On 16 March 1968, Charlie Company of the US 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade, arrived in the village of Mỹ Lai after an initial barrage from US artillery. In the next four hours, US soldiers killed indiscriminately – targeting unarmed women, children and the elderly. At the end of the massacre, over 500 civilians had been killed.
Mỹ Lai, a subdivision of Sơn Mỹ village, was located in the province of Quảng Ngãi, roughly 7 miles (11 km) northeast of Quảng Ngãi city. The area had been dubbed “Pinkville” by US soldiers because of the reddish colour used to indicate the resistance area of Mỹ Lai area on military maps, densely populated by Việt Cộng. By the time Charlie Company arrived in Vietnam in December 1967, “Pinkville” had earned a reputation as a heavily mined hotbed of Việt Cộng activity. In January 1968 Charlie was one of three companies tasked with the destruction of the 48th Battalion, an especially effective Việt Cộng unit operating in Quảng Ngãi Province. Throughout February and early March, Charlie Company suffered dozens of casualties due to mines and booby traps, but it failed to engage the 48th Batallion.
Intelligence suggested that the 48th Batallion had taken refuge in the Mỹ Lai area, though in reality, that unit was in the western Quảng Ngãi highlands more than 40 miles away. In a briefing on 15 March, Charlie Company’s commander, Captain Ernest Medina, told his men that they would finally be given the opportunity to fight the enemy that had eluded them for over a month. Believing that civilians had already left the area for Quảng Ngãi city, he directed that anyone found in Mỹ Lai should be treated as a Việt Cộng fighter or sympathizer. Under these rules of engagement, soldiers were free to fire at anyone or anything. Moreover, the troops of Charlie Company were ordered to destroy crops, buildings and to kill livestock.
The result of the massacre and subsequent justice tribunals left people around the world stunned by America’s brutality in Vietnam. The US Army brought charges against 14 American soldiers involved in the massacre, including high-ranking officers, but all bar one of the charges were dismissed because of a lack of evidence. Only Lieutenant William Calley, the officer who lead Charlie Company’s 1st Platoon, was charged with the murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians. However, in 1971, Lieutenant Calley was paroled.
Separate inquiries were opened by military personnel and journalists alike. In April 1968 Ronald Ridenhour, a helicopter door gunner who had trained with members of Charlie Company, began an informal investigation of the massacre after learning of it from troops who had been present that day. Ridenhour spent the rest of his time in Vietnam gathering eyewitness testimonies. On returning to the United States and separated from the Army, Ridenhour mailed a report of his findings on the “Pinkville incident” to members of Congress, the Pentagon and other parties in Washington. This letter sparked official investigations of both the massacre itself and the subsequent cover-up. On 26 November 1969, Lieutenant General William Peers probed the cover-up of the Mỹ Lai incident at virtually every level of command. Seymour Hersh, a veteran journalist and war correspondent, worked with Lieutenant Calley’s defence team to investigate the massacre. In November 1969, Hersh’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of “point-blank murder” at Mỹ Lai appeared in newspapers along with eye-witness photos by Sergeant Ron Haeberle, a US Army photographer attached to Charlie Company, which shocked the world.
Despite the important revelatory nature of Hersh’s investigation, nothing described the torn public sentiment better than the hate mail he received after he made his findings public. Gloria Emerson noted the backlash against Hersh in her book Winners and Losers: Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losers and Ruins from the Vietnam War, where she quoted anti-semitic letters sent to Hersh by mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters of troops serving in Vietnam.
The massacre and other atrocities revealed during the Mỹ Lai trial divided the US public and contributed hugely to the growing disillusionment with the war, in America and around the world.