William Calley (1943- ) was a United States Army officer and the only person convicted and imprisoned for involvement in the My Lai massacre.
Calley was born to a working-class family and raised in Miami, Florida. After graduating from high school he worked several jobs, occasionally attending classes at a local community college.
In 1966, Calley enlisted in the army and applied for an officer’s commission. Though Calley was a mediocre candidate, the Vietnam conflict had created a significant shortage of junior officers so standards had been relaxed.
After completing officer training Calley was posted to Hawaii. He joined ‘C’ Company under Captain Ernest Medina and like most junior lieutenants was given command of his own platoon. In December 1967 Calley’s company was shipped to Vietnam and posted to the coastal province of Quang Ngai, some 50 miles south of Da Nang.
In his first few weeks in Vietnam, Lieutenant Calley acquired a reputation as a poor platoon commander, prone to impetuosity, errors and poor decision making. According to several reports, Calley’s men considered him a candidate for ‘fragging’ (assassination).
In March 1968, ‘C’ Company undertook a clearing operation in an area known as My Lai or ‘Pinkville’. Between 350 and 500 civilians were killed, the majority of them women, children and old men. The My Lai massacre, as this event was later called, was concealed by the Army but eventually exposed by whistleblowers and the American press. Though dozens of soldiers were involved in the killings at My Lai, Calley was the only man charged and subjected to a court-martial.
Calley’s trial ignited controversy across the United States and around the world. Those sympathetic to Calley blamed the My Lai killings on the underhanded tactics of the Viet Cong. The anti-war movement demanded more charges, both against the men of ‘C’ Company and more senior army officers.
In March 1971, Calley was convicted of at least 22 counts of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. His sentence was later transferred to house arrest pending an appeal, then reduced to 20 years, then 10 years. Calley was pardoned by Richard Nixon and he was released in 1975, having served fewer than four years in custody.
After his release, Calley moved to Georgia and worked in his father-in-law’s jewellery store. He remains there today but has rarely spoken in public about the events at My Lai.