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"I Had Prayed To God That This Thing Was Fiction…"
He didn’t want the job but felt he should do it. For the first time, the soldier who tracked down the My Lai story for the office of the inspector general in 1969 tells what it was like to do some of this era’s grimmest detective work.
February 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 1
It helps if you can follow what the witnesses are talking about. I made a hasty study of available maps. Ridenhour had heard of a village on the South China Sea, a village about six miles east of Quang Ngai City. This would put Pinkville in Quang Ngai Province in the northern part of the II Corps Tactical Zone. The village was also known to American soldiers as My Lai. My Lai was a hamlet of Son My Village, approximately nine kilometers northeast of Quang Ngai City on the South China Sea. At that time the village was composed of four hamlets. My Lai 4, the area for my investigation, was, in fact, a subhamlet in the Tu Cung Hamlet. The name Pinkville, used by the troops, pertained to Subhamlet My Lai 1 in My Lai Hamlet; it was called Pinkville because of its color on the topographic map, indicating its population density, and the troops erroneously used the term for most of the subhamlets in the area. Enemy strength in Quang Ngai Province in early 1968 was estimated at between ten and fourteen thousand, of whom two to four thousand were regular forces, three to five thousand were guerrillas, and five thousand were assigned to administrative units.
I obtained a roster of C Company, 1/20th Infantry Regiment, the company Ridenhour had described, as it had existed on March 16, 1968, and requested Army Locator Files to provide the present addresses of the men on the roster. Then I called Army Map Service and arranged for topographic maps of the Quang Ngai area and went to my desk to think. I looked at Ridenhour’s letter again; he had mentioned seven names. The information in the letter originated with four of these men, and the first step was obviously to interrogate Ridenhour, then find the four men who’d provided the information.
In the best of all worlds Ridenhour would turn out to be crazy, but the tone of his letter—eloquent, thorough, and absolutely convincing—didn’t leave much hope of that. What hope there was resided in the fact that the entire letter was hearsay. With luck the information would be garbled, exaggerated, or just plain wrong; that would be determined by my interviewing as many of the men who had actually been there as I could still find. The letter, dated March 29, 1969, indicated that Ridenhour was in Phoenix, Arizona. I needed details and addresses. Perhaps he knew the location of his four buddies. I kept repeating to myself: This is not a criminal investigation, there is no cross-examination, you are not trying to convict anyone, only to determine the facts.
There was no problem locating Ridenhour; I picked up the telephone and dialed Phoenix information. Ridenhour knew the location of the men who had told him of the atrocity: Charles Gruver was in Oklahoma City; Michael Terry was in Orem, Utah; Sp4 William Doherty was at Fort Hood, Texas; and Sgt. Michael Bernhardt was at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Army records indicated that Sgt. Lawrence LaCroix, another of Ridenhour’s informants, was at Fort Carson, Colorado. I called for appointments and told Smitty to pack for a week and arrange open-ticket air transport starting with Phoenix.
In the best of all worlds Ridenhour would turn out to be crazy. But the tone of his thorough letter didn’t leave much hope of that.
An investigator from the Department of the Army inspector general’s office does not have subpoena powers. While military witnesses can be ordered to appear before the IG investigator, civilians may or may not cooperate. I was relieved that all the men seemed eager to assist when I spoke with them on the phone; I told the witnesses that I’d contact them on my arrival. Meanwhile, I dissected Ridenhour’s letter to extract the specific allegations and establish the routine questions to begin interrogations. I decided to inform the witnesses that the investigation had been ordered by General Westmoreland, because these men had served under him, and it was my impression that most soldiers had a great deal of confidence in Westmoreland. I also decided to wear full uniform and decorations to reveal immediately that they were talking to a combat soldier. Several of the men said that if I hadn’t been wearing the Purple Heart—I’d been wounded at Normandy—and combat infantry badge, the information they gave me might have been different. In my experience those are two awards a combat infantryman recognizes and respects.