NEW YORK — Ernest L. Medina, the Army captain who was accused of overall responsibility for the March 1968 mass killings of unarmed South Vietnamese men, women, and children by troops he commanded in what became known as the My Lai Massacre, but was acquitted at a court-martial, died May 8 in Peshtigo, Wis. He was 81.
His death was confirmed by the Thielen Funeral Home in Marinette, a nearby town where he had lived. The cause was not given.
On March 16, 1968, a month and a half after North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched the Tet offensive, wide-ranging attacks that stunned the US military command in the Vietnam War, Captain Medina and the three platoons of his infantry company entered the village of My Lai in South Vietnam’s south central coast region.
What happened over the hours that followed became one of darkest chapters of US military history. An Army inquiry ultimately determined that 347 civilians were killed that day — shot, bayoneted, or blasted with grenades. A Vietnamese memorial erected at the site has put the toll at 504.
But the mass killings were not exposed until November 1969, when the independent journalist Seymour Hersh, tipped off to the atrocity, wrote of it in a series of articles that brought him a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.
The revelations were shocking in an America already divided over an increasingly unpopular war. But Captain Medina and Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr., who was subsequently convicted of murder at a court-martial as the leader of the platoon that carried out the massacre, came to be viewed by many as scapegoats in an unwinnable conflict.
Calley was convicted of premeditated murder of least 22 civilians at a lengthy court-martial ending in March 1971.
He testified that Captain Medina had ordered him via radio to “get rid of” what the lieutenant had described as “enemy personnel” whose detention was slowing his progress through the village.
Captain Medina denied that the conversation took place and his testimony was corroborated by his radio officer. He testified that in his preassault briefing, he had not generally addressed the issue of what to do with civilians in the village since he assumed everyone there would be Viet Cong.
But he testified that when one his troopers asked, “Do we kill women and children?” he replied: “No, you do not kill women and children. You must use common sense,” adding that “if they have a weapon and are trying to engage you, then you can shoot back.”
Calley was sentenced to 20 years in prison but the case became embroiled in court battles and he spent a little more than three years confined to barracks or under house arrest at Fort Benning, Ga., before being released.
Captain Medina went on trial in September 1971, defended by prominent criminal lawyer F. Lee Bailey, as well as a military lawyer. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter of at least 100 civilians, the murder of a woman, and two counts of assault against a prisoner by firing twice over his head to frighten him the night after the massacre.
The defense contended that Captain Medina was unaware of large-scale killings of defenseless civilians until they had occurred. The prosecution argued that the defense account was not credible since Captain Medina had been in continual radio contact with his platoons. The court-martial panel of five combat officers returned not guilty verdicts on all counts after an hour’s deliberation.
In the weeks before My Lai, Calley’s platoon had suffered casualties when his men wandered into a minefield. Captain Medina rescued survivors, an act for which he was awarded a Silver Star.
Captain Medina and Calley both resigned from the Army after their courts-martial. Captain Medina settled with his family in Marinette and worked as a salesman for a helicopter company and a real estate agent. Calley joined a family jewelry business in Georgia.
Captain Medina leaves his wife, Barbara; his sons Greg and Cecil; a daughter, Ingrid; his sister, Linda Lovato; and eight grandchildren.
In an interview with the Associated Press in 1988, Captain Medina called the My Lai killings a “horrendous thing.”
“I have regrets for it, but I have no guilt over it because I didn’t cause it,” he said.
He said that the My Lai killings needed to be viewed in the context of the Vietnam War.
“There were no front lines,” he said. “It was a guerrilla war. It’s something I feel a lot of draftees were not trained for, a lot of the officers were not trained. I’m talking not just about lieutenants. I’m talking about senior officers.”
“But then again, maybe the war should have never happened,” he added.