Remember My Lai
Originally Broadcast: May 23, 1989
NARRATOR: In 1968 at a Vietnamese village called My Lai, American soldiers masaacred hundreds of unarmed civilians.
VARNARDO SIMPSON: I just started killing any kind of way I could kill.
NARRATOR: The legacy of that day still haunts the soldiers and the people of My Lai.
TRUONG THI LE: I think of them lying there dead and my heart is cut to pieces.
HUGH THOMPSON: It still hurts to think about us doing things like that.
RON HAEBERLE: And they had to live with it, they have to live with it, and so do I, so do we all.
NARRATOR: Tonight, on FRONTLINE: "Remember My Lai."
JUDY WOODRUFF: Good evening.
Since the Vietnam war ended fourteen years ago this spring, many of its scars have begun to heal. America has confronted some of its political and military failures, and finally honored the sacrifice of the young men and women who served in Vietnam.
But there are some things time does not heal -- My Lai is one.
Tonight, FRONTLINE offers a disturbing, surprising and profound film, that, for the first time, examines the darkest chapter of the Vietnan War ... through the memories of American soldiers and Vietnamese villagers who were in My Lai that savage day more than twenty years ago.
Our program was produced by Kevin Sim and Michael Bilton of England's Yorkshire Television.
It is called "Remember My Lai."
Interviewer: Can you tell me, Varnardo, what this book is? Why, why you've kept it?
Varnardo Simpson: This is my life, this is my pact, this is my present, this is my future, and I keep it to remind me. But it's always, it's always there, you know, I just, this is it, this is my life, this is everything. This is the way I am. This is what made me this way.
NARRATOR: This is My Lai today. A small hamlet in central Vietnam near the coast of the South China Sea.
On their maps, the U.S. Army called this area Pinkville. That is how the massacre was known at first. The Pinkville Massacre.
Today, the villagers are farmers and fishermen, just as they were more than twenty years ago. But then, My Lai was at the center of a bitterly contested region in the Vietnam War.
Early one morning in March 1968, Charlie Company of the 1st 20th American Infantry Battalion landed here by helicopter and attacked the village.
By the time they left, four hours later, the young GIs of Charlie Company had killed hundreds of unarmed civilians -- old men, women, and children.
The village of My Lai had ceased to exist.
Instructor: Let's go, man, let's go. Let's go. Grab the ammo and move back to your point -- wait for further instruction. Looking good, looking good ... looking good.
Keep on trucking, keep right on trucking.
NARRATOR: In Fort Benning, Georgia, new infantry recruits in the U.S. Army receive their first rounds of ammunition and take their first steps as soldiers.
In 1967, at the height of the war, thousands of young men were sent here for basic training.
Most were bound for Vietnam, including many of those who would eventually make up Charlie Company.
KENNETH HODGES, Former Sergeant, Charlie Company: The transition from civilian to soldier is a very distinct and very rigorous training. Soldiers were taught all the things that they need to know about being a good soldier in those very early days and weeks in basic training.
Drill Sergeant: Let's go, step it out, step it out. Keep your heads up. You all look like you're tired. Are you tired?
Soldiers: No, drill sergeant.
KENNETH HODGES: They're taught how to use weapons, how to use weapons to kill. They are taught how to drill, how to march with weapons.
Drill Sergeant: Get that weapon up you...
KENNETH HODGES: And all of these drills and different maneuvers are carried out by orders.
Soldier: Move out! Move outl
KENNETH HODGES: They are taught hand-to-hand fighting. They are taught close-order fighting. They are taught how to deal with the enemy when they come face to face with him. They are trained to be killers.
Soldiers: Kill! Kill!
Series -- move.
Kill! Kill! Kill!
KENNETH HODGES: As a member of, or as one of the sergeants who trained the men of Charlie Company, I was very pleased with the way they turned out. They turned out to be very good soldiers.
NARRATOR: The men of Charlie Company arrived in Vietnam in December 1967. They'd had no combat experience, but had performed well in training and were considered the best company in their battalion.
They'd been drawn together from all over America. An army report would later describe them as the typical cross section of American youth assigned to most combat units.
Their average age was twenty.
FRED WIDMER, Former Radio Operator, Charlie Company: The majority of the men in C Company were just your average, normal Americans. Most of us were all middle-income, middle-class families. They were from all across the United States, Indiana, I was from Pennsylvania, so I'd say you had a good cross section of, of the total population of the United States at that point in time.
A lot of times when we were first in country we would go to the villages up and down the highway, Highway One. You'd play with the kids in between pulling guard duty and one bridge in particular there was a boy who always hung around up there with GIs. We nicknamed him Six Fingers 'cause he had an extra thumb, he had six fingers, but you'd always take him stuff. Candy, pop, take pictures with him, you know, GIs with the, with the kids. You got to meet a lot, a lot of people.
NARRATOR: American soldiers on patrol in 1968. In Vietnam, this was the job of the infantry -- the grunts. Barely a month after their arrival in Vietnam, Charlie Company was deployed on operations like these in Quang Nai province, around the area they called Pinkville, which was known to be sympathetic to the Viet Cong.
FRED WIDMER: When we first started losing members of the company, it was mostly through booby traps and snipers. We never really got into a main conflict, per se, where you could see who was shooting at you and you could actually shoot back at him one on one. Booby traps was the main, the main problem.
NARRATOR: In the weeks leading up to My Lai, Charlie Company experienced many scenes like these. From a unit of about 120 men, they lost four killed and thirty-eight wounded, almost all by mines, booby traps and snipers. Charlie Company could seldom find an enemy to shoot back at, and as the casualties mounted, their frustration rapidly eroded the distinction between soldiers and civilians.
VARNARDO SIMPSON, Former Rifleman, Charlie Company: I seen the enemy, yes. But who was the enemy? You know, they had little kids over there that would shoot you or stab you in the back when you walk away. You know, who was the enemy? I can't distinguish between the enemy -- the good or the bad -- all of them looked the same. That's why the war was so different -- it wasn't like Germans over here or Japanese over there -- they all look alike -- North and the South. So how can you tell?
NARRATOR: On March 15, 1968, the army drew up plans for an attack on My Lai, which army intelligence believed was the headquarters for a Viet Cong battalion. A fierce battle was expected.
THE REVEREND CARL CRESWELL, Former U.S. Army Chaplain: I was division artillery chaplain, which meant essentially I went to every fire base in my division area, and the day before My Lai I'd gone down to Landing Zone. I don't even remember the name of it ... where Task Force Barker was setting off for a briefing. They were going to do insertion or combat assault or whatever it took in Pinkville which was, quite frankly, it was the home of the 48th VC Battalion.
And I went in there, I was just, it was just a courtesy call. I had no business there, chaplains do this, just stopped in to say "hello" and meet the new commander. And while they were there they had the maps laid out on the board and there was a major in there who was on the Task Force staff. And I remember he said, "We're going in there and if we get one round out of there, we're going to level it." And I looked at him and I said, "You know, I didn't really think we made war that way." And he looked at me and he said, "It's a tough war, Chaplain."
And I left shortly after that and got in my bird and went back to division headquarters.
NARRATOR: The brigade commander, Colonel Oran Henderson, expressed irritation at past failure to engage the enemy and demanded more aggression.
Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker drew up detailed plans for Charlie Company to mount the main attack and passed on the orders to its commander, Captain Ernest Medina. All these senior officers would later deny responsibility for what happened in My Lai. But for Lieutenant William Calley, leader of the first platoon, and for the rest of Charlie Company, there seemed little doubt about what they were supposed to do.
KENNETH HODGES: The understanding or the order that was given to kill everyone in the village. Someone asked if that meant the women and children and the order was "everyone in the village" because those people that were in the village -- the women, the kids, the old men -- were VC -- and they were Viet Cong themselves or they were sympathetic to the Viet Cong. They were not sympathetic to the South Vietnamese Army and they weren't sympathetic to the Americans. They weren't giving us any assistance. They weren't helping us in the war effort whatsoever.
INTERVIEWER: So it was quite clear that no one was to be spared?
KENNETH HODGES: It was quite clear that no one was to be spared in that village.
