Ron Ridenhour

I was drafted in March of 1967 and went through basic training and advanced infantry training and parachute training school. That all took about six months and I arrived in Hawaii assigned to Scofield barracks in the 11th infantry brigade in September of 1967. The 11th was then scheduled to ship out for Vietnam sometime in December.

I was assigned to a very small unit with about thirty men, which was to be our brigade long-range reconnaissance patrol unit (LRRP). There were about thirty men and we went out and did what they call jungle warfare training out in the forests and jungles of Hawaii every day. But about two weeks before we were scheduled to ship out to Vietnam, our small detachment was disbanded because the brigade was under-strength. About half the men, fifteen of the enlisted men, were sent off to Charlie company 1st of the 20th, Lieutenant Calley's company, or Captain Medina's company, probably.

I was sent off to eventually to become a doorman on a light observation helicopter doing, ironically, almost exactly the same thing Hugh was doing at the same time, although we did it with two small ships rather than with the small ship with the two sharks or the two gunships covering. Our small ships, one flew very low, about thirty, feet off the ground and the other flew higher, in circles, to cover it and our mission was, as his was, to draw fire and then engage whoever it was that fired at us.

We arrived in Vietnam four days before Christmas in 1967, ended up in the detachment a few days later. And we practiced, went out, basically learned how to stand on the skid of a helicopter while it's flitting and fluttering and dipping and diving around the hedgerows over tree lines. And to hold our machine guns and hit things and shoot. We did this for about two weeks. On our first mission we were called to go out and provide what they called light aircover for an infantry company, for two infantry companies, actually, which were about to sweep through a fairly large village, I would guess. A hundred to a hundred and fifty homes on the highway about ten miles south of where we were. Our area of operation was immediately south of Hugh's and we had the southernmost part of I-Corps, which was the northernmost part of South Vietnam in which American troops found themselves.

On this mission we went out and it's our first combat mission---our first alleged combat mission---we went out to fly around in this village and to protect the infantry soldiers from an ambush. They got on line, literally they made a line long enough for all the men in two infantry companies to stretch out in one long line and then they started walking through the village. Our job was to fly over the village and to fly behind the village to see if anybody was either trying to ambush them or to flee. Sure enough, out of the back end of the village after a few minutes here came a young man, military age, running, fleeing out of the village. There was a trail to the back end of the village down along it leading off to the mountains to the west, and this guy came out of there and he was running, like, to beat the band. We fly down alongside him and we're trying to get him to stop, we're waving at him, we're motioning at him, we're telling him---and he's like, not me, man, I'm getting out of here, he's steady trucking along.

The other doorman, the crew chief, was, his door was to this this time. And so, after a few minutes of this, the pilot said, "Slow him down--- fire a burst in front of him. Let him know we're serious." So the doorman fired first and instead of firing in front of him, he hit him in the hips. And the man went down in a heap, of course. And lay there in his own blood and began to bleed. We were totally freaked out, because this was our first mission; we never fired at anybody in anger before or under combat conditions or anything else. We shot this guy and didn't intend to. So we were, we were pretty upset. The pilot was especially upset, and he began to get on the radio and to call to the ground company, to the officers in the ground company to come help this guy. He was pretty frantic, and it took him about twenty minutes to get there and the pilot is steadily on the radio saying, "Come on! Come on, hurry, this man needs help! This man needs help!"

You could hear the infantry officer getting more and more frustrated as he ran. You could hear him moaning, you could hear him, "(pant, pant) I'm coming! I'm coming! (pant, pant)" over the radio. It took him about twenty minutes to get there, but finally they break out on the same trail through the other side of the back end of the village and run down the trail to the guy. The officer gets there, runs up to him, stops, leans down, looks at him, stands up, pulls out his .45, cocks it, BOOM! Shoots the guy in the head. Looks up at us, he gets on his radio and says, "This man no longer needs any help."

Well, that was my introduction to the reality of Vietnam as I saw it. For four months, I did this, went out and stood on the skids of this helicopter, flew about thirty feet off the ground and it was literally a bird's eye view. Now most of our missions were what they call hunter-killer missions, doing the same thing Hugh was doing. We were going out at, usually, first light and last light. The catechism was that's when the VC were on the move, and indeed frequently it was.

