William Calley, the former Army lieutenant convicted on 22 counts of murder in the infamous My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, publicly apologized for the first time this week while speaking in Columbus.
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” Calley told members of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus on Wednesday. His voice started to break when he added, “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”
In March 1968, U.S. soldiers gunned down hundreds of civilians in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. The Army at first denied, then downplayed the event, saying most of the dead were Vietcong. But in November 1969, journalist Seymour Hersh revealed what really happened and Calley was court martialed and convicted of murder.
Calley had long refused to grant interviews about what happened, but on Wednesday he spoke at a Columbus Kiwanis meeting. He made only a brief statement, but agreed to take questions from the audience.
He did not deny what had happened that day, but did repeatedly make the point — which he has made before — that he was following orders.
Calley explained he had been ordered to take out My Lai, adding that he had intelligence that the village was fortified and would be “hot” when he went in. He also said the area was submitted to an artillery barrage and helicopter fire before his troops went in. It turned out that it was not hot and there was no armed resistance. But he had been told, he said, that if he left anyone behind, his troops could be trapped and caught in a crossfire.
Asked about American casualties, Calley said there were two injuries, but neither was the result of enemy fire, adding, “They didn’t have time.”
One person asked about the story of a helicopter coming into My Lai during the massacre and its pilot threatening to open fire if the killing of civilians didn’t stop.
Calley said the pilot asked if he could take children out of the area and he relayed that request to his captain, who said the pilot could.
As far as any threats to fire on American soldiers by the pilot, or any threats of firing on the chopper, he said he does not recall hearing about that. He did say the helicopter was making a lot of noise during his conversation with the pilot.
Asked if the story about the threat to fire on troops killing civilians came from the pilot, Calley replied, “It certainly didn’t come from me.”
When asked if obeying an unlawful order was not itself an unlawful act, he said, “I believe that is true. If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a second lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them — foolishly, I guess.” Calley then said that was not an excuse; it was just what happened.
The officer Calley said gave those orders was Capt. Ernest Medina, who was also tried for what happened at My Lai. Represented by the renowned Defense Attorney F. Lee Bailey, Medina was acquitted of all charges in 1971.
That same year, Calley didn’t fare as well.
After four months of testimony in a Fort Benning courtroom and almost two weeks of jury deliberation, he was convicted of premeditated murder. After the verdict was read, but before sentencing, Calley was allowed to address the court.
“I’m not going to stand here and plead for my life or my freedom,” Calley said. “If I have committed a crime, the only crime I have committed is in judgment of my values. Apparently I valued my troops’ lives more than I did those of the enemy ...”
Calley was sentenced to life in prison, which was later shortened considerably.
Many at the time considered Calley a scapegoat, forced to take the fall for those above him. That sentiment had been very strong when the late federal Judge J. Robert Elliot released Calley from custody after a habeas corpus hearing. An appeals court reversed Elliot’s ruling and Calley was returned to Army custody, but the Army soon paroled him.
Calley then settled in Columbus, married a young woman named Penny Vick and worked in her father’s jewelry store here for years. He now lives in Atlanta with his 28-year-old son, Laws, who is doing doctoral work in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech.
Calley has been free now for years, but he remains stripped of some of his civil rights.
“No, I still cannot vote,” he said. “In fact, I’m not even supposed to go into the post office, I guess.”