My Lai Officer Apologizes For Massacre
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This week, an apology, an expression of remorse. It came in Columbus, Georgia and it came out of the distant past for a crime committed more than 40 years ago. William Calley was an Army lieutenant in Vietnam in 1968. He was convicted for a massacre in the village of My Lai. American soldiers there killed hundreds of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians.
Calley was the only man held legally responsible for the My Lai Massacre. His life sentence was commuted by President Richard Nixon. And this week, at a meeting of a Kiwanis Club, he spoke of My Lai publicly, in a way that he hasn't done before.
Al Fleming is the incoming president of the Kiwanis Club of greater Columbus. And he's a friend of William Calley's, and he joins us. What did Mr. Calley say to the Kiwanis?
Mr. AL FLEMING (Incoming President, Kiwanis Club; Columbus, Ohio): Well, the first thing he said, Robert, was that he has every day had great remorse for what happened in the hamlet of My Lai of March 16th, 1968. He said he had remorse for the Vietnamese people, for the victims of incident there, for the soldiers that he fought with. And he said: I am very sorry and I have had remorse, he said, every day of my life since then.
SIEGEL: And to put this in context, this is something that he has not said publicly or to the mass media in all these 40 years since it happened?
Mr. FLEMING: That's correct. He was told by his attorney that if he wanted to interviews he could. But Calley has just steadfastly refused to conduct interviews with the media. Our local newspaper, the Ledger-Enquirer, every year they literally badger him to death to make some sort of statement, but he won't do it.
SIEGEL: Well, obviously what he said in public was surprising - was the content of what he said based on your personal conversations with him - was that surprising to you?
Mr. FLEMING: No, I wasn't surprised at anything he has said. Since I met Calley and we became friends, we have sat many a night into the wee hours of the morning discussing My Lai. And he has conveyed to me on a person-to-person basis what happened there. And he has said to me and he said to the group at Kiwanis Club, he said, I did what they say I did. And I was taking orders. And the consequences came.
And we had discussed this many times. And, as I say, in person-to-person discussions. And I've gained great respect for the man and an understanding from his mouth what happened that day in 1968.
SIEGEL: Did he get a round of applause from the Kiwanis members or was it more nervous than that?
Mr. FLEMING: That was the best thing of all, Robert. He got a good hand when he started. But at the end of his talk, for the first time I've ever seen it at a Kiwanis meeting, he got a standing ovation. And there were a couple of men who kept their seats. And of course they probably were opponents to what had happened.
But for the most part, he held his audience mesmerized, believe me. He spoke very quietly and matter of factly and in such a manner that you just were going to believe him. And he answered the questions. He didn't him and haw or prevaricate in any way, shape or manner. And I think the members appreciated that. And when he finished, they stood and applauded him for a good length of time.
SIEGEL: You know, the headline that the local paper put on this event was "William Calley Apologizes for My Lai Massacre." I'm trying to weigh - in your description of what he said - did he say, I did something wrong, or did he say, because I was following orders, I was justified in all that I did?
Mr. FLEMING: No, he didn't say he was - thought he was justified. But he agreed that it probably was an unlawful order. And he agreed that unlawful orders did not have to be obeyed. But he said, I was a second lieutenant, I was given the order to clear that village and that's what we did. And he makes no issue about whether the order was legal or illegal. He simply agrees that there are illegal orders given, and they do not have to be obeyed. But he did, apparently, you can see that - as an illegal or an unlawful order.
SIEGEL: Mr. Fleming, thank you very much for talking with us about this.
Mr. FLEMING: Thank you.
SIEGEL: That's Al Fleming, who is a local television commentator. Also, the incoming president of the Kiwanis Club of greater Columbus talking about this week's luncheon speaker, Lieutenant William Calley, who spoke publicly and expressed remorse for the first time about the massacre at My Lai.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.