Richard Hyatt

Richard Hyatt: Always remember My Lai

The anniversary just passed but the memory lingers. Well it should, for My Lai should not be forgotten.

Seymour Hersh was the first reporter to write about the killings of men, women and children in that obscure Vietnamese village.

He also introduced us to Lt. William L. Calley and forever ingrained his name in the American conscience.

In a chilling article in the current issue of the New Yorker, Hersh reminds us of what Calley did 47 years ago. He also describes his first meeting with him on a visit to Fort Benning in 1969.

"Calley hardly seemed satanic. He was a slight, nervous man in his mid-twenties, with pale, almost translucent skin. He tried hard to seem tough. Over many beers, he told me how he and his soldiers had engaged and killed the enemy at My Lai in a fiercely contested firefight.

"We talked through the night. At one point, Calley excused himself, to go to the bathroom. He left the door partly open, and I could see that he was vomiting blood."

I remember Calley. I didn't live here then, but I followed his trial at Fort Benning. When I did come to Columbus, I heard he was on house arrest in an apartment not far from where he was convicted.

When U.S. District Judge J. Robert Elliott freed Calley, I was in his courtroom. I went because I wanted to hear his voice.

Hersh was never allowed to visit My Lai, or, as he describes it, the scene of the crime. His first visit was a few months ago.

He writes about Pham Thanh Cong, director of the My Lai Museum. He was 11 at the time of the massacre.

"'When American helicopters landed in the village,' he said, he and his mother and four siblings huddled in a primitive bunker inside their thatch-roofed home. American soldiers ordered them out of the bunker and then pushed them back in, throwing a hand grenade in after them and firing their M-16s.

"Cong was wounded in three places -- on his scalp, on the right side of his torso, and in the leg. He passed out. When he awoke, he found himself in a heap of corpses: his mother, his three sisters, and his six-year-old brother."

Many times I went to his former father-in-law's jewelry store requesting an interview. Calley always refused -- unless I would pay him.

In 2009, he spoke to a local civic club. He said not a day goes by that he doesn't feel remorse.

He said he was following orders, "foolishly, I guess."

Calley is 71, but in our mind's eye he will always be a young lieutenant and the only officer convicted of the massacre at My Lai.

My generation remembers him, and those who don't should read Seymour Hersh's report.

Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at