William Calley

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William Calley
Birth nameWilliam Laws Calley Jr.
Born (1943-06-08) June 8, 1943 (age 76)
Miami, Florida, U.S.
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1967–1971
RankUS Army O1 shoulderboard rotated.svg Second lieutenant[1]
Unit1st Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division (Americal)
Battles/warsVietnam War

William Laws Calley Jr.[1] (born June 8, 1943) is an American former United States Army officer convicted by court-martial of murdering 22 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968, during the Vietnam War. Calley was ordered release to house arrest by President Richard Nixon, three days after his conviction. Following a petition for Habeas Corpus by Calley, a new trial was ordered by the 5th Circuit Federal court in Georgia. That ruling however was overturned on an appeal and the Supreme Court denied Certiori. His initial conviction faced widespread public opposition, both due to the campaign circumstances of civilian embedded Viet Cong and also due to Calley being singled out as the sole officer convicted with respect to the massacre.[2]

Early life and education[edit]

Calley was born in Miami, Florida. His father, also William Laws Calley, was a United States Navy veteran of World War II. Calley Jr. graduated from Miami Edison High School in Miami and then attended Palm Beach Junior College in 1963. He dropped out in 1964 after receiving unsatisfactory grades, consisting of one C, two Ds, and four Fs.[3]

Calley then worked at a variety of jobs before enlistment, including as a bellhop, dishwasher, salesman, insurance appraiser, and train conductor.[4]


Calley underwent eight weeks of basic combat training at Fort Bliss, Texas,[5] followed by eight weeks of advanced individual training as a company clerk at Fort Lewis, Washington. Having scored high enough on his Armed Forces Qualification tests, he applied for and was accepted into Officer Candidate School (OCS).[4]

He then began 26 weeks of junior officer training at Fort Benning in mid-March 1967. Upon graduating from OCS Class No. 51 on September 7, 1967,[4] he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant of infantry. He was assigned to 1st Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade,[1] and began training at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, in preparation for deployment to South Vietnam.

Calley's evaluations described him as average as an officer.[3] Later, as the My Lai investigation progressed, a more negative picture emerged. Men in his platoon reported to Army investigators that Calley lacked common sense and could not read a map or compass properly.[6]

A number of men assigned under Calley claimed he was so disliked that they discussed fragging him.[7]

In May/June 1969 near Chu Lai Base Area, Calley and 2 other Americal Division officers were in a jeep that passed a jeep containing 5 Marines. The Army jeep pulled the Marines over and one Army officer told the Marines "You soldiers better square away!" One of the Marines replied, "We ain't soldiers, m***********, we're Marines!" The Army Lieutenants dismounted for further discussion of the matter. The ensuing fight ended only after one of the officers pulled his pistol and fired a round into the air. Two of the officers were briefly hospitalized while Calley was merely beaten up. The Marines pleaded guilty at special courts-martial, in each of which it was stipulated they had not known the soldiers had been officers.[8]

Murder trial[edit]

Photo taken by the Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle on March 16, 1968, during the My Lai massacre, showing mostly women and children dead on a road

The events in My Lai were initially covered up by the U.S. Army.[9] In April 1969, nearly 13 months after the massacre, Ron Ridenhour, a GI who had been with the 11th Brigade, wrote letters to the President, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense and 30 members of Congress. In these letters Ridenhour described some of the atrocities by the soldiers at My Lai that he had been told about.[10]

Calley was charged on September 5, 1969, with six specifications of premeditated murder for the deaths of 109 South Vietnamese civilians near the village of Sơn Mỹ, at a hamlet called My Lai, simply referred to as "My Lai" in the U.S. press. As many as 500 villagers—mostly women, children, infants, and the elderly—had been systematically killed by U.S. soldiers during a bloody rampage on March 16, 1968. Upon conviction, Calley could have faced the death penalty. On November 12, 1969, investigative reporters Seymour Hersh[11] and Wayne Greenhaw[12] broke the story and revealed that Calley had been charged with murdering 109 South Vietnamese.[13]

