Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Into The Dark: The My Lai Massacre

The Letter

Ron Ridenhour, 21, arrived in Vietnam in January of 1968 and was assigned to the aviation branch of the 11th Infantry Brigade at Chu Lai. During that year, he became friends with the "grunts" (infantry foot soldiers) and often drank with the men on their off time in the clubs on the base. Ridenhour also was a member of a special unit called Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRPS). Although he did not participate in the attack on My Lai, Ridenhour heard stories about what happened on March 16, including vivid descriptions of the killing. Over the next few months, the stories he heard originated from so many different sources, Ridenhour realized there must be some truth to them. When he returned to the United States after his tour of duty, he sat down in his home in Phoenix, Arizona and composed a letter that described his fears:

"It was late in April, 1968 that I first heard of 'Pinkville' and what allegedly happened there. I received the 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 dark and bloody did indeed occur sometime in March, 1968 in a village called 'Pinkville' in the Republic of Viet Nam."

He went on to explain where he was stationed while he was in Vietnam and to whom he spoke about My Lai and when. Ridenhour knew many details about the massacre through these conversations. He wrote:

"2nd Lieutenant Kalley (this spelling may be incorrect) had rounded up several groups of villagers (each group consisting of a minimum of 20 persons of both sexes and all ages.) According to the story, Kalley then machine-gunned each group...the population of the village had been 300-400 people and that very few, if any, escaped."

Ridenhour also heard there was more than just one slaughter by "Kalley." He wrote: "Kalley didn't bother to order anyone to take the machine gun when the other two groups of villagers were formed. He simply manned it himself and shot down all villagers in both groups."

Finally, Ridenhour explained why he wanted the truth to come out about My Lai. He said he believed in the principle of justice and felt that to let My Lai go unpunished would violate a fundamental concept upon which America was built. Tortured by the thought of mass murder committed by U.S. troops, and determined to get at the truth wherever it may lead, Ridenhour mailed his letter to dozens of government officials and to Congressman Morris Udall of Arizona. Later when Ridenhour was interviewed in Phoenix by the U.S. Army regarding his allegations, Colonel William Wilson described him as "an extremely impressive young man, and while his allegations were still only hearsay, he was depressingly convincing."

Gen William Westmoreland (AP)
Gen William Westmoreland

The letter provoked an immediate reaction within the government. Within weeks, several military agencies were alerted and many politicians became aware of the atrocity charges against the U.S. Army. By May, Ridenhour received a letter of acknowledgement from General William Westmoreland himself, who promised an investigation into the matter. Momentum was gathering like the pressure building inside of a volcano. Soon, it would erupt. And like a volcano, it would cause devastation everywhere.




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