William Laws Calley, Jr. (born June 8, 1943) is a former United States Army officer found guilty of murdering 22 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968, during the Vietnam War. After several reductions, Calley’s original sentence of life in prison was turned into an order of house arrest, but after three years, President Nixon reduced his sentence with a presidential pardon.
William L. Calley Jr. was born in Miami, Florida. His father was a United States Navy veteran of World War II. Calley 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. 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 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 subsequently 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 of infantry. Following his commission, Calley was assigned to 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 that because he was so disliked some secretly discussed fragging him.
The events in My Lai had initially been 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, and the secretary of defense. 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 My Lai, at a hamlet called Son My, more commonly called My Lai in the U.S. press. As many as 500 villagers—mostly women, children, infants, and the elderly—had been systematically killed by American soldiers during a bloody rampage on March 16, 1968. Upon conviction, Calley could have faced the death penalty. On November 12, 1969, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh broke the story and revealed that Calley was charged with murdering 109 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 despite the fact that 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 Daniel and John Partin, were hamstrung by the reluctance of many soldiers to testify against Calley. Some refused to answer questions point-blank on the witness stand by citing the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
However, one holdout, a soldier in Calley’s unit named Paul Meadlo, after being jailed for contempt of court by the presiding judge, Reid W. Kennedy, reluctantly agreed to testify. In his testimony, Meadlo described that during the day’s events, he was standing guard over a few dozen My Lai villagers when Lt. Calley approached him and ordered him to shoot all the civilians. When Meadlo balked at the orders, Calley backed off 20 feet (6 m) or more and opened fire on the people himself, and Meadlo joined in. Another witness named Dennis Conti, who was also reluctant to testify, described the carnage, claiming that Calley had started it and the rest of the 105 soldiers of Charlie Company followed suit. Another witness, named 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 quashed 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 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 for they all were Viet Cong. Twenty-one other members of Charlie Company also testified in Calley’s defense, corroborating 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 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. Of the 26 officers and soldiers initially charged for their part in the My Lai Massacre or the subsequent cover-up, only Calley was convicted. 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 America were outraged by Calley’s sentence. Georgia’s governor, Jimmy Carter, instituted American Fighting Man’s Day and asked Georgians to drive for a week with their lights on. Indiana’s governor asked all state flags to be flown at half-staff for Calley, and Utah’s and Mississippi’s governors also disagreed with the verdict. The Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, New Jersey, and South Carolina legislatures requested clemency for Calley. Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, visited Calley in the stockade and requested that President 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 American 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 of the Vietnam War, South Korean Vietnam Expeditionary Forces commanding officer Chae Myung Shin stated, “Calley tried to get revenge for the deaths of his troops. In a war, this is natural.”
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, only a day after Calley was sentenced, President Richard Nixon ordered him transferred from Leavenworth prison to house arrest at Fort Benning, pending appeal. This leniency was protested by Melvin Laird, the secretary of defense. On August 20, 1971, the convening authority—the commanding general of Fort Benning—reduced Calley’s sentence to 20 years. The Court of Military Review affirmed both the conviction and sentence (46 C.M.R. 1131 (1973). The secretary of the army reviewed the sentence and findings and approved both, but in a separate clemency action commuted confinement to 10 years. On May 3, 1974, President Nixon notified the secretary that he had reviewed the case and determined he would take no further action in the matter.
Ultimately, 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 found that Calley’s trial had been prejudiced by pretrial 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 it and returned Calley to U.S. Army custody on June 13, 1974.) Later in 1974, President Nixon tacitly issued Calley a limited presidential pardon. 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.
At his release, the press eagerly awaited his arrival at the prison’s South Gate, as promised by the prison commandant. Instead, at Calley’s request, he was released at West Gate and taken directly to the airfield, where his escort had him flown home. The press were notified of his departure after the fact.
The Army appealed against Judge Elliott’s decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and asked an appeals judge to stay Calley’s immediate release, which was granted. However, the full court upheld the release pending appeal and decided the entire court would hear the appeal (normally not done in the first instance). The Army won a reversal of Judge Elliott’s habeas corpus grant and a reinstatement of the judgment of the courts martial, with five judges dissenting. (Calley v. Callaway, 519 F.2d 184, 9/10/1975). In a long and extremely detailed careful opinion, the reviewing court disagreed with Judge Elliott on the law and significantly on Elliott’s scope of review of the courts martial proceedings. On November 9, 1974, the court noted that although by now Calley had been “paroled” from confinement by the Army, that did not moot the habeas corpus proceedings.
Sometime in 2005 or 2006, Calley divorced his wife, Penny, whose father had employed him at the V.V. Vick jewelry store in Columbus, Georgia, since 1975, and moved to downtown Atlanta to live with his son, William Laws Calley III. In October 2007, Calley agreed to be interviewed by the UK newspaper the Daily Mail to discuss the massacre, saying, “Meet me in the lobby of the nearest bank at opening time tomorrow, and give me a certified check for $25,000, then I’ll talk to you for precisely one hour.” When the journalist arrived to question Calley without a check, Calley left.
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…. If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a 2nd Lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them—foolishly, I guess.