Another big difference between My Lai and other atrocities is that it was perpetrated on the ground and not from the air. The testimony at Chapel Hill and at Detroit came largely from conscience-stricken soldiers—mainly enlisted men—who saw their victims, often face to face. The confession that Hugh Turley overheard at the S & J Tavern in Riverdale Park, MD, of a man who had killed women and children upon the orders of his superiors is fairly typical. Those who slaughtered wholesale from the air—the American way of killing—were career military officers and in most cases they never saw their victims.
For the most part, those perpetrators have not broken ranks and they have not been overly weighted down by conscience.
Mary Lewis Deans was a Nash County, NC, writer who married a neighbor of mine in the county when they were both in high school. He later went on to become a career Air Force officer. I recall reading her columns in the weekly Nashville Graphic, dateline Bangkok, in the 1970s when he was the U.S. Air Force attaché in Thailand. In 1996, she edited and published a little book entitled Salute to Veterans: Oral Histories from Veterans and their Relatives, gathered by the Nash County Cultural Center’s oral history project. The one that caught my eye was from the Vietnam experience of then-Lt. Colonel James Hildreth—retired in his wife’s hometown of Spring Hope—in which he described the obliteration of an unthreatening Vietnamese village of more than a thousand residents:
An Unacceptable Target
Told by James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth
I was sixteen when I went into the Merchant Marines. I served sixteen months as a Ship’s Radio Officer. When I became eighteen, I joined the Army and served a hitch as an enlisted man, then got out of service. I was called back into service when the Korean War started. I went into the Air Force in 1952 and became a fighter pilot, and it was my career for the next thirty years.
For the next ten years, I served as a flight commander in several fighter squadrons, flying the F-84, F-86, F-100 and F-105. This was the most exciting, rewarding, and enjoyable ten years of my life. During the hottest period of the Cold War we developed and exercised world-wide deployment for our fighter aircraft, using aerial refueling, and responded to numerous military threats with a show of force in such places as the Taiwan Straits and Lebanon in the Middle East.
I was assigned to Fighter Requirements in the Pentagon when the military buildup in Vietnam began, and I volunteered to go. I think we all wanted to go. It was what we had trained to do since we took the oath. When my request was approved, I called my friend, Dudley Foster, in Rated Officer Assignments in Personnel and told him I had been released from my Pentagon tour and wanted an F-105 assignment to Southeast Asia. He told me that since I had not flown F-105 in three years I would have to retrain in the F-105 and that I would have to wait five or six months for a school slot. This was in 1966, and I didn’t think the war would last that long.
I asked, “Well, what aircraft do you have that I can go over in now?” And added, “I don’t care what it is. I’m ready to go.”
He said, “I just had a cancellation in an A-1 assignment.”
I didn’t know what an A-1 was. He told me it was a conventional Navy attack aircraft that the Marines used in the Korean War for close-air support. The Marines were converting their attack units to A-4s and giving the A-1s to the Air Force to use for Air Commando missions, principally close-air support, search and rescue, and covert mission he couldn’t talk about. It was really not what I had in mind, but I wanted to go so badly I took the assignment.
I arrived at Pleiku in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam as Commander of the First Air Commando Squadron in March, 1967, and ended my tour a year later during the Tet Offensive.
How do I feel about the war in Vietnam?
I have mixed feelings, mostly bad. From the onset of the buildup in Vietnam, it was clear that there was no military solution to the conflict. We should never have become so extensively involved. The volume of ordnance we expended over an area about the size of California was more than the total ordnance expended in all the previous armed conflicts in the history of our country, and it had no appreciable effect on the outcome in Southeast Asia. The total of all the targets destroyed was not worth the life of one of my pilots, and I lost eight of them in ten months and twelve of my twenty-two assigned aircraft.
It was difficult to show the bean-counters and political warriors in Washington positive military results for all our casualties and materiel losses. So the American military leadership in South Vietnam determined that bodies destroyed was a good gauge. BODY-COUNT became the measure of a ground commander’s success. It should not then have been surprising that this policy led to the civilian massacre at the village of My Lai.
The vast majority of the A-1 missions were in Laos: flying armed reconnaissance of North Vietnamese infiltration routes into South Vietnam, search and rescue missions for downed air crews, and covert support for special ground forces operations.
