Dayton attorney Merle Wilberding has special reason to remember that today is the 45th anniversary of the infamous My Lai massacre.
The case prepared Wilberding for another internationally-publicized case many years later — representing the family of Maria Lauterbach, the pregnant Marine who was murdered in 2007 by fellow Marine Cesar Laurean and found buried in his back yard.
“In both cases, the crime was so awful that the military or Army or Department of Defense thought it should serve as a lesson that it shouldn’t happen again,” Wilberding said.
As a young lawyer, Wilberding spent more than a year working to uphold the court martial conviction of Lt. William Calley, the only person ever charged in the crimes that shocked the world and forever changed American military culture.
On March 16, 1968, as many as 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians — most of them women, children, and old men — were slaughtered by American soldiers from Charlie Company commanded by 24-year-old Calley.
Both the Calley and Lauterbach cases, Wilberding believes, have transformed U.S. military training. “Everyone in the military has studied the My Lai massacre,” Wilberding said. “It is used to illustrate how critical it is to be in charge and to respect civilians.”
The Lauterbach case also has profoundly affected military culture, Wilberding believes: “It brought to light the seriousness of sexual assault in the military. All the services are using it to condemn the crime and to use it as a lesson to prevent it from spreading. Like the My Lai massacre, Maria’s case serves as a beacon of progress and challenges to prosecute those who violate the rules of justice.”
Wilberding gives most of the credit to Maria’s mother, Mary Lauterbach of Vandalia, who has testified before Congress and has done widespread public speaking. “Mary is really making changes,” he said. “She is such an articulate spokeswoman, and she tells the story in such personal terms.”
For her part, Lauterbach said that Wilberding’s background was invaluable: “Merle understands both the military system of justice and the politics behind the system. He understands their language and what they really mean when they make statements. Merle knew the right person to speak with, and spoke with them in their language.”
Wilberding recently was honored with the Award for Distinguished Community Service from the Ohio State Bar Foundation, which cited his work in both the Calley and Lauterbach cases. “I do believe the major reason I was selected for this award has been the time and effort I have spent over the last four years on pushing for legislative change and speaking out on the issue of sexual assault in the military,” Wilberding said.
The aftermath of the Calley case was less satisfying, even though Wilberding and his colleagues won both of their legal cases. Calley’s court martial conviction was upheld by the Army Court of Military Review in 1973 and by the U.S. Court of Military Appeals in 1974.
Retired Brig. Gen. Ronald Holdaway was chief of the appellate division, representing the government in the appeals
process, when the Calley case came across his desk. Knowing it would attract worldwide attention, Holdaway said, “I picked my three best appellate lawyers for the case, including Merle. They were good writers, good at arguing cases and good at getting to the meat of cases.”
The case, on its merits, was hardly difficult or groundbreaking, Holdaway said: “Calley’s chief defense was that he was merely following orders, but you can’t defend orders which, even if given, weren’t legal.”
The massacre had been covered up by local divisional command until April 1969, when Ron Ridenhour, a soldier with the 11th Brigade, wrote letters reporting the incident to President Richard Nixon and top military officials. On September 5, 1969, Calley was charged with premeditated murder for the deaths of more than 100 Vietnamese civilians. The world learned about the atrocities in November 1969, when reporter Seymour Hersh broke the story.
On March 29, 1971, Calley was convicted of premeditated murder of an unknown number of people — not less than 20 — and sentenced to life in prison. The Convening Authority reduced that sentence to 20 years in August 1971.
Holdaway, who was in Vietnam when the story broke, said the impact was immediately felt. “We instituted training for soldiers and commanders under the laws of war,” he said. “While the appellate case itself didn’t change much, the My Lai massacre changed a great deal.”
The Calley appeal was by far the biggest of the 600 cases Wilberding handled as a lawyer for the Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG). “I was thrilled, because it was a great opportunity,” he recalled. He was even featured in artist’s renderings on the national television networks because cameras were forbidden in the courtroom.
In the end, Wilberding spent more than a year working on the case — far longer than Calley served in lockup. The Army lieutenant spent a mere three months in a disciplinary barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, before being paroled by then Secretary of the Army Howard Callaway in September 1974.
Tony Talbott, a political science lecturer at the University of Dayton, said it remains a mystery why Calley was released after serving such a short sentence. “There was speculation that if he stirred things up, officers who were higher up might have been implicated, but that’s pure conjecture.”
Talbott, a human rights activist, believes that Calley should have been more severely punished, but the greater travesty was that he was the only perpetrator who went to trial. “There were colonels and potentially generals watching what was going on, and Charlie Company’s commanding officer, Ernest Medina, reportedly said to shoot everything that moved,” Talbott said.
Not everyone participated in the massacre. Pilot Hugh Thompson, he said, acted heroically and rescued civilians. “There were solders like Thompson who refused to comply,” Talbott said. “He landed his chopper between soldiers and civilians, and pointed his guns at U.S. soldiers.”
Medina initially was charged, but the court martial panel acquitted him. Many in the public supported Calley, and so did President Richard Nixon. “The support was there because you could tell pretty easily he was the scapegoat, when high-ranking officers were getting away with it,” Talbott explained.
The public support for Calley, Wilberding speculated, “came from a mistaken view of the true facts. The victims were rounded up and cordoned off for several hours. It was just a plain execution.”
Another change since the Vietnam era is better training for soldiers and officers and higher admissions standards. “Both Calley and his boss, Ernest Medina, were fairly uneducated, and I don’t think either would be an officer in today’s environment,” Wilberding said. “Because of the draft and the enormous need for soldiers, a lot of people became officers who never would be today.”
After his release from Fort Leavenworth, Calley married Penny Vick and worked for many years in his father-in-law’s jewelry store in Columbus, Ga. The couple divorced about seven years ago. In 2009, Calley broke his long silence in a speech before the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus. “There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” he said. “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.” He added: “If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a 2nd Lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them—foolishly, I guess.”
Wilberding said that Calley’s sentence was too light, but the impact of the case has been profound: “In terms of military discipline, the Calley case and the My Lai massacre have been used ever since to impress upon a generation that it is critically wrong to kill civilians.”