Skip to comments.This day in History: William Calley, Jr. convicted of My Lai Massacre [March 29, 1971]
Posted on 03/29/2007 4:18:51 PM PDT by yankeedame
Lt. William Calley Jr. on the cover page of Time
William Laws Calley, Jr. (born June 8, 1943) was the U.S. Army officer who led the March 16, 1968, My Lai Massacre.
By all accounts William Calley came from a normal background. Calley stood only five foot three inches tall and was reportedly undistinguished, other than the fact many people who knew him described him as "nice".
In fact, after My Lai was revealed, newspapers often described him as "the nice American boy charged with murder".
His father was a U.S. Navy veteran. Calley graduated from high school in Miami, Florida. He attended Palm Beach Junior College for one school year from 1963 to 1964, but dropped out after receiving poor grades, consisting of two C's, one D and four F's.
Calley then worked at a number of jobs including bellhop, dishwasher, salesman, insurance appraiser and train conductor. He did not hold any of these for very long and eventually drifted to New Mexico. He enlisted into the United States Army in Albuquerque on July 26, 1966, at the height of the Vietnam war.
Calley underwent basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia and received advanced individual training as a clerk at Fort Lewis in Washington. Calley applied for and was accepted into Officer Candidate School (OCS) in 1967, and after graduation from OCS Class No. 51 of 1967 on September 7, 1967, was commissioned a second lieutenant of infantry.
Calley was assigned to Charlie Company. 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade, and began training at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii before the brigade's deployment to the Republic of Vietnam. In Vietnam, the brigade became part of the Americal Division.
As a combat leader, Calley was apparently not highly regarded.
Contemporary reports when My Lai first became public described him merely as "ordinary". Later, as the investigation progressed, a more negative picture emerged.
Many members of his platoon told Army investigators that he lacked common sense and couldn't even read a map or compass properly. Calley's men admitted he was so disliked some even thought of "fragging" him.
Trial and aftermath
Calley was charged on September 5, 1969, with six specifications of premeditated murder for the death of 109 Vietnamese civilians near the village of My Lai, at a hamlet called Song My, more commonly called My Lai in the U.S. press.
In this well documented incident, 500 villagers, mostly women, children, infants and elderly, were assembled and then shot by soldiers of Charlie Company, Americal Division. Some women who survived were gang raped by U.S. soldiers instead of being summarily executed.
Calley's trial started on November 17, 1970, and resulted in a conviction on March 29, 1971 of premeditated murder of 22 civilians for his role in the massacre. On March 31, 1971, he was sentenced to life in prison. Testimony revealed that Calley had ordered the men of 1st Platoon, C Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry of the 23rd Infantry Division (Americal) to shoot everyone in the village. Calley claimed that he was following the orders of his immediate superior, Captain Ernest Medina.
Whether or not this order was actually given is disputed; Medina was later acquitted of all charges relating to the incident at a separate trial.
Of the 26 officers and soldiers initially charged for their participation in the My Lai massacre or the subsequent cover-up, only Calley was convicted.
Calley was seen by some as a scapegoat used by the U.S. Army instead of accepting responsibility for the failure to instill morale and discipline in its troops and commanders.
Others, with lack of knowledge about his education or background, sought to excuse his actions because of his allegedly low intelligence and cultural background.
On April 1, only a day after Calley was sentenced, President Richard Nixon ordered him released from prison pending appeal; on August 20, 1971, the convening authority the Commanding General of Fort Benning reduced his sentence to 20 years.
Next the Army Court of Military Review affirmed the conviction and sentence (46 C.M.R. 1131 (1973)). Next the Secretary of the Army reviewed the sentence and findings and approved both, but in a separate clemency action commuted confinement to ten years. On May 3, 1974, President Nixon notified the Secretary that he had reviewed the case and determined he would take no further action in the matter.
Ultimately, Calley served 3½ years of house arrest in his quarters at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Calley petitioned the federal district court for habeas corpus on February 11, 1974, which was granted on September 25, 1974, along with immediate release, by federal judge J. Robert Elliott.
Judge Elliott found that Calley's trial had been prejudiced by pretrial publicity, denial of subpoenas of certain defense witnesses, refusal of the House of Representatives to release testimony taken in executive session of its My Lai investigation, and inadequate notice of the charges.
(The judge had released Calley on bail on February 27, 1974, but an appeals court reversed that and returned Calley to Army custody June 13, 1974.)
The Army appealed Judge Elliott's decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and asked an appeals judge to stay Calley's immediate release, which was granted; however the full Court upheld the release pending appeal and decided that the entire court would hear the appeal (normally not done in the first instance).
In the event the Army won a reversal of Judge Elliott's habeas corpus grant and reinstatement of the judgment of the court-martial with, however, 5 judges dissenting. (Calley v. Callaway, 519 F.2d 184, 9/10/1975).
In a long and extremely detailed careful opinion the reviewing court disagreed with Judge Elliott on the law and significantly on Elliott's scope of review of the court martial proceeding. The Court noted that although by now Calley had been "paroled" from confinement by the Army, that did not moot the habeas corpus proceedings.
Calley continues to reside in the Columbus, Georgia area and, according to locals, owns, runs, or works at a jewelry store. According to William Eckhardt, Calley's prosecutor, Calley suffers from insomnia, because he is troubled over his role in the massacre. 
Just to give credit to a good man, Capt. Aubrey Daniel conducted the prosection in the court martial. Major Eckhardt was Daniel's superior and oversaw all the prosecutions out of My Lai.
I would have felt better had Calley been executed and others either received appropriate sentences or execution.
Our handling of the sentencing will be a stain on us forever.
For those not familiar with the case, Calley's platoon often took fire from the village of My Lai 4 as they passed by it. He had a couple of his men killed and a few wounded. When he would rush into the ville looking for the shooters, the villagers would smile and say, "No VC, no VC." When the ville was declared a Free Fire Zone and the villagers were supposed to have been relocated, Calley discovered that many had remained in the ville. He radioed Capt. Medina for instructions. Medina said, "Waste 'em". Calley did. It was "payback time".
There was a high level of frustration and anger. That is no excuse for what happened but I have never believed Calley acted alone. I think he had verbal orders, which came from the battalion level or higher, to carry out what would amount to a reprisal against local civilians.
The trials should have been held in RVN, with limited news media access, rather than in the U.S. Publicity polluted the whole process.
I understand that until 1945, armies had the right of reprisal against guerillas not in uniform. An example might be the British army in Ireland - if guerrillas took potshots at a British unit from a village, the British were entitled to take hostages and notify the villagers that another attack would result in the hostages being shot. If Calley had been under the old rules, what he did might have been legal - guerrillas not in uniform firing at uniformed U.S. troopers is good cause for a reprisal.
This quote from "Breaker Morant," although set during the Boer War, is perfectly applicable to Vietnam:
"It's a new kind of war, George. It's a new war for a new century. I suppose this is the first time the enemy hasn't been in uniform. They're farmers. They're people from small towns. They shoot at us from houses and from paddocks. Some of them are women, some of them are children and some of them are missionaries."
IMHO the tactics the VC used made My Lai an inevitability, and if anything, the blood should be considered to be on their hands.
I knew CWO Hugh Thompson (may he rest in peace) and served under General Peers when he was 4th ID CG. He probably retired a three star instead of a four because the Peers Commission was brutal in its findings. The Americal Division CG was retired as a BG and the ADC was retired a Colonel. Colin Powell was in the Americal G-3 shop when My Lai went down. No way he didn't know more than what he said he knew.
I was at Ft. Rucker when I first met Thompson. We were instrument instructors and it was at about the same time that he went to the Post Chaplain with his story. He was sent to 3rd Army Hq to give more of his statements and it was shortly after that the story broke in the news. Others in Calley's platoon were also writing letters to their congressmen.
He was only 5' 3"--no wonder he was a brute.
And it's Colin Powell to show.
It has been 35 years. I believe what you say about Thompson. He distinguished himself in this whole sad, tragedy as a man of courage and honor. I was with the 5th Marine Regiment four years before the incident. Quang Nghi was on the edge of our tactical area of responsibility so I became acquainted with the locals, their vills, the ragtag but lethal enemy and their tactics. So when the news broke I was drawn to it even though I was stateside by then. Your reminiscences are another page in the history of those days.
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