The only US Army officer convicted over the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai made an extraordinary public apology while speaking to a small group near the military base where he went on trial.
William Calley, who has long shied away from publicity and routinely turned down journalists' requests for interviews about My Lai, broke his long silence after accepting a long-time friend's invitation to speak at a meeting of a local community club.
Speaking in a soft, sometimes laboured voice, he told members of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus, Georgia: "There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai," the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer reported yesterday.
"I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry."
Calley, 66, was a young lieutenant when a court martial at nearby Fort Benning convicted him of murder in 1971 for killing 22 civilians during the infamous massacre of 500 men, women and children in Vietnam.
Frustrated US troops came to My Lai on a "search and destroy" mission, looking for elusive Vietcong guerrillas. Although there were no reports of enemy fire, the troops began mowing down villagers and setting fire to their homes.
The incident shocked Americans and undermined support for the war.
Though sentenced to life in prison, Calley ended up serving three years under house arrest after President Richard Nixon later reduced his sentence.
After his release, Calley stayed in Columbus and settled into a job at a jeweller's shop owned by his father-in-law before he moved to Atlanta a few years ago.
Wearing thick glasses and a blue blazer at his appearance on Wednesday, Calley spoke softly into a microphone answering questions for half an hour from about 50 Kiwanis members gathered for their weekly luncheon in a church meeting room.
"You could have heard a pin drop," said Al Fleming, who befriended Calley about 25 years ago and invited him to speak.
"They were just slack-jawed that they were hearing this from him for the first time in nearly 40 years."
Mr Fleming and Lennie Pease, the Kiwanis president, said Calley's apology came at the beginning of his brief remarks before he began taking questions.
William Eckhardt, the chief prosecutor in the My Lai cases, said he was unaware of Calley ever apologising before. He said that when he first heard the news "I just sort of cringed".
"It's hard to apologise for murdering so many people," said Mr Eckhardt, now a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "But at least there's an acknowledgement of responsibility."
Calley did not deny taking part in the massacre on March 16 1968, but insisted he was following orders from his superior, Capt Ernest Medina - a notion Mr Eckhardt rejects.
Capt Medina was also tried by a court martial in 1971 and was acquitted of all charges.
When asked if he broke the law by obeying an unlawful order, the newspaper reported, Calley replied: "I believe that is true."
"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 second lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them - foolishly, I guess."
Mr Pease said the Kiwanis Club tried to keep Calley's appearance quiet, not wanting to attract outside attention.
He said it was obvious that Calley had difficulty speaking to a group, though he addressed every question head-on and received a standing ovation when he finished.
"You could see that there was extreme remorse for everything that happened," Mr Pease said.
The last listed phone number for Calley in Atlanta has been disconnected and Mr Fleming refused to disclose his present number.
Mr Fleming said he had spoken several times with Calley about his combat experiences in Vietnam. He described Calley as "a compassionate guy", despite his infamous role at My Lai.
"I think he may feel like it was time to say something," Mr Fleming said.
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