FRED WIDMER: My understanding was we were going in, we were going to get into one hell of a fight and we were going to kick some ass when we got down. And there wasn't going to be anybody left. It didn't turn out that way.
NARRATOR: News film of a helicopter assault, one of thousands conducted by the army during the Vietnam War. The attack on My Lai started the same way, just after 7 o'clock in the morning.
It was a Saturday. According to intelligence reports, all civilians would have already gone to market. Anyone still in the village would be Viet Cong. But the intelligence was wrong.
As the troops embarked, twelve minutes flying time away, many villagers were still finishing breakfast. At 7:22 the first helicopters left for My Lai. The first helicopters appeared over My Lai at 7:35 a.m. There was no hostile fire. Within twenty minutes, all 120 men and five officers of Charlie Company had landed. There was no opposition.
VARNARDO SIMPSON: I was nineteen when I went to Vietnam. I was a rifleman specialist fourth class. I was trained to kill, but the reality of killing someone is different from training and pulling the trigger, you know.
INTERVIEWER: So you knew when you went into the village that if you found women, old men, children, anything that was living, you knew that you were going to have to kill them that day?
VARNARDO SIMPSON: From women and children to dogs and cats, yes. Yes.
VARNARDO SIMPSON: But I didn't know it, that I was going to do that. I knew the women and children was there, but for me to say that I was going to kill them, I didn't know I was going to do that until it happened. I didn't know I would kill anyone, I didn't want to kill anyone. I wasn't raised up to kill.
She was running with her back from a tree line ... but she was carrying something, I didn't know if it was a weapon or what, but it was a woman, you know, I knew it was a woman. I didn't want to shoot a woman, you know, but I was given an order to shoot, so I'm thinking that she had a weapon running. So when I shot and I turned over it was a baby, you know. Shot about four times, three or four times, and the bullets just went through and shot the baby too, you know. And I turned over and I saw the baby's face with the half gone, you know, and I just blinked, I just went. The training came to me, the programming to kill and I just start killing.
INTERVIEWER: What do you mean you just started killing? Did you go looking for people to kill or what?
VARNARDO SIMPSON: You didn't have to look, it was there. They was trying to get away but they were just there. It wasn't hard to kill, it wasn't hard to find anyone to kill.
[Sign: At this post, the Americans killed 102 people.]
TRUONG THI LE, My Lai Villager: Nothing was happening here. It was a very normal life when the helicopters came and the troops surrounded us. They were firing their guns over there. They blasted away and people were dying. Oh, it's so horrible. I pushed my son into the paddy field and lay on top of him. I told him, "Don't cry, the Americans have shot everyone. Don't cry and see if we can survive." For awhile I didn't hear any noise. I was alive because there were corpses on top of me. I lifted my head and saw Americans pointing here and there incessantly. Those who were still alive were shot again and again. Then there was no more. I'm so unhappy. Life's so hard. I miss my mother, my children. I think of them lying there dead and my heart is cut to pieces. The more I think about it the more I want to cry.
VARNARDO SIMPSON: That day in my life I was personally responsible for killing between twenty and twenty-five people, about twenty-five people personally.
INTERVIEWER: And then what?
VARNARDO SIMPSON: From shooting them to cutting their throats to scalping them to cutting off their hands and cutting out their tongue. I did that.
INTERVIEWER: Why did you do all that? You didn't tell me, why did you, why did you kill them and do that?
VARNARDO SIMPSON: I just went, my mind just went, I didn't and I wasn't the only one that did it, a lot of other people did it. I just killed, once I started the training, the whole programming part of killing, it just came out.
INTERVIEWER: But your training didn't tell you to scalp people or to cut ears off.
VARNARDO SIMPSON: No, no but a lot of people were doing it, so I just followed suit. I just lost all sense of direction, of purpose. I just started killing in any kind of way I could kill. It just came, I didn't know I had it in me, but like I say after I killed the child my whole mind just went, it just went.
