Photo: Vietnamese villagers killed by American soldiers during the My Lai massacre in 1968.CreditRonald S. Haeberle/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images.

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On March 16, 1968, Capt. Ernest Medina led his infantry company in an assault on the village of Son My, along the central coast of South Vietnam, as part of a mission to find and destroy a battalion of the National Liberation Front, also known as the Vietcong. One of the hamlets within the village was called My Lai.

Operating under the assumption that villagers of My Lai would be away at the market, Captain Medina planned an aggressive sweep through the area, ordering his men to destroy everything and to kill anyone who resisted. By the end of the day American forces had killed 347 to 504 unarmed Vietnamese women, children and old men, and raped 20 women and girls, some as young as 10 years old.

The massacre at My Lai was not the only time American troops committed war crimes against Vietnamese civilians, but it was the single worst instance; its severity, its cover-up and the eventual trial of just a handful of the unit’s leaders became a synonym for the entire American war in Vietnam. But while even today the massacre is often portrayed as having been perpetrated by a unit of misfits, the cause was a failure in leadership, from the commander of Captain Medina’s division, Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Koster, to the platoon leader most closely associated with the killings, Second Lt. William Calley.

The disaster at My Lai began even before Captain Medina’s company arrived the morning of March 16. The unit — Charlie Company, First Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment — had arrived in Vietnam in 1967. While still in Hawaii, it received high marks for preparedness and training.

But the unit had been hastily thrown together, and many of its experienced officers and noncommissioned officers, who had already served in-country, had to be transferred out of the unit as it prepared to deploy because Army regulations prevented them from returning to combat so quickly.

The result was that privates first class and specialists fourth class — untested, lower-ranking enlistees — were suddenly thrust into leadership roles. Captain Medina later testified that these transfers cost the company 70 percent of its strength.

Statistically, Charlie Company was slightly above average among the infantry companies serving in Southeast Asia during the war. Eighty-seven percent of the remaining noncommissioned officers had graduated from high school, a rate 20 percent higher than the average for line infantry companies. Seventy percent of the men in lower enlisted ranks had graduated from high school, also slightly above the average for soldiers serving in Vietnam.

The unit was mixed demographically, with half of its troops being African-American, and the men came from geographically diverse hometowns. Other than the inexperienced men in key leadership roles, and the company’s experiences in the months before My Lai, there is little to explain why this particular group of soldiers committed the most horrific set of war crimes by American troops during the entire conflict.

Soon after its deployment in Vietnam, Charlie Company began to take heavy casualties from booby traps and snipers. Lieutenant Calley grew to hate and fear the local Vietnamese after losing his radio telephone operator, William Weber, to a sniper’s bullet while carelessly leading his men along the top of a dike between rice paddies to keep them out of the water. After that, all Vietnamese became synonymous with Vietcong guerrillas for Lieutenant Calley, and soon the rest of the company adopted his harsh attitudes.

Captain Medina and his officers tolerated Charlie Company’s abuse of Vietnamese civilians in the weeks before the massacre. After Pfc. Herbert Carter knocked an unarmed farmer into a well, Lieutenant Calley shot the defenseless man. Captain Medina allowed his troops to use prisoners as human mine detectors and personally beat captives during interrogations.

Rape became such an endemic problem in Charlie Company that one member of its Second Platoon, Michael Bernhardt, assumed that every woman Lieutenant Calley’s platoon came across would be raped within moments. After a booby trap killed Sgt. George Cox, surviving soldiers stole a radio from a local woman and kicked her to death when she protested.

Sergeant Cox’s death set the stage for the My Lai massacre. On March 15, the company held a memorial service at which Captain Medina reminded the company of their casualties. The company had lost half of its strength in just two months. Lieutenant Calley’s First Platoon was down to 27 of its original 45 men.

Captain Medina argued that Charlie Company could not afford more casualties, so they needed to pull together and be aggressive in their pursuit of the enemy. Soon after the funeral Captain Medina briefed the company about its next mission: an assault into My Lai to destroy the remnants of one of the Vietcong’s most lethal units,the 48th Local Force Battalion.

The briefing for the assault on My Lai led many of Captain Medina’s subordinates to believe that their mission was to kill everyone in the hamlet, to shoot the livestock, to destroy the wells and to level the buildings, because everyone living in My Lai was either a member of the Vietcong or a Vietcong sympathizer.

Captain Medina told his troops that this was their chance to avenge their fallen comrades. One private, Dennis Bunning, later claimed that Captain Medina ordered them to kill everyone; their intelligence briefing claimed that all My Lai’s women and children would be at the market that morning. Another, James Bergthold, summed up the general response to the briefing: “Although Captain Medina didn’t say to kill everyone in the village, I heard guys talking and they were of the opinion that everyone in the village was to be killed.”

The massacre began as an ordinary search-and-destroy mission preceded by an artillery barrage aimed at the rice paddies northwest of the village. The 105-millimeter shells were supposed to land 400 meters away from My Lai, but some of the rounds fell near houses. The artillery was intended to harass Vietcong; but there were no Vietcong in My Lai, not any more at least, so it merely damaged houses and dikes and forced residents to hide in bunkers.

