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WRITTEN BY PAULA BOCK
|The Choices Made
LESSONS FROM MY LAI ON DRAWING THE LINE
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 first place?
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 direction."
This is Colburn's story, in his own words, distilled from recent conversations with Pacific Northwest magazine writer Paula Bock.
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 hunting, too.
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.
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 on you."
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.
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.
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 right there.
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."
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 sympathizers.
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 it.
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.
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 on you.
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 walked away.
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.
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.
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.
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 warning bells.)
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.
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 something positive."
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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