America was bogged down in its anti-communist war against North Vietnam when in January 1968 Viet Cong guerrillas joined the regular North Vietnamese army to launch the Tet Offensive – a massive attack on US positions. Although the Americans stood their ground, they were badly shaken by the scale of the assault and the morale of the troops, already low, plummeted to their boots.
In March 1968, Charlie Company had only been in action for three months but they were already living on their edge of their nerves: five of them had been killed and others had been injured by mines or booby traps. They’d learned that absolutely anyone might be Viet Cong and that any patrol might, be their last.
As part of a retaliatory search-and-destroy mission, Charlie Company was sent to My Lai, a village that was supposedly a Viet Cong hideout. Three platoons under Second Lieutenant William Calley were dropped by helicopter just after dawn on March 16. The jittery GIs found no Viet Cong; instead they loosed some bullets on civilians. These first few indiscriminate shootings stirred a bestial bloodlust: the soldiers ran amok, attacking anything that moved – old men, women, children, babies, even animals – with a savagery that defies description. They used any weapon that came to hand in an orgy of violence that included rape and mutilation. Groups of civilians were rounded up and Lieutenant Calley personally supervised their mass execution.
The massacre was recorded as a ‘fierce firefight’ in which 128 Viet Cong and 22 civilians had been killed. The true horror of the My Lai massacre was successfully covered up by the Pentagon for 18 months, eventually coming to light in November 1969. The sickening revelations provoked a storm of anti-war protests throughout the USA. America had had enough.
When: March 16 1968
Where: My Lai, Vietnam
Death toll: US reports suggest 347 dead; there are 504 names on the memorial.
You should know: It later became apparent that officers far more senior than Lieutenant Calley had been complicit in encouraging the massacre. Of the 26 GIs sent for trial only Lieutenant Calley was convicted. He received a life sentence of which he served three years under house arrest before being quietly released.