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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
In the early spring of 1969 I was an Army colonel recently assigned to the office of the inspector general in Washington, and I was not particularly happy about it; I have always disliked living in Washington, and I think that most infantry officers would rather serve with troops than investigate allegations about irregularities in procurement, which was most of what the IG’s D.C. office did. Our job was to look into complaints sent to us from the Executive Branch or the Congress, and seven or eight fresh ones circulated in each morning’s Read File. When the file came around one morning in March, it contained a lengthy letter from an ex-serviceman named Ron Ridenhour; he had sent copies to the President, twenty-three members of Congress, the Secretaries of State and Defense, the Secretary of the Army, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gen. William Westmoreland had forwarded a copy to our office with orders to investigate. Ridenhour’s letter began:
“It was late in April 1968 that I first heard of ‘Pinkville’ and what allegedly happened there. I received that first report with some skepticism, but in the following months I was to hear stories from such a wide variety of people that it became impossible for me to disbelieve that something rather dark and bloody did indeed occur sometime in March 1968 in a village called ‘Pinkville’ in the Republic of Vietnam.
“One morning in the latter part of March,” he continued, “Task Force Barker moved out from its firebase headed for ‘Pinkville.’ Its mission: to destroy the trouble spot and all of its inhabitants...the other two companies that made up the task force cordoned off the village so that ‘Charlie Company’ could move through to destroy the structures and kill the inhabitants...one of the company’s officers, 2nd Lieutenant Kally [Calley], rounded up several groups of villagers (each group consisting of a minimum of twenty persons of both sexes and all ages)....Kally then machine-gunned each group. It was so bad that one of the men in the squad shot himself in the foot in order to be medivac-ed out of the area so he would not have to participate in the slaughter....”
I read the letter in shocked disbelief and disgust as it continued in precise, revolting detail for five pages. One description particularly sickened me; Ridenhour described a three-or four-year-old boy “clutching his wounded arm while blood trickled between his fingers....He just stood there with big eyes, staring around like he didn’t understand....Then the captain’s RTO [radio-telephone operator] put a burst of 16 [M-16] fire into him.”
After reading the letter four times, I picked up the phone for an appointment with Maj. Gen. William Enemark, the inspector general. His secretary said I could see him at ten o’clock. I read the letter again and waited. I remember insisting to myself that this was only hearsay; Ridenhour himself had noted that. I remember thinking that this could not be true. At ten I entered General Enemark’s office, saluted, and explained that I had asked to see him regarding the letter from Ridenhour. The general observed that it painted a sordid picture of our forces and added that General Westmoreland and several congressmen were very upset. I requested assignment to the case, pointing out that I was the only investigator he had with infantry combat experience; I had served with the 101st Airborne in World War II. In my time I’d seen civilians killed, but those deaths had been accidental, and I thought it important to have someone who was confident that he could separate atrocities from wartime incidents requiring lethal force; our bombers, of course, killed women and children every day. But if the Pinkville incident was true, it was cold-blooded murder. I hoped to God it was false, but if it wasn’t, I wanted the bastards exposed for what they’d done.
General Enemark rose from his chair, walked to the window, and stared at the busy Washington traffic passing in front of the Forrestal Building. After a while he said that he agreed that the investigation needed an officer with combat experience. He cautioned me that if he gave me the job, I would have to keep an open mind, and urged me to remember that everything in that letter was hearsay. He wanted me to move fast; if the information leaked before we got the facts, it would do a lot of damage to any subsequent disciplinary actions.
I assured the general that I would work as hard to disprove as to prove the allegations. He said that he’d give me his decision that afternoon, picked up his phone, and nodded that the discussion was over; I saluted and returned to my office.
The general approved my request in writing with a letter of instructions that included a requirement to keep the investigation and the disclosures confidential until I had completed the case and told him my conclusions. I conferred with my division chief, and he assigned a court reporter for the case. Smitty was near retirement, a cheerful D.C. local and pretty good company; that was very good luck because it turned out we were going to spend the next three months living cheek by jowl in motels. An investigator from the IG’s office spends the bulk of his time interviewing witnesses, and our interrogations are sworn testimony taken down verbatim by the accompanying court reporter.