Calley's trial started on November 17, 1970. It was the military prosecution's contention that Calley, in defiance of the rules of engagement, ordered his men to deliberately murder unarmed Vietnamese civilians even though his men were not under enemy fire at all. Testimony revealed that Calley had ordered the men of 1st Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry of the 23rd Infantry Division to kill everyone in the village.[14]

In presenting the case, the two military prosecutors, Aubrey M. Daniel, III and John Partin, were hamstrung by the reluctance of many soldiers to testify against Calley. In addition President Richard M. Nixon made public statements prior to the trial that were prejudicial to the defense, resulting in a letter from Daniel taking the president to task. Some soldiers refused to answer questions point-blank on the witness stand by citing the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.[15]

One holdout, Private First Class Paul David Meadlo, having been granted immunity,[16] was ordered by judge Reid W. Kennedy to testify or face contempt of court charges.[17] Meadlo thus took the stand and recounted that as he stood guard over some 30 villagers that he, along with Private Dennis Conti, had gathered at a defoliated area at the hamlet's southern tip, he was approached by Calley and told, regarding the civilians, "You know what to do with 'em".[17] Meadlo took that as orders to only keep watch over them. Calley, however, returned 10 minutes later and became enraged by the fact that the villagers were still alive. After telling Meadlo that he had wanted them dead, Calley backed up about 20 feet, opened fire on them himself and ordered the former to join in, which he did. Meadlo then proceeded to round up more villagers to be massacred.[17]

Conti's testimony corroborated that given by Meadlo, and laid the blame on Calley not only for the initiation of the massacre but also for the participation in it by his subordinates.[18] Another witness, Leonard Gonzalez, told of seeing one of the soldiers of Calley's unit herd some men and women villagers together and order them to strip off their clothing. When the villagers refused, the enraged soldier fired a single round from his M-79 grenade launcher into the crowd, killing everyone.[citation needed]

Calley's original defense, that the death of the villagers was the result of an accidental airstrike, was overcome by the few prosecution witnesses. In his new defense, Calley claimed he was following the orders of his immediate superior, Captain Ernest Medina. Whether this order was actually given is disputed; Medina was acquitted of all charges relating to the incident at a separate trial in August 1971.[19]

Taking the witness stand, Calley, under the direct examination by his civilian defense lawyer George W. Latimer, claimed that on the previous day, his commanding officer, Captain Medina, made it clear that his unit was to move into the village and that everyone was to be shot, saying that they all were Viet Cong.[20][21]

Twenty-one other members of Calley's "Charlie" Company also testified in Calley's defense and corroborated the orders. But Medina publicly denied that he had ever given such orders and stated that he had meant enemy soldiers, while Calley assumed that his order to "kill the enemy" meant to kill everyone. In his personal statement, Calley stated that,

I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy. That was my job that day. That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women, and children. They were all classified as the same, and that's the classification that we dealt with over there, just as the enemy. I felt then and I still do that I acted as I was directed, and I carried out the order that I was given and I do not feel wrong in doing so.

After deliberating for 79 hours, the six-officer jury (five of whom had served in Vietnam) convicted him on March 29, 1971, of the premeditated murder of 22 South Vietnamese civilians. On March 31, 1971, Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labor at Fort Leavenworth,[22] which includes the United States Disciplinary Barracks, the Department of Defense's only maximum security prison. Calley was the only one of the 26 officers and soldiers initially charged for their part in the My Lai Massacre or the subsequent cover-up[clarification needed]. Many observers[who?] saw My Lai as a direct result of the military's attrition strategy with its emphasis on body counts and kill ratios.

Many in the United States were outraged by what they perceived to be an overly harsh sentence for Calley. Georgia's Governor, Jimmy Carter, future President of the United States instituted American Fighting Man's Day, and asked Georgians to drive for a week with their lights on.[23] Indiana's Governor Edgar Whitcomb asked that all state flags be flown at half-staff for Calley, and the governors of Utah and Mississippi also publicly disagreed with the verdict.[23] The legislatures of Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, New Jersey, and South Carolina requested clemency for Calley.[23] Alabama's governor, George Wallace, visited Calley in the stockade and requested that President Richard Nixon pardon him. After the conviction, the White House received over 5,000 telegrams; the ratio was 100 to 1 in favor of leniency.[24] In a telephone survey of the U.S. public, 79 percent disagreed with the verdict, 81 percent believed that the life sentence Calley had received was too stern, and 69 percent believed Calley had been made a scapegoat.[24]

