William Laws Calley Jr. (born June 8, 1943) is an American war criminal and a 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 released to house arrest under orders 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 certiorari. 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.
Early life and education
Calley was born in Miami, Florida. His father, William Laws Calley, Sr., 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.
Calley then worked at a variety of jobs before enlistment, including as a bellhop, dishwasher, salesman, insurance appraiser, and train conductor.
Calley underwent eight weeks of basic combat training at Fort Bliss, Texas, 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).
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, he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Infantry. He was assigned to 1st Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade, and began training at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, in preparation for deployment to South Vietnam.
Calley's evaluations described him as average as an officer. 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.
A number of men assigned under Calley claimed he was so disliked that they discussed fragging him.
In May or June 1969 near Chu Lai Base Area, Calley and two other Americal Division officers were in a jeep that passed a jeep containing five 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, motherfucker, 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.
The events in My Lai were initially covered up by the U.S. Army. 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.
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, called simply "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 and Wayne Greenhaw broke the story and revealed that Calley had been charged with murdering 109 South Vietnamese.
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.
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.
One holdout, Private First Class Paul David Meadlo, having been granted immunity, was ordered by judge Reid W. Kennedy to testify or face contempt of court charges. 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". 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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, 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. Many observers 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. 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. The legislatures of Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, New Jersey, and South Carolina requested clemency for Calley. 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. 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.
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:
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." 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."
On April 1, 1971, President Richard Nixon ordered Calley removed from prison and placed under house arrest at Fort Benning. On August 20, 1971, Lt. Gen. Albert O. Connor, Commanding General of Third Army, in his capacity as convenor of the court-martial, reduced Calley's sentence to 20 years in prison. As required by law, his conviction and sentence were reviewed and sustained by the United States Army Court of Military Review, and the United States Court of Military Appeals.
Calley appealed his conviction to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia. On February 27, 1974, Judge J. Robert Elliott granted a writ of habeas corpus and set Calley free on bail. The court held that Calley had been improperly convicted due to extensive pre-trial publicity, the military court's refusal to permit certain defense witnesses, the refusal of the United States House of Representatives to release testimony about the My Lai masscre taken in executive session, and inadequate notice of charges. As the Army appealed Judge Elliott's decision, Secretary of the Army Howard H. Callaway reviewed Calley's conviction and sentence as required by law. After reviewing the conclusions of the court-martial, Court of Military Review, and Court of Military Appeals, Callaway reduced Calley's sentence to just 10 years. Under military regulations, a prisoner is eligible for parole after serving one-third of their sentence. This made Calley eligible for parole after serving three years and four months.
A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court's ruling and returned Calley to custody on June 13, 1974. Calley once more appealed his conviction to Judge Elliott. He asked the head of the Fifth Circuit, Supreme Court Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., to set him free on bail while his appeal was pending, but Justice Powell denied the request.
The district court once more found the pre-trial publicity, the denial of defense witnesses, and improperly drawn charges had denied Calley a fair trial, and ordered him released on September 25, 1974. Calley was released on bail while the government appealed the ruling. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the Army's latest appeal en banc. The full court ruled 8-to-5 to overturn the district court, and ordered Calley's conviction and sentence reinstated on September 10, 1976. Because Calley had less than 10 days to serve before his possible parole, and because Army Secretary Callaway had expressed his intention to parole Calley as soon as possible, the Army declined to incarcerate Calley for the remaining 10 days of his sentence.
Calley appealed the Fifth Circuit's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it declined to hear his case on April 5, 1976.
On May 15, 1976, Calley married Penny Vick, the daughter of a Columbus, Georgia, jewelry store owner. Judge J. Robert Elliott attended the wedding. The couple had one son, and divorced in 2005 or 2006. Calley worked at his father-in-law's store, and became a gemologist.
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."