Now we would pop up over a tree line or a hedge row and there'd be two or three guys standing out in the rice field with guns. We'd engage them and usually we'd kill one or two of them, but they were well trained and they'd all run in different directions. Usually some would get away and some wouldn't, but in that entire four-month time we only killed thirty-six people, I believe, in that neighborhood. We replaced a unit in that same area which was doing exactly the same thing, and had only been there for eight months before we arrived, and they killed over seven hundred people in eight months. What that said to me, since we were out doing the same thing, exactly the same thing in exactly the same area, is that they were killng---they were just out there killing a lot of people, folks. They were being a lot less discriminating than we were about who we were engaging. We were looking for people with guns, which is what we were supposed to be doing.

Well, in that four months I guess I witnessed those sorts of events about six times, six or seven times. We would identify somebody just as Hugh had. We'd say, OK, here's somebody who is looking suspicious or whatever. And some infantrymen would walk up to him and just shoot him. I mean, no provocation. They just walk right up to him. I'm not talking about something that's ambiguous, I'm talking about murder. I'm talking about somebody walking right up, pointing a gun and, without provocation, pulling the trigger. I oppose that, of course, and so did most of us, but I don't know that we were really quite getting the drift of what was really going on there.

We flew into the area of operations south of us, on a kind of courier mission one day, and flew over a hut, where we could see some guys in there torturing a Vietnamese. They were skinning this guy alive. So the atrocities were, I'm afraid, far too common. I thought that it was kind of the way we were fighting the war, but still I was unprepared.

After about four months, I basically got fired from my job in the helicopter company. I couldn't get along with my sergeant who, of course, was the sergeant, and I was the private, so pretty soon I had to go, and I did. I went and volunteered then for the division long-range reconnaissance patrol team. I hadn't seen my friends who'd gone to Charlie company in probably two months. When they were not out on patrol, and they were in for stand-down, to come in and take a shower and get a couple of hot meals, they would come over and visit and we'd talk.

But I hadn't seen them in a couple of months since they had gone off with Task Force Barker and gone up to LZ Dottie, which was I guess about thirty miles north of us along the highway. So when I left the aviation company my first night, reassigned temporarily to headquarters, which is basically a holding administrative unit, at least for my purposes at that time it was. I ran into a guy I had known in Hawaii, who had been in my company who had gone to Charlie company. He had since transferred into the divisional LRRP company where I was headed. We sat down and said "Hey, what are you doing?" "What are you doing? Well, let's get a beer and go talk." So we went and found a beer and found an empty tent with a table and sat down in it and started to tell each other our war stories and get caught up on what we had done and what we'd seen since we'd last talked to each other. After a minute or two he says, "Hey man did you hear what we did at Pinkville?" I knew Pinkville, which was My Lai 4, because we had done some missions up there and there had been---it's known as a hot area. 'So what'd
you do at Pinkville?" He said, "Oh, man, we massacred this whole village." I said, "What?" He said, "Yeah, we massacred this whole village. We just lined them up and killed them" I said, "What do you mean?' He said, "Men, women and kids, everybody, we killed them all." I said, 'Well, how many was that?" He said, "Oh, I don't know, three or four hundred I guess, at least. A lot, everybody we could find. We didn't leave anybody alive, at least we didn't intend to."

It's hard for me to really describe exactly what my reaction was, because it's difficult to, the language doesn't quite, at least I haven't found a way to capture it, but it was I guess you would say, an epiphany. It was an instantaneous recognition and collateral determination that this was something too horrible, almost, to comprehend and that I wasn't gonna be a part of it. Just simply having the knowledge, I felt, made me complicit, unless I acted on it.

So I started to act on it, and I spent the remainder of my time in Vietnam trying to locate people who had been there and of course part of it was easy because I was going straight to the divisional LRRP company. Four or five people who had been my friends in Hawaii and had gone to Charlie company had transferred into the divisional LRRP company within a week or ten days after the massacre. So I was able to go in and talk with them and two of them were very good friends.

One of them and I had been drafted on the same day. We went through basic training together; we were in the same basic training company together; we were in the same advanced infantry battalion together; we both volunteered for special forces together; we were accepted together; and we went to jump school together. We both refused to sign an extension converting us from two-year draftees to four-year enlistees. So we both ended up being shipped off to Hawaii instead of going on to special forces school after jump school.

This kid's name was Mike Terry and Sy talked about him last night, for those of you who were there. He was, I thought, one of the finest people I ever met. He was the all-American boy, wrestler in college, all-state champion, had respect for everybody around him, didn't swear, didn't speak badly of women, was not into the macho sort of bragging that was going on by a lot of people. He was just a very fine human being.

We had talked about this before we arrived when we were on our way to Vietnam, before we got there and after we got there, because I began to hear complaints from these guys about Lieutenant Calley, this guy who was their officer who they just loathed, who they thought was incompetent and a whole lot of otlier things. So I arrived in the LURP (LRRP) company and began to go out on missions. On my first five missions, of the six men who were on our team, four of them had been at My Lai. I was going out with these guys and gathering this information. I would go and talk to them and I would try to find each of them, get each of them in a one-on-one conversation

I'd ask them, "Hey, man what happened at Pinkville?" And it would be like lancing a boil. I mean, if you asked them, they were compelled to talk. They couldn't stop talking. They were horrified that it had occurred, that they had been there, and in the instances of all of these men, that they had participated in some way. The story I'd been told about what Mike Terry had done and what my other friend, Billy Dougherty, had done were, I thought, stunning and terrifying in a certain way. But I didn't ask Mike about it for, I guess, probably a month, I don't know why, exactly, but we went out on a mission, we went off into something called Happy Valley, which is west of the city called Tam Khe, in the northern part of the Americal divisional area of operation. Sat up on a hill for four days, and watched a trail, and watched fully combat ready North Vietnamese soldiers walk down this trail, counted them, and called in artillery a couple of times as they were marching to a battle which was across the valley from us and we could see it. We sat there and whispered through these four days and watched and when they came finally to get us at last light, they dropped us at the fire base that this battle was being operated out of. We went and got some food and talked to a few of the grunts who had just come back out of this battle. Then Mike and I went off and found ourselves a bunker to lay up on top of for that night and sleep.

We lay, down and I asked him, "Hey, Mike, what happened at Pinkville? Tell me what happened at Pinkville." And he tells me this terrible story of going in with Lieutenant Calley, and sweeping through the village and watching these murders and the rapes and everything that was going on and seeing what was happening, what happened at the ditch. About eleven o'clock Mike and Billy sat down within fifteen or twenty feet of the ditch to have their lunch. They took out their C-rations and opened their food and started eating but they couldn't really finish it, because there was too much noise coming from the ditch. People who are mortally wounded but not yet dead make a lot of noise. People die hard; they don't want to give up life. The people in this ditch were laying there. Those who were still alive were groaning and crying out and some of their limbs were flopping spasmodically, which happens to people who are mortally wounded.

There must've been a terrible God-awful racket, a horrifying sound, I'm sure. They couldn't eat, so they stood up, two of them and they walked over to the ditch and they divided up the survivors and they walked down the ditch, one on each side, finishing off all the survivors. "There's one, you take him". "OK". Pow, pow "There's one, you get him". "OK". Pow, pow. Up and down the ditch once. When they returned to their food, the ditch was quiet.

When the first guy, whose name was Butch Gruber, told me this story, he told me about the ditch and about what Mike and Billy had done. But I needed to hear it from them. When I asked them about it, they said, "Yeah, yeah, it's all true". Mike told me the story and it was really a cloudless night and there were a zillion stars out there. After he finished we just lay there for a couple of minutes and finally I said "Mike, my God, Mike ... don't you know that was wrong?" And he said, "I don't know, man, I don't know, it was just one of them things." He rolled over; a couple of minutes later I could see he was asleep. We never really talked about it much after that.