FRED WILDER: The most disturbing thing I saw was one boy -- and this was something that, you know, this what haunts me from the whole, the whole ordeal down there. And there was a boy with his arm shot off, shot up half, half hanging on and he just had this bewildered look in his face and like, What did I do, what's wrong? He was just, you know, it's, it's hard to describe, couldn't comprehend. I, I shot the boy, killed him and it's -- I'd like to think of it more or less as a mercy killing because somebody else would have killed him in the end, but it wasn't right.
NARRATOR: Throughout the morning of March 16, a photographer and a reporter from an army newspaper followed Charlie Company through My Lai.
These official black and white photographs taken with an army camera did not show what was happening to the people whose homes were burning or the fate of villagers rounded up by the GIs.
But the photographer was also carrying his own camera that day.
RON HAEBERLE, Former U.S. Army Photographer: I happened upon a group of GIs surrounding these people and one of the American GIs yelled out, "Hey he's got a camera." So they kind of all dispersed just a little bit, and I came upon them and looking at the photograph I noticed the one girl was kind of frantic and an older woman trying to protect this small child and the older woman in front was just, you know, kind of pleading, trying to, beg, you know, begging and that and another person, a woman was buttoning her blouse and holding a small baby. Ok, I took the photograph, I thought they were just going to question the people, but just as soon as I turned and walked away, I heard firing, I looked around and over the corner of my shoulder I saw the people drop. I just kept on walking. At the time I was just, you know, capturing a reaction, but when you look at it later on in life, you know, now that those people are dead, they were shot, it's just kind of an eerie type feeling that you, that goes over, you know, goes through your whole body and you think back, could I have prevented this? How could I have prevented this? And it's a question I still kind of, you know, ask myself today.
INTERVIEWER: You lined up people, you were one of the people who was mowing down big groups of people?
VARNARDO SIMPSON: A group of about ten, yes.
INTERVIEWER: What happened? Did you round them up and--
VARNARDO SIMPSON: We was just round 'em up, put 'em in a circle and put me, a couple of other guys and just put the M-16 on 'em automatic and just mowed 'em down, just killed them.
INTERVIEWER: Have you ever seen any photographs of the people you killed?
VARNARDO SIMPSON: Yes, yes.
INTERVIEWER: Have you got those photographs?
VARNARDO SIMPSON: I have photographs of the people I killed.
INTERVIEWER: Which photographs are they?
VARNARDO SIMPSON: A man, a child, a woman and a baby.
INTERVIEWER: How can you bear to look at those today?
VARNARDO SIMPSON: Because this is my life. This is my life. Even if I'd open a book, I see it in my nightmares, if I never open this book, it's still there, you know.
HUGH THOMPSON, Former Aeroscout Helicopter Pilot: During the mission as it was going on, we kept just re-conning around. We started seeing a lot of bodies. It, it didn't add up, you know, how all these people were getting killed and wounded and we weren't receiving any fire. Just, you know, it didn't make sense. There was, there was too many casualties there and how they were, the locations they were in, you know. You see our artillery couldn't do this because they were, you know, bodies in places that the artillery didn't hit, trying to get out of the village.
NARRATOR: The radio traffic recorded between command helicopters high above My Lai betrays no knowledge of the slaughter Warrant Officer Thompson was witnessing as he hovered just above the ground. Between 9:30 and 10 o'clock, when Thompson saw GIs advancing on another group of women and children, he decided to do something.
LARRY COLBURN, Former Helicopter Door Gunner: He landed the aircraft in between the American forces and the Vietnamese people in the bunker. Got out of the aircraft, had us get out of the aircraft with our weapons to cover him and he went and had words with the lieutenant on the ground. He asked the lieutenant how he could get these people out of the bunker. The lieutenant said the only way he knew was with hand grenades, so when Warrant Officer Thompson came back to the aircraft he was, he was furious and he was desperate to get these people out of the bunker. He told us he was going over to the bunker himself to see if he could get them out. I don't even think he took a rifle with him, I think he was, besides a side arm, he was relatively unarmed. He told us if the Americans were to open fire on these Vietnamese as he was getting them out of the bunker, that we should return fire on the Americans.
HUGH THOMPSON: When I did instruct my crew, my crew chief and gunner, you know, to open up on them if they opened up on any more civilians, I don't know, I don't know how I would have felt if they would have opened up on them, but that particular day I wouldn't have given it a second thought. It's, they were the enemy at that time, I guess. They were damn sure the enemy to the people on the ground.
