Terry Nelson: Battle Hymn of Lieutenant Calley (1971)

The Battle Hymn of Lieutenant Calley was written by two Alabama songwriters in early 1970, a few weeks after news of the My Lai massacre was broken by the American press. This version was recorded by Terry Nelson, a disc jockey who was also from Alabama, and released in March 1971. Performed mostly as spoken words over the music of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, it presents an idealistic view of William Calley, his childhood and military service. The song depicts Calley as a flawed hero and offers some loose justifications for his actions at My Lai. The Battle Hymn of Lieutenant Calley sold more than a million copies in its first four days and received extensive airplay, chiefly in America’s southern states.

Once upon a time there was a little boy who wanted to grow up
And be a soldier and serve his country in whatever way he could
He would parade around the house with a sauce pan on his head
For a helmet, a wooden sword in one hand and the American flag in the other
As he grew up, he put away the things of a child but he never let go of the flag

My name is William Calley, I’m a soldier of this land
I’ve tried to do my duty and to gain the upper hand
But they’ve made me out a villain they have stamped me with a brand
As we go marching on

I’m just another soldier from the shores of U.S.A.
Forgotten on a battle field, ten thousand miles away
While life goes on as usual from New York to Santa Fe
As we go marching on

I’ve seen my buddies ambushed on the left and on the right
And their youthful bodies riddled by the bullets of the night
Where all the rules are broken and the only law is might
As we go marching on

While we’re fighting in the jungles they were marching in the street
While we’re dying in the rice fields they were helping our defeat
While we’re facing V.C. bullets they were sounding a retreat
As we go marching on

With our sweat we took the bunkers, with our tears we took the plain
With our blood we took the mountains and they gave it back again
Still all of us are soldiers, we’re too busy to complain
As we go marching on

When I reach my final campground in that land beyond the sun
And the great commander asks me, “Did you fight or did you run?”
I’ll stand both straight and tall stripped of medals, rank and gun
And this is what I’ll say:

Sir, I followed all my orders and I did the best I could
It’s hard to judge the enemy and hard to tell the good
Yet there’s not a man among us would not have understood

We took the jungle village exactly like they said
We responded to their rifle fire with everything we had
And when the smoke had cleared away a hundred souls lay dead

Sir, the soldier that’s alive is the only one can fight
There’s no other way to wage a war when the only one in sight
That you’re sure is not a VC is your buddy on your right

When all the wars are over and the battle’s finally won
Count me only as a soldier who never left his gun
With the right to serve my country as the only prize I’ve won.

Glory, glory hallelujah glory, glory hallelujah…

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