As promised in my review of Seymour Hersh’s excellent memoir Reporter, here is an excerpt that describes how he found out about Paul Meadlo, one of the people in the platoon that committed the My Lai massacre. Hersh had seen a small news item about a young journalist named Ron Ridenhour who had heard about the massacre and sent reports to the army top brass about what he had heard and been frustrated by the lack of action and feared a cover-up. After talking with Ridenhour, Hersh got the name of Michael Terry, a soldier in that same platoon, and went to see him.
The Terry home was extremely modest, made of wood and warmed, as I would learn, by an indoor oil heater. It was close to midnight when I began knocking. A young boy answered. I asked for his big brother, the one who fought in the war, and was ushered inside, no questions asked. A moment later out came Terry, in pajamas. It was as if late-night visitors were the rule in Orem. I told him who I was and about my visit with Calley and the talk with Ridenhour and asked him to tell me what he remembered. “Do you want me to tell you what I told the colonel?” he asked. Yes. Ridenhour had told me that he had been contacted after writing his letters by an army criminal investigator, a Colonel Wilson, who repeatedly him urged not to do what he had done with me – talk. Terry’s next line produced headlines all over the world. “It was a Nazi-type thing,” he said, in describing a ditch in which scores of women and children had been slaughtered. (p. 129)
I knew there was yet another story that, so I thought, would end any resistance to the obvious truth of My Lai. Terry, Bernhardt, and other platoon members I had talked with told me about a soldier named Paul Meadlo, a farm kid from somewhere in Indiana, who had mechanically fired clip after clip of rifle bullets, at Calley’s orders, into groups of women and children who had been rounded up amid the massacre. (p. 130)
Hersh tracked Meadlo down to a clapboard shack, a run-down mess, and described his visit with him.
We turned to the day of the massacre. Paul told his story to me without overt emotion; it was as if he’d clicked from on to off. He’d been asked to stand watch over a large group of women and children, all terrified survivors of the carnage, who had been gathered in a ditch. Calley, upon arriving at the ditch, ordered Meadlo and others to kill all. Meadlo did the bulk of the killing, firing seventeen-bullet clips – four or five in all, he told me – into the ditch, until it grew silent. I would be told later by other soldiers that a moment or two after the firing stopped, and the ditch grew quiet, the GIs heard the sound of a child crying, and Calley’s men watched as a three- or four-year-old boy, who had been protected by his mother, crawled to the top of the ditch, full of others’ blood, and began running toward a nearby rice paddy. Calley asked Meadlo to “plug him.” Meadlo, flooded with tears and confronted with a single victim, refused and so Calley ran up behind the child, with his carbine extended, and blew off the back of his head. (p. 131)
The harrowing Meadlo account ended the debate, if there was a serious one, about what had happened at My Lai, and it also spawned a wave of Sunday feature stories by journalists about American massacres and atrocities they had witnessed in Vietnam. (p. 134)
Hersh also described what happened in the immediate aftermath of the massacre.
Calley’s company moved on in the late afternoon toward the South China Sea a few miles to the east. Early the next morning Meadlo stepped on a land mine and blew off his right foot. As he was waiting to be evacuated, he chanted, again and again, “God had punished me and God will punish you, Lieutenant Calley, for what you made me do.” Calley was shaken and began screaming for the helicopter. (p.130)
Hersh says that Meadlo’s long-suffering mother said it all about what the military had done to her son: “I sent them a good boy, and they made him a murderer.” (p. 131)