< 40 Years Later: Hersh on My Lai


Friday, March 14, 2008

And I’m Brooke Gladstone. We begin with the inside story of an historic scoop. Forty years ago this weekend, March 16th, 1968, U.S. soldiers entered the South Vietnamese village of My Lai and killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in what became the most notorious atrocity of the war.

Lieutenant William Calley, Jr., a platoon leader in Charlie Company, was court-martialed and charged with murder. In 1971, his commanding officer, Captain Ernest Medina, spoke with Bob Schieffer of CBS News, shortly after Calley was found guilty.
Why? You ask yourself why My Lai, why me, why my company? You can go down outside this building on the street and take any young teenager that’s walking down, average American, apple pie and mother – those were the members of C Company. At times it doesn’t seem real. It’s like a dream.
While working on a book about Pentagon procurement, reporter Seymour Hersh received a tip from an anti-war attorney about a guy who shot up a bunch of civilians in Vietnam. At the Pentagon, he floated that tip by a general working for the Army Chief of Staff, and the general mentioned William Calley.

Armed now with a name, Hersh tracked down Calley’s lawyer, George Latimer, in Utah. There in Latimer’s office, Hirsch laid eyes on an Army indictment sheet charging Calley with the murder of, quote, “one hundred and nine Oriental human beings.”
By the way, as soon as I saw that document, I’d like to tell you I thought. Oh my God, this is going to kill the war, it’s going to hurt the war effort. But really, fame, fortune, glory raced through my mind. What a story! I mean, this is a great story. That gave me the big start and I figured out where Calley was, I spent a horrible long day looking for him, finally found him.
You didn’t know where he was.
Oh my God, I didn’t know anything. I just knew the charge sheet was written at an Army base in South Carolina, and I just started looking for him. I flew that night from the West Coast via Chicago, I think, into Columbia, South Carolina, rented a car, went to the base, and at that time they were open.

I was waved in. I parked my car. There was a main headquarters - it was a 30-, 40-mile complex - and initially I went to every prison. There were four or five prisons, and I would just drive into the front, and I had my ratty old suit on and a tie, and a briefcase and a rented car, and I’d get out and there’d be some sergeant, and I’d say sergeant, bring Calley out.
[LAUGHS] You were posing as a lawyer.
I didn’t say. If anybody asked me, I always said I was a reporter, but if they made that assumption, that’s fine. And, of course, Calley wasn’t at any of these bases, and I’m driving from one camp to another, and I went back to the main headquarters.

I’d gone to every sports club on the base, and all the music clubs and everything, and I was sort of stuck. And then I remembered when I worked in the Pentagon as a correspondent, the phone books are changed every three months. Calley had come back, according to the lawyer in August, and here it was October of 1969 and I’m looking for him, and the phone book was dated September.

And when he came back, he hadn’t been charged. He was under investigation. He was just a guy coming back. So I called up the information officer at the base, the base telephone service. I got the chief operator, and I asked him to check the new listings for the old phone book, the last wave of new listings in August, before the new book was published in September. And it took a long time but they finally found a William L. Calley, Jr., that was listed at an engineering base 20 miles away, another one of these large Army facilities.

And I raced over to that base. And when I was in the army we lived in huts, but this was a concrete building with three floors and every bed beautifully made, and I ran around one floor to another and couldn’t see anybody.

Finally in the corner of one of the floors was a kid sleeping on a bunk, top bunk, and I thought this must be Calley. And I remember kicking the bunk and waking up this [BROOKE LAUGHS] blonde kid. I said, wake up, and I said, Calley. He said, who? And I looked at him. His name was a Polish name and he was sitting there, this very young 19-year-old, 20-year-old kid sitting there confused, and because we are nosy [LAUGHS] I said, what are you doing here at 3 o’clock in the afternoon? And [LAUGHS] he said, I sort the mail. And I said, did you ever hear of a William Calley? And he looked at me and said, you mean the guy that shot up everybody?

And eventually he took me to another facility where there was – the senior enlisted man in charge of the mail was there and Calley wasn’t there any more, but he had told them what a great hero he was, and I got that story.

And then they told me where he was. He was living – get this – the one place nobody would look for him, in the senior bachelor officers’ quarters. We’re talking about a place with a tennis court and a swimming pool – the last place you’d think – particularly somebody who’d been in the Army, like me – a potentially criminal murderer first lieutenant would be stashed, but he was stashed there.

So I started walking through each room knocking on doors, saying, hey Bill, Bill Calley? [LAUGHS] I spent maybe three or four hours doing that with no luck. I left. It was dark by now, 9, 10 o’clock, and there was a guy working on his car. I was so exhausted I was going to go to a motel and check in and wake up at three and knock on everybody’s door again.

And I went to that guy and he was a warrant officer, and I said, Calley? And he pulled himself up from under the motor and he looked at me and he said, you’re looking for a William Calley? And I said, yeah. He said,he lives below me. And Calley was [BROOKE LAUGHS] on a boat that day. He’d gone boating.

When he came in to the barracks, I was waiting for him and I said, are you Calley? I’m Hersh. He said, oh yeah, my lawyer said you’d look me up, as if I found him so easily. This is twelve, thirteen hours of looking. And then he told me his story and pretended to be very cocky and calm.

But at one point, must have been 4 or 5 in the morning, we were drinking beer and he went to the bathroom and he left the door open and it had a mirror in it, and I saw he vomited bright red arterial blood, which I knew then he had an ulcer probably as big as a quarter or half dollar. And it was a pose.
Not only did you speak to Calley, but you spoke to other people who were at the scene who were very candid about what happened.
After I’d done the first story, I ran into this wonderful soldier – he’s now dead - Ronald Ridenhour. There’s a prize now given in his honor every year. Ronald Ridenhour was a soldier who learned about this right away, and tried to get something done through the system, without any success.

