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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
Col. Oran K. Henderson had assumed command of the brigade immediately before the massacre; he was ordered to report to the inspector general’s office on May 26 from U.S. Army headquarters in Hawaii. I asked him to sketch on my map the Song My operation as he remembered it. He denied being told anything about his troops wantonly killing large groups of civilians, and he denied a machine-gun confrontation between Thompson, the man in the helicopter, and CaIley. He did remember Thompson telling him that his soldiers on the operation on the sixteenth were “like a bunch of wild men and were wildly shooting throughout My Lai.” Henderson said, “I recall asking him if he knew what were the results of the infantry units he had supported.” But first Henderson told Thompson that 20 civilians had been killed, and 128 Vietcong. Thompson replied that the bodies he saw on the ground were not VC but old men, old women, and children. Henderson had already received assurances from another officer about a “fierce fire fight,” and he said that “when [Thompson] was talking to me he was in tears....It appeared to me that the young warrant officer was...new and inexperienced.”
Calley’s platoon seemed to be the centerpiece of whatever had gone horribly wrong. I had interrogated SFC Isaiah Cowan at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, on May 23. Sergeant Cowan was Calley’s platoon sergeant. The two had argued bitterly about tactics and procedures, Cowan said, but “Calley was my superior officer and I had to follow him whether I liked it or not...you have to go with your officers.”
William L. Calley, Jr., had flunked out of Miami’s Palm Beach Junior College in 1963. He’d moved west and worked for several years before enlisting in the Army in 1966. Despite a poor academic record he was selected for officer candidate school and graduated without learning to read a map properly. The consensus in the platoon boiled down to a single question: How had the Army ever considered Calley officer material? When I later interrogated Roy L. A. Wood in Richmond, Virginia—a rifleman in Calley’s platoon—he said, “I wonder how he got through officer candidate school. He couldn’t read no darn map and a compass would confuse his ass.” I made arrangements for Calley to be returned to the United States from Vietnam and report to the inspector general’s office on June 9.
Meanwhile, the Army found CW2 Hugh C. Thompson, Jr., and issued special orders for him to report to me on June 11 from Fort Rucker, Alabama. I kept him in Washington for three days while Thompson tried to accomplish, on the spot, what Ridenhour had done a year earlier: He attempted to reconstruct the entire incident. He was not entirely successful—and I do not think any honest eyewitness could have been—but he made prodigious efforts. He said that as he flew over the hamlet in his helicopter, he began seeing wounded and dead Vietnamese civilians everywhere. He decided to mark the location of wounded civilians with smoke so the GIs could start treating them. “The first one I marked was a girl that was wounded,” Thompson testified, “and they came over to her, put their weapon on automatic and let her have it.”
Thompson landed his helicopter near a drainage ditch filled with corpses. Nearby he saw several terrified women and children cowering in a bunker. An American lieutenant and some troops were approaching. Thompson asked the officer to help him get the women and children out. “The only way you’ll get them out,” said the lieutenant, “is with a hand grenade.” Thompson returned to the helicopter and told his gunners to fire on the Americans if they got any closer. Then he evacuated the Vietnamese.
Thompson had not been assigned to C Company; he was an outsider. I needed him to identify Calley—if Calley was indeed the man he had seen performing these acts—and I arranged for a lineup. I was nervous about prompting a witness, and I took some pains to explain to Thompson that all that we were trying to do was establish if one of these individuals was one of the people he’d talked to and that his identification might do as much to clear an individual as it would to accuse someone of having been present.
The next morning, June 13, Thompson picked out Calley from a lineup, identifying him as the officer at the drainage ditch in My Lai 4. Thompson also reported seeing a captain shoot a woman at close range while she lay on the ground. Without identifying Medina, I repeated his testimony about the movement of the woman’s hand. Thompson said that “nothing is impossible.” Thompson testified that he spent twenty to thirty minutes the following day telling Colonel Henderson his account of the massacre at My Lai 4. “I told him I had seen the Captain shoot the Vietnamese girl. I told him about the ditches and the bodies in the ditch....I told him how I had gotten the people out of the bunker. I told him what I said to the Lieutenant.”
Thompson estimated the number of bodies in the ditch at between seventy-five and one hundred. I found Thompson immensely impressive; he was the only hero of that awful day, and his testimony was damning. The trick would be to corroborate it.