NARRATOR: With the aid of larger helicopters, Hugh Thompson and his crew airlifted to safety over a dozen old men, women and children.
SA THI QUI, My Lai Villager: The first time the Americans came, the children followed them. They gave the children sweets to eat. Then they smiled and left. We don't know their language, they smiled and esid, "Okay," and so we learned the word "Okay." The second time they came, we poured them water to drink. They didn't say anything. The third time they killed everyone. Killed everybody, destroyed everything. Nothing was left.
NARRATOR: This monument marks the ditch where the largest number of people were executed. Scores of villagers rounded up in sweeps through My Lai were herded here to be shot by Lieutenant Calley and others acting on his orders.
SA THI QUI: The people were chased into the ditch like ducks. They fell headfirst. They were crying, "Oh God, have pity. Please let me up. We're innocent, have pity!" They shot all the people dead. Then silence. Tiny children crawling along the edge of the ditch, it broke your heart. I thought I was going to die. I couldn't breathe. I was injured so I crawled back home. Over there was a naked woman who had been raped and a virgin girl with her vagina slit open. We don't know why they behaved like that.
HUGH THOMPSON: During flying around we came across a ditch. It had bodies in it, a lot of them -- women, kids, old men. I remember a thought going through my mind, "How did these people get in a ditch?" And I finally thought about the Nazis, I guess, and marching everybody down into a ditch and blowing 'em away. Here we are supposed to be the good guys in the white hats. It upset me.
As we were flying over it one time, we noticed, you know, some movement in it and Andrew Ardour, who was my crew chief, spotted a child moving around amongst, you know, the bodies that were in there. So we landed the aircraft next to the ditch and we got out of it. My gunner, you know, stood on one side of the aircraft and I stood on the other. Andrew Ardour went down wading, you know, through the bodies and brought back up, you know, a little child about three years old. It was obvious how the people got in the ditch by then, I guess, so we got the child on board and we were, you know, getting that child out of there. There was more we probably could have saved, but we couldn't carry 'em. So we flew the child to Quang Nai Hospital -- I believe it was -- and dropped it off with a nun there. It was a very sober flight going over there, very quiet, trying to figure it out. I was looking at the kid which I thought was a boy about four years old, three years old. And I had a son at home, same age, and you're thinking it could be your kid. It was a quiet flight, later found out in some investigations and hearings that it was actually a girl, and you really couldn't tell. We checked arms and legs, you know, there was no bullet wounds. It still hurts to think about us doing things like that.
[Sign: Here the Americans killed Mrs. Lieu's family, 11 people.]
PHAM THI TRINH, My Lai Villager: I looked out of the house and saw my sister, Mui. She was fourteen that year. An American was pressing on top of her, she had no clothing on her. At the time I didn't understand what that meant. My sister was trying to resist him. Afterwards the American got up, he put his clothes on, and then he shot her. Never ... Oh, Americans, Americans. I decided to leave my hiding place. I saw my house had burned completely and in the yard my loved ones were burned to death. My mother and my little brother still in my mother's arms, my seven-month-old brother, whose body was half-burned. I didn't know anything anymore. I stood by my mother's body and cried.
KENNETH HODGES: As a professional soldier, I was, I had been taught to carry out the orders and at no time did it ever cross my mind to disobey or to refuse to carry out an order that was issued by my superiors.
INTERVIEWER: So, if one of your men had refused to shoot, what would have happened to him? What would you have said to him?
KENNETH HODGES: If, if one of my men had refused to shoot, I shudder to think what have been the repercussions because it, it's hard to say now what I would have done, looking back. At the time that it actually, if it had, when it happened, he would have been in serious trouble.
INTERVIEWER: What kind of trouble?
KENNETH HODGES: He could have faced court-martial. He could have been shot on the spot for refusing an order in the face of the enemy, in face of hostile fire. If someone refuses to carry out an order, he's in trouble.
INTERVIEWER: But there was no hostile fire.
KENNETH HODGES: At the time, we didn't realize that there was no hostile fire, at the time.
