The Soldiers Who Told the Truth

Truth finds a way to be told. Are we ready to listen?

Photo by Ronald Haeberle.

People are only human. When they are involved in something horrific, they may try not to talk about it, but often, they can’t help themselves. They have to tell somebody.

In a war filled with ugly chapters, the March 16, 1968, massacre at My Lai was one of the ugliest in the Vietnam War. On that day, a company of American soldiers advanced upon a small Vietnamese hamlet that most of them knew only as “Pinkville*,” and proceeded to kill 504 men, women, and children. They had been told there were Viet Cong (VC) fighters— the enemy of the American and South Vietnamese forces — in the village.

Entire books have been written about this event and its aftermath, which included the trial of one of the soldiers, Lt. William Calley, who was found guilty of killing 22 civilians and was sentenced to life in prison. That sentence was eventually cut to 20 years, then 10, most of which he served as house arrest in an apartment; he was set free in 1974, after serving a total of three and a half years.

This is not the story of the massacre at My Lai. It is the story of how the story finally got told.

A Helicopter Pilot Who Couldn’t Believe What He Was Seeing

Hugh Thompson Jr. was an observation helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, and a United States Army Major. He began the morning of March 16, 1968, as he had many others: flying out on a mission in the Quang Ngai Province in central Vietnam. His crew consisted of himself, Larry Colburn (a gunner), and Glenn Andreotta (his crew chief). He and his crew were scouts; sent out to find Viet Cong fighters and troops and to pinpoint their location to the Huey gunships they flew with.

The Viet Cong were a formidable guerrilla force and were, in fact, skilled at hiding in villages and with family members. However, in Trent Angers’s biography The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story, the author points out that at some point, particularly during overnight periods, Viet Cong soldiers might have hidden out in Son My village; they most likely had family members in the village as well. That day, however, it is thought that the VC soldiers had left the village in the morning.

Six platoons of army soldiers were sent into Son My on March 16, arriving before 8 a.m. They had been told there were VC in the village and the Americans expected to be attacked upon arrival, but were not. The eventual testimony and personal accounts of these soldiers would reflect the confusion of the day, but most accounts of the event agree on the facts that the platoons in question had recently lost many of their compatriots and friends to VC attacks. Most, if not all, also believed they had been ordered to kill everyone in the village.

Lt. William Calley, in particular, maintained that his orders when entering the village had been, essentially, to “scorch the earth.” Other soldiers believed they had been given the orders to kill everyone, and once their shooting started, that is very nearly what happened.

Into this confusion flew Hugh Thompson and his crew.

Upon arriving at Son My, Thompson and his crew were initially confused by what seemed to be a number of dead and wounded Vietnamese civilians in various locations around the village. When they noticed a wounded woman on the ground still moving, with no weapon around her or on her that they could see, Thompson directed his crew to drop a smoke canister near her so she could be found by other troops and given first aid. He radioed in a request for help to another helicopter pilot in the area, who relayed the word to the soldiers on the ground. When Captain Ernest Medina arrived, however, he did not provide assistance to the woman. He shot her, in full view of Thompson, Colburn, and Andreotta.

Later Thompson and his crew flew over a village irrigation ditch, where an even more horrifying sight met them: what appeared to be several dozen more dead and dying Vietnamese civilians. He and his crew saw this, and discussed what it could mean, unwilling to believe the soldiers on the ground could have killed so many. They continued to fly around the area in search of Viet Cong soldiers, but still not finding any, they began to come to the same conclusion about what they were witnessing.

When they next saw Vietnamese people being pursued by American soldiers, Thompson decided (and Colburn assured him that he and Andreotta were with him) to set his helicopter down and attempt to shield the civilians. As he did so, and left the helicopter to assess what was happening on the ground, Colburn trained his weapon on a fellow American soldier who began arguing with Thompson. Thompson was not to be deterred, and set in action a chain of events that culminated with other helicopter pilots in the area helping him to airlift multiple civilians out of the area.

Upon returning to their home landing zone later that morning, Thompson immediately reported the events he had seen to his platoon leader, Barry Lloyd, and to his commanding officer, Major Fred Watke. They informed Lt. Col. Frank Barker, also at the base, and a cease-fire order was sent to Capt. Medina and Charlie Company, who were still at Son My village. Over the next few days Thompson once again reported the events he had seen them to his commanding officers. Immediately after that day, he continued to be sent out on many and increasingly dangerous missions.

A Soldier Who Couldn’t Believe What He Was Hearing

The circumstances that put soldier Ronald Ridenhour in a position to hear the stories from My Lai were circuitous, to say the least.

He began his army service in Hawaii, where he was assigned to an Infantry Detachment that was shortly thereafter disbanded. Many of the men who had become friends during his initial months of service, therefore, were sent to a different Company in Vietnam than the one to which he was eventually transferred.

The Company which Ridenhour was not assigned to by chance was one that would be sent to My Lai (all the soliders mostly knew it as “Pinkville” then) on that endless morning in March 1968. After the events of that day, many of the soldiers who had been on that mission were transferred into the same Company as Ridenhour.

It was there that they began to talk.

