In 1968, army photographer Ron Haeberle was taking photos for the U.S. Army’s Stars and Stripes newspaper in South Vietnam. In March, he was about to finish his tour of duty and having seen little action, he volunteered for a mission that promised to be ‘hot’.
So on March 16, 1968, he accompanied 140 American soldiers of the three platoons named Charlie, Bravo and Anphal, commanded by Colonel Ernest Medina, entered My Lai, My Hoi and Binh Tay villages to “raid Viet Cong.” The young soldiers — in Charlie Company, the average age was just 20 — kicked the villagers out from their homes, raped young girls, and then shot them. When the injured moved among the corpses they lay with, they were shot again or bayoneted. Later, at least one soldier would confess to cutting out villagers’ tongues and committing scalping. Within four hours, 504 civilians, most of them women, the elderly and children, were dead.
Haeberle documented the bloody massacre on three cameras – one loaded with black and white film which he turned in to the Army, and two loaded with colour which he managed to keep for himself. Upon his return to the United States, he showed the photographs to civic groups in his native Ohio in the spring of 1968. He started out with innocuous slides — troops with smiling Vietnamese kids; medics helping villagers — then showed the images of the massacre. Each time, “there was just disbelief. People said, ‘No, no, no. This cannot have happened,” Haeberle recalled the reactions at civic forums and local high schools events where he presented his slideshows.
Meanwhile, there was an internal ongoing investigation about the massacre; the news of a soldier being court-martialled for killing civilians in South Vietnam reached freelance journalist Seymour Hersh who doggedly pursued it. He sent many letters to congressmen and government officials asking to investigate the “bloody and dark” incident at Pinkville (the name the army used for My Lai village) and his report on the massacre was finally distributed by a small wire agency, Dispatch News Service, in the second week of November 1969. (Hersh won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his work.)
When he saw the Dispatch News story, Haeberle called his friend, an editor at The Cleveland Plain Dealer to disclose that he had photos of the massacre. A week after Hersh’s article appeared in dozens of papers around the U.S., the Plain Dealer ran Haeberle’s photos in black and white.
But it was their subsequent publication in color in LIFE magazine, which was at the peak of its circulation in late 1969 with 8.5 million copies (buoyed by the interest in Apollo 11 and 12 missions) that helped create a storm that would turn the American opinion strongly against the war and the troops.
See above, LIFE, December 5, 1969
Haeberle’s photos were used by the Army in its investigation, and a dozen or so officers faced court martial but apart from the soldier (Lt. William Calley) who was already being court-martialled before Hersh began his investigation, no one else was convicted. Colonel Ernest Medina faced a court martial, but was acquitted. Calley — the man who ordered his men to “kill them all, burn all” — was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. President Nixon reduced the sentence to house arrest, and he served only served three and a half years in his quarters at Fort Benning, Georgia.
In Britain, the photos were so shocking that when the Sunday Times Magazine decided to publish them in their December 28, 1969 issue, it also run the following editorial:
MASSACRE AT PINKVILLE
In this last issue of the year and the decade we are publishing four pages of the most sickening pictures we have ever seen. We realise that they will shock our readers, and we did not take lightly the decision to print them. On the front page of today’s newspaper we try to warn those who would rather not see them, as well as the parents of young children. We are not publishing them – as some readers have suggested when we have run harrowing pictures from the Congo or Biafra – because they increase circulation. They do the reverse. We are printing them because it is right that we in Britain should know what a modern guerrilla war can be like. We appreciate that black-and-white horror pictures from Vietnam are now familiar to every literate person in this country. But the grey tones of a monochrome photograph interpose themselves between us and the stark reality; colour, which normally should give pleasure to the reader’s eye, in this instance dramatically brings home the true horror. These, the pictures show, are flesh-and-blood human beings, heirs to our common mortality, who have been cut down by American weapons in a remote Vietnamese village. Not that such atrocities are an American manopoly: the Vietcong have far surpassed them. It would be easy to ignore these pictures, and to suppress them; but that would not make the horror go away. We print them because we believe they should be seen.