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William Calley

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William Laws Calley Jr.
Born (1943-06-08) June 8, 1943 (age 81)
Miami, Florida, U.S.
Criminal statusReleased
Criminal penaltyLife imprisonment with hard labor
Military career
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1966–1971
Rank Second lieutenant[1]
Unit1st Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division (Americal)

William Laws Calley Jr. (born June 8, 1943) is a former United States Army officer and mass murderer who was convicted by court-martial for the murder of 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. A new trial was ordered by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit but that ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court. Calley served three years of house arrest for the murders. Public opinion at the time about Calley was divided.[2] Since his dismissal from the U.S. Army and release from prison, Calley has avoided public attention.

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, having failed a majority of his classes.[3]

Calley then had a variety of jobs before enlistment in 1966,[4] including as a bellhop, dishwasher, salesman, insurance appraiser, and train conductor.[5]



Calley underwent eight weeks of basic combat training at Fort Bliss, Texas,[6] 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).[5]

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,[5] 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, 23rd Infantry Division "The Americal Division" ,[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.[7]

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 Army officers pulled his pistol and fired a round into the air. Two of the officers were briefly hospitalized, while Calley was beaten up. The Marines pleaded guilty at special courts-martial, where they stipulated they had not known the soldiers had been officers.[8]

My Lai massacre


In March 1968 Calley and several other soldiers arrived at the village of My Lai where they murdered hundreds of civilians consisting mostly of elderly men, women, children, and infants from allied South Vietnam. Calley would later claim in court that an air strike had killed the innocent civilians. There was no sign of enemy combatants in My Lai when he and his men arrived. In the My Lai museum in Vietnam, a marble plaque lists the names and ages of the victims. The count of the dead is a total of 504 people from 247 families. 24 families lost everyone – three generations, no survivors. Included in the 504 were 60 elderly men, and 282 women (17 of whom were pregnant). A total of 173 children were killed; 53 were infants.

Murder trial

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 committed by the soldiers at My Lai that he had been told about.[10]

Due to Article 4 of the Fourth Geneva Convention excluding allied civilians from the status of protected persons in an international armed conflict, Calley and his fellow soldiers could not be legally tried as war criminals.[11][12][13] Calley was instead charged on September 5, 1969, with six specifications of premeditated murder under Article 118 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ)[13] for the deaths of 109 South Vietnamese civilians near the village of Son My, at a hamlet called My Lai. On November 12, 1969, investigative reporters Seymour Hersh[14] and Wayne Greenhaw[15] broke the story and revealed that Calley had been charged with murdering 109 South Vietnamese.[16]

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.[17]

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. Some soldiers refused to answer questions on the witness stand by citing the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.[18]

One holdout, Private First Class Paul David Meadlo, having been granted immunity,[19] was ordered by Judge Reid W. Kennedy to testify or face contempt of court charges.[18] Meadlo thus took the stand and recounted that as he stood guard over some 30 villagers whom 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."[18] 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 Meadlo to join in, which he did. Meadlo then proceeded to round up more villagers to be massacred.[18]

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.[20] Another witness, Leonard Gonzalez, told of finding seven women, all naked, all dead, killed by several M-79 grenade launcher rounds.[21]

Calley's original defense, that the death of the villagers was the result of an accidental airstrike, was overcome by 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.[22]

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.[23][24] 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. On direct examination during his court martial, Calley stated:

Well, I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy. That was my job on 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 the same, and that was the classification that we dealt with, just as enemy soldiers...I felt then and I still do that I acted as I was directed, and I carried out the orders that I was given, and I do not feel wrong in doing so, sir.[25]

Latimer also used Calley's low intelligence and poor performance in training as a defense, arguing that Calley was incompetent, should not have been made an infantry officer, and had been commissioned only because of manpower shortages.[26]

The prosecution called over 100 witnesses to testify against Calley during the trial. After President Nixon intervened in the trial, the assistant prosecutor, Captain Partin, wrote a letter to the White House saying that the presidential intervention had "degraded" and "defiled" the military justice system.[27]

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 with hard labor at Fort Leavenworth,[28] which includes the United States Disciplinary Barracks, the Department of Defense's only maximum security prison. Calley was the only one convicted of the 26 officers and soldiers initially charged for their part in the My Lai massacre or the subsequent cover-up.[29] Many observers saw My Lai as a direct result of the military's attrition strategy with its emphasis on body counts and kill ratios.[30]

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.[31] 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.[31] The legislatures of Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, New Jersey, and South Carolina requested clemency for Calley.[31] 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.[32] 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.[32]

