---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 12 Mar 2002 14:28:29 -0800
From: radtimes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Lessons From My Lai On Drawing The Line
The Choices Made
LESSONS FROM MY LAI ON DRAWING THE LINE
BY PAULA BOCK
Thirty-four years ago this coming Saturday, more than 500 unarmed women,
children and old men were raped, mutilated and killed by American soldiers
on a rampage in the Vietnamese hamlet known as My Lai.
The massacre was stopped when a 24-year-old American helicopter pilot
landed in the line of fire between the U.S. troops and Vietnamese
civilians. While his 20-year-old crew chief and 18-year-old gunner covered
his back, the pilot confronted one of the leaders of the massacre, then
evacuated 10 villagers from a bunker. The crew also rescued a child
clinging to his dead mother in a ditch.
When you are young, terrified, far from home and surrounded by craziness,
how do you hang onto your moral compass? How do you develop one in the
That's what we asked Lawrence Colburn, the helicopter gunner, who was born
in Coulee City, grew up on Whidbey Island and in Mount Vernon, and joined
the Army in 1966.
As American soldiers fight a war in Central Asia where boundaries and
enemies can be similarly unclear, Colburn, now 52, offers this advice to
young soldiers: "Beware of peer pressure that moves you in the wrong
This is Colburn's story, in his own words, distilled from recent
conversations with Pacific Northwest magazine writer Paula Bock.
From early on, Colburn says his parents instilled in their children a
strong sense of right and wrong. Here, Harry Colburn holds baby Colleen
after church on Easter Sunday on Whidbey Island. In front: Sheila, Mary and
Larry (about 4 years old).
I THINK FROM age 7, people know what's right and wrong. By 18, even under a
lot of stress, you know what the right thing is and you know what's wrong
and try to follow your heart and do what's right, no matter what the
I guess I was just a normal kid. Two elder sisters, one younger. They tell
me I was spoiled because I was the only boy, which could be true. I played
baseball and spent a lot of time fishing on the Skagit River, salmon and
steelhead. After my chores were done on Saturday, we'd ride our bikes down
to the sandbar and fish all day. Skiing was also a passion. Did some duck
My early memories are Whidbey Island, Deception Pass, the San Juan Islands.
My father was a civilian working for the Navy on Whidbey Island. He was an
engineer and he built runways. Before World War II, he worked on Grand
Coulee, so he knew concrete.
My parents moved to Mount Vernon to put us into Catholic school by fourth
grade, Immaculate Conception. I was an altar boy for four years; memorized
a lot of Latin.
My father was in France for 3 1/2 years. He landed on Normandy Beach five
days after D-Day. My mother said when he came back he was a different
person. He was that WWII stoic, very quiet, kept everything inside, a bit
of a loner. But he was a very moral man. I remember him telling me, before
Martin Luther King, Jr., said it: "You don't judge a man by the color of
his skin. You judge him by his heart." My father was tough but he was fair.
He had a very strong work ethic and my mother was strong, too, and always
home. We had an intact family.
I listened to the JFK speech in '61. I wasn't even a teenager. I remember
sitting in front of a black and white television set: "Ask not what your
country can do for you."
Maybe that was it. Or too many John Wayne movies. I felt obligated to
serve. My father passed away when I was 14. The only thing anybody told me
(it was the parish priest or one of my uncles): "Well, you're the man of
the family now."
What do men normally do? They go off to war.
It was small-town America, and young men tend to seek adventure. Do their
duty. I was a wild child after my father died; I didn't want to continue
that way and burden my mother too much.
I joined with a bunch of friends. It was a popular thing to do at the time.
Went to Fort Lewis for basic training, Fort Polk for advanced training,
Hawaii, then 16 days on a boat to Vietnam. I decided to volunteer for an
aviation company. It was extra money, combat pay plus flight pay.
We were an aerial scout unit, so we would fly tree top or below. We were
basically bait. "Please shoot at me so we can get the gunships or artillery
We were flying in an OH23. Crew chief on the left (Glenn Andreotta), gunner
on the right (me) and pilot in the middle (Hugh Thompson). You'd put on
body armor and helmet, carry an M60 machine gun on a bungee cord, find the
target and then get out of the way.
You felt full of adrenaline and invincible. But then, I can remember the
first time I saw an aircraft go down. They scrambled us to retrieve the
bodies. It was one of those monsoon days, we were losing light and we were
flying out there thinking we're probably next. Then it set in. This is not
high-school football, this is not a game. People die.
What happened to me and a lot of people: You start feeling a need to take
revenge. It can be motivating in a perverting sort of way. You become
filled with rage. That's what motivated those people in My Lai.
^Õ ^Õ ^Õ
AFTER THREE MONTHS in Vietnam, Charlie Company (Task Force Barker, 11th
Brigade, Americal Division), had suffered 28 casualties, including five
killed, and was down to 105 men. All the casualties were from mines, booby
traps and snipers rather than battles in which troops could clearly
identify an enemy. The day after a booby trap killed a popular sergeant,
Charlie Company was given orders to invade an area believed to be a North
Vietnamese stronghold. Though it is generally agreed commanders ordered
soldiers to destroy the villages and "neutralize" the area, there is
controversy over whether the directive included killing civilians. The U.S.
military's official report found that "from 16-19 March 1968, U.S. Army
troops massacred a large number of noncombatants in two hamlets of Son My
Village, Quang Ngai Province, Republic of Vietnam. The precise number of
Vietnamese killed cannot be determined but was at least 175 and may exceed
400." Later reports tallied 504.
^Õ ^Õ ^Õ
"Words cannot describe" how Colburn felt last year when he and pilot Hugh
Thompson, left, were reunited with the little boy they rescued 33 years
earlier. Do Hoa called the vets "Poppa" and bonded with Colburn's son, Connor.
WE WENT OUT at 7:30 in the morning. Village called My Lai 4. The military
referred to it as Pinkville. It was just another mission. Started out like
all of them.
I remember flying between two treelines. You could smell the jungle, the
fog rising up. It was a beautiful morning.
You know, we owned the day, they owned the night.
We flew over the village a couple times. I remember seeing the slicks, the
Hueys, bringing Charlie Company in. Our objective was to make sure the
perimeter was clear.
It was Saturday, which was market day. We saw a lot of people leaving the
village with empty containers and baskets, moving slowly, walking down this
road, probably like they did every Saturday morning for generations. We
went outside the hamlet and reconned around for 15 or 20 minutes and when
we came back, those people we saw on the road were still there, only they
were all dead. Women, children and older men.
Oh, the children. That's what struck all of us. It appeared to be automatic
weapons fire, small arms, from pretty close range. When a high-velocity
round hits a child, there's not a lot of mass there and yeah, it was
grotesque. Sure. Babies. Lying with their mothers and grandmothers. Baskets
That's when Mr. Thompson, we all, started trying to figure out what
happened. The last thing we wanted to admit to ourselves was that it was
our own men.
People had been herded up systematically, made to get down in this
irrigation ditch, and they were executed. We started marking some of the
bodies that were still alive with green smoke, (dropping smoke grenades
from the helicopter) so the medics on the ground could help them. We marked
this one woman who had chest wounds. She was moving one arm, feebly, asking
for help, so we marked her. Mr. Thompson backed up 20, 30 feet and hovered
there 10 feet off the ground because he saw a soldier coming over to her.
That was (Capt. Ernest) Medina. We pointed down to her. He kicked her,
stepped back and blew her away right in front of us. That's when we
simultaneously said something like: "You son of a bitch." Then we knew. The
mystery was solved. It was people from Charlie Company.
Mr. Thompson was determined to stop this. He landed and said to one of the
soldiers standing by the ditch, "What can we do to help these people out?"
The fellow said, "We can help them out of their misery."
Hugh said, "C'mon man."
The first time he saw another chopper go down, Colburn, far right,
realized, "This is not a game. People die."
As we lifted off, we heard automatic weapons fire. Glenn said, "My God,
he's firing into the ditch again." Wounded people were climbing out of the
ditch and they were shooting them. We checked other people we'd marked and
sure enough, they'd been finished off. It felt like by marking these
bodies, we were indirectly killing them ourselves.
They raped the women with M16s, bayonets. They sodomized children. They
decapitated people. They killed a monk, threw him down a well with hand
grenades. It was so obscene. They did everything but eat the people.
I didn't join the Army to do that sort of thing, even if they were
And God bless the men on the ground. We would have given our lives on any
day, any moment for them. Glenn did three weeks later; he was shot in the
head on a mission.
But just like in public life, you got a percentage of wackos. (At My Lai)
their leaders didn't stop them. We're talking about 30 guys led by
Commanders Lt. Stephen Brooks, Lt. William Calley and Capt. Medina. It was
extremely poor leadership. Instead of nipping it in the bud, they escalated
^Õ ^Õ ^Õ
WE SAW SOME people in a bunker. There was a squad coming their way. We
could see the kids peeking out, little kids with Prince Valiant haircuts,
black bangs, black pajamas and sandals.
Colburn, left, and Thompson return to meet the children of My Lai in 1998.
"He's the real hero," Colburn says of the pilot, who put his body in the
line of fire and confronted higher-ranking officers to save villagers.
Thompson landed again. Glenn and I got out of the aircraft, took out the
guns. Hugh walked over to this lieutenant (Brooks), and I could tell they
were in a shouting match. I thought they were going to get in a fist fight.
He told me later what they said:
Thompson: Let's get these people out of this bunker and get 'em out of here.
Brooks: We'll get 'em out with hand grenades.
Thompson: I can do better than that. Keep your people in place. My guns are
Hugh was outranked, so this was not good to do, but that's how committed he
was to stopping it.
He walked back to the aircraft. He said: "I'm going to go over and get them
out of the bunker myself. If the squad opens up on them, shoot 'em." And he
Glenn and I looked at each other. We looked at the GIs we were supposed to
protect, we looked at Thompson.
A million things were going through my mind. The first thing, I wanted no
one to think I was going to raise an M60 machine gun and draw on them. Or
they'd draw on us. I remember pointing my muzzle straight at the ground so
there'd be no mistake. We had a little staredown but I caught one guy's eye
and I kinda waved, thinking, hey, fellow American, and he waved back.
UPI / CORBIS-BETTMANN
Of the many involved in the My Lai massacre, Lt. William Calley was the
only man found guilty. The Army charged him with murdering 109 civilians
and sentenced him to life in prison with hard labor. Within three days,
President Nixon ordered him released from jail pending appeal. He was under
house arrest three years.
Hugh went to the entrance of this little earthen bunker and motioned for
the people to come out. It took a few minutes.
He kept his body in between Lt. Brooks and the people he'd gotten out of
the bunker, got them over to our aircraft, and got on the radio with his
buddy, the gunship pilot who was circling above: "Danny, do me a favor. Can
you come down here? Can you shuttle some of these people out of here before
they get killed?"
They landed. This is unheard of, to land a gunship and use it as a medivac.
Makes you a sitting duck. Breaks all kind of military rules. But Hugh had
thrown caution to the winds.
We passed over the ditch one more time and Glenn said: "I saw something
move." Hugh landed again and Glenn charged in there, mired above his knees
in what was once human beings. Maybe 175 people stacked three or four high.
He picked this little fellow up but couldn't get out of the ditch because
it was hard to get footing so he handed the child up to me and I grabbed
him by the back of his shirt. I remember thinking: I hope the buttons are
sewn on well because they're going to have to support his weight.
The child sat on my lap, limp. He had that blank thousand-yard stare. I
couldn't even make him blink. He was in severe shock. He had no broken
bones, no bullet holes, but he was completely drenched in blood. When Glenn
picked him up, he was still clinging to his dead mother. We flew the little
person to Quang Ngai hospital, an orphanage. A Catholic nun came out in her
habit. Hugh took him and gave him to the nun. "Sister, I don't know what
you're going to do with him. I don't think he's got any parents."
We left him there and flew away.
For 30 years, I prayed he was only 4 or 5 so he wouldn't remember, but when
I met him (in 2001), I found out he was 8 and he remembers everything. You
talk about someone to admire. This little boy stayed at the hospital for
two days, then, on his own, left and went 10 miles through the jungle to
his village to make sure his parents were buried properly.
^Õ ^Õ ^Õ
ONLY 10 percent of men who go to war actually feel the sting. Most men are
in support. Other combat veterans know exactly what I mean. Unless you saw
it, smelled it, lived it, you're not capable of understanding.
Thirty years after the My Lai massacre, in front of the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial wall, the Army awarded Soldier's Medals to Thompson, center, and
Colburn, right, for "heroic performance in saving the lives of at least 10
Vietnamese civilians during the unlawful massacre of noncombatants by
Everyone has a breaking point. (Varnado Simpson, a veteran from Charlie
Company who was wracked with remorse after the massacre and eventually
committed suicide) talked about how once you start killing, it just got
easier and easier, the training just kicks in.
Part of you has to be free. You can't be owned by the military. Every time
I had to take someone down, it was never easy. The gun company I was in had
an unwritten code: Before you make a kill, they better be trying to kill
you. To capture a weapon after a kill was important to us. Go get their
weapon so it's not picked up by another person and used against you. You
can almost justify in your own mind: I had to do this and here is something
tangible to prove it.
How many people did you take down?
That's kind of a personal question. (Long pause.) We used to have to keep
track on a chalkboard, so I do know . . . Too many. I remember one man
carrying an AK who broke from a crowd of people and ran and there was a
boy, probably his son, that followed him. And they were so close together.
I didn't want to kill the boy. But they were both shot. There are certain
kills I wish went differently.
There were those who lived by a different code. Shoot first and ask
questions later. They were in the field. They didn't get to fly into the
sunset and sleep in a bed. They had to spend the nights out there when the
VC came alive and had to go on night mission and set up ambushes. I don't
know if I could have made it a year in the field.
But My Lai didn't happen at night. They didn't capture any weapons or kill
any draft-age males. Also, remember, there were people in Charlie Company
who threw down their weapons. They didn't take part, but did they try to
stop it? No. Because they have to live with their squad leader, platoon
leader and all the men around them for their tour.
I pray that we will evolve. That's what Hugh Thompson did. He tried to take
us one step up the evolutionary ladder.
I think we're capable, but I think it's going to take another 10,000 years
^× if we can keep from blowing ourselves to smithereens.
(Colburn says the deployment of troops to Afghanistan has set off inner
I despise war. I want that to come across, but then again, I don't want to
sound like I'm un-American. If this country were in trouble, I can still
peel potatoes. I can still fly. If I had a chance to serve and protect my
country, I would. But to get involved in another civil war in another
country ^× a culture we don't understand?
Did we learn anything from Vietnam? People were waving flags when we
started sending men to Southeast Asia and when thousands of body bags
started coming home, the flag waving stopped. I fear for the safety of our
young men and women. The last thing I want to see is another Vietnam. The
politicians have to play politics, we have to protect our oil interests and
life goes on. That would be war, and here we go again. Only this could be
much, much bigger. It could be in more than one country. It could last for
a hundred years. These people we're dealing with know what they're doing.
They've been planning for years and we've been infiltrated as well. We have
to dig out of a pretty deep hole right now. I'm very concerned we will do
something stupid out of revenge that we'll regret for generations.
^Õ ^Õ ^Õ
IT'S A MUCH BETTER feeling to save a life than it is to take one. When I
held that little boy and we took him out of there, it was worth everything.
Looking back, comparing notes with other vets, I'm sure we did go through
different stages of anger, denial, trying to make it go away. The best
advice I got was from a professor at Emory (University), making comparisons
with the Holocaust. He said, "Larry, you can't make it go away. You will
take it to your graveside. What you need to do is turn it around into
For 30 years, Colburn prayed the little boy he rescued was too young to
remember the massacre. When they met in 2001, Do Hoa described everything.
Now 42, he assembles electronics in Ho Chi Minh City for $40 a month. "The
clock is ticking!" Colburn says. "I want him to find a wife and have a baby
of his own. He wants to be a dad."
We've been working with the Madison Friends (Quakers in Wisconsin). We
dedicated an elementary school in My Lai. We're to taking donations for a
modest home for Do Hoa (the rescued boy). I've done some speaking in high
schools, colleges, military institutions, and we've worked with the
International Red Cross.
I see my boy reaching 10 years old, becoming an individual, doing things on
his own. Just being there is important. Enjoying family activities as long
as you can hold onto them. Support them and also give them a certain amount
of freedom. As a parent, you watch this little boy who's going to play
bang-bang and want the little green Army men. You can't take that from a
child because it's part of his growing up.
Once he was playing battle with little plastic men and I stopped him and
said, "You know, that's kinda sad. And he said, 'No, Dad. I'm going to save
these people over here.' And I thought, Well, OK!"
I guess we'll see 10 years from now what happens with him. What they're
going to do later on in life, you won't know.
Of the many involved in the My Lai massacre, William Calley was the only
man the Army found guilty. In 1970, he was convicted of murdering at least
22 and sentenced to life in prison. Within three days, President Nixon
ordered his release from jail pending appeal. He lived three years under
house arrest, then toured the college lecture circuit and married the
daughter of a Georgia jewelry-store owner. He still works at the store.
Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot, served for 13 years after Vietnam and
now counsels veterans for Louisiana's Dept. of Veterans Affairs. In 1998,
after a BBC documentary and book ("Four Hours in My Lai" by Michael Bilton
and Kevin Sim) spurred a letter-writing campaign, he was given the
Soldier's Medal, the highest award for bravery not involving enemy
conflict. He agreed to accept if Andreotta and Colburn also received medals.
Lawrence Colburn owns a medical-supply company outside Atlanta, where he
lives with his wife and son.
Glenn Andreotta is honored on panel 48E of the Vietnam Wall.
Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter.
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