I started teaching Advanced Placement United States History in 1994. The College Board traditionally schedules the qualifying exams during the first two weeks of May. The APUSH exam was generally in the first week on a Friday. But then we had four more weeks of school. I have always been sensitive to wasted time in school so I started a program whereby each AP student had to write a research paper in conjunction with the English Department but with an historical topic. I embraced the P-P-P of the 1990s—Paper—Product—Presentation (We were mired in Outcomes Based Education). What the P—P—P meant was that the student had to write a paper; create some physical representation of the topic: and, present that for 40 minutes to a class or audience. It became quite a challenge for the students but the results were often most ambitious because these were students who wanted to achieve.
In the fall of 1999, one of my students chose the topic of the My Lai Massacre, March 16, 1968 during the Vietnam Conflict. Katie was a high achieving student who strove to do her very best for her own personal satisfaction, not just for the grade. She studied the event and found out that one of the members of Charlie Company on that fateful day had been from New Kensington, PA. His name was Fred Widmer. In her dogged determination to bring reality to her work, she proceeded to contact all of the Widmers in New Kensington. One of her missives came to the mother of Fred Widmer who forwarded it to her son who lived in Evansville, Indiana.
Katie and Fred exchanged letters. E-mail was not as prevalent in 1999. He questioned her as to why she would contact him and she told him. Over the years, Fred had grown quite reclusive and defensive about the day of March 16, 1968. He had been through the Peers Commission trials and had spent a day in the stockade. The Peers Commission was an official and exhaustive investigation into the My Lai Affair. Fred’s commanding officer and a man who he respected, Captain Ernest Medina, was accused of killing a 9-year old boy who Fred had actually killed that day. The young boy was part of the carnage of the day and had come around a corner with his arm shot off and bleeding profusely. Fred called it a mercy-killing. But now, he had to take the 5th amendment to keep from indicting himself and not passing the crime on to Medina. This was pretty heady stuff even 30 years after the event. Legally, Fred was a war criminal. He had been asked numerous times since 1968 to be interviewed and to tell his story about the events of that fateful day. His temerity was natural.
After Fred came out of the army and returned to New Kensington, he spent two years in deep PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder). By his own admission, he “medicated with drugs and alcohol.” His childhood friends and Vietnam protesters, Butch and Toby, were his companions and sole compassionates. His family was there and stood by him but this was the ending years of a very unpopular war and most chose to want it to go away. Fred married and had a son. But the marriage did not last and like many Vietnam veterans who experienced the horrors of that war and came home afflicted with PTSD and the haunting legacy that they were part of the only war in United States history where the nation was a loser, he divorced. Most of the Vietnam vets chose to bury themselves in the anonymity described by then President Gerald Ford when he said that the war “is finished as far as America is concerned” as the North Vietnamese Army poured down South Vietnam in the waning days of April 1975 in route to their deciding victory in the Vietnam War. Fred was to re-marry and divorce again, a common occurrence in the postwar lives of Vietnam combat veterans.
So here was Katie, high school junior of tender years, asking a man who had been through hell and back to be a part of her classroom project at Chartiers Valley High School in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania. I call that guts! And she did it! I can only thank her for her bravado.
Fred was suspect. He had every right to be. But something about this young girl’s request must have puzzled him enough to entertain the thought. So, he asked that he speak to Katie’s teacher probably thinking that all of this would go away and hoping so. So Katie approached me with the proposition of calling this person who had been at My Lai in March 1968 to validate her P-P-P. Okay. I had 50+ other students who were doing similar projects and frankly not at the scale in which Katie had embraced this charge. So, I said OK. Let’s set up a time and I will call your My Lai contact from a phone that I had set up in Room 219, CVHS, for circumstances like this. I must admit that I was skeptical.
And so I called. Fred was guarded from the outset. He asked me questions about the purpose of having students research an event in history that occurred thirty years earlier and was part of a growing disgrace for the United States of America. Was he being set up like he had suspected other times when he was contacted for information? I tried to assure him that this was simply an exercise in academia. There would be no reporters, no news events, and no records of the events except solely for the pursuit of understanding. But I think what really sold Fred on coming to Pittsburgh and entering a Chartiers Valley classroom in May 2001 was this—I told him that he was ‘a piece of history and that he owed it to the young people who try to understand such events as My Lai.” Yes, ‘a piece of history.’ I have been told by Fred personally that the expression ’a piece of history’ made him really think about his commitment. Wow! I was really thinking on my feet when I called him out for being a ‘piece of history.’ I consider that phone conversation with Fred Widmer in May 1968 as one of my crowning glories of my career in education because it brought to the forefront not only a man with a tremendous story of understanding but a fantastic resource in exploring the grayness of a seemingly black-white event. Fred was the epitome of not right or wrong but of WHY. He was the very embodiment of analyzing ethics in a modern world. Through the efforts of young Katie, I had stumbled upon a treasure—‘a piece of history” with an incredible lasting message to convey. I have been able to use this treasure for 18 years in western Pennsylvania to expose thousands to the mystic of human actions. It is such that has made me feel so fortunate and blessed by my teaching career.
And so Fred came to Chartiers Valley High School in the spring of 2000 to appear as a resource for the research paper of Katie on My Lai. The typical process of a Q-A occurred but more importantly, an education/personal/business relationship was formed. Fred has become a regular part of my study of Vietnam. He has endowed into the thousands of Chartiers Valley and Duquesne University students with his candor and self-debilitating humor. He promises to answer any questions asked of him (and many have been particularly sensitive); he responds to inquiries after his classroom appearances; he has communicated with many students after the fact and he has remained my steadfast friend in education and personally.
Since his inception at Chartiers Valley High School, Fred has appeared in three national/international films on the My Lai event. One of them meant for educational TV in Europe was partly filmed at Chartiers Valley High School and its students. He has been able to serve as a spokesperson and interpreter for the event which has served as a classic examination of an atrocity during wartime. He has added the grayness to what appears like a black-white episode of history. He has enlightened by my estimate, 2500+ students (Chartiers Valley High School and Duquesne University) on the shades of grayness that exists in ethical behavior in war and on the pressures on youth in the traumatic 60s with the Vietnam War.
So, who is Fred Widmer? As I write this in July 2016, Fred is not well. He has had a cancerous tumor removed from his bladder; he has experienced kidney trouble; and, he has had his lung capacity been sincerely eroded. And yet, in my mind, he is a titan of sorts. He has enriched me incredibly on the understanding of the vicissitudes of Vietnam; he has helped me tremendously in conveying the story of the young American soldier in Vietnam; he has judiciously and selflessly come to western Pennsylvania yearly to interact and educate the students of our region; and he has been adopted into the “faculty” of Chartiers Valley High School.
He is a curmudgeon, I must admit. He is ornery and smokes too much. He does not eat well and he is stubborn. His basic nutrition is coffee. He angers me because I want him to prolong his life because he is such a valuable ‘piece of history’ and I feel that he and I have a lot of tread left on our tires. But he is Fred—a simple 19-year-old young man in 1967 from a blue-collar town and family who enlisted in the United States Army because he did not see college as his future and figured that since he would be drafted that he might as well enlist because his country was fighting a war in Asia against the communists and the prevailing belief was that the Soviet Union wanted to spread its way of life to American shores. He answered the call and was thrown into a severe event that dramatically changed his life. He did not choose to be at My Lai 4 on March 16, 1968. But, via his unpredictable experiences, he has chosen to dramatically affect the understanding of generations after him. Fred has paid forward.
Note: Fred Widmer passes away on August 11, 2016 at the age of 68.