His first seemingly chance meeting was with a Private First Class named “Butch” Gruver, who, in late April 1968, met up again with Ridenhour after having known him in Hawaii. Gruver had been in My Lai with Lt. Calley’s “Charlie” (“C”) Company, and started to tell Ridenhour some of what he had seen happen there. Gruver told him how Charlie Company had been sustaining heavy losses from recent battles with the Viet Cong. On the day they were sent to My Lai by Lt. Col. Frank Barker (the search and destroy missions in the area at that time were called Task Force Barker), the understanding was that the Companies sent would destroy the “trouble spot” and all its inhabitants.

Gruver told Ridenhour that he himself had witnessed an injured boy around the age of four being shot. He estimated that 300 or 400 people in the village and the area surrounding it had been killed that day.

Ridenhour did not want to believe Gruver’s story. When he could, he went looking for soldiers who could corroborate it, and two of the soldiers he sought out were former friends of his: fellow Privates Michael Terry and William Doherty. Ridenhour had known Mike Terry since they had been through basic training together; they had been drafted on the same day. Ridenhour had known Terry as an intensely religious man with whom he had shared books while they served together on field missions.

Terry and Doherty confirmed what Gruver had told Ridenhour. They told him about how they had shot civilians in an irrigation ditch after they had been left for dead, but clearly weren’t. They felt they had performed mercy killings. After they had done so, Terry told Ridenhour, they had sat by the side of the road and ate their lunches.

Ridenhour continued to collect stories from soldiers he knew who had been at My Lai on March 16. After he was discharged from the Army in December of 1968, he increasingly began to feel that he had to report what he had learned to someone. Eventually he wrote a letter that began with these words:

“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 similar 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 Viet Nam.”

Ron Ridenhour finished his letter in March of 1969 and sent it to roughly thirty prominent Americans, including “about two dozen members of Congress, the secretaries of state and defense, the secretary of the Army, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

The Army had largely tried to ignore what had happened in My Lai, even though Hugh Thompson had reported what he had seen to his commanding officers almost immediately. Even the great majority of the recipients of Ridenhour’s stunning three-page letter mainly wanted the story to go away. It would not.

Revealing the Truth Was Not Easy…

In response to Ridenhour’s letter, and partially due to Thompson’s dogged determination to report the My Lai massacre as such on the very day that it occurred, two investigations were ordered: an investigation of the event itself, and an investigation into the Army’s subsequent cover-up of the event.

To some this story will read like an indictment of how easily bad things can happen, and how easy it is to suppress the truth. Ron Ridenhour himself would become disillusioned about people’s attitudes to justice, particularly in the years after 1969. He later wrote a letter to the New York Times lamenting that only Lt. Calley had been charged with any crimes, while “men who gave him his orders and covered up the crimes got off or rich or both.”

He was also perplexed about the response he often received when answering people’s questions about why he had sent his 1969 letter. In his own words:

“The question most often put to me, was not why had they done it, but why had I done it.”

The great majority of whistleblowers end up asking themselves this question, as their revelations of truth are often followed by punishment and retaliation against, not the wrongdoers, but the whistleblowers. Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who saved Vietnamese lives at My Lai that day, experienced retaliation in the form of being sent into more and ever more dangerous missions by his superiors (because he had reported the incident immediately); in the years after the event he was treated like a traitor by many of his fellow service people.

…But the Human Desire for Truth Won Out

The story of the My Lai Massacre is a painful one.

Many, many things went horribly wrong that day in March, 1968. In fact, many, many things went wrong before that day; the heavy losses sustained by the Americans in the months before My Lai had an impact on their psyches and actions, as did the soul-destroying nature of minefield and guerrilla warfare. Even after the event, when cooler minds should have prevailed and sought justice, military higher-ups doubled down on a path of cover-ups and the concealment of truth.

But, still.

Even during the killings many soldiers in the company refused to take part in the slaughter (at least one refused even when threatened at gunpoint by his superior officer). Hugh Thompson and his crew were in agreement that they had to intervene, even though it went against their brains and their hearts to train their guns on their own compatriots while they tried to save Vietnamese civilians.

After the killings many soldiers involved sought to forget what happened (and at least one was told to keep silent by yet another superior officer). But they could not. Although it was clearly in their own self-interest to never talk about that day again, many of the soldiers did. Many suffered horrible guilt over what they had done, and felt anger at their commanding officers for ordering them to follow such a course of action. They couldn’t NOT talk about it, which is how Ron Ridenhour heard their stories.

Ridenhour, likewise, knew that sending his letters would open up a painful chapter that everyone on the American side, including himself, didn’t want to believe and didn’t want to think about. But he sent them anyway.

So many things went wrong in My Lai. So many things have gone wrong at so many junctures in human history. But we also need to study what went right. All people are capable of making the wrong decisions, and those decisions can snowball. But people are also capable of making the right decisions, even under extreme stress and despite fearing the consequences. This is not so much a story about how we should punish wrongdoers, but instead how we must actively seek out, listen to, and support those who are seeking to reveal the truth.

Sometimes it looks like bad behavior is the norm, and truth-telling is the aberration. But it is not. People need to be human. They need to tell what happened. They need to be listened to. Telling and listening to the truth is arguably one of the most normal human activities there is.

We all have a responsibility to listen for and respond to people’s experiences, and their truths. Even if it seems impossible. And especially when it is painful. Doing so is our only way forward.

*The village’s actual name was Son My. “My Lai 4” was one of the sub-hamlets of the village where much of the killing took place.

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Sarah Cords

Sarah Cords

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Author of “Bingeworthy British Television.” Fellow curmudgeons welcome at citizenreader.com.