Larry Colburn: The last ‘hero’ of My Lai
On March 16, 1968, a group of U.S. infantrymen let loose a four-hour rampage of torture, rape and murder, turning 504 or more terrified Vietnamese women, children, babies and old men into corpses.
Spc. 4 Larry Colburn was there. The 18-year-old door gunner, part of a three-man crew of an OH-23 Raven helicopter, watched from above in horror and confusion.
Then the pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr., crew chief Spc. 4 Glenn Andreotta and Colburn acted.
They repeatedly landed the helicopter, pulled a living little boy from a ditch filled with the dead, and confronted their fellow troops and higher-ranking officers at the point of machine guns to save others. Their intervention ended the massacre in My Lai in the Quang Ngai province of South Vietnam.
Three weeks later, Andreotta, 20, died in combat.
Thompson and Colburn were called traitors. Decades later they were lauded as heroes. Either way, My Lai never left them alone.
“It took a huge chunk out of our lives,” Colburn said in an interview last year with Stars and Stripes. “We felt terrible we didn’t intervene sooner, that we couldn’t do more. We completely took the word ‘hero’ out of our vocabularies.”
Thompson died of cancer at 62 in 2006.
Colburn started a foundation in Thompson’s name, and continued with speaking engagements and interviews that he and Thompson had shared after history’s revision. It always took an emotional toll, Colburn said, and he wasn’t convinced it did much good.
“In My Lai, gallons of tears were shed,” he said. “I’ve been telling it for 47 years now. It’s hard to do it alone. And I can’t tell you how much I miss Mr. Thompson.”
Colburn died of cancer Dec. 13 at his home near Atlanta, Ga. He was 67. Now there’s no one left except historians and journalists to tell it.
The heroes The story of My Lai (pronounced “me lie”), the most infamous atrocity of the Vietnam War, is an unrelievedly ugly one.
The massacre, by Company C of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division, was trumpeted initially as a great victory over Vietcong soldiers. High-ranking officers, up to the division commander and beyond, covered up the truth for more than a year.
But amid the brutality, cowardice and lies of a hundred men or more was an example of boldness, bravery and integrity, the highest martial values.
“My Lai has two main actors, as most Shakespearean tragedies do. There’s a villain and a hero,” said William Eckhardt, chief prosecutor in the My Lai courts-martial, now University of Missouri law professor.
Most people are familiar with the name of the villain: Lt. William Calley. He was the sole soldier convicted of a crime at court-martial.
Lesser known are Thompson and his crew, Andreotta and Colburn.
First confused by what he saw that day, then furious, Thompson landed repeatedly on the killing fields to confront and defy higher-ranking officers. He personally saved a dozen people, then reported what he’d seen up the chain of command, ending the operation.
Later, over the course of two years of hearings on My Lai, Thompson told the truth “despite peer pressure, ostracism, threats of prosecution and a nationally televised congressional browbeating,” according to Eckhardt.
“What he did was extraordinary,” Colburn said. “And boy, he paid a price for it the rest of his life.”
Late-night callers made threats on Thompson’s life. Dead animals were left on his doorstep. A powerful congressman tried to have him court-martialed.
“He was shunned. He’d walk into a bar, everyone would leave,” Eckhardt said.
“It broke Hugh’s heart. It really did,” Colburn said. “And the military was so blind. Here they had an example of the highest military integrity and they didn’t know what to do with it. Instead, they degraded him and assassinated his character.”
No enemy Thompson, with the 123rd Aviation Battalion, was tasked that day with flying his helicopter low over the village to draw fire, pinpointing the enemy for gunships to destroy. But there was no enemy fire; there were no enemy fighters.
As they flew over the village, Thompson and his crew instead saw piles of dead civilians and livestock. Was it from artillery fire, they wondered? Then a captain walked over to a wounded woman Thompson had flown over and marked with green smoke to signify she was no threat and needed medical attention.
Hovering 10 feet above the ground, they watched a man they testified was Capt. Ernest Medina nudge the woman with his foot, step back, and, with his rifle on full automatic, shoot her full of bullets.
“You son of a bitch!” they shouted.
They then saw an irrigation ditch filled with bodies, some still moving. Thompson landed and asked a sergeant and lieutenant if the soldiers would assist the wounded.
The sergeant replied that they could put them out of their misery.
“Quit joking around. Help them out,” Thompson said.
“OK, Chief, we’ll take care of it,” they said.
But as they lifted off, they heard automatic gunfire. “My God, they’re firing into the ditch!” Andreotta yelled.
Thompson saw more villagers peeking out from a bunker -- a tiny child holding his mother’s leg, an old man. He saw the infantry headed their way.
“I said, ‘They got about 15 seconds to live. Well, it ain’t going to happen again.’ So we landed,’’ Thompson said in a talk decades later at the U.S. Naval Academy, after his reputation had been restored.
“I told my crew chief and gunner, “You all cover me. If (the soldiers) open up, you open up.”
Thompson got out, walked over to the lieutenant and told him he wanted to evacuate the people in the bunker. The officer suggested tossing in a hand grenade.
“I said I thought I could do better, and I’ve already told my people to kill you if you open up.”
Asked last year whether he would have fired on fellow troops, Colburn paused.
“That’s always the $64,000 question,” he said. “If I knew then what I know now … something like 125 children under 5 were killed. If I’d seen that, yeah, I would have opened fire.”
Thompson, carrying only a holstered pistol, coaxed the people out of the bunker. There turned out to be about 10, nine more than he could fit inside his helicopter.
Keeping the civilians behind him, he got on the radio to his gunship.
“I said I got a little problem down here. I’d like for you to land and get these people out of this area.”
“OK, sure thing,’ the gunship pilot said.
Thompson and his crew waited until the civilians had been evacuated in a 10-minute standoff with the infantry troops.
It might have been the only time a gunship performed a humanitarian evacuation.
Search and destroy The infantry troops were on a search-and-destroy mission, misinformed by bad intelligence that My Lai would be full of enemy fighters and incited by recent heavy losses of troops to snipers, mines and booby traps. They were urged by commanders to be aggressive.
“Revenge would probably be the key word,” Colburn said.
Some soldiers said later that they’d understood their orders were to lay waste to the village, killing children and babies, because the villagers were Vietcong sympathizers. Officers denied it; no such written orders were ever found, although it was acknowledged that the troops were ordered to kill the livestock, burn the huts and poison the wells, and that there was no order addressing the safeguarding of civilians.
One soldier recalling the rampage on the PBS show “Frontline” 14 years later was blunt:
“I was personally responsible for killing between 20 to 25 people, about 25 people personally,” said Varnardo Simpson, who killed himself in 1997. “From shooting them to cutting their throats to scalping them to cutting off their hands and cutting out their tongue. I did that ... and I wasn’t the only one that did it, a lot of other people did it.”
No one reported what had happened, including Army photographer Sgt. Ron Haeberle and reporter Sgt. Jay Roberts. The headline in Stars and Stripes on March 18, 1968, reflected the first bit of misinformation, announcing, “U.S. Troops surround Reds, Kill 128,” and the story described the event as a battle between military forces.
‘I won’t do this’ After Thompson evacuated the bunker, he decided to make another pass over the gore-filled ditch, brimming with the dead and dying.
Andreotta saw a young boy he thought might still be alive, and Thompson set the helicopter down again.
“If there was a hero -- I don’t like that word, but if there was a hero at My Lai -- it was Glenn Andreotta,” Thompson said at the naval academy talk. “I wouldn’t want to go into that ditch … people grabbing hold of his pants, wanting help ... He found this one kid and brought the kid back up and handed it to Larry, and we laid it across Larry and my lap and took him out of there.”
They flew the boy to a hospital.
Thompson had reported over his radio that soldiers were massacring civilians. Now he said so in person.
