AMERICAN EXPERIENCE “My Lai” on WXXI-TV

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE “My Lai” on WXXI-TV

Mon, 04/26/2010 - 9:00pm - 10:30pm
Ron Haberle’s photos of My Lai were published in The Cleveland Plain Dealer more than a year after the events of March 16, 1968. Pictured: A soldier burning down a hut in My Lai village.

Credit: Ron Haberle; courtesy of National Archives

The 1968 My Lai massacre, its cover-up and the soldiers who broke rank to halt the atrocities.

“I felt then and I still do that I acted as I was directed, and I carried out the orders that I was given, and I do not feel wrong in doing so, sir.”
 − Testimony of Lt. William Calley at his court martial, 1970
 
What drove a company of American soldiers — ordinary young men from around the country — to commit the worst atrocity in American military history? Were they “just following orders” as some later declared? Or did they break under the pressure of a vicious war in which the line between enemy soldier and civilian had been intentionally blurred? Today, as the United States once again finds itself questioning the morality of actions taken in the name of war, director Barak Goodman focuses his lens on the 1968 My Lai massacre, its subsequent cover-up and the heroic efforts of the soldiers who broke ranks to try to halt the atrocities and then bring them to light.  
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE “My Lai” airs Monday, April 26 at 9 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT21.1/cable 11/cable 1011).
 
On March 16, 1968, a company of American soldiers entered the village of My Lai, located in Quang Ngai Province in central Vietnam. Frustrated by their inability to directly engage the enemy and emotionally devastated by the ongoing casualties their unit had sustained, the men had been told that this was their chance finally to meet the Viet Cong head on. By the end of the day, they had shot and killed 507 unarmed and unresisting men, women and children, none of them apparently members of the enemy forces. Most of the survivors hid under the dead bodies of their families and neighbors. The incident, subsequently known as the My Lai Massacre, would only come to light more than a year later, when shocking photos of the atrocities were splashed across the pages of national newsmagazines and the evening newscasts, further eroding public support for the war in Vietnam.
 
“My Lai” features the first-ever in-depth interview with Aubrey Daniel, the prosecutor in the subsequent case against Lieutenant Calley, as well as testimony from several members of Charlie Company who have never spoken on film before, including Thomas Turner, Thomas Partsch, Joseph Grimes, John Smail, Gregory Olsen and Lawrence LaCroix. The film also reveals the remarkable story of Hugh Thompson and his fellow flyers in the 123rd Aviation Battalion who witnessed the massacre from the air and risked their careers and lives to help the villagers. Also included are interviews with Vietnamese survivors of the massacre and never-before-heard audio recordings made by the original Pentagon investigating team, led by General Raymond Peers, as well as never-before-seen footage shot by the soldiers of Charlie Company itself. 
 
Charlie Company
 
The young men, about 140 of them, who made up Charlie Company, First Battalion, 20th infantry, represented a cross-section of America: From the East, West, North and South, they were black and white, Mexican-American and Mormon. Under the leadership of Captain Ernest Medina, they became a tight-knit group.
 
Early training for the unit included a stint in Hawaii, where the young soldiers were trained in jungle warfare. But this simulated training did little to prepare the men for the horrors of Vietnam. Once overseas, Charlie Company was detailed to Task Force Barker, operating in the northern province of Quang Ngai, known to the Army as Pinkville and one of the bloodiest areas of conflict in all of Vietnam. Sent out on search-and-destroy missions, they suddenly started to lose men, one after another — horrific bloody deaths from snipers’ bullets mines, and booby traps that would instantly dismember a man without the slightest warning.
 
“The infantryman lives on the ground. He walks on the ground, he sleeps on the ground, he eats on the ground. But, when you've got booby traps and land mines all of a sudden the earth becomes the enemy in a way, because you don't know what it may conceal that can kill you.” – Philip Caputo
 
Demoralizing and psychologically unsettling, this strange and terrifying form of combat continued day after day, for nearly two months, with soldiers unable even to see their enemies or distinguish friend from foe in the villages they walked through every day. 
 
On March 15, Charlie Company was told that they were going to finally face the 48th Vietcong infantry battalion head on the following day. The brigade commander charged his officers to be aggressive with the enemy, and Captain Medina fired up the troops. This was it. This would be their chance finally to avenge the deaths of their fallen comrades.
 
According to sworn testimony, Captain Medina told the soldiers that there would be no civilians, or “innocents,” in the village on March 16, and anyone who was present was an enemy or enemy sympathizer. But that information was false; the Vietcong were 150 miles away on the other side of the province. Lieutenant Calley, the especially gung-ho leader of the 1st Platoon of Charlie Company, told his men to enter My Lai firing, but when the initial smoke cleared, they saw only unarmed elderly men, women and children emerging from their houses in terror. A few minutes later the shooting started.
 
“Once the first civilian was killed it was too late, period. Whoever killed the first civilian, that was the end of the situation. It went out of control.” − Fred Widmer, Charlie Company
 
November 12, 1969
 
The American public remained unaware of what had happened in My Lai until reporter Seymour Hersh broke the story in 30 U.S. newspapers. He based his story on conversations with Ron Ridenhour, a former member of Charlie Company (though not present at My Lai), who had sent letters to various government officials urging them to investigate “something rather dark and bloody” that had happened in Vietnam. His letters, at first ignored, eventually resulted in Lieutenant Calley’s being charged with murder in September 1969. A week after Hersh’s story, My Lai was covered in Time and Newsweek, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer published the now-infamous, still tragic photos of the bloody lifeless bodies by the side of the road.
 
The images, seared into the minds of the American public, raised serious questions about what was really going on in Vietnam.
 
The U.S. Army commissioned an investigation, eventually charging more than 20 men with wrongdoing. The commission concluded that there had been widespread failures of leadership, discipline and morale. On March 29, 1971, Lieutenant Calley was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison, causing a firestorm of public outcry. Anti-war Americans saw Calley as a scapegoat for a corrupt military; those in favor saw him as a dedicated soldier who had only been carrying out orders.
 
Public sentiment overwhelmed the White House, and President Nixon ordered Calley released and confined to his quarters pending a review of his conviction. In total, he ended up serving four-and-a-half months in a military prison. Captain Medina was acquitted, having denied that he gave any orders for the massacre. None of the other military men initially charged were ever convicted. 
 
“People had begun to say to themselves, ‘Well, what are we doing to these people? What are we doing to them?’ And, then, with My Lai, I think people began to say, ‘What is it doing to us?’” − Jonathan Schell
 
The lasting effects of My Lai on a war-weary American public were increasingly felt. Demands for withdrawal from Vietnam continued to grow, while others questioned the idea of blind loyalty to military leadership, the effectiveness of a military draft for finding suitable recruits and the wisdom of a war whose success was measured on the nightly news by body counts. Today, the My Lai Massacre is still considered the worst case of an American war crime. 
 
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.” − William Calley, August 19, 2009
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