William Calley Became the Poster Boy for our Mistakes in Vietnam
William Calley was living a life without direction when he joined the United States Army in 1967. He had dropped out of his Florida high school in 1964. The numerous jobs he had held between 1964 and 1967 were varied, low in pay, and dead ends. Calley wanted a career, and the Army seemed like his only good option.
He went through basic training and then officer candidate school, where he managed to squeak through and earned a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. His new career seemed off to a promising start.
In December of 1967, Calley found himself on the way to Vietnam as a platoon leader in the 11th Light Infantry Brigade. Weeks after his arrival Calley found his platoon fighting the Viet Cong’s 48th Regiment during the Tet Offensive.
In March of 1968, his platoon was sent out to fight back against the 48th Regiment of Viet Cong in a hamlet identified as My Lai on the coast of Vietnam, south of Da Nang. The operation was described as a retaliation for Tet and that My Lai was in an area heavily populated by the Viet Cong.
Calley took these words to heart. With only three months in country, he wanted revenge and to prove himself. They entered the village and unexpectedly received no resistance or observe any suspicious activity. That did not dissuade them from there mission of revenge.
Calley didn’t start the killing as his platoon entered the village. Witnesses stated one soldier bayoneted a villager. Then another pushed a man into a well and killed him by dropping a grenade in after him.
That is when Calley seemingly lost his mind. He began ordering soldiers to shoot the villagers. Calley himself was shooting children indiscriminately. The murders did not stop there. Lieutenant Calley ordered his soldiers to burn the village and round up its residents. Dozens of them were marched out of the village together and shot. Several rapes allegedly occurred during this homicidal spree.
Helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, circling overhead, knew something was wrong. He circled lower for better view, eventually landing and observing the results of Calley’s platoon’s rampage. He attempted to help the villagers but was rebuffed by Lt Calley personally. He did report the murders to his supervisor immediately upon his return to base. And then….
Nothing. Nothing came of Thompson’s report for months. The Army even gave him a Distinguished Service Cross for a made-up action to acknowledge his attempt to stop Calley’s platoon. It looked like a complete coverup was in the works.
Eventually a soldier assigned to Thompon’s unit wrote letters to several members of Congress about the massacre. Word got back to the Army that the incident needed to be addressed.
On September 9, 1969, the Army quietly charged Calley with six specifications of premeditated murder for the deaths of 109 South Vietnamese civilians. It was not until November of 1969 that the story made it to the media. Of course, the horror did not help with the public perception of the increasingly unpopular war.
The Army initially charged 26 men with crimes related to the massacre and its coverup. The only one convicted was Lieutenant William Calley. On March 29, 1971, he was convicted of murder at his court martial and sentenced to life in prison. Everyone else was acquitted.
Through a series of appeals and commutations, Calley’s sentence was reduced to 10 years. He only wound up doing 3 1/2. The Army released him in 1974. Calley went on to live a mundane and seemingly normal life. He currently lives in Gainsville, Florda.
When speaking of the massacre, Calley is quoted as saying, “There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in Mỹ 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.”