Nixon received so many telegrams from Americans requesting clemency or a pardon for William Calley that he remarked to Henry Kissinger, "Most people don't give a shit whether he killed them or not."[33]

In a recollection on the Vietnam War, South Korea's "Vietnam Expeditionary Forces" commander Chae Myung-shin stated that "Calley tried to get revenge for the deaths of his troops. In a war, this is natural."[34] Conversely, U.S. Army 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."[35][36]



Three days after Calley's conviction, Nixon ordered Calley removed from prison and placed under house arrest at Fort Benning.[37] On August 20, 1971, Lt. Gen. Albert O. Connor, Commanding General of Third Army,[38] in his capacity as the convening authority, reduced Calley's sentence to 20 years in prison.[39] 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.[40]

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 massacre taken in executive session, and inadequate notice of charges.[41] 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 his sentence. This made Calley eligible for parole after serving three years and four months.[38]

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.[42] Calley once more appealed his conviction to Judge Elliott. He asked the Circuit Justice of the Fifth Circuit, Lewis F. Powell Jr., to set him free on bail while his appeal was pending, but Justice Powell denied the request.[43]

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.[44] 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, 1975.[45] 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 refused to incarcerate Calley for the remaining 10 days of his sentence.[46]

Calley appealed the Fifth Circuit's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it declined to hear his case on April 5, 1976.[47]

After release


On May 15, 1976, Calley married Penny Vick, the daughter of a Columbus, Georgia, jewelry store owner. Judge J. Robert Elliott attended the wedding.[48] The couple had one son[49] and divorced in 2005 or 2006.[50] Calley worked at his father-in-law's store and became a gemologist and obtained his real estate license, which had initially been denied due to his criminal record.[27][49] During his divorce, Calley claimed to be suffering from prostate cancer and gastrointestinal problems leaving him with no chance of earning a living.[27]

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. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.[51]

As of 2018, he was living in Gainesville, Florida.[27]

See also



  1. ^ a b "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. March 30, 1971. Retrieved August 22, 2009. Calley was a member of the Alpha Company, 1st battalion, 20th infantry regiment, 11th infantry brigade while in Vietnam.
  2. ^ Katz, Andrew (August 17, 2013). "Field of Dishonor: Famous American Court-Martials – Lieut. William Calley". Time. Retrieved February 23, 2018.
  3. ^ a b "An Average American Boy?". Time. May 12, 1969. Archived from the original on November 18, 2007. Retrieved January 15, 2007.
  4. ^ https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/calley-william
  5. ^ a b c Loh, Jules. "Average Guy Calley Found Niche in Army", Pacific Stars and Stripes, December 1, 1969. 25th Aviation Battalion, United States Army.
  6. ^ Tucker, Spencer (2011). The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. Vol. 1. ABC-CLIO. p. 149. ISBN 978-1-85109-960-3. Retrieved December 23, 2011.
  7. ^ Wilson, William. "I Had Prayed to God that this Thing Was Fiction..." Archived June 25, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, American Heritage, vol. 41 #1, February 1990.
  8. ^ Solis, Gary (1989). Marines And Military Law In Vietnam: Trial By Fire (PDF). History and Museums Division, United States Marine Corps. pp. 155–56. ISBN 9781494297602. Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  9. ^ Linder, Douglas. "The My Lai Massacre Trial", Jurist. March 2000.
  10. ^ "William Calley". Trial International. May 8, 2016.
  11. ^ James E. Bond. "Protection of Non-combatants in Guerrilla Wars". William & Mary Law School. 12 (787): 788–789.
  12. ^ Gary D. Solis (April 18, 2016). The Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War. Cambridge University Press. p. 252-253. ISBN 9-7811-0713-5604.
  13. ^ a b The Army Lawyer. Judge Advocate General's School. p. 13.
  14. ^ "The Press: Miscue on the Massacre". Time.com. December 5, 1969. Archived from the original on December 14, 2008. Retrieved August 30, 2013.
  15. ^ Oliver, Kendick (2006). The My Lai massacre in American history and memory. Manchester UP. pp. 43–44. ISBN 978-0-7190-6891-1.
  16. ^ Kendrick, Oliver, "Coming to Terms with the Past: My Lai", History Today, 00182753, February 2006, Vol. 56, Issue 2.
  17. ^ 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. 804–11. "United States, United States v. William L. Calley, Jr". Retrieved July 11, 2019.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  18. ^ a b c d Lesher, Stephan (July 11, 1971). "The Calley Case Re-Examined". The New York Times. Retrieved July 11, 2019.
  19. ^ Associated Press (January 5, 1971). "Meadlo Given Immunity in Calley Trial". The New York Times. Retrieved July 1, 2019.
  20. ^ Bigart, Homer (December 5, 1970). "Ex-G.I. Says Calley Killed Nonresisters". The New York Times. Retrieved July 11, 2019.
  21. ^ Watson, Bruce (1997). When Soldiers Quit: Studies in Military Disintegration. Greenwood Publishing. ISBN 9780275952235.
  22. ^ Olson, James Stuart; Roberts, Randy (2013). Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam, 1945–2010 (Sixth ed.). Hoboken. ISBN 9781444350500. OCLC 859155073.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  23. ^ Bigart, Homer (February 18, 1971). "Defense Says Calley Regarded Victims as an Enemy". The New York Times. Retrieved July 11, 2019.
  24. ^ McMichael, Dick (August 21, 2009). "William Calley apologizes for My Lai massacre". Retrieved July 11, 2019.
  25. ^ "United States v. Calley, U.S. Court of Military Appeals (1973), 22 USCMA 534, 48 CMR 19". Retrieved March 16, 2021.
  26. ^ Gregory, Hamilton (2015). McNamara's Folly: The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War. Infinity Publishing. ISBN 978-1495805486.
  27. ^ a b c d Raviv, Shaun (January 1, 2018). "The Ghosts of My Lai". Smithsonian. Retrieved March 10, 2021.
  28. ^ "1971: Year in Review: Calley Trial", Foreign Affairs via upi.com; accessed February 23, 2018.
  29. ^ Shapira, Ian (March 16, 2018). "'It was insanity': At My Lai, U.S. soldiers slaughtered hundreds of Vietnamese women and kids". Washington Post. Archived from the original on March 16, 2018.
  30. ^ Turse, Nick (November 13, 2008). "A My Lai a Month". The Nation.
  31. ^ a b c Frum, David (2000). How We Got Here: The 1970s. New York: Basic Books. pp. 84–85. ISBN 0-465-04195-7.
  32. ^ a b Cookman, Claude, Journal of American History (June 2007), Vol. 94, Issue 1, pp. 154–62
  33. ^ "Nixon's Leniency After My Lai Hurt Veterans. Trump's May, Too". Defense One. December 15, 2019. Retrieved March 17, 2023.
  34. ^ "The Cold Warrior". Newsweek. April 10, 2000. Retrieved February 23, 2018.
  35. ^ 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.
  36. ^ Jones, Howard (2017). My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 351. ISBN 978-0-1953-9360-6.
  37. ^ "Executive Branch". CQ Weekly Report. April 9, 1971. p. 830.
  38. ^ a b Charlton, Linda (April 17, 1974). "Calley Sentence Is Cut To 10 Years By Head of Army". The New York Times. pp. 1, 7.
  39. ^ Bigart, Homer (August 21, 1971). "Calley Sentence Is Cut to 20 Years From Life Term". The New York Times. pp. 1, 9.
  40. ^ Rich, Randi B. (Fall 1975). "Federal Court Scope of Review Over Military Habeas Corpus Cases". Memphis State University Law Review: 83; "Military Appeals Court Upholds Conviction of Calley". The New York Times. December 22, 1973. p. 50.
  41. ^ King, Wayne (February 28, 1974). "Calley Free on $1,000 Bond By Order of Civilian Judge". The New York Times. pp. 1, 17.
  42. ^ "Calley's Freedom On Bail Is Ended By Appeals Court". The New York Times. June 14, 1974. p. 7.
  43. ^ "Powell Denies Calley Bid To Be Free During Appeal". The New York Times. August 20, 1974. p. 41.
  44. ^ King, Wayne (September 26, 1974). "Court Orders Calley Freed But the Army Will Appeal". The New York Times. pp. 1, 17.
  45. ^ "Appeals Court Reinstates Calley Court-Martial Conviction in My Lai Killings". The New York Times. September 11, 1975. p. 26.
  46. ^ "Army Says Calley Will Be On Parole". The New York Times. September 12, 1975. p. 13.
  47. ^ Oelsner, Lesley (April 6, 1976). "High Court Denies Appeal By Calley". The New York Times. pp. 1, 25.
  48. ^ "Calley Gets Married To Jeweler's Daughter". The New York Times. May 16, 1976. p. 37.
  49. ^ a b "Follow-Up on the News; William Calley Jr.", The New York Times, July 10, 1983; accessed August 9, 2017.
  50. ^ Rice, Mark (October 25, 2018). "My Lai Massacre 'still staggers me,' prosecutor says, recalling Calley trial at Benning". Ledger-Enquirer. Columbus, GA.
  51. ^ "Calley apologizes for role in My Lai massacre". msnbc.com. August 22, 2009. Retrieved April 8, 2017.