THE MAN CONVICTED OF ONE OF THE WORST WAR CRIMES IN AMERICAN HISTORY TAKES QUESTIONS IN A RARE PUBLIC APPEARANCE IN COLUMBUS, GEORGIA
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai, ” William Calley told members of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus today. 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.”
The former Army lieutenant, a Fort Benning OCS graduate, who was convicted for his part in the mass murders of between a reported 300 and 500 civilians at My Lai, Vietnam, who refused to do interviews with the top network reporters, reporters like Mike Wallace who wanted him to appear on CBS’ Sixty Minutes, gave an interview to Kiwanians and guests, including me. When TV commentator and former newsman Al Fleming introduced him, he said, “We are going to do this like a news conference. Rusty is going to make a brief statement and then he’ll take your questions.”
In answering those questions, he did not try to deny what had happened on that March 16th, 1968, but did repeatedly make the point, which he has made before, that he was following orders. It is well known that the officer accused of issuing those orders, Captain Ernest Medina, was also tried and found not guilty. His attorney was the famous defense attorney F. Lee Bailey.
Calley also pointed out that when the Army photographer who brought about the investigation into the incident – he sent information and pictures to New York Senator Jacob Javits – the Army denied that it happened. When the Inspector General conducted an inquiry into the incident, Calley, when questioned, did not deny that it happened.
I asked him for his reaction to the notion that a soldier does not have to obey an unlawful order. In fact, to obey an unlawful order is to be unlawful yourself. He said, “I believe that is true. 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.” He said that was no excuse, just what happened.
His sentence was commuted to time served, which was three years under house arrest at Fort Benning, and a short time at the disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth. While at Fort Leavenworth he was paroled, but his civil rights have not been restored. “No, I still cannot vote,” he said. “In fact, I’m not even suppose to go into the post office, I guess.”
Many Americans, including a lot of Columbus people, thought that Calley was a scapegoat, forced to take the fall for those above him. That sentiment had been very strong when the late federal Judge J. Robert Elliot released Calley from custody after a habeas corpushearing. An appeals court reversed Elliot’s ruling and Calley was retuned to Army custody, but the Army soon paroled him.
Calley marrried Penny Vick of Columbus and worked in her father’s jewelry store in Columbus for many years. He lives in Atlanta with his 28-year-old son, Laws, who is on the verge of getting his PhD in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech.