When one brings up the Vietnam War, invariably the subject of the My Lai massacre will come to the forefront. And Captain Ernest Medina, the commander of Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry of the 11th Brigade, Americal Division, who conducted the operation was court-martialed for his role in it. Medina was eventually cleared and acquitted of all charges but his military career was over. Medina recently died in Wisconsin. He was 81.
Medina was born in Springer, New Mexico in August 1936. He joined the army in 1956 and worked his way up the ranks until he reached the rank of Captain and was a company commander in Vietnam. His unit arrived late in 1967 and by the spring of 1968 had lost about 20 soldiers to mines and booby traps. By the time of the My Lai operation, just after the Tet Offensive, his unit’s morale was low.
The most well-known of the soldiers who took part in the operation was Lt. William Calley who was the only member of the army convicted for crimes in My Lai
Medina was the recipient of a Silver Star for heroism during a battle that took place just before My Lai, risking his life to save several soldiers.
In the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, a Vietcong unit, the 48th Local Force Battalion of the National Liberation Front (NLF) as the Cong were called had dispersed and was hiding in the villages of Sơn Mỹ, in Quảng Ngãi Province. Charlie Company was to clear the villages named My Lai on the US maps (Sơn Mỹ).
Medina briefed his men that they were to kill all guerrilla and North Vietnamese combatants, including “suspects” (including women and children, as well as all animals), to burn the village, and pollute the wells.
Early the next morning on the 16th of March 1968, the operation began. Calley’s platoon was supposed to take down the village with the other two platoons acting as a reserve and as a blocking force. The troops arrived and found no Vietcong. No military age men at all. Just old men and women and children. Calley’s men rounded them up and then the killing began. Indiscriminate and cold-blooded.
Most of the women tried to shield their young children from the carnage. They were shot down and their children executed. Many of the women were raped before they were killed. Everything was being burned to the ground, anyone trying to run away was gunned down.
Sgt. Michael Bernhardt, who later told his story to the press, said, “I saw them shoot an M79 grenade launcher into a group of people who were still alive. But it was mostly done with a machine gun. They were shooting women and children just like anybody else,”
“We met no resistance and I only saw three captured weapons. We had no casualties. It was just like any other Vietnamese village—old papa-sans [men], women and kids. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive,” Bernhardt added.
The killing continued until the troops took a break for lunch and then restarted. It only stopped when WO1 Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot flew his chopper between the soldiers and the civilians who were being slaughtered. He flew some injured Vietnamese children to safety.
Estimates for the killing at My Lai ranged as high as 504 people dead. Among the victims were 182 women—17 of them pregnant—and 173 children, including 56 infants. The unit wrote up their report as a great victory over enemy insurgents. The awful truth was kept under wraps for more than a year. It was another one of the events that turned the American public against the war and war effort.
Finally, some soldiers came forward and an investigation was started. In 1971, 14 officers were charged with various crimes as a result of My Lai. Medina, according to the official investigation:
“Planned, ordered, and supervised the execution by his company of an unlawful operation against inhabited hamlets in Son My village which included the destruction of houses by burning, killing of livestock, and the destruction of crops and other foodstuffs, and the closing of wells; and impliedly directed the killing of any persons found there.”
“Possibly killed as many as three noncombatants in My Lai.”
He was court-martialed for willingly allowing his men to murder non-combatants. His defense team was headed up by F. Lee Bailey. Medina admitted to killing one woman, who he said he believed was holding a grenade. At the end of his trial, the jury only took 60 minutes to acquit him of all charges. However, his Army career was finished. Shortly afterward, he resigned his commission and soon left the Army as well.
Calley was the only one convicted, his life sentence was reduced to just three years of home confinement.
In 1971 Medina moved to Wisconsin and went to work as a salesman for a helicopter manufacturer. Later he went into real estate.
In 1988, he broke his silence on My Lai and gave an interview with the Associated Press and admitted the operation and resultant illegal activity from troops under his command should have never happened.
“I have regrets for it, but I have no guilt over it because I didn’t cause it,” he said. “That’s not what the military, particularly the United States Army, is trained for. But then again, maybe the war should have never happened. I think if everybody were to look at it in hindsight, I’m sure a lot of the politicians and generals would think of it otherwise. Maybe it was a war that we should have probably never gotten involved in as deeply as we did without the will to win it.”
Medina lived quietly for the rest of his life and is survived by his wife, daughter and two sons.
An interview he gave shortly after the story broke while he was still a Captain in the US Army can be seen here: