The Americans Who Stopped My Lai
I Wasn't Taught to Murder and Kill
May 30-June 5, 2001
In view of the conflicting accounts of Bob Kerrey's Raiders allegedly
killing unarmed civilians in Vietnam, CBS News' 60 Minutes rebroadcast, on
May 6, a March 1998 program titled "Back to My Lai."
Mike Wallace went back to Vietnam with gunner Larry Colburn and pilot Hugh
Thompson, who, in a helicopter over My Lai in 1968, saw the massacre of
civilians by american troops, and landing, threatened to open fire on those
GIs to prevent any further murders. A third soldier, Glenn Andreotta, was
also with them but was killed three weeks later.
The leader of those war crimes on the ground was Lieutenant William
Calleylater convicted and sentenced to life in prison after Thompson and
Colburn testified against him. After only three days in the stockade,
Calley was placed under house arrest by President Nixon, who paroled him
three years later. But, Mike Wallace recalled, "around the country, many
Americans treated him like a hero."
Wallace described, on-camera, what was happening before Thompson and
Colburn intervened. The American troops, "who'd been told My Lai was an
empty stronghold . . . burned down huts with their Zippo lighters." They
marched 170 people into a ditchwomen, old men, babiesand "gunned them down
in cold blood."
As Colburn said, "There were no weapons captured. . . . They were civilians."
The Army tried to cover up My Lai, but Sy Hersh broke the story.
On returning to My Lai in 1998, Hugh Thompson was approached by a woman who
had been dumped into that ditch and survived, shielded by the bodies of the
dying and the dead. She asked Thompson why he was different from those
Thompsonwho had a sidearm during the massacre, but took a chance and didn't
draw it when he ordered the soldiers to stop the killingsaid to the
survivor: "I saved the people because I wasn't taught to murder and kill."
This year, after the story broke about what happened under Bob Kerrey's
command in the village of Thanh Phong, Hugh Thompson appeared on the
O'Reilly Factor on the Fox News Network.
Bill O'Reilly asked Thompson: "What went through your mind when you saw
what was happening on the ground at My Lai?"
"Hitler," Thompson said.
But, with regard to Kerrey's Seven SEALs, couldn't Thompson understand why,
under such stress and fear, these soldiers, in the dark in a free-fire
zone, would have snapped?
"Yes," Thompson answered, "without proper leadership."
In 1998, when Thompson and Colburn were back at My Lai, Mike Wallace asked
Colburn, "Why did it happen? Why did these guys lose it?"
"I think," said Colburn, "they had some inept, incompetent leaders on the
ground that day." He added: "There's a big difference between killing in
war and murder, cold-blooded murder."
My Lai was clearly a war crime. But what about the civilians killed by
Kerrey's Raiders? Answering that question posed by Bill O'Reilly this year,
Hugh Thompson referred to the one member of Kerrey's team, Gerhard Klann,
who says that in the village of Thanh Phong, he and the rest of Kerrey's
Raiders also slaughtered civilianssome 15 women and children (last week I
erred in saying they were only children).
"If Gerhard Klann's story of what happened at Thanh Phong is true," Hugh
Thompson said, "that is no way to treat prisoners of war. It would be a war
crime." For his own role in stopping a war crime, Thompson received death
threats from veterans who didn't want the story told.
On the night of 60 Minutes' rebroadcast of "Back to My Lai," Andy Rooney,
who still believes Kerrey is a hero because he "risked his life for his
country in Vietnam," nonetheless honestly admitted that when Dan Rather
interviewed Kerrey on the May 1 60 Minutes II, "I was on Kerrey's side, but
it didn't seem to me he was always telling the whole truth."
It didn't seem that way to me either. And it was clear to me that Gerhard
Klann was telling the truth. Not only the way he looked throughout his
testimony, but the fact that he was voluntarily incriminating himself as a
participant in an atrocity that may well have been a war crime.
But five of the Kerrey Raiders, after years of silence, did sign a
statement supporting Kerrey's accountand not Klann's.
On April 30, the New York Post reported that Kerrey had those five members
transported to New York "from all over the United States."
The five SEALs on that raid (along with staffers from "a PR agency . . .
doing damage control for Kerrey") were put up, said the Post, at an East
Side hotel. Later, at Kerrey's home, "the group met until 2 a.m., thrashing
out a consensus of what they say happened" that night in 1969.
"By late Saturday afternoon [before the Times and 60 Minutes stories
broke], Kerrey was emboldened," the Post continued, "to claim that sections
of the media were involved in a conspiracy against him."
Kerrey's exact words to the Associated Press:
"The Vietnamese government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans
were. The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort." That sure
sounds like a public relations press release. The high-powered PR star,
John Scanlon, who died suddenly of a heart attack recently, told a friend
that he was "giving advice" to Kerrey.
The May 7 Time magazine also reported that on April 27, the five Navy SEALs
"dined at Kerrey's house and talked the raid over for the very first time."
The next evening, they issued "a statement of facts."
It should be noted that Gerhard Klann, who works in a steel mill in Butler,
Pennsylvania, could not have afforded a public relations adviser. The
gathering of the five Kerrey's Raiders, and their subsequent unanimous
statement affirming their leader's story, reminded me of New York City's
48-hour rule, by which whenever one or more cops are accused of a
particularly brutal action, they're given 48 hours during which they don't
have to speak to anyoneincluding Internal Affairs investigators from the
That grace period allows the accused to orchestrate a common explanation of
what they will say happened.
It doesn't look as if the Pentagon will investigate what did happen that
night in Thanh Phong. But I believe the report of the Seventh SEAL.
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