“Went back to our base camp and was very angry, upset, hollering, screaming,” he recalled at the USNA. “I reported to my commander, and I said, “I’m not going to do this. You cannot make me fly. I can rip these wings off. I won’t do this.’ They settled me down, and then we reported on up the chain of command.”
What was supposed to be a several-day mission to hit several villages, and could have resulted in thousands more deaths, was called off.
“The cover-up started the same day,” Colburn said.
Thompson’s report was dealt with in cursory investigations that found nothing amiss.
Word of the atrocity reached official Washington a year later, in March 1969, in a registered letter to 30 military and congressional leaders. Ron Ridenhour, a helicopter door gunner who heard about My Lai from friends shortly after the massacre and had interviewed a number of the participants, sent the letter he labored over for months after he returned to the U.S. Ridenhour went on to become a prizewinning journalist and died of a heart attack at 52 in 1998. The Ridenhour Prizes, which recognize truth-telling to “protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society,” are named for him.
Ridenhour’s letter prompted an inspector general investigation that documented the massacre, along with rape and torture, and the cover-up. “Within the Americal Division, at every command level from company to division, actions were taken or omitted which together effectively concealed the ... incident,” the report by Lt. Gen. William Peers said. “Outside the division, advisory teams ... also contributed to this end.”
“Efforts ... deliberately to withhold information continue to this day,” the report said, pointing to six key officers who had elected to remain silent during the inquiry, withheld information or gave false and misleading testimony.
The public didn’t learn about My Lai until freelance reporter Seymour Hersh got wind of the massacre, interviewed Calley about the murder charges against him, talked with other troops who were there and broke the story in November 1969. About the same time, Life magazine published Haeberle’s graphic photos.
According to Eckhardt, the Army accused “some 30 individuals” with crimes connected to the massacre or the cover-up. Of those, 14 were officers, including Maj. Gen. Samuel Koster, who was Americal division commander at the time of the massacre. Charges were dropped in most cases. Of the few cases that proceeded to courts-martial, military juries acquitted everyone except Calley.
Colburn, who along with Thompson was repeatedly called to testify, was hardly surprised, he told Stars and Stripes.
During the court-martial of Medina, Colburn said he witnessed a general officer walk into the jury room and through the open door heard the general engage in jury tampering.
“He said, ‘Boy, it sure would be nice to find a way out of this for Ernie.’ ”
Although the Peers report said Medina had overseen his company’s unlawful killings and may have killed three unarmed civilians himself, Medina, now 80 and the resident of a Wisconsin nursing home, was acquitted at court-martial. The military jury deliberated for one hour.
“I knew these people were going to walk, that this was just window-dressing, that we were just going through the motions,” Colburn said.
Calley was convicted of mass murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Company C witnesses testified he had initiated the killing. Calley’s defense was that he was following orders, specifically from Medina.
“I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy. ... I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women and children. They were all classified as the same, and that’s the classification that we dealt with over there, just as the enemy,” Calley said in a statement at trial. Soldiers under his command recalled that after they refused to shoot a toddler who crawled out of a ditch and was running away, Calley did it himself.
Many Americans rallied to his side, saying that such killings -- which were by all reckoning heinous war crimes -- were merely an unfortunate part of war.
Jimmy Carter, for instance, then Georgia governor, urged citizens to drive with their lights on to protest Calley’s sentence and to “honor the flag as Rusty (Calley) had done.”
Others said he was a low-level scapegoat for the military’s attrition strategy in Vietnam, using body counts and kill ratios to measure success.
Calley’s sentence was reduced by the Army to 20 years, then 10 years. He served three years under house arrest at his apartment at Fort Benning, Ga., before being freed by a federal court judge in 1974. More than 40 years later, Calley made a brief apology for his role in My Lai. He resides in Atlanta.
Recognition comes Thompson and Colburn were awarded medals after the massacre, for aiding civilians “caught in a crossfire.” Thompson received the Distinguished Flying Cross. He threw it in the trash.
Colburn was awarded a Bronze Star.
