< 40 Years Later: Hersh on My Lai

Transcript

Friday, August 15, 2008

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
This year marks the 40th anniversary of another historic scoop. On 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 that war. Lieutenant William Calley, Jr., a platoon leader in Charlie Company, was court-martialed and charged with murder.

In March of this year, reporter Seymour Hersh told us how he broke the story of My Lai. It began with a tip he received from an antiwar attorney about a soldier who shot up a bunch of civilians in Vietnam

At the Pentagon, he floated that story 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. And 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.”
SEYMOUR HERSH:
By the way, as soon as I saw that document, I’d like to tell you that I thought, oh my God, this is going to kill the war, it’s going to hurt the war effort. But really, fame, fortune and glory raced through my mind. What a story!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]
SEYMOUR HERSH:
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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You didn’t know where he was.
SEYMOUR HERSH:
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 would be some sergeant, and I’d say, “Sergeant, bring Calley out.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS] You were posing as a lawyer.
SEYMOUR HERSH:
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 in any of these bases, and I’m driving from one camp to another. And I went back to the main headquarters, 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.
[OVERTALK]
Calley had come back, according to the lawyer, in August. 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 her to check 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 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] blond kid. I said, wake up. And I said, Calley. He said, who? 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], and he said, I, 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 a – the senior enlisted man in charge of the mail was there. 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. I spent maybe three or four hours [LAUGHS] 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.
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 on a boat - [BROOKE LAUGHING]
- 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 12, 13 hours of looking. And then he - told me his story and pretended to be very cocky and calm.

But at one point, it 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 a half dollar. And it was a pose.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
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.
SEYMOUR HERSH:
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, this company, Charlie Company, for about 10 or 11 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. 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 got to give ‘em 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 firefight. 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 the - 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 a 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 ten 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 gonna 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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
A - 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?
SEYMOUR HERSH:
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 - the rage toward the civilian population’s got to be immense.

And I was on an NPR show and a woman calls in and said, “I had a child in the unit.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
At Abu Ghraib.
SEYMOUR HERSH:
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 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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Mm-hmm.
SEYMOUR HERSH:
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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So that was how you got those pictures.

SEYMOUR HERSH:
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. And 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, is that 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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So there’s the comparison. I’m just wondering, though, isn’t remembering history supposed to prevent us from repeating it?
SEYMOUR HERSH:
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?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Sy, thank you very much.
SEYMOUR HERSH:
Good-bye, kiddo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Seymour Hersh is the national security correspondent for The New Yorker.