A monument of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Photo: Jeroen van Luin

Doug George-Kanentiio: Let us remember the victims of the My Lai massacre

Remembering My Lai, March 16,1968

By Doug George-Kanentiio

In 1968, that most turbulent of years, the United States and the world seemed to be in a state of turmoil characterized by wars, assassinations, civil strife and riots. It was an ugly year for many but unknown to the nation was an event which cast a terrible pall over all else even as it was not reported until an intrepid reporter named Seymour Hersh ripped open a conspiracy conducted by the highest ranks within the US Army.

On March 16, 1968, just a few weeks after the beginning of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, C Company (Charlie), 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division (Americal) attacked a cluster of Vietnamese villages in the north part of South Vietnam within the Son Tjnh district. They were on edge, the result of several of their comrades being either killed or wounded in boobytraps set by the Viet Cong, contingents of which were active in the area. Acting on bad intelligence the American military fired artillery rounds near the villages followed by the use of aerial napalm bombing.

There was no reliable evidence that the villages, particularly the one they called "Pinkville" or My Lai, were anything but farmers, most of whom were elders, women and children. Charlie Company was none the less eager to strike back. They were given orders by their commander Lt. Colonel Frank Barker to lay waste to anything which could be used by the enemy and to shoot anyone they suspected as supporters of the Viet Cong. To the soldiers this mean anyone who tried to run from the invaders regardless of their gender or age.

Leading the assault was Captain Ernest Medina and Second Lieutenants William Calley, Jeffrey Lacross and Stephen Brooks. They were to take Lt. Colonel Barker's instructions literally.

At 7am the Americans entered My Lai on a normal marker day for the Vietnamese. They began by forcing the people into small groups. Without any warning the killings began. There was no threat to any U.S. soldier.

The mass murders started at 8 am and continued for the next few hours. Clusters of Vietnamese, almost all of whom were women and children, were pushed into ditches and machine gunned to death. Many of the women, particularly the younger ones, were raped, some multiple times before being shot. Children screamed in terror while in the arms of their mothers only to be struck by bullets fired by the Americans. When mothers tried to shield their infants with their bodies, the only defense they had, the soldiers shot through them. Those who were wounded were shot again to ensure they were dead.

The Americans were methodical. They took their time. They were deliberate and efficient in their murders. They took time to reload, to drink, to eat lunch and then to return to the slaughter. The pleas of the innocent or the wails of people seeing the killing of their kin did not deter the soldiers. They used assault rifles, grenade launchers, bayonets-anything which could murder. After three hours of bloodletting the Americans had wiped out 504 civilians.

The officers on site took and active part in the killings. They made no attempt to control their men.

Some of the Vietnamese were saved by the intervention of three men: Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot and his gunners Specialists Glen Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn. Officer Thompson spotted the bodies of the Vietnamese and radioed his command as to when he was seeing. He landed his craft to collect survivors and ordered his gunners to fire on the American soldiers if they continued to attack the civilians. It was Thompson's appeals to the regional commanders who finally ordered Medina, Cally and Charlie Company to cease operations.

Attempts were made to report the massacre to the high command but these were ignored particularly by Major General Samuel William Koster and Colonel Oran Henderson. Instead of bringing charges against the killers letters of commendation were issued. It would take Hersh's November, 1969 article to compel the Army to respond. Twenty one military personnel were charged but only Lt. Calley was convicted, His original sentence of 20 years imprisonment was reduced by US President Richard Nixon to four of which three years were in house arrest.

Natives in America can well understand the massacre at My Lai and the complete failure of the U.S. legal system to hold accountable those who gave the orders, those who fired their weapons and those who tried to cover up the most brutal act of collective, small weapons murder during that war. Thousands of Natives in this country were also rounded up, herded together and shot to death at Yontoket, Sand Creek or Wounded Knee among others. Unlike Wounded Knee no Medals of Honor were awarded to the American soldiers but the fact that justice was denied to their victims further stained whatever was left of U.S. morality during that conflict.

While there will be commemorations as to the lives of leaders such as Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy let us remember the victims of My Lai.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He has served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via e-mail at: Kanentiio@aol.com or by calling 315-415-7288.

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