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A Veterans Day look-back at the My Lai Massacre

William Covington | 11/7/2012, 5 p.m.

Much like it was in 1968, My Lai is a small hamlet close to the coast of central Vietnam. Before the massacre occurred that year, it was known as "Pinkville," and that is how the massacre became known at first--as the Pinkville Massacre. Today, the village is home to farmers and fishermen, just as it was more than 40 years ago.

Somehow My Lai became the center of a bitterly contested region during the Vietnam War. Early one morning in March 1968, Company C (or Charlie Company), 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade, landed there by helicopter and attacked the village. By the time they left four hours later, hundreds of old men, women and children lay dead, killed in cold blood. For the time, My Lai, or Pinkville, had ceased to exist.

Though the village was a total wipeout, there would be national and worldwide consequences.

Charlie Company was mostly made up of young infantry recruits fresh out of training at Fort Benning, Ga.

According to Kenneth Hodges, a former Charlie Company sergeant, the transition from civilian to soldier requires very rigorous training in how to kill--rifle training, grenade training, hand-to-hand combat, close-order fighting, bayonet training and others.

"You would have a drill sergeant shouting in your ear 'breast stroke to the groin series.' You would take your M-16 affixed with a bayonet and stab the practice dummy between the legs right into what would be the penis area while everyone participating is yelling 'Kill! Kill!'"

"The spirit of the bayonet was to kill," Hodges said. "You wanted soldiers highly motivated. The drill sergeant's way of motivating was to have a response, a command and response from the soldiers. "He would ask, 'What is the spirit of the bayonet?' And you would respond with, 'to kill, sergeant, to kill.' So I feel soldiers were motivated along these lines.

"I was one of the sergeants that trained Charlie Company," said Hodges. "I was pleased with the way they turned out. They turned out to be pretty good soldiers."

The men of Charlie Company arrived in Vietnam from Hawaii in 1967. They had no combat experience, but had performed well in training and were considered the best company in their battalion. Their average age was 20. They had been drawn together from all over America. An Army report would later describe them as a typical cross section of American youth assigned to most combat units.

"Most of us were middle-class income from middle-class families, with exception of the African Americans in our company," said Fred Widmer, a former company radio operator. "Our company consisted of guys that were from all across the United States--Indiana, Pennsylvania. . . . I'd say you had a good cross section of the total population of the United States at that time. A lot of times when we were first in the country we would go villages up and down the highway. We would play with the kids in between pulling guard duty, and at one bridge in particular there was one boy that would hang there with the GI's. We nicknamed him six fingers because he had an extra thumb, we would always take him stuff--candy, gum and take pictures with him. GI's with the kids. That meant a lot and you got a chance to meet a lot of people."