Lieutenant Calley’s platoon, and part of second platoon, led by Second Lt. Stephen Brooks, landed at My Lai with the first wave of helicopters and secured the landing zone. While they did not receive any enemy fire, the constant stream of machine gun and rocket fire that helicopter gunships sprayed at the nearest huts gave them the impression that they were under attack. Lieutenant Calley and Lieutenant Brooks led their men into the village after a second wave of helicopters brought the rest of the company.

Moving into My Lai the platoons broke up into smaller groups of soldiers that their officers could not observe. Two privates, Dennis Conti and Paul Meadlo, kept the people they encountered under guard until an officer could evaluate them. When Lieutenant Calley found them, he ordered Private Conti and Private Meadlo to “take care of them” and left.

Under pressure from Captain Medina to quickly move his men through My Lai, Lieutenant Calley returned a few minutes later, and asked why they had not taken care of the villagers. Private Meadlo responded that they were following his orders, and Lieutenant Calley responded that he wanted the villagers killed. Pushing the soldiers into a firing line, Lieutenant Calley ordered them to shoot the villagers.

Private Meadlo obeyed Lieutenant Calley while Private Conti watched the tree line for danger. After firing three magazines of ammunition, Private Meadlo broke down in tears, telling Private Conti: “If they are going to be killed, I’m not doing it. Let him do it.”

Continuing into My Lai, Lieutenant Calley, along with Private Conti, Private Meadlo and Specialist Ronald Grzesik, arrived at a drainage ditch where other members of the company guarded 50 more villagers, including women, small children and a Buddhist monk. When the monk could not tell Lieutenant Calley where the Vietcong had gone, he pushed him into the ditch and shot him. After additional soldiers brought more Vietnamese to the ditch, Lieutenant Calley ordered his men to shoot them.

The massacre finally ended when a flight crew led by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson intervened. Angered by the murders he observed from his scout helicopter, he landed when he saw soldiers moving toward a group of villagers hiding in a bunker. As he left the helicopter, Mr. Thompson told the door gunner, Lawrence Colburn, to cover him, and to fire on Charlie Company if they begin killing the Vietnamese at the bunker.

After confronting Lieutenant Calley, who told him that it was none of his business, Mr. Thompson persuaded the pilots of other helicopters overhead to land and evacuate the civilians. His radio calls eventually caught the attention of Lt. Col. Frank Barker, who ordered Captain Medina to stop the killing.

Leadership failures continued after the shooting stopped. When Hugh Thompson reported the large number of civilian deaths that occurred at My Lai, his commander, Maj. Fred Watke, discounted the report in the belief the pilot did not have the experience to tell how the Vietnamese had died. When he took the allegations to the assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. George Young, Major Watke said that only 25 noncombatants had died and focused on the encounter between Mr. Thompson and Lieutenant Calley. This report allowed Colonel Barker to later claim that there was no evidence to support Mr. Thompson’s reports, and that the civilians had died in a crossfire.

Captain Medina began the cover-up by falsely claiming that the village had indeed been full of Vietcong when the assault began, but that they had all fled, so that all that remained were women and children. When questioned about the disparity between the high body count and low number of captured weapons — Charlie Company found only three old M1 Garand rifles — Captain Medina lied to the division’s commander, General Koster, that artillery killed 20 to 28 civilians.

His false report to General Koster began the core of the cover-up that Lieutenant Colonel Barker and the brigade commander, Lt. Col. Oran Henderson, initiated to hide the massacre.

The ambitions of the senior officers in the 23rd Infantry Division helped create the environment in which the massacre unfolded and was hidden from scrutiny. General Koster viewed his command as a temporary stop on his way to higher rank — commanding a division in combat was another box to check. The division public affairs officer, Lt. Col. Charles Anistranski, remembered General Koster being furious over the results of My Lai because the official body count of 128 Vietcong killed, but only three weapons recovered, reflected poorly on his leadership.

While General Koster rarely interacted with his subordinates, he regularly reminded them to follow the rules of engagement, and that he equated the number of weapons recovered with the number of enemy killed. Although he told men that they could not simply shoot up a village to increase body counts, General Koster did not insist on an accurate account of the deaths at My Lai.

When the assistant division commander, George Young, informed General Koster of Hugh Thompson’s allegations that Captain Medina’s men had murdered civilians at My Lai, both focused on the pilot’s confrontation with Lieutenant Calley. Focusing on the argument between Mr. Thompson and Lieutenant Calley, General Young and General Koster skirted directives from the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam that accusations of war crimes be forwarded to the staff judge advocate in Saigon.

Career aspirations also motivated Lieutenant Colonel Barker, who had never had a combat command. Understanding that a battalion command was necessary for promotion to full colonel, he saw the current operation, of which the assault on My Lai was just one part, as the next best thing. Wanting to score successes against the Vietcong, he urged Charlie Company to be very aggressive during the assault on My Lai, later acknowledging that his exhortations likely contributed to the misconception that Captain Medina’s men should kill everyone in the village.

While emphasizing aggressiveness and the liveliness of heavy combat during the assault, both Lieutenant Colonel Barker and Captain Medina failed to provide instructions for how to handle noncombatants. When assigned to investigate the actions of his own men, Lieutenant Colonel Barker wrote a superficial report that cleared Charlie Company of wrongdoing.

The events at My Lai became public a year later. Several officers were brought to trial in 1971, but only Lieutenant Calley was convicted. He was released from prison in 1974.