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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
Thompson returned to his copter and told his gunners to fire on the Americans if they got any closer. Then he evacuated the Vietnamese.
We were trained in the IG school on investigative procedures, administering oaths, and legal restraints on interrogations, but this seemed to be a particularly tricky case. I conferred with the division chief and Col. Clement Carney, the IG’s judge advocate officer (military attorney), about preinterrogation warnings. We decided not to use them; this was not a criminal investigation but one designed to determine the facts. Warning a witness at the beginning of the questioning that anything he said might be held against him would defeat the effort. I would not be placing the witness in jeopardy because if he did incriminate himself, the testimony could not be used since warnings were not given. This was to become extremely important. Each witness was told not to disclose or discuss his interrogation because of the damage it would do to any subsequent legal actions, although once I was on the road, I got the impression that a number of the men had put out the word that I was coming and had given their buddies a sense of what sort of person I seemed to be.
I set out for Arizona with mixed feelings about my chances. Ridenhour’s letter was dated March 29, 1969, one year and thirteen days after the My Lai assault. General Westmoreland’s office had acknowledged receipt to Ridenhour on April 12, stating an investigation was under way; Westmoreland had officially turned the case over to the inspector general on April 23, and I was about to interview Ridenhour in Phoenix on the twenty-ninth, one month to the day after the date of his letter. Considering mail time, distance, scheduling, and interoffice routing, the matter was being handled with dispatch; unfortunately, I was starting thirteen months late.
Ridenhour’s interrogation was conducted at night, as were the majority of the interviews; most of the men worked or went to school by day. At forty-five, I was older than almost all of them. Ridenhour and I met in a downtown Phoenix hotel and went over his letter until I had assured myself that my questions to the witnesses would cover all the allegations. Ridenhour was an extremely impressive young man, and while his allegations were still only hearsay, he was depressingly convincing. The fact that he had stuck with it, pieced the thing together, and followed through remains extraordinary. Smitty and I left Phoenix the next morning for Orem, Utah, to interview Michael Terry on the first of May. I read to him his statement in Ridenhour’s letter: “Most of the people they came to were already dead....The platoon left nothing alive, neither livestock or people...close to us was a group of Vietnamese in a heap and some of them were moaning. Calley [2d Lt. William Calley] had been through before us and all of them had been shot but many weren’t dead...it was obvious they weren’t going to get any medical attention....I guess we sort of finished them off.”
Terry acknowledged that this was the information he had given Ridenhour. While this was an ugly incident and grievous error, I had no doubt Terry had tried to put these people out of their misery.
We left Orem for Fort Carson, Colorado, where I interviewed Sgt. Lawrence LaCroix on May 2. Ridenhour had talked to him in June 1968 at the USO in Chu Lai; he had claimed to have witnessed Calley’s gunning down at least three separate groups of villagers: “The people in the groups were men, women and children of all ages. As soon as he felt the group was big enough Calley ordered an M-60 [machine gun] set up and the people killed....When the first group was put together, Calley ordered PFC Torrez...to open fire on the villagers....This Torrez did but before everyone in the group was down he ceased fire and refused to fire again....Lieutenant Calley took over the M-60 and finished shooting the remaining villagers....Calley didn’t bother to order anyone to take the machine-gun when the other two groups of villagers were formed. He simply manned it himself and shot down all villagers in both groups.”
LaCroix said that this statement was correct and also testified that at some point during the morning someone in a helicopter complained over the radio, “From up here it looks like a blood bath. What the hell are you doing down there?”
If there had been such a person, it was someone we had to track down; subsequent interrogations produced the name of Hugh C. Thompson, Jr., and allegations that he had threatened Calley’s people with a machine gun to make them stop murdering the villagers. I very much wanted to meet this man, and I asked Washington to track him down.
Smitty and I caught an early flight for Oklahoma City and interrogated Charles Gruver on May 3; the contacts were moving as planned. I called the Washington office and told them to order Sgt. Michael Bernhardt, stationed at Fort Dix, to report to me on May 8 at the inspector general’s office in Washington.