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This Day In History: A U.S. Army Captain Was Charged With Committing War Crimes At My Lai

March 10, 2017

This day in history, March 10, 1970, U.S. Army Captain Ernest Medina and four other soldiers were accused of committing war crimes at My Lai.

The My Lai massacre became the most publicized war atrocity committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam. Allegedly, a platoon had slaughtered between 200 and 500 unarmed villagers at My Lai 4 in Song My village. Viet Cong guerrillas were entrenched in the area and in the previous month, multiple members of the platoon operating in the area had been killed or maimed.

Medina was the company commander of Lt. William Calley and other soldiers charged with murder and numerous crimes at My Lai 4. The charges ranged from premeditated murder to rape and the “maiming” of a suspect under interrogation.

The company had been conducting a search-and-destroy mission in search of the 48th Viet Cong (VC) Local Force Battalion. However, the unit entered My Lai but found only women, children, and old men. Frustrated by unanswered losses due to snipers and mines, the soldiers took out their anger on the villagers. During the attack, several old men were bayoneted, some women and children praying outside the local temple were shot in the back of the head, and at least one girl was raped before being killed. Many villagers were rounded up and led to a nearby ditch where they were executed.

According to reports, the killing was only stopped when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, an aero-scout helicopter pilot, landed his helicopter between the Americans and the South Vietnamese, blocking them from further action against the villagers. The incident was initially covered up, but eventually became public a year later.

An Army board of inquiry, headed by Lt. Gen. William Peers, investigated the massacre and produced a list of 30 people who knew of the incident. Only 14, including Calley and Medina, were eventually charged with crimes. All of them had their charges dismissed or were acquitted by courts-martial except Calley, who was found guilty of murdering 22 civilians. He was sentenced to life in prison, but his sentence was reduced to 20 years by the Court of Military Appeals. It was later reduced to 10 years by the Secretary of the Army. Proclaimed by much of the public as a “scapegoat,” Calley was paroled in 1974 after having served about three years.