Seymour Hersh won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his expose of the My Lai massacre—he was a 33-year-old freelancer at the time. Since then, he’s won pretty much every other journalism award. He’s worked as a staff writer for The New York Times and The New Yorker. He’s also written a dozen books, most recently Reporter: A Memoir. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: For me, the most powerful of your My Lai stories was one of the follow-ups of the original revelations that American soldiers killed unarmed Vietnamese civilians—504 is the Vietnamese count; the US Army now says 347. You learned that a lot of the shooting had been done by a soldier named Paul Meadlo. With your characteristic doggedness, you found Meadlo’s mother in a small town near Terre Haute, Indiana. What happened when you met her?
Seymour Hersh: First you have to remember that the kids in this unit were mostly from the underclass: a larger percentage of African Americans than in America generally, and the same for Hispanics; among the whites, most of them were rural and not very well educated. Paul Meadlo was from a town called New Goshen. It was a farming community 20 or 30 miles outside of Terra Haute, Indiana. I learned that the day after he’d done a lot of the shooting, he lost a leg. He stepped on a land mine in Vietnam. They were just patrolling like it was any other day, the day after they murdered 500 people. So I call up before I’m coming, got there late the next day. His mother comes out, I tell her, “I’m the guy that called last night.” I asked if it was okay to speak with her son. She said, “You’ll have to ask him. I can’t speak for him.” Then she said to me, “You know, I gave them a good boy, and they sent me back a murderer.”
I gotta tell you, I just froze. What could you say? So I went into his place. He said, “I knew you were gonna come today. My mom told me.” I said, “I want to talk about what happened.” He said, “Well, I don’t know.” I said, “But before you do that, do me a favor. Take off your shoe. I want to see what they did to you. What’s your new leg look like?” He was happy to do it. He showed me the prosthetic leg, took it off, told me it took five months in a hospital to recover from that terrible wound.
Then I said, “So tell me what happened.” And he began to tell the story of this shooting. He used seven or eight clips of 17 bullets each and shot people in a ditch, again and again and again. Calley, his lieutenant, kept on saying, “Do it.” Most of the other boys did not shoot—very few of the African-American guys. Most of them just stayed away. Same with the Hispanics. It was a white-boy shoot.