Our aircraft was very slow and heavily armed. I mention this because all of my previous experience had been in high-performance jet fighters where the pilot never really sees the people who die in the target he destroys. In the A-1 you actually see the people shooting at you, and, at the time, feel the satisfaction of knowing you’ve killed someone who was trying to kill you.
One particular mission is as vivid in my memory now as the day it happened. I was leading a flight of two A-1s on an armed reconnaissance mission, but shortly after take-off we were perted to a target on the coast of I Corps (northern quarter of South Vietnam.) On arriving in the target area, we contacted the FAC (forward air controller) who pointed out the target. It was a huge village of three or four hundred houses, probably twelve to fifteen hundred people. It was between the main north-south highway and the ocean, a pretty, clean village. I asked the FAC why the village was a target.
The FAC said, “That is a Vietcong village.”
I said, “How do you know its a Vietcong village?”
He said, “Well we saw three Vietcong run in there.”
Across the road from the village was a rice paddy.
He said, “We saw them run out of the rice paddy when we flew over, and they ran into the village.”
I said, “And you want us to wipe out this whole village to get three Vietcong?” How do you know they were Vietcong? Were they armed?”
He said, “They had on black pajamas.”
All of the farmers working in the fields had on black pajamas. That was their dress. And they carried tools like rakes and hoes.
He said, “They were armed.”
I said, “How do you know they weren’t carrying rakes and hoes?”
He said, “Don’t argue with me. I’ve got the provincial governor in the back seat, and he says that is a Vietcong village.”
I said, “Well, I’ll go down and look around and see if I can draw any fire.”
So we went down and flew over real low and slow. There were children in the courtyard, smiling and waving at us. This village had obviously been there for years, and it had never been touched. I pulled back up; and I said, “Okay, what are your instructions?”
He said, “The wind is blowing off-shore; so put your napalm down on that first row of houses, and the wind will carry the fire across the entire village.”
So I said, “”Fine.”
I pulled around and told my wingman to come in from one side and I would attack from the other. We would start our attack from opposite corners. I was coming in toward the corner hut. I looked up at the other end, and he had moved over the road and dropped his napalm on the road. As I approached my release point, a woman with a tiny baby strapped on her back, holding the hand of a small child three or four years old, came running from the hut. I pulled my aircraft over and dropped the napalm in a ditch beside the highway.
The FAC screamed and raised holy hell because he had this governor in the aircraft with him. He said, “You know I’m going to report you for this!”
I said, “You don’t have to. I’ll be on the ground before you are, and I’ll report myself.”
When we landed, my wingman walked over to my aircraft and said, “Sir, I have three small grandchildren, and I could never have faced them again if I had followed those orders.” He said he didn’t want to fly any more combat missions. Later, I had him transferred to a unit with an airborne command and control mission.
I went into Squadron Operations and called the Command Center at Seventh air Force and talked to the director, a brigadier general I had served with several years before. I told him what happened.
He said, “Damn, Cotton, don’t you know what’s going on? That village didn’t pay their taxes. That lieutenant colonel, a provincial commander, is teaching them a lesson.”
On returning from an interdiction mission several days later, we flew over the target area. The village had been totally destroyed. Nothing but a large, black, burned area remained. I’m sure when the FAC got a fast-mover (high-performance jet) on the target and destroyed the village the report read: Target 100 percent destroyed, body-count 1200 KBA (killed by air) confirmed.
I’m a grandfather now, and I can’t watch my grandchildren at play or carry them in my arms without thinking of that village in Vietnam.
I put the story on my web site originally on June 10, 1998. To date, no one in what could be called the mainstream U.S. news media has touched it. In July 2010, with my assistance in finding Hildreth’s phone number, my friend Turley was able to conduct an interview. He entitled his article, “The Wingman and the Village.” In his article Turley revealed that Hildreth had retired as a Major General.
It’s not in his article, but Turley tells me that he asked Hildreth who gave the order to destroy the village. Hildreth declined to name the man, saying, “I still have friends in the Pentagon.”
Turley’s article’s big contribution to the story came with Hildreth’s response to another question: “When asked if he would have destroyed the village had he been flying an F-105 supersonic fighter-bomber, Hildreth replied coolly, Yes, [because] you don’t see the people.’ ”
And that’s why America’s biggest atrocities have been, and continue to be, perpetrated from the air, and it’s also why we’ll probably never even hear about most of them, and no one will ever be punished for them.
Source: DC Dave