My Lai and “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley”

On March 16, 1968, U.S. troops in Viet Nam killed approximately 300-500 unarmed civilians in what became known as the My Lai Massacre. But it would not be until November 1969 before the incident became public knowledge in the United States. Despite various charges being filed, only Second Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a platoon leader in C Company, would be convicted of any crimes. After being found guilty of killing a number of people in the village, he was sentenced to life in prison, although he would serve three and a half years.

When Calley’s trial began in late 1970, I was a little kid, absorbing various pieces about the war in Viet Nam, as they filtered through various lenses of my childhood. I did not understand much about My Lai, but it became more prominent in my consciousness when after a trip to a local five-and-dime store, I picked up what looked like an interesting 45 RPM record called “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley.” I do not think I knew anything about the song, so I suppose I picked it because it looked interesting and there was nothing else I wanted to buy that week with my allowance. I took the record home, played it, and became mesmerized by the song with the recognizable music of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I played it over and over again.

There were other songs about Calley at the time, but I only remember “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley,” written by Julian Wilson and James M. Smith. At least three different artists recorded the song. The song was eventually covered by John Deere and Jones Bros. & Log Cabin Boys. But I had the original by Terry Nelson and “C” Company, made up of Alabama disc jockey Terry Nelson Skinner (who would later write the Air Supply hit “Even the Nights are Better“) and studio musicians. The group sold over one million copies of the single. The flips side was another song about the horrors of being a soldier in the war called “Routine Patrol.”

As “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” illustrates, many sided with Calley, claiming he was doing his duty in a land where one could not easily recognize the enemy. Because my understanding of the story came from the song, that would be my image for awhile. But as much as I liked the record, something always seemed off to me about the story. Growing up as a kid during that time, we knew that Viet Nam was complicated and an awful mess, whichever side you were on.

Hugh Thompson Jr.
Calley rarely spoke about the My Lai massacre. In 2009, though, he apologized for his part in the killings, although he continued to assert that he was following orders on that day.

Unfortunately, because I learned about My Lai from the song, I only knew the name of Calley. I did not know the names of those innocent people who were killed. And it would be decades before I would learn that there were real heroes that day, including helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, Jr. and his crew Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta. The three men were flying in the area when they saw the massacre taking place. Backed by Colburn and Andreotta, Thompson intervened at the risk of his own safety to stop the slaughter and save the lives of many civilians. After people learned about what happened at My Lai, some Americans attacked Thompson instead of recognizing him as a hero.

It is a shame that it took so long before I learned about Thompson, Colburn, and Andreotta. Someone should have written a song about them.

Photo of Hugh Thompson, Jr. via public domain.

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