03/16/2011 04:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Accidental Fire

If there was ever an insidious oxymoron, it's "friendly fire." The practice of inadvertently killing your own soldiers goes way back, at least to the War of the Roses in 1461 when Lancastrian archers, firing into a snowy blizzard against the Yorkists, reportedly watched aghast as their arrows fell back in the wrong direction. But it took the U.S. military to come up with an innocuous-sounding phrase to try to whitewash the thing.

I thought of this while watching The Tillman Story, the documentary about Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan. What upset his mother, Mary, was not just that he was killed by his fellow troops but that the Army concocted an elaborate cover story to make it seem he was a hero cut down by enemy fire.

At the time, I was researching the death of my own father, Barney Darnton, a war correspondent for The New York Times, who died off the coast of New Guinea in October, 1942. He was killed when the troop ship he was on was bombed by an unidentified aircraft -- "Jap or our?" he scribbled in his notebook moments earlier -- that turned out to be an American B-25. General Douglas MacArthur was loath to release any details of the incident. In an otherwise stirring tribute to my father, he called the death "accidental" and let it go at that. As the mother of another American soldier killed in the attack wrote plaintively to my mother, desperate for details of what happened, "An accident can mean anything. Falling out of a tree is an accident."

My mother quickly learned from private sources -- other war correspondents -- that it had been a case of friendly fire. She didn't press for many more details and she especially didn't care to know the identity of the pilot who did the bombing. "I only want him to be comforted and to realize that mistakes are as much a hazard of war as direct enemy action," she wrote back to the other mother, Mary Fahnestock.

At the time it made sense to keep the story of the attack under wraps, at least for a few weeks, because the force my father was covering was massing on the north shore of New Guinea for a surprise attack on Buna, the first ground assault in MacArthur's island-hopping campaign to roll the Japanese back to Tokyo. No reporter would have been foolish enough to try to get that kind of sensitive information into print. But that rationale evaporated once the offensive was underway and still the story remained untold. MacArthur's heavy-handed censors were notorious for cutting out any bit of news that hinted that his organization was less than perfect. It would have been embarrassing to admit that the great campaign was kicked off with a self-inflicted wound.

Curiously, the paper for which my father worked, the Times, slipped into the same mode of thinking. To my amazement, I discovered that even after the war was over, the Times (for which I went to work years later) suppressed the true story. In March, 1947, a reporter named Anthony Leviero filed a story with a lead saying that Barney Darnton "was killed in a pitched battle between American ground and Air Forces ... in perhaps the first of a number of tragic incidents during the war in which American aircraft mistakenly attacked our own troops."

The Times killed the story. Why? Years later, in a private memo to the publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the managing editor, Edwin L. James, explained: "The story was not used on the ground it would not do any good." So for decades readers of the paper of record, had they had any reason to follow the case closely, would have known only that some sort of "accident" had occurred.

Why are the authorities, military and otherwise, so cowardly when it comes to admitting that sometimes mortars land in the wrong places and sometimes helicopter gunships shoot the wrong hillside? Oddly enough, judging from my own limited experience, relatives of the deceased, like Mary Tillman and my mother, appear to understand that such tragedies can happen in "the fog of war." What upsets them is the unwillingness to own up to them. The military authorities undoubtedly say that if the truth were known, that would somehow render the deaths "meaningless." That's a canard. The deaths are meaningful -- nothing can make them otherwise. And when the truth is suppressed, the relatives tend to believe that the higher-ups are simply covering up some vast organizational snafu that will reflect badly on themselves.

In my research, I found some other interesting things. There was, for example, no official record of the name of the pilot or the aircraft that bombed my father's ship. In the mission records of the day, the crews sometimes recorded incidents in which they had been fired upon by our own ground forces but almost never when it happened the other way around. But the Internet is an astounding instrument for vacuuming up information. Eventually, I was able, through a network of connections, to find out the name of the plane and the identity of the pilot; to read the unpublished journal of an Australian "spotter" who witnessed the attack from land; to interview a soldier who wrapped my father's body in a blanket to take it to shore, and even to talk to a 70-year-old Papuan who had seen the bombs fall as a six-year-old boy on the way to school. I tried telephoning the pilot; somewhat to my relief, he had passed away a few years earlier.

I don't know what I would have said to him, but I certainly wouldn't have blamed him. Like others affected by these wartime deaths, I realize that intentionality is all -- if he did not mean for it to happen, and if he had behaved responsibly, he should not be held accountable. It's high time to let some daylight in upon the inescapable phenomenon of "friendly fire." And we could perhaps begin by changing its name.

John Darnton's memoir, Almost a Family, has just been published by Alfred A. Knopf.