Many others were outraged not at Calley's guilty verdict, but that he was the only one within the chain of command who was convicted. At the Winter Soldier Investigation in Detroit organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War January 31–February 2, 1971, veterans expressed their outrage, including 1st Lt. William Crandell of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division:[25]

We intend to tell who it was that gave us those orders; that created that policy; that set that standard of war bordering on full and final genocide. We intend to demonstrate that My Lai was no unusual occurrence, other than, perhaps, the number of victims killed all in one place, all at one time, all by one platoon of us. We intend to show that the policies of Americal Division, which inevitably resulted in My Lai, were the policies of other Army and Marine divisions as well. We intend to show that war crimes in Vietnam did not start in March 1968, or in the village of Son My or with one Lieutenant William Calley. We intend to indict those really responsible for My Lai, for Vietnam, for attempted genocide.

In a recollection on the Vietnam War, South Korea's "Vietnam Expeditionary Forces" commander Myung-shin Chae stated, "Calley tried to get revenge for the deaths of his troops. In a war, this is natural."[26] Conversely, Colonel Harry G. Summers Jr. declared that Calley and Medina should have been hanged, drawn, and quartered, with their remains placed "at the gates of Fort Benning, at the Infantry School, as a reminder to those who pass under it of what an infantry officer ought to be."[27][28]

House arrest[edit]

On April 1, 1971, only a day after Calley was sentenced in prison at Fort Leavenworth, President Richard Nixon ordered him transferred from Leavenworth prison to house arrest at Fort Benning, pending appeal.[29]

Calley served only three and a half years of house arrest in his quarters at Fort Benning. He petitioned the federal district court for habeas corpus on February 11, 1974, which was granted on September 25, 1974, along with his immediate release, by federal judge J. Robert Elliott. Judge Elliott determined that Calley's trial had been prejudiced by pre-trial publicity, denial of subpoenas of certain defense witnesses, refusal of the United States House of Representatives to release testimony taken in executive session of its My Lai investigation, and inadequate notice of the charges. The judge had released Calley on bail on February 27, 1974, but an appeals court reversed Elliott's ruling and returned Calley to U.S. Army custody on June 13, 1974. Consequently, his general court-martial conviction and dismissal from the U.S. Army were upheld; however, the prison sentence and subsequent parole obligations were commuted to time served, leaving Calley a free man.[9]

After release[edit]

In 1976 Calley married Penny Vick, the daughter of a Columbus, Georgia jewelry store owner,[30] with whom he had a son.[31] The couple divorced in 2005 or 2006.[32] Calley worked at his father-in-law's store, and became a gemologist.[31]

On August 19, 2009, while speaking to the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus, Calley issued an apology for his role in the My Lai massacre. Calley said:

"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."[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "WSB-TV newsfilm clip of a reporter John Philp conducting street interviews with civilians and soldiers outside the commissary following the conviction of Lieutenant William Calley for his role in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, Fort Benning, Georgia". Civil Rights Digital Library. University System of Georgia. 1971-03-30. Retrieved 2009-08-22. Second lieutenant William Calley was a member of the Charlie Company, 1st battalion, 20th infantry regiment, 11th infantry brigade while in Vietnam.
  2. ^ Katz, Andrew. "Lieut. William Calley | Field of Dishonor: Famous American Court-Martials", TIME.com", August 17, 2013; accessed February 23, 2018.
  3. ^ a b "An Average American Boy?". Time. 1969-05-12. Retrieved 2007-01-15.
  4. ^ a b c Loh, Jules. "Average Guy Calley Found Niche in Army", Pacific Stars and Stripes, 12-01-1969. 25th Aviation Battalion, U.S. Army.
  5. ^ Tucker, Spencer (2011). The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. 1. ABC-CLIO. p. 149. ISBN 978-1-85109-960-3. Retrieved 2011-12-23.
  6. ^ Wilson, William. “I Had Prayed to God that this Thing Was Fiction...” Archived 2007-06-25 at the Wayback Machine, American Heritage, vol. 41 #1, February 1990.
  7. ^ "Daily Mail: The Monsterr of the My Lai Massacre – October 6, 2007". London, UK. October 6, 2007. Retrieved 2008-04-15.
  8. ^ Solis, Gary (1989). Marines And Military Law In Vietnam: Trial By Fire (PDF). History and Museums Division, United States Marine Corps. pp. 155–6. ISBN 9781494297602. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  9. ^ a b Linder, Douglas. "JURIST – The My Lai Massacre Trial", JURIST – The My Lai Massacre Trial. March 2000.
  10. ^ "William Calley". Trial International. 8 May 2016.
  11. ^ "The Press: Miscue on the Massacre". Time.com. 1969-12-05. Retrieved 2013-08-30.
  12. ^ Oliver, Kendick (2006). The My Lai massacre in American history and memory. Manchester UP. pp. 43–44. ISBN 978-0-7190-6891-1.
  13. ^ Kendrick, Oliver, "Coming to Terms with the Past: My Lai", History Today, 00182753, February 2006, Vol. 56, Issue 2.
  14. ^ Levie, H.S. (ed.), International Law Studies, Documents on Prisoners of War, Naval War College, R.I., Naval War College, vol. 60, Document No. 171, 1979, pp. 804-811. "United States, United States v. William L. Calley, Jr". Retrieved 2019-07-11.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. ^ Law Library - American Law and Legal Information. "Notable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972: William Calley Court-Martial: 1970". Retrieved 2019-07-11.
  16. ^ Associated Press (1971-01-05). "Meadlo Given Immunity in Calley Trial". Retrieved 2019-07-01.
  17. ^ a b c Lesher, Stephan (1971-07-11). "The Calley Case Re‐Examined". Retrieved 2019-07-11.
  18. ^ Bigart, Homer (1970-12-05). "Ex‐G.I. Says Calley Killed Nonresisters". Retrieved 2019-07-11.
  19. ^ 1946-, Olson, James Stuart,. Where the domino fell : America and Vietnam, 1945-2010. Roberts, Randy., Roberts, Randy, 1951- (Sixth ed.). Hoboken. ISBN 9781444350500. OCLC 859155073.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  20. ^ Bigart, Homer (1971-02-18). "Defense Says Calley Regarded Victims as an Enemy". Retrieved 2019-07-11.
  21. ^ McMichael, Dick (2009-08-21). "William Calley apologizes for My Lai massacre". Retrieved 2019-07-11.
  22. ^ "1971: Year in Review: Calley Trial", Foreign Affairs via upi.com; accessed February 23, 2018.
  23. ^ a b c Frum, David (2000). How We Got Here: The 1970s. New York: Basic Books. pp. 84–85. ISBN 0-465-04195-7.
  24. ^ a b Cookman, Claude, Journal of American History (June 2007), Vol. 94, Issue 1, p. 154-162
  25. ^ "Winter Soldier Investigation: Opening Statement of William Crandell". The 1960s Project. Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia. January 31, 1971.
  26. ^ "The Cold Warrior". Newsweek. April 10, 2000. Retrieved February 23, 2018.
  27. ^ David Anderson L., ed. (1998). Facing My Lai: Moving Beyond the Massacre. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. p. 126. ISBN 978-0-7006-0864-5.
  28. ^ Jones, Howard (2017). My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 351. ISBN 978-0-1953-9360-6.
  29. ^ "Calley Apologizes for Role in My Lai Massacre", UMsnbc.com, August 21, 2009.
  30. ^ "Calley Gets Married To Jeweler's Daughter". The New York Times. New York, NY. Associated Press. May 16, 1976. p. 37.
  31. ^ a b "Follow-Up on the News; William Calley Jr.", New York Times", July 10, 1983; accessed August 9, 2017.
  32. ^ Rice, Mark (October 25, 2018). "My Lai Massacre 'still staggers me,' prosecutor says, recalling Calley trial at Benning". Ledger-Enquirer. Columbus, GA.
  33. ^ "Calley apologizes for role in My Lai massacre". msnbc.com. August 22, 2009. Retrieved April 8, 2017.

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