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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
I worked my way around the country. I interviewed Dennis R. Vazquez (formerly a captain) on July 1, in Wiliamsburg, Virginia. He was the task-force artillery liaison officer and testified that his forward observer reported sixty-nine Vietcong killed by artillery. To an experienced soldier, this had been a remarkably high body count for a three- to five-minute artillery barrage. I moved on to interrogate witnesses in Fort Worth, Texas, on July 9 and in Uvalde, Texas, shortly afterward and then in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, on July 15. I focused on a series of questions concerning Meadlo; I wanted confirmation of his remorse and his actions after the alleged atrocity. He became more important with each witness.
The evening of the sixteenth of July in a motel in Terre Haute, Indiana, is a time I would like to block from my memory. Paul D. Meadlo, his right foot and self-respect gone, came to the motel determined to relieve his conscience and describe the horrors of My Lai. He stated that Calley had left him and a few others with the responsibility of guarding a group of about eighty people who had been taken from their homes and herded together. He repeated Calley’s instructions. “You know what I want to do with them,” Calley said, and walked off. Ten minutes later he returned and asked, “Haven’t you got rid of them yet? I want them dead. Waste them!” After telling about this, Meadlo raised his eyes to the ceiling of the motel room and began to cry. His compassion for the victims had taken control of him months before, and his body shook with sobs as he continued. “We stood about ten to fifteen feet away from them and then he started shooting. Then he told me to start shooting them. I used more than a whole clip—used four or five clips.”
I was shocked. He blurted this confession out immediately after I asked him to tell me what happened at My Lai. I stopped him and told him to wait outside the room with Smitty. I called Washington, contacted Colonel Carney at home, and told him a witness had confessed to murder and I had not warned him of his rights. Colonel Carney instructed me to give Meadlo his warnings and see if he would repeat the confession. After he was warned that anything he said could be held against him in a court of law, he said, “I don’t care.” He repeated his confession.
I decided that the case was closed.
There was no doubt in my mind that a massacre had been committed at My Lai 4. Something in me had died as I watched Meadlo regress to the revulsion of the massacre at My Lai on March 16, 1968. I had prayed to God that this thing was fiction, and I knew now it was fact. I returned to Washington to report my findings on July 17, ten weeks after I had first interviewed Ridenhour. The report was to go to the chief of staff, the President, and Lt. Gen. William R. Peers. On August 19 I flew to Fort Benning to brief the legal officers there about the case. Under Army regulations, the commanding officer of Fort Benning and his legal staff were the ultimate authority for reviewing the evidence and filing charges against Calley.
On November 26, 1969, the Secretary of the Army and the chief of staff issued a joint memorandum directing General Peers to explore the nature and scope of the original Army investigations of what had occurred in Son My Village. The Peers inquiry was neither to include nor to interfere with the criminal investigation in progress.
Over my strong objections, I was ordered to participate in the inquiry; I stated, to no avail, that four months of this nightmare was enough. It was decided early that in order to discover the extent of the cover-up, the investigation must determine what had occurred in the entire Song My area on March 16 and 17, 1968. The Peers inquiry discovered an equally vicious massacre that had been conducted by a second company (B Company) of Task Force Barker on the same day. We reported that a part of the crimes visited on the inhabitants of Son My Village included individual and group acts of murder, rape, sodomy, maiming, assault on noncombatants, and the mistreatment and killing of detainees. Murders were common, as was discovered by the inspector general, the Peers inquiry, and the Criminal Investigation Division. Eventually some two dozen officers and men were charged by the Army with direct involvement in the killing at My Lai 4, but the only one convicted was Calley. In the words of General Peers, “The failure to bring justice to those who inflicted the atrocity casts grave doubts upon the efficacy of our justice system.”
As for Calley, he was sentenced to life, which was reduced by the reviewing authority to twenty years and by the Secretary of the Army to ten. In the end he served three years under house arrest, and today he is working in his father-in-law’s jewelry store in Columbus, Georgia.
I never made any particular effort to keep track of the witnesses from Charlie Company, but somehow you hear this or that, and sometimes it sticks. Meadlo is in Terre Haute, Indiana; he had trouble finding work with a foot blown off, but he eventually got a factory job making plastic film. I think he was laid off in November of 1988. Ridenhour became a writer; he now works for City Business in New Orleans, and in March 1988 he won the George Polk Award for local reporting after he’d ferreted out a lot of graft in the city government.