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Ernest Medina, company commander acquitted in My Lai Massacre, dies at 81

Soldiers under his command killed more than 300 Vietnamese civilians in 1968.

Ernest Medina, an Army captain who was charged with overall responsibility for the My Lai Massacre, when soldiers under his command in Vietnam slaughtered hundreds of civilians, but who was later acquitted at a court-martial, died May 8. He was 81.

Thielen Funeral Home, near Capt. Medina’s home in Marinette, Wis., confirmed the death but did not provide additional details.

Capt. Medina was the commanding officer of Charlie Company, in the Americal Division’s 11th Infantry Brigade, when the unit was tasked with securing a Vietnamese hamlet on March 16, 1968. In the months since his arrival in Vietnam, Capt. Medina had been lauded by his superiors for his energetic leadership style and playfully known as Mad Dog by his men.

But his company, known as the Charlie Cats, was still green.

Three of its four platoon leaders were recently installed — including a young lieutenant, William Calley — and in February six of its men were killed after walking into a mine field. (Capt. Medina, who later received the Silver Star, performed first aid on the wounded and led them to safety.)

Capt. Medina in 1970, visiting Montrose, Colo., his home town. (Gary Settle/New York Times)

He recalled that in early March, he had received intelligence reports that a battalion of Viet Cong guerrillas occupied a community known as My Lai 4 (pronounced ME-LYE), part of a larger village called Son My in Vietnam’s South Central Coast.

North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces had swept through the countryside beginning in late January as part of the Tet Offensive, and Capt. Medina said he had been given permission to “destroy the village” as part of a search-and-destroy effort aimed at depriving the North Vietnamese of resources and manpower.

The destruction that ensued formed one of the darkest chapters in U.S. military history.

In place of Viet Cong forces, Capt. Medina’s men found only unarmed men, women and infants, many of them cooking rice for breakfast. While Capt. Medina was initially stationed at a nearby landing zone, Calley and other members of his unit rounded up civilians and shot them with machine guns. Some were stabbed with bayonets, and several of the women and girls were raped and then murdered. Bodies filled a drainage ditch.

“After the shootings,” journalist Seymour M. Hersh wrote in a 1972 account of the massacre, “the G.I.s systematically burned each home, destroyed the livestock and food, and fouled the area’s drinking supplies.” A report to headquarters claimed that 128 Viet Cong were killed and three weapons were captured, and the engagement, Hersh noted, “was reported to the world’s press as a significant victory.”

In the United States, an Army investigation eventually concluded that 347 men, women and children had been killed in the slaughter. A Vietnamese memorial at the village places the death toll at 504.

The killings were brought to light by Ron Ridenhour, a helicopter door-gunner who learned what had transpired from friends present at My Lai and sent letters to military and political leaders detailing the massacre. A military inquiry ensued, and in September 1969 Calley became the first of 25 people charged with participating in or covering up the murders.

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Calley, who was charged with the murder of 109 Vietnamese civilians, testified that he was following the orders of his commanding officer.

Capt. Medina said he neither ordered nor saw “any slaughter at My Lai-4 that day.” He faced a court-martial and slew of charges, including the murder of more than 100 civilians (the charge was reduced to involuntary manslaughter) and the murder of an unarmed Vietnamese woman. (He said he shot on instinct, believing she was armed.) An additional charge of covering up the massacre was dropped after two weeks.

Capt. Medina testified that he had indeed ordered his company to “destroy” My Lai, following orders from his task-force commander, but “clarified this to say destroy the village by burning the hooches, to kill the livestock, to close the wells and to destroy the food crops.”

When one of his men asked whether they ought to kill noncombatants, Capt. Medina recalled saying: “No, you do not kill women and children. You must use common sense. If they have a weapon and are trying to engage you, then you can shoot back. But you must use common sense.”

Some in his company remembered the orders differently. In a 1998 interview with Newsday, Michael Bernhardt said Capt. Medina “didn’t actually say we were to kill every man, woman and child, but it was clear that he wanted us to wipe the place out.”

Two other men — Hugh Thompson Jr., a helicopter pilot who issued a radio alert that helped end the killing, and Lawrence Colburn, who was riding alongside Thompson — told CBS News in 1998 they saw Capt. Medina kill a wounded Vietnamese girl. He “walked up to her, nudged her with his foot, stepped back and blew her away,” Thompson said.

Capt. Medina, who was represented pro bono by star lawyer F. Lee Bailey, was acquitted of all charges in 1971. Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Koster, commander of the Americal Division, and Col. Oran K. Henderson, commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade, were among those acquitted as well. Both men passed over My Lai in helicopters on the day of the attacks.

Calley, convicted of murdering 22 noncombatants, became the only person found guilty as a result of the incident. Seen as a scapegoat by many Americans, his sentencing to life at hard labor launched a “Free Calley” movement and the release of popular pro-Calley pop songs.

Instead of a life sentence, he served about three years, much of it under house arrest. He later worked as a jeweler in Georgia.

Capt. Medina said he had to resign his commission, despite the acquittal.

In his testimony, the New York Times reported in 1971, he effectively acknowledged trying to cover up the killings, explaining that he saw about two-dozen bodies in My Lai but failed to investigate the carnage his troops had wrought.

“No. 1,” he said, “I realized exactly the disgrace that we brought upon the Army uniform that I am very proud to wear. No. 2, I also realized the repercussions that it would have against the United States of America. Three, my family, and No. 4, lastly, myself, sir.”

Ernest Lou Medina was born in Springer, N.M., on Aug. 27, 1936. His mother died of cancer several months after he was born, and his father sent the boy and a sister to live with their grandparents in Montrose, Colo., while he worked as a sheepherder.

He enlisted in the Army in 1956 and later told the Times he initially turned down an offer to attend Officer Candidate School because he felt he was too inexperienced and lacked a college degree. He ultimately graduated from the school fourth in his class.

After leaving the military, Capt. Medina was a vice president of Enstrom Helicopter Corp., which Bailey acquired during the My Lai trial. He later joined a real estate business run by his wife, the former Baerbel Dechandt, whom he met while stationed in Germany.

In addition to his wife, survivors include three children, Ingrid Medina, Greg Medina and Cecil Medina; a sister; and eight grandchildren.

“I have regrets for it, but I have no guilt over it because I didn’t cause it,” Capt. Medina told the Associated Press in 1988, looking back on My Lai. “That’s not what the military, particularly the United States Army, is trained for.

“But then again, maybe the war should have never happened. I think if everybody were to look at it in hindsight, I’m sure a lot of the politicians and generals would think of it otherwise. Maybe it was a war that we should have probably never gotten involved in as deeply as we did without the will to win it.”

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