INTERVIEWER: So, are you suggesting that if one of your troops had refused to shoot, shall we say, an old woman or a young child at My Lai on that day, that they would have faced disciplinary action?
KENNETH HODGES: They most definitely would have faced disciplinary action had they refused to fire or kill or carry out the orders. Yes.
INTERVIEWER: But these were young kids, most of them had never killed anybody before. I mean, to kill a child seems a monstrous thing. Why were these people able to do it without questioning it?
KENNETH HODGES: I feel that they were able to carry out the, the assigned task, the orders that meant killing small kids, killing women, because they were soldiers. They were trained that way. They was trained that when you get into combat, it's either you or the enemy, and they would, the people that were in that village, the women, the little kids, the old men, were all considered the enemy.
INTERVIEWER: So, leaving aside the question of following orders, do you think that that order was morally right and that the actions of the troops that followed that order, yourself included, were behaving in a moral fashion?
KENNETH HODGES: I feel that we carried out the orders in a moral fashion and the orders of, of destroying the village, of killing the people in the village. I feel that we carried out our orders, and I feel that we did not violate any moral standards.
NARRATOR: This GI was the only American casualty at My Lai. He accidentally shot himself in the foot.
Despite the total absence of hostile fire, Calley contined to order his men to shoot. Most obeyed. A few refused.
HARRY STANLEY: Lieutenant Calley ordered certain people to shoot these people and I was one of them. And I refused and he told me that he was going to have me a court-martial when we got back to base camp, and I told him what was on my mind at the time. Ordering me to shoot down innocent people, that's not an order, that's, that's craziness with me, you know, and so I don't feel like I have to obey that.
INTERVIEWER: Most of the others--
HARRY STANLEY: And if you want to court-martial me, you do that. If you can get away with it. I feel like it was, it was horrible, you know, just a terrible thing to be going on, and American boys doing this, you know. And I feel like I'm a red-blooded American boy just like any of the rest of the guys that was there, you know. And to see that I'm talking about black or white, you know, black or white guys doing this, you know, it didn't make any difference. I'm saying it just seemed like a horrible thing. I'm talking we all came from the same place to me, you know, we all came from the same place, and I know they all had to have the same values that I had somewhere along the line. If it's they didn't get it in school, they had to get it in a religion or church or some place, you know. If you didn't go to school, you know, you could pick it up from a stranger, you know, it's just simple, you know. But then to go and do something like this, it's, it's immoral to me, you know. That's just the way I feel about it.
NARRATOR: By 11:30, when Charlie Company broke for lunch, they had killed about 400 people. In the U.S., newspapers reported the operation as a significant American victory with many Viet Cong killed. For more than a year, what really happened at My Lai would remain hidden from the outside world.
LETTER WRITTEN BY RON RIDENHOUR
It was late in April 1968 that I first heard of Pinkville and what allegedly happened there. I received that first report with some skepticism, but in the following months, I was to hear similar stories from such a wide variety of people that it became impossible for me to disbelieve that something rather dark and bloody did indeed occur sometime in March 1968, in a village called Pinkville in the Republic of Vietnam...
NARRATOR: After this letter was sent to several members of Congress, the army finally began to confront the truth about My Lai. Its author was an ex-GI who had heard about the massacre while serving in Vietnam.
RON RIDENHOUR, Former GI: When I sat down with a friend who had been there three weeks after the massacre, and we were telling each other war stories, and we hadn't seen each other in three months, and I said, "What have you been doing?" He said, "Oh man, did you hear what we did at Pinkville?" I said, "No, what did you do at Pinkville?" He said, "We went in there and we killed everybody." I said, "Killed everybody, what do you mean?" He said, "We just shot 'em, lined 'em up and shot 'em down. Three, four, five hundred people. I don't know how many." And my immediate reaction was, you know, these no-good sons of bitches, look what they've gotten me into, look at what they've gotten us all into.
They left me now with a choice, to turn in my friends or to be a part of this horrible crime, and I'm not gonna be a part of this horrible crime. The only way to not be a part of the horrible crime is to discover the truth and to pursue it, and let the chips fall wherever they land, and that's what I set out to do.
