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Trials: Lieut. Calley at Bay

5 minute read

It was a specially poignant moment in the already emotion-charged trial of Lieut. William L. Calley Jr. For most of an afternoon and the following morning, Thomas Turner, the prosecution’s 34th and next to last witness, had described in measured tones how Calley had directed and participated in the slaughter of scores of women, children and old men. Turner was a fireteam leader in Calley’s platoon at My Lai. His testimony had been the most damaging thus far, methodically lacing together the events described by earlier witnesses. But as he left the stand, Turner approached Calley and placed a hand on his shoulder in a gesture of encouragement. Then he whispered, in a barely audible voice, something like “Good luck” or “Hang tough” and left the room.

Calley appeared very much in need of luck as Prosecutor Aubrey Daniel rested his case last week in the military courtroom at Fort Benning, Ga. He had constructed his case well; but with the appearance of Turner and two other former Calley platoon members, Charles Sledge and James J. Dursi, it became obvious that Daniel, in the best tradition of courtroom dramatics, had saved some of the most graphic testimony to wind up his presentation.

Falling and Screaming. Sledge, 23, Calley’s radio-telephone operator and now a salesman of ladies’ luggage, was the first to testify last week. His tale was one of continuing horror. He recalled coming upon a group of 30 or 40 Vietnamese civilians gathered at an intersection and under guard by former Pfc. Paul Meadlo. (Meadlo has so far refused to testify at the trial, claiming the constitutional privilege against self-incrimination.) According to Sledge, Calley went up to Meadlo and ordered him to “waste ’em, and Meadlo started shooting into the people−about ten feet away.” Next, “someone hollered that Sergeant [David] Mitchell had some people at a ditch outside the village. Lieut. Calley walked up to Sergeant Mitchell. They started talking. They started shoving people into the ditch. Then they started firing at the people in the ditch. The people started falling and screaming.”

Sledge’s testimony also accounted for the two specific deaths charged to Calley in the overall indictment. Calley is charged with killing no fewer than 30 people along the trail, no fewer than 70 people in the ditch, plus an old man and a young child. Sledge testified that he and Calley came upon a monk dressed in white robes at the end of a ditch. Calley started interrogating the monk, “then he hit him with the butt of his rifle in the mouth … He [the monk] was sort of like pleading. He was about 40 to 50 years old. Lieut. Calley put his rifle at point blank and pulled the trigger in his face. His head was just blown away.” Soon afterward, Sledge heard someone hollering that “there was a child running toward the village. Lieut. Calley grabbed it by the arm, threw it into the ditch and fired.” Sledge was not sure whether the child was a boy or a girl, “but maybe it was one or two years old.”

Continual Firing. The testimony of Thomas Turner, 24, now a student at the University of Nebraska, did nothing to diminish the stark picture drawn by Sledge. From a position some 75 yds. from the drainage ditch, he was witness to much of the killing there. His testimony clarifies some of the discrepancies between earlier versions of what took place. He, too, swore that both Calley and Meadlo had fired at groups of civilians. “Continually,” he said, “small groups of people were brought up, and they would be put into the ditch and fired upon by Lieut. Calley.”

Then the prosecution’s last witness took the stand. He was James Dursi, 23, a rifleman in Calley’s platoon, who recently applied for a job as a New York City cop. He reinforced the testimony of both Sledge and Turner, then added a weird example of the kind of transformation that men in combat can undergo. At one point, Dursi related, having rounded up a group of civilians, “Meadlo had them sitting on a dike [near the trail]. He was playing with the kids, giving them C-rations and candy like we always did.” Calley arrived and asked Meadlo, “Why haven’t you wasted them?” As Dursi moved away, he heard automatic gunfire coming from Meadlo’s area. Dursi also testified to witnessing Calley and Meadlo firing into a different group at the ditch.

Against such damning testimony, Defense Attorney George Latimer faces an uphill battle. But as he opened his defense late last week, he appeared to be arguing on a level different from that of the prosecution. In his opening speech, Latimer pointed out that Calley’s platoon was inadequately trained and instructed, that the men were bent on avenging the buddies they had buried the afternoon before, and that although “higher commanders were in the area . . . not until after lunch were there any orders to cease firing.” His choice of initial witnesses seemed designed to bear out these contentions.

Latimer has not denied that Calley killed some Vietnamese at My Lai. It is not likely he will do so. Instead, he is offering circumstantial evidence that he hopes will appeal to the military tribunal. Calley will eventually take the stand on his own behalf as well. Perhaps he will answer the one remaining question about My Lai: Why did it happen?

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