5. The Dachau Massacre
As the Nazi war machine collapsed in April 1945, American troops still encountered resistance, particularly from the more fanatical SS units. An SS unit controlled the Dachau concentration camp in Germany when American soldiers arrived to find dead and decaying bodies stuffed in railroad cars and crematoriums. The Nazis offered resistance, so some were killed during the fighting. However, American soldiers killed some Germans after they surrendered, and reportedly allowed freed prisoners to torture and kill some of the German POWs. The numbers vary wildly, depending upon the source, but anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of SS soldiers were executed. A 1986 book, Dachau: The Hour of the Avenger, written by a U.S. medical officer, Col. Howard Buechner — who arrived at the scene after the incident — puts the number of POWs killed at 520. That report has been hotly contested by other sources. The number of soldiers executed is probably closer to 30, according to an account by Gen. Felix L. Sparks, who maintains many of those POWs were shot by a nervous U.S. soldier who thought they were trying to escape. An Army investigation at the time recommended court martial proceedings, but Gen. George Patton, the senior officer in authority, dismissed the charges.
4. The No Gun Ri Massacre
The Korean War is sometimes referred to as the “Forgotten War.” So it shouldn’t be surprising that a bloody incident in July 1950 near the village of No Gun Ri remained largely unknown for almost half a century until an Associated Press investigation in 1999. All sides agree that in July 1950, U.S. soldiers killed a number of South Korean refugees that attempted to cross their lines. The North Koreans maintain that the Americans murdered as many as 400 civilians, but the U.S. Army insists no more than 50 refugees were killed, and only because they were believed to be enemy infiltrators. The AP won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigative report on the incident, but questions soon surfaced about the story’s accuracy. A key source turned out to be a fraud, who was not in the vicinity of No Gun Ri when the incident took place. In the years since, the AP has stood behind the story and has uncovered other sources, including a letter dated the day of the incident by the U.S. ambassador to Seoul that stated, “If refugees do appear from north of US lines they will receive warning shots, and if they then persist in advancing they will be shot.” The official U.S. government stance does not dispute that civilians were killed, but maintains there were no orders to target unarmed civilians.
3. The Wounded Knee Massacre
In December 1890, a group of Lakota Sioux were encamped near Wounded Knee Creek on an Indian reservation in South Dakota when troops from the 7th Cavalry Regiment arrived to disarm them. A disagreement erupted when a deaf Indian refused to give up his rifle and in the ensuing scuffle, the rifle fired. Soldiers opened fire and killed men, women, children, an estimated 150 to 200 in all. The U.S. lost 25 soldiers at Wounded Knee Creek, many the result of friendly fire. In the aftermath, U.S. troops bitterly disagreed about the details of the incident, as some officers viewed it as a massacre while others concluded that most of the soldiers had tried to avoid killing unarmed Indians. An investigation later faulted the commanding officer, Col. James Forsyth, for poor tactics, but exonerated him of responsibility. Public reaction to the massacre was indifferent, as Americans generally supported efforts to control the “Indian problem,” no matter the consequences. The Wounded Knee name resurfaced in the public consciousness in 1973, when around 200 Lakota Indians occupied the town of Wounded Knee and engaged in a 71-day standoff with United States Marshals and other federal authorities. Two Indians and an FBI agent were killed in the confrontation.
2. The My Lai Massacre
In the aftermath of North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive in January 1968, U.S. forces were tasked with clearing villages where enemy forces were believed to be hiding. On March 16, 1968, a task force of U.S. soldiers entered the South Vietnamese hamlets of My Lai and My Khe. A briefing the day before the operation left some junior officers with the impression that they were under orders to kill sympathizers as well as combatants, including women. Exactly what was said during the briefing has never been definitively determined. At some point, a platoon leader, Second Lt. William Calley, and some of his men opened fire on a position they believed contained enemy fighters. The incident escalated when Calley and other soldiers herded approximately 70 unarmed villagers into the village center and summarily executed them. Other U.S. troops who arrived on the scene were appalled at the brutality. One, an Army helicopter pilot named Hugh Thompson Jr., landed and was able to rescue about a dozen villagers, ordering his gunner to shoot any American soldiers who tried to intervene. Thompson reported the incident. For his role as hero, Thompson received death threats and found mutilated animals on his front porch after testifying before Congress. In the end, the death toll from the massacre is disputed. A memorial at My Lai lists 504 victims; the U.S. puts the official number of deaths at 347.
Incredibly, the incident did not become public knowledge until late 1969, more than a year and half later. A young major named Colin Powell was ordered to investigate allegations about the atrocities, but his investigation stalled. Further investigations eventually led to 26 soldiers being charged, but only Calley was convicted, found guilty of premeditated murder of 22 South Vietnamese. Calley was sentenced to life in prison, a sentence the majority of Americans felt was too harsh. In fact, then Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter instituted an “American Fighting Man’s Day” in the state in support of the soldier. Calley eventually served only three and a half years under house arrest.
1. The Balangiga Massacre
Following the United States’ victory in the Spanish-American War, the U.S. purchased the Philippine Islands from Spain for $20 million. Island residents, already resentful of Spanish control, were not pleased Americans were taking control. During the American occupation of the islands, the town of Balangiga on Samar Island became a flash point when villagers smuggled weapons into the village in coffins. The villagers struck on Sept. 28, 1901 in a surprise attack during breakfast that left more than 40 Americans dead. U.S. troops returned with a vengeance. Gen. Jacob H. Smith wrote an order that read in part, “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn the better it will please me…” Maj. Littleton Waller, tasked with carrying out the orders, decided to ignore them and instead adhered to the rules of engagement already established for fighting guerillas. Nevertheless, over the course of a week American units conducted operations across the island that resulted in the death of many civilians. Investigations in the 1990s estimated that between 2,000 and 2,500 civilians were killed. Gen. Smith and Maj. Waller were both tried in military courts. Smith was convicted and forced to retire and Waller was found not guilty.