This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. In 1968, when Gelb was wrangling his team, including Ellsberg and many others, to put the secret history together, Seymour Hersh was an ambitious young freelance reporter writing for the New York Times. His big break came when he got a tip from an anti-war attorney about a soldier who shot up a bunch of civilians in Vietnam. Hersh floated that story by a general working for the army chief of staff who mentioned an army officer officer named William Calley. Armed with a name, Hersh tracked down Calley's lawyer, George Latimer, in Utah. In Lattimer's office, Hersh laid eyes on an Army indictment sheet charging Calley with the murder of "109 oriental human beings." In 2008, I spoke to Hersh about how he broke the story of My Lai, the massacre now regarded as the single most notorious atrocity of the Vietnam War.
Seymour Hersh: 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 race 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.
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 just waved in, I parked my car. There was a main headquarters. It was a 30, 40 mile complex. Initially I went to every prison. There were four or five prisons, and I would just drive into the front, and I had my ready old suit on and a tie and a briefcase. I read a card, I'd get out, and there'd be some sergeant, and I'd say, "Sergeant, bring Calley out."
Brooke Gladstone: You were posing as a lawyer.
Seymour Hersh: I didn't say. If anybody asked me, I always said I was a reporter. If they made that assumption, that's fine. Of course, Calley was in any of these bases. I'm driving from one camp to another, and I went back to the main headquarters and I was stuck. 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. When he came back, he hadn't been charged. He was under investigation. He was just a guy coming back. I called up the information office of 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.
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. 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 top bunk. I thought, this must be Calley. I remember kicking the bunk and waking up this blonde kid and I said, "Wake up." I said, "Calley," he said, "Who?" He was sitting there, this very young 19 year old, 20 year old kid sitting there confused, and because we are nosy, I said, "What are you doing here at three o'clock in the afternoon?" He said, "I sort the mail," and I said, "Did you ever hear of a William Calley?" He looked at me and said, "You mean the guy that shot up everybody?"
Eventually he took me to another facility where there was the senior enlisted man in charge of the male was there. Then they told me where he was. He was living, get this, the one place nobody would look for him, in the senior bachelor officer's 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 murder first lieutenant would be stashed, but he was stashed there. I started walking through each room, knocking on doors saying, "Hey, Bill, Bill Calley." I spent maybe three or four hours doing that with no luck. I left, it was dark by now, nine, ten o'clock. There was a guy working on his car, and I went to that guy and he was a warrant officer. I said, "Calley?" He pulled himself off from under the motor, and he looked at me and he said, "You're looking for a William Calley?" I said, "Yes." He said, "He lives below me." Calley was on a boat that day. He'd gone boating. When he came in to the barracks, I was waiting for him. I said, "Are you Calley?" I'm her. She said, "Oh yes, my lawyer said you'd look me up," as if I found him so easily. This was 12, 13 hours of looking.
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. 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. They all have been told, you're going to be fighting North Vietnamese regular army. They saw nobody. They were a hundred guide strong company. They lost maybe 15 or 20 guys to snipers and bombs. 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.
They did what that army did. Then they toked up with their joints, and the enlisted men and officers drank. They got up at 3:30 to kill and be killed. 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 his young man to start shooting.
One was Paul Meadlo, 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, why, and they heard a keeningOne 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 Paul Meadlo, this kid from southern Indiana, "Plug him." Meadlo, one-on-one, couldn't do it, although he'd fired maybe 10 clips of 20 bullets each into the ditch. Calley, with great daring duke, took his car by and ran behind the kid and shot him in the back of the head. Everybody remembered that.
The next morning, they're on patrol, Meadlo gets his leg blown off to the knee, and they call on a helicopter to take him out. 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 this story, when one told me, they all told me. I hear this story, he lives in southern Indiana. I just dial away, and I call every exchange in Indiana. Finally, New Goshen, 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, and spend hours. It's a chicken farm. Meadlo is 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. This mother walks out. I introduced 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." Then she said to me, "I gave them a good boy and they sent me back a murderer."