When you murder a village of five hundred people or you know that a village of five hundred people has been murdered in one afternoon, in one morning, it's pretty tough to evade the reality of that and the implications of that. One of my friends, when he told me about it, said, "You know, it was, it was this Nazi kind of thing." And that's exactly right, it was this Nazi kind of thing, and we didn't go there to be Nazis. At least none of the people I knew went there to be Nazis. I didn't go there to be a Nazi.
NARRATOR: News of the massacre finally broke in November 1969. In the United States initial incredulity quickly turned to shame and national anguish. As the inquiries and trial began, the men of Charlie Company emerged to public view. Sergeant David Mitchell, accused of shooting people at the ditch site in My Lai.
David Mitchell: I'm not guilty.
NARRATOR: Charlie Company's commanding officer, Captain Ernest Medina.
Ernest Medina: I can further say that I did not see any slaughter at My Lai, for that day, and none was reported to me, and I'll further state that I did not order any massacre at My Lai.
NARRATOR: Lieutenant William Calley, originally charged with 109 murders. Calley came to embody the issues at the heart of the case. His defense that he was "just following orders" evoked disturbing comparisons with the Nazi defense at Nuremberg.
Meanwhile, army investigators had returned to My Lai as part of a massive inquiry that left the facts of the massacre beyond dispute.
The original list of charges drawn up by the army's Criminal Investigations Division left no doubt about the nature of Charlie Company's operation in My Lai.
KENNETH HODSON, Former U.S. Army Chief Prosecutor: Based on the original documents that we received as a result of our investigations, it was a massacre. It was a violation of all the rules of land warfare that I've ever known in my life. Because it was just cold-blooded killing of people who appeared to be defenseless civlllans.
NARRATOR: But America was still deeply divided by the war itself, and the men of Charlie Company soon found public opinion swinging to their defense.
William Calley: All I can say is thank you all very much, each and every one of you that has supported me, and also those that are supporting the men still over in Vietnam and the United States Army. Thank you very much.
KENNETH HODSON: There was a change in the public attitude and now they said, Wait a minute. You shouldn't be prosecuting soldiers for just carrying out their duties." All of a sudden the public sentiment had swung the other direction and when Calley's sentence was announced, his conviction and sentence was announced, there was an outcry.
NARRATOR: In the end the army decided not to prosecute most of the 46 soldiers seriously investigated for crimes at My Lai. William Calley was the only man ever convicted.
Today, Calley runs a jewelry store in Columbus, Georgia. He does not give interviews about My Lai. At his court-martial, these were his last words of explanation to his judges.
William Calley: If I have committed a crime, the only crime that I have committed is in judgment of my values. Apparently, I valued my troop's lives more than I did that of the enemy. When my troops were getting massacred and mauled by an enemy I couldn't see, I couldn't feel, and I couldn't touch; that nobody in the military system ever described as anything other than communism -- they didn't give it a race, they didn't give it a sex, they didn't give it an age, they never let me believe it was just a philosophy in a man's mind and that was my enemy out there, and when it became between me and that enemy, I had to value the lives of my troops, and I feel that is the only crime I have committed.
NARRATOR: William Calley served only three days in the stockade before President Nixon released him into house arrest pending appeal. Three years after his original life sentence, he was released on parole, a free man.
TRUONG THI LE: It's why I'm old before my time. I remember it all the time. I'm all alone and life is hard. Thinking about it has made me old. I won't forgive. I hate them very much. I won't forgive as long as I live. Think of the babies being killed, then ask me why I hate them. My old mother lying dead over there. I hate them.
FRED WIDMER: When we went in there, we went in there with a purpose and deep down we felt what we were doing was right, but after it was over, everyone knew it was wrong. And the damage was already done. It was too late.
SA THI QUI: They shouldn't shoot the innocent. Don't shoot innocent people. Let them kill their enemies, but here we were killed in the middle of a meal. Just chewing food and we were killed. Rapists who could cut open a vagina inspired an unfading hatred. Those innocent people did nothing wrong. Those Americans, so strong and valiant, yet they raped, killed and destroyed everything, and we just had to accept it. Now many people hate the Americans. We'll hate them as long as we live. What cruelty.
