 1971, he was found guilty of the premeditated murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians. Sentenced to life in prison, he ended up serving three years on house arrest.
Calley’s defense was that he was only following orders, and therein lies the heart of the controversy. That same defense was used by 22 of Nazi Germany’s “Major War Criminals” at the famous Nuremberg Trials, conducted by the International Military Tribunal after WWII. When the Tribunal announced its judgment on Oct. 1, 1946, after a trial lasting over ten months, it issued this historic ruling: “Individuals have international duties which transcend national obligations of obedience.” The judgment went on to declare: “That a soldier was ordered to kill or torture in violation of the international law of war has never been recognized as a defense to such acts of brutality.”
After the judgment was read sentences were passed. Twelve Nazi leaders were sentenced to death, seven sentenced to imprisonment ranging from ten years to life, and three acquitted. Of the 12 sentenced for hanging, Goering committed suicide the night before the execution, and Bormann was in absentia. The other ten were hung on Oct. 16, 1946. By contrast, Calley spent three years in his own home and then was a free man.
The following newspaper article describes the opening day of Calley’s trial, on Nov. 17, 1970. It was published by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a newspaper that had been instrumental in breaking the story about the My Lai massacre the year before.
This is the copyrighted article about the commencement of Calley’s trial that the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) published on the front page of its Nov. 18, 1970, issue:
Calley Pictured at Slaying Scene
Bloodbath at My Lai
L.A. Times/Washington Post Service
Ft. Benning, Ga.—With the tight edge of outrage in his voice, a young Army prosecutor described the scene at My Lai hamlet to a military jury yesterday:
Some people were finishing breakfast when the troops came: one soldier cried as he did the killing; an old man pleaded for his life and was smashed in the face with a rifle butt; a child who survived the group slaughter was tossed into a ditch and murdered by Lt. William L. Calley, the platoon leader on trial for his own life.
Capt. Aubrey M. Daniel III, the 29-year-old prosecutor from Moncks Corner, S.C., thrust his chin out and addressed the six Army officers who make up the jury.
“We want you to be there,” he told them. “We want to put you there on 16 March, 1968.”
For 21 minutes in his opening statement, the captain took the stilled courtroom on a tour of the village—from a rice paddy west of My Lai where Company C landed in helicopters for its combat assault to the irrigation ditch where a stack of nameless bodies lay after the shooting.
In all, 102 victims are charged to Calley, on trial for premeditated murder. As the prosecutor spoke, the 27-year-old defendant sat expressionless, but flush.
Inexplicably, Calley grinned broadly at one point—when the prosecutor told how the platoon leader and a sergeant shot down “in cold blood” about 70 people. At the outset Calley pleaded not guilty.
“The victims are unnamed, gentlemen, and the government cannot prove the names,” Daniel conceded. But, he said, the government will prove that there was no combat at My Lai that day, only killing.
“There was no hostile fire,” he said, “they executed unarmed, unresisting old men, women and children.”
Daniel’s narrative was the first time the government has made a public account of what it believes Calley did at My Lai. The recital was sardonic, in a soft Southern accent.
Calley’s first platoon disembarked from the helicopters about 7:30 a.m., according to the prosecutor. “They didn’t receive any fire—no fire from the village,” he said.
The first platoon formed a line position with Company C’s second platoon and moved eastward through My Lai, but the captain said, “They found the village to be undefended. They found old men, women and children. None of them was armed. Some of them were still eating their breakfast.”
One group of these people was rounded up and gathered at an intersection of the two trails which crossed through the village. Daniel said Calley told PFC. Dennis I. Conti and Sgt. Paul Meadlo: “Take care of these people.”
“So Conti and Meadlo had these people sit down on the north-south trail,” Daniel said, “and started to guard them. That’s what they thought they were to do.”
A few minutes later, the prosecutor said, “Calley returns, finds Meadlo and Conti. ‘Why haven’t you taken care of these people?’ ‘Take care of them? We have taken care of them.’ Calley: ‘I mean kill ’em, waste ’em.’”
In his staccato style, Daniel described the shooting:
“The people were sitting there unarmed, unresisting, sitting on the trail. Conti stepped back. With full bursts of automatic fire, Meadlo and Calley shot those people. (Ronald Haeberle of Cleveland, an Army photographer at the scene) saw people trying to run—they didn’t make it.
“They were shot down dead in cold blood on that trail. Meadlo was crying—he was so repulsed at what he had to do at the direction of Lt. Calley.”
A short while later, Daniel said, another rifleman in the platoon, James Dursi, was rounding up civilians from the village and moving them out to an irrigation ditch which runs in a crescent along the southern edge of My Lai. He was joined by Calley, Sgt. David M. Mitchell and Meadlo, still crying.
“Calley orders his men, ‘Put these people in that irrigation ditch.’ And they were pushed and shoved into the ditch, and Calley ordered them executed—men, women and children—and they were,” the prosecutor charged.
“But James Dursi refuses. He won’t. And Meadlo cries, and he fires. Conti wanders off in shock.”
At that point a helicopter pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, was flying over and saw the bodies in the ditch, “and couldn’t believe it,” Daniel said. He landed, and Calley went over to talk to him.
“Calley returns to the ditch, talks to Sgt. Mitchell briefly and orders him to finish them off in the ditch,” Daniel said. “So Sgt. Mitchell with single shots proceeds to finish off any survivors of the initial burst of fire. Over 70 people were killed in that ditch.”
Mitchell, a staff sergeant, now is on trial himself at Ft. Hood, Tex., accused of assault with intent to murder 30 or more Vietnamese. Daniel did not specify how many died earlier at the trail intersection, but one of the prosecution’s first witnesses, former artillery forward observer Roger Alaux, testified yesterday that he saw 8 to 12 bodies there.
After the shooting Calley, his radioman and the others moved away from the ditch toward a group of trees. Then Calley personally killed two more people, according to the prosecutor.
“There was an old man by a tree,” Daniel said. “The man began to plead for his life. Calley butt-stroked him in the face with a rifle back into the rice paddy.” The lieutenant is charged with his murder, too.
“At that point,” Daniel said, rushing with the details, “someone yelled, ‘There’s a child getting away! There’s a child!’ A child somehow had miraculously survived that fire into the ditch. Calley went back and picked up the child, threw him into the ditch and shot him—killed him.”
As Daniel sat down, the quiet voice of Judge Reid W. Kennedy addressed the jury. “I want to remind you,” the judge said, “that what you have just heard constitutes the government’s allegations and is not to be regarded as evidence.”
George W. Latimer, 70, of Salt Lake City, who heads Calley’s four-man defense counsel, was on his feet.
“Your honor,” he said softly, “you took the words right out of my mouth.”
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