For more than 40 years, William Calley refused to talk about his role in the notorious My Lai Massacre, which led to the deaths of up to 500 Vietnamese civilians and his conviction as an American war criminal.
But on Wednesday, Calley talked — and apologized. To the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus. And just as suddenly as he appeared, he vanished. Attempts to contact him at his Atlanta home Friday were unsuccessful; his closest friends stressed his desire to resume his silence.
“He spoke to the Kiwanis, but he won’t talk to the media,” said retired broadcaster Al Fleming, a member of the Kiwanis who says he has been a friend of Calley’s for 25 years. “He is very sensitive about this.”
Fleming said he invited Calley to speak to the club but had no idea Calley would use the occasion to make an apology.
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” Calley said. “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 My Lai Massacre was one of the darkest moments in the Vietnam War. On March 16, 1968, 2nd Lt. William “Rusty” Calley ordered his platoon to kill everyone in the South Vietnamese hamlets of My Lai and My Khe. It was reported that between 347 and 504 people — mostly unarmed women and children — were slaughtered.
Several of the victims were sexually abused, beaten or tortured. Many were dumped in ditches and shot. Initially 26 American soldiers were charged, but only Calley was convicted. He admitted on the witness stand that he personally executed civilians and received a life sentence for the murders of 22 people.
Calley always claimed that he was acting on direct orders from his company commander, and many Americans believed that he was scapegoated for the massacre. His sentence was later reduced by President Richard Nixon and he served three years under house arrest.
Calley lived in Columbus — he was under house arrest at Fort Benning — but now lives in Atlanta. Fleming said Friday that he had befriended Calley years ago.
“I sat with him by the hour, with him telling me all that happened,” Fleming said. “I know he is remorseful.”
Fleming, who said he didn’t know about the apology until minutes before Calley spoke, said he had set up the talk as if it were a news conference.
“I said Rusty is going to make a brief statement and then he’ll take your questions,” he said.
The appearance might have gone unnoticed, if not for Dick McMichael, a retired journalist who now blogs in Columbus. McMichael attended the meeting, blogged about it and his story was picked up by the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.
“The questions were asked respectfully and politely, which could give the impression they were softball,” McMichael blogged later. “I don’t think that was the case. The questions got right to the crux of the matter, in my view, and Calley didn’t dodge any of them.”
McMichael said Calley never denied that he carried out the massacre, but reiterated that he was following orders.
“I thought it was positive and humbling,” said James Walton, the Kiwanis secretary. “He spoke from the heart. He knows it was wrong and knows he has to live with it. The club was very pleased.”
The club gave him a standing ovation at the end of the speech.
“We had 50 members listen to him and you could hear a pin drop,” Fleming said. “When he was done, it was the first time we ever gave anyone a standing ovation. A couple of people didn’t stand, but most of us did.”
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