VARNARDO SIMPSON: How can you forgive, you know? I can't forgive myself for the things, even though I know it was something that I did and something that I was told to do, but how can I forget that or forgive? I can't. I live with it every day. It's easy for you to say, Well, you go ahead with your life, but how can you go ahead with your life when this is holding you back. How come I can't put my mind to anything positive because it's always negative.
PHAM TRI TRINH: When I'm very sad, I often think of starting a new life somewhere else. But it would be just the same anywhere in my country. This is where I belong. The grave of my mother and loved ones is my consolation. That's why I can never leave.
RON HAEBERLE: These people were tortured by this. They, they were kids, eighteen, nineteen years old. Most of them had never been away from home before they went to the service, and they end up in Vietnam, and in a moment, in a moment, following orders in a context in which they'd been trained, prepared to follow orders, they do what they're told and they shouldn't have, and they look back a day later and realize that they probably made the biggest mistake of their life. There are only a few people who were in those circumstances, who had the presence of mind and the strength of their own character that would see them through that circumstance. Most people didn't, and for most of them, even people that I, I personally just were stunned to discover that they had made the wrong choice, they did, and they had to live with it. They have to live with it, and so do I. So do we all.
INTERVIEWER: How much of this stuff do you have?
VARNARDO SIMPSON: I take 1,200 milligrams every four hours, four times a day of drugs and medication. I have to take it. I need it, that's the only thing that helps me somewhat stable, not as nervous. I stay nervous even with the medication, but if I don't take it, I go, I just go off. It's to keep me under control, it helps me because if I don't, I may do something to someone, even though I still have a tendency to think that of hurting someone, but the medication helps me, it really helps me, but I have to take a lot of it, and it's strong, it's very strong.
My little boy were playing in my grandmother's front yard, here in Jackson at my, at his grandmother's house and some teenagers across the street got into an argument. They was fourteen and fifteen and one went home and got a gun and the other one just ran in the direction where my little boy was playing and he shot, he shot him in the head. I was in the house and I came out and picked him up, but he was already dead, he was dying. So when I looked at him, his face looked like the same face that a child that I had killed and I said, This is the punishment for me killing the people that I killed. And when the picture that I had, when he had his funeral, I got back from the funeral that night, that's the way it cracked, and I left it like that, it just cracked.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think this really dread, dreadful condition that you're in, this, you know, terrible life that you're leading, do you think it's ever going to come to an end?
VARNARDO SIMPSON: Yeah, when I kill myself, yeah, it'll come to an end. Like I said, I tried suicide three times. Maybe the man, the good Lord is not ready for me to go becauce I could have been dead with all the stuff I've taken and trying to, but eventually, it's not out of my mind. Like I'm sitting talking to you now, I can't promise that when you come again I'll be here because before you came, I had to get out, to hospital for, from trying suicide for the third time.
INTERVIEWER: The good Lord doesn't appear to have treated you very well to have put you through all this.
VARNARDO SIMPSON: I still believe in Him, but I guess a life, you live a life for a reason, for a purpose. Now what that purpose is to have me still here, I don't know.
INTERVIEWER: Are you ashamed or sorry for what you've done?
VARNARDO SIMPSON: Yes, I'm ashamed, I'm sorry, I'm guilty, but I did it. You know what, what else can I tell you? It happened. You're looking at someone that did, it can happen if you go to war. Those are the type of things will happen and can happen to anyone. After they train you, they program you. It can happen, it happens, that 's reality. That's what war is. War's not something that I shoot at you, you shoot at me. Well we take time out, you know, well don't shoot me here, don't shoot me there. War is war, it's killing all type of ways and that's why we don't need another war.
Soldier: Don't be walking up to that man's back. Keep that distance, I told you what it was. Hey, keep you head and eyes straight to the front ... why you seem like you can't hang. Keep that distance. Hold that weapon up.
PRODUCTION CREDITS: Remember My Lai
with Judy Woodruff
Executive Producer for
TRAN THI THUC
Yorkshire Television Limited
A Yorkshire Television
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