“I read the citation and I thought, ‘Who made this up?’ ’’ he said.
But in the late 1980s, the British documentary “Four Hours in My Lai” appeared on PBS. David Egan, a former Army officer assigned to post-World War II France, who’d learned of Nazi atrocities there, saw disturbing parallels.
Thompson was featured in the documentary, and Egan, then a professor emeritus at Clemson University, was awed by what he’d done. He began a campaign to get Thompson the recognition he thought he deserved.
“The conservatives didn’t want to do it. The Clinton people didn’t want to do it,” Egan told Stars and Stripes. “It wasn’t a popular idea in the Pentagon. Probably less than 5 percent thought it was a good idea. They thought reopening it made America look bad, made the Army look bad.”
Egan persisted for a nearly a decade, until, despite setbacks and disillusionment with the military brass he’d once revered, he wore down all resistance. “To me, it seemed like they were fools. When we find someone like Hugh Thompson, we ought to recognize it,” Egan said.
On March 6, 1998, Thompson, Colburn and, posthumously, Andreotta, were awarded the Soldier’s Medal -- the highest award for bravery not involving conflict with enemy forces -- in a ceremony that Thompson insisted be carried out at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
That citation was more accurate:
“Warrant Officer Thompson landed his helicopter in the line of fire between fleeing Vietnamese civilians and pursuing American ground troops to prevent their murder. He then personally confronted the leader of the American ground troops and was prepared to open fire on those American troops should they fire upon the civilians. Warrant Officer Thompson, at the risk of his own personal safety, went forward of the American lines and coaxed the Vietnamese civilians out of the bunker to enable their evacuation. … Warrant Officer Thompson’s relayed radio reports of the massacre and subsequent report to his section leader and commander resulted in an order for the ceasefire at My Lai and an end to the killing of innocent civilians. Warrant Officer Thompson’s Heroism exemplifies the highest standards of personal courage and ethical conduct, reflecting distinct credit on him, and the United States Army.”
No regrets After that, Thompson and Colburn were often asked to speak at military academies; their story has been routinely included in ethics training.
Did he feel regret, Thompson was once asked.
“No, I never felt any sense of regret,” Thompson answered. “When I confronted the lieutenant and trained the weapons on him, I do remember thinking that you’re going to spend the rest of your life at Leavenworth, and to me, I guess it was worth it, because I went ahead and did it. It wasn’t something I planned to do. It was something I had to do.”
He credited his upbringing. His parents, he said, taught him, “Don’t be a bully and live by the golden rule.”
But he also described the disgust -- and responsibility -- he felt.
“They were hoodlums, renegades disguised as soldiers, and that’s what hurt me the most that day, because my job was to save their life.” Thompson said. “I bore part of the responsibility, and in fact, I was probably responsible for getting some of them [Vietnamese civilians] killed, because ... I’d bring attention to a wounded person (marking them for first aid), and the next thing I know, that person is dead. If I’d have kept my mouth shut, they might have missed them. … So I took a lot of guilt-trip feeling there, because these (killers) were my people, my fellow soldiers, my fellow Americans.”
“We’re the United States of America. We ride white horses, wear white hats. We’re the good guys,” Thompson said during one interview.
Thompson, who despised being called “sir,” was no pacifist, Colburn said. But he was consistently moral when it came to killing, even in a war that allowed free fire zones and demanded body counts.
“We never indiscriminately killed people,” Colburn said. “We had to have evidence to light them up. Hugh was a sticker on identifying targets,” he said. “A human life to him was sacred and worth protecting.”
The two traveled to Vietnam in 1998 and met with surviving villagers. Three years later they returned and met the boy they’d saved from the ditch, grown into a man with a family. That meant far more than any medal, Colburn said.
But the burden never went away.
Colburn once met with a VA psychiatrist who was unable to help beyond offering unwanted medications.
“You can’t understand. I don’t expect you to,” Colburn told the doctor. “If you could see the survivors from that ditch and hold their hands – then you’d know, then you’d know.”