It would be egregious in a world gone increasingly mad not to pause, as others are doing, at the passing of an American who did something extraordinary 49 years ago: He kept his head, as Rudyard Kipling would define manhood, while all those about him were losing theirs — in the worst possible ways.
In doing so, Larry Colburn and two other Americans, also now deceased, brought their nation honor on one of its darkest days, March 16, 1968. The human and historical importance of their interventions to current and future generations of Americans cannot be overstated.
Larry Colburn, an 18-year-old high school dropout from Coulee Dam, Washington, was the door gunner of a three-man helicopter crew assigned to support a ground operation against what was believed to be a 48th Viet Cong Battalion stronghold. It was in an area in South Vietnam’s Quảng Ngãi province that the U.S. Army called “Pinkville,” for its color on local maps.
The world would later know the spot, indelibly, as My Lai.
Soldiers from “Charlie Company,” Company C of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd Infantry Division, were instructed by their commanders, according to later testimony, that everyone in the village was “VC.” They were to fire on anything that moved.
Charlie Company had suffered more than two dozen casualties to enemy snipers and booby traps in the weeks leading up to My Lai; they were primed for a fight and they did what they were told. But the 48th Viet Cong Battalion was nowhere near My Lai that morning. It was miles away. The only people in the village were civilians, some of whom may have been VC sympathizers.
What ensued was a massacre of major proportions, an orgy of violence to which soldiers of no nation are ultimately immune when sufficiently rageful and insufficiently led. Once the killing started under direct orders from platoon commander Lt. William L. Calley, it didn’t stop. As many as 504 elderly men, women and children were killed that day. Many of the women and girls were first raped. The tug of mankind’s darkest instincts had taken hold of Americans this time.
Colburn’s chief warrant officer, Hugh Thompson Jr., was incredulous at what he was seeing from above. He asked Colburn and helicopter crew chief Glenn Andreotta if they were willing to join him in stopping the killing. They immediately agreed, landing their chopper as a buffer between more than 100 fleeing civilians and crazed U.S. infantrymen. Thompson told Colburn to shoot with his M-60 machine gun anyone who continued harming civilians. He fortunately didn’t have to. The trance was broken, and transport helicopters were called in by Thompson’s crew to evacuate surviving civilians to hospitals and safety.
First person accounts and photographic evidence rendered U.S. Army attempts to cover up what happened impossible, though not for lack of trying. In the end, Calley was convicted of murder in military court and given a life sentence. But an outpouring of public support — 79 percent of Americans disagreed with the verdict — convinced President Richard Nixon to reduce Calley’s sentence to house arrest, and to pardon him in 1974.
I still recall schoolyard arguments in grade school circa 1970 about how extreme combat conditions can cause madness and how civilian guerrilla fighting in the Vietnam countryside made everything fair game. No doubt there is truth in both of the statements. But the simple fact remained: Americans had committed war atrocities.
Thompson, Colburn and Andreotta give us something to cling onto as a nation in the aftermath of what happened. Had they not been over Pinkville that day, we would be left only with shame.
Glenn Andreotta, 20, was killed by ground fire while flying a mission less than a month after My Lai. Hugh Thompson died in Louisiana in 2006 at age 62. And last week, Larry Colburn died in Canton, Georgia, at age 67.
They need to be remembered.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.