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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
Gruver said he had indeed seen the three- or four-year-old wounded boy machine-gunned by the radio operator; the information he had given Ridenhour concerning Calley was hearsay, but he trusted the people who’d told him.
Our flight from Oklahoma City was late, so I did not interview Sp4 William Doherty at Fort Hood till the fifth of May. Doherty had been with Michael Terry when they entered My Lai 4 after the initial assault, and he confirmed that nearly every living thing in the village had been shot: cows, chickens, dogs, babies, and unarmed women. A lot of the people had been murdered in, or shot and subsequently dragged to, a drainage ditch. This made just too many witnesses for the tale of mass murders to have been conjured up out of whole cloth; a repugnant picture was forming in my mind, and I could see that Smitty was depressed too. Smitty was a quiet man, but his emotions were evident in his actions and expressions. When witnesses described the alleged murders, he lost his appetite and sometimes stared expressionlessly out into space. I normally tried to read the testimony of previous witnesses prior to new interviews, but with our schedule of packing, traveling, and interro gating as a daily repetitive routine, this was impossible. Transcribing testimony is not something done hurriedly, and Smitty had no time. We returned to Washington on the sixth, and Smitty’s transcription of the mounting testimony was backing up. By this stage I was using maps to have the men plot what they could remember.
I interrogated Sergeant Bernhardt on the eighth. By that time I had the names of 60 to 70 percent of the men from C Company. Ridenhour’s letter had described Sergeant Bernhardt’s actions at My Lai 4: “...Bernie had absolutely refused to take part in the massacre...he thought it was rather strange that the officers of the company had not made an issue of it.”
Bernhardt said this was true. He had entered the village after the action had started because Capt. Ernest Medina had sent him to the landing zone to check a booby trap. He summarized the day: “We met no resistance and I only saw three captured weapons. We had no casualties. It was just like any other Vietnamese village—old papa-sans, women and kids. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive. The only prisoner I saw was in his fifties.”
Bernhardt testified that he saw Charlie Company doing strange things. The troops were going into hooches and shooting them up. They were gathering people in groups and shooting them. He was still astonished by his very presence in such a place that day: “It was point-blank murder and I was standing there watching it.”
Bernhardt was an extremely cooperative witness, but he didn’t always distinguish between what he had seen and what he had heard; under close questioning, a lot of his testimony amounted to hearsay.
There was a key witness in Georgia, Capt. Ernest Medina, the C Company commander, who was attending the Infantry Advanced Officers School, a nine-month career course. Medina was obviously upset by the questions and allegations. I asked him about the allegation that he had shot a woman lying on the ground. He admitted that he had shot a body that he assumed was dead, but when he turned to walk away, he thought he saw, from the corner of his eye, the woman’s hand moving under her body. He fired because he thought she might have been preparing to throw a grenade. I believed Medina; he seemed to be a pretty sharp officer, he was planning a life in the service, he loved the Army, and he seemed very far from a monster.
What had this force been attempting to do? I notified the Washington office to summon Maj. Charles Calhoun from Fort Monroe, Virginia, for interrogation at the Forrestal Building on May 19. Major Calhoun had been the operations officer for Task Force Barker, and he summarized the plan of attack: “...the main force of the 48th Battalion was again back in this area [Son My Village]....Colonel [Frank A.] Barker decided he wanted to land as close to the village...as fast as he possibly could to take advantage of surprise and so forth....Generally, he was thinking of landing near My Lai 4 with a rifle company [C Company]...and then taking another company and landing in behind for a real fast advance into the ‘Pinkville’ area proper [My Lai 1] to see if we could catch the headquarters before it moved, as had happened on other operations.”