And he gave me a company roster, and I began to find the kids. What happened is, they had been in the country at this company, Charlie Company, for about ten or eleven weeks, and they all had been told you’re going to be fighting North Vietnamese regular army. They saw nobody. They were a 100-guy-strong company. They lost maybe 15 to 20 guys to snipers and bombs, and they were very angry and they were beginning to take it out on the population.

They were told March 15th, tomorrow morning you’re going to meet the enemy for once. You’ve been here for three months. You haven’t seen a bad guy. Now you’re going to see the bad guys. And they did what that army did then. They toked up with their joints and the enlisted men and officers drank, but they got up at 3:30 to kill and be killed.

You’ve got to give them their due. They jumped on choppers, they go to this village, they march in looking scared to death, thinking they’re going to be in a fire fight. There’s 500 people sitting around, making breakfast, all women, old men and children. No young men of fighting age. They gather them in three ditches. Calley orders his young men to start shooting. One was Paul Medlow, and he shot and shot and shot.

When they were all done they sat along the ditch and had their lunch. Don’t ask me how or why. And they heard a keening, and one of the mothers in the bottom of the ditch had tucked a boy underneath her, two- or three-year-old boy, and he climbed up out of the bodies, full of everybody else’s blood, and began to run in a panic. Calley said to Medlow, Paul Medlow, this kid from southern Indiana, plug him. Medlow, one on one, couldn’t do it, although he’d fired maybe 10 clips of 20 bullets each into the ditch. So Calley, with great derring-do, took his carbine, ran behind the kid and shot him in the back of the head. Everybody remembered that.

The next morning, Medlow - they’re on patrol - Medlow gets his leg blown off to the knee, and they call in a helicopter to take him out. And while he’s waiting he starts issuing an oath, a real oath, a chant: God has punished me, Lieutenant Calley, and God is going to punish you. God has punished me.

And the kids, when they finally began to tell me about it - and I didn’t learn about this for two weeks although everybody knew the story – when the one told me, they all told me.

So I hear this story. He lives in southern Indiana. I just dial away, and I call every exchange in Indiana. Finally, New Goshen, Indiana, which is below Terre Haute, which is below Indianapolis, which is below Chicago – that’s where he lives.

I fly to Chicago, go to Terre Haute, get a car, go to New Goshen, spend hours. It’s a chicken farm. Medlow’s back. It’s a year and a half after the incident. He was shot. He’s home now, on this farm - rundown, chickens all over the place, a shack house. His mother walks out. I introduce myself, my ratty suit again. I said I was a reporter, I wanted to talk to him, I knew what happened.

She said, well, he’s in there. She said, I don’t know if he’ll talk to you. And then this woman, this old Southern uneducated woman, she said to me, I gave them a good boy and they sent me back a murderer.

I go see the kid, and the first thing I do is I spend 20 minutes talking about his leg. And then I said, what happened? And he said, I just began to kill people.
Another enormous story you broke much more recently was the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib. And some have drawn parallels between My Lai and Abu Ghraib. Do you think it’s fair?
Yes and no. They weren’t killing people, but I’ve talked to a lot of young officers, company commanders and platoon leaders, you know, first and second lieutenants, and the one thing you have in common is they couldn’t stand their job because 95 percent of them was keeping kids from doing terrible things to the civilian population of Iraq.

If you don’t see the enemy and you’re losing people to landmines – we had five Americans killed this week in an incident – the other soldiers, what are they going to do? They’ve lost five buddies. The rage toward the civilian population’s got to be immense.

I did, I think, three stories in three weeks for The New Yorker, which I will tell you is no fun. And in between that, I’m doing shows, and I was on an NPR show and a woman calls in and said I had a child in the unit.
At Abu Ghraib.
Yep. I gave her my phone number over the air, and she called a couple of days later. I go to see her, and she had a child come back, completely changed, was completely withdrawn. At some point, the woman who called me took the computer that the child had brought back and began to go through it, and there was a file marked Iraq.

She hit a button and out came 80 photographs, and the one that The New Yorker published was the iconic photograph of the naked man in front of bars, hands behind his head, two Belgian shepherds snarling at his feet.

Well, in the sequence, in the sequence that this woman, this mother saw, the dog attacked the man, attacked the man in a sensitive spot, blood all over.
So that was how you got those pictures.
Probably at that point, at the height of the Abu Ghraib crisis, this is the second week, could she have gotten 100,000 dollars from a network for these pictures? Probably more. She just gave it.

Months later, six months later, I took her to dinner. I was giving a speech somewhere in the area, and she told me the following story, which she hadn’t told me earlier. So when the child came back, she moved out of the house, left her husband, left her family. Every weekend she began to get tattoos, dark tattoos. Every time they saw her, more and more tattoos. Eventually she filled up her body, up to the neck, with dark tattoos. And the woman said to me at one point, it was as if she had wanted to change her skin.
So there’s the comparison. I’m just wondering, though, isn’t remembering history supposed to prevent us from repeating it?
Are you suggesting that the American leadership learns from the past? I don’t think there’s much evidence for that. As we had hell to pay after Vietnam, we’re going to have hell to pay among our own soldier population from this war. And that does not even begin to deal with the catastrophe that we’ve visited on Iraq and the Iraqi society and the Iraqi children who are now in the fifth, sixth year of this utter madness they’ve been growing up in, this psychotic madness. And what do we owe them?
Sy, thank you very much.
Good bye, kiddo.
Seymour Hersh is the national security correspondent for The New Yorker.