I spent the rest of my time looking for people who were not in our company and found about three or four more, I suppose. I had a friend who had been in Charlie company and who transferred out only a week before the massacre. He knew what I was up to but I didn't know how I was gonna do it, what the mechanics of it would be. I knew I wa going to, I was determined to cause an investigation of some kind. I was a kid; I had no idea how to do it, but I knew the first thing I needed was the facts.

So I had gone down to the division historical section where they keep an account of all the battles and everything, the official history of the division. There I found the official report that had been released to the press, reporting the battle at My Lai, in which it was reported, I believe, that a hundred twenty-eight people had been killed - a hundred twenty-eight VC had been killed with force, as it was reported. I found the coordinates of the village, the specific date, a lot of very specific information, the sort of thing you need to make a persuasive complaint, I think.

The one thing I needed that I didn't have was somebody who had been there, who was a witness and who had not participated. I didn't have any reason necessarily to believe my friends wouldn't be honest when they were asked about it. On the other hand, they had participated in this terrible crime and maybe they wouldn't. So I felt I needed somebody that I could count on and I knew of such a man, his name was Michael Bernhardt. But he was still out in the field; I could never find him because he was simply never available.

The reason he was never available is that Captain Medina, he believes the reason, I should say, he was never available, was that Captain Medina had come to him that night after the massacre, knew that he hadn't participated, knew that he was a potential troublesome person and threatened him. He said "Bernhardt, you better keep your mouth shut about this, buddy." And Mike said, "Yes, sir." He stayed out in the field; they wouldn't let him out of the field. He tried to transfer into the LRRP company They wouldn't let him. He tried to transfer every place, they wouldn't let him.

Every time they thought an ambush was coming, they'd send him up to the front of the line, where they thought the ambush was gonna be. He walked point in all the dangerous places and in the last four months he got jungle rot so bad, he could barely walk and they wouldn't let him out of the field. Finally, with about three weeks to go, he just jumped on a supply chopper as it was lifting off and without anybody's permission and went into the infirmary, the aid station, at the 11th brigade headquarters at Duc Pho and the doctors said, "Holy Mackerel, what's wrong with you? I mean, why weren't you here earlier?"

Jungle rot, for those of you who don't know, is a kind of ulceration that appears on your skin and is caused by a combination of filth and dampness, wetness and some bug, I'm sure. It begins as just a little small open sore and it just spreads and spreads and spreads and gets bigger and bigger and bigger and Bernhardt had these open wounds all over his legs, could barely walk. Two days after he went into the brigade aid station he was at 2nd Surgical Hospital in Chu Lai, which is where I was then and we were all ready to come home.

We only had a few weeks left in our tours and most of us were out of the field by then. My friend Pat Thiele who was the guy who knew what I was doing, found out that Bernie was over in the hospital and came and told me. We went over there and Pat left us alone and Bernhardt and I talked, felt each other out for about thirty minutes and we finally realized that we felt the same way about it. We kind of showed our hands. I asked him what he intended to do and he had a plan.

When he got out of the service, he was gonna go around. He knew where the officers were; he had the chain of command down. He was gonna go around and assassinate them, one at a time. That was his plan. Now I have to say I believe he was serious - we were serious people. And I said, "Well, you won't get out for a while anyway." He was an RA, he was an enlisted volunteer, so he still had some time left to serve. "So why don't we try my plan." I said, "I'm gonna get an investigation going ." He said, "How?" I said, "I don't know, you know, but somehow. And if I do, will you tell the truth?" He said, "If you tell the truth, I'll tell the truth." I said "OK". So I went home and talked to my friends and my relatives and all of my people who I thought had been my mentors. They all, almost to the person, said, "Shut up. Shut up. This is none of your business - leave it alone."

One person said, "Write a letter and send it to the Army. Tell what you know and how you knew it." I decided that was half-good advice, that I should do that, but I shouldn't restrict it just to the Army. I wrote such a letter and in the end of March 1969 sent it out to thirty different Congressmen, Senators. Mo Udall, who was Congressman from Arizona - I lived in Arizona at the time acted on it, and called on the House Armed Services Committee to call on the Pentagon to conduct the investigation and they did so. The Pentagon responded to my letter less than two weeks later. It was their contention that they had acted independently of Congress and maybe they did, I have no idea.

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