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Vietnam vet shares massacre story at school

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Guest speaker Larry Colburn, a helicopter gunner during the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam in 1968 shares his first hand experiences with students at Wesleyan School in Norcross Thursday. Colburn, center, is accompanied on stage by Wesleyan's Dean of Students Ted Russell, left, and world history teacher Dennis Stromie, right,.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Guest speaker Larry Colburn, a helicopter gunner during the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam in 1968 shares his first hand experiences with students at Wesleyan School in Norcross Thursday. Colburn, center, is accompanied on stage by Wesleyan's Dean of Students Ted Russell, left, and world history teacher Dennis Stromie, right,.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Guest speaker Larry Colburn, a helicopter gunner during the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam in 1968 shares his first hand experiences with students at Wesleyan School in Norcross Thursday. Colburn accompanied helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson during the Vietnam War in 1968.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Guest speaker Larry Colburn, a helicopter gunner during the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam in 1968 shares his first hand experiences with students at Wesleyan School in Norcross Thursday. Colburn is accompanied on stage by Wesleyan's Dean of Students Ted Russell and world history teacher Dennis Stromie, right,.

PEACHTREE CORNERS -- "Baby killer" was a term Larry Colburn became accustomed to being called on his return from Vietnam in 1969.

After some of the atrocities committed by some U.S. soldiers, every service member returning from Vietnam heard the same words.

"We were baby killers when we came home," Colburn said. "Everyone assumed that about us."

For Colburn, that reality was all too real as he witnessed the My Lai Massacre first-hand in 1968. The massacre took the lives of between 347 and 504 -- numbers vary between sources -- unarmed civilians in the hamlets of My Lai and My Khe of Son My village.

It was his story that brought him to the Wesleyan School on Thursday to speak to hundreds of ninth- through 11th-graders about one of the greatest atrocities in U.S. military history.

"It was good to get perspective from someone who was actually there," ninth-grader Chase Kelly said. "Just hearing his thoughts on everything made you think."

On the morning of March 16, 1968, Company C of 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division entered the village as part of Task Force Barker in search for Viet Cong soldiers.

What ensued was a massacre as hundreds of men, women and children were killed in cold blood.

"There were no bodies of draft-age men recovered," Colburn said. "Just men, women and children. No weapons were recovered, either."

As the slaughter was going on, Colburn, his pilot Hugh Thompson Jr. and Glenn Andreotta decided to do something about it.

After witnessing an officer kick and shoot a woman at point-blank range, the group sprang into action. The officer later testified he thought the woman had a grenade on her.

Landing their helicopter on the ground -- next to a ditch full of bodies -- the group led by Thompson helped put a stop to the massacre, rescuing 10 civilians.

"Once we were committed to doing that, there was no fear for our safety," Colburn said. "What we did wasn't heroic. In fact, it was the most sane thing anyone could do."

Thompson went so far as to tell the other two that if the U.S. soldiers fired on him, they were to open fire on the soldiers.

"Would I have done it?" Colburn said. "I'll never know. Thankfully, it didn't escalate any further."

The group did rescue some civilians, leading them to helicopters in which they were taken out of danger from the soldiers.

After the rescue, Colburn and Thompson reported what they saw to higher-ups and wrote letters. However, the Army tried to cover up the incident.

"Stories came out that there were multiple VCs killed," Colburn said. "But there were none. They were all innocent people."

The Army awarded Thompson the Distinguished Flying Cross and the other two Bronze Star medals for their actions of rescuing a girl from "intense cross-fire," a fallacy according to Colburn.

"The most disturbing thing to me was the denial," Colburn said. "We kept telling the story because people needed to know what the truth was. I've never had the luxury of being able to forget about it because it's a story that needs to be told."

Although 26 soldiers were initially charged, only 2nd Lt. William Calley was convicted. He was given a life sentence, but President Richard Nixon commuted the sentence to three years of house arrest. Most of the others said "they were just following orders."

The incident at My Lai turned the tide of the war on the home front, as news of the truth slowly began to surface. Pretty soon, there was a peace movement aimed at ending the war and getting soldiers back home.

"We found comfort in the fact that our countrymen were trying to get us home," Colburn said. "That's the one thing that's missing for today's soldiers."

Colburn left the students with a bit of truth that resonated with nearly everyone in attendance.

"No matter the circumstances, you never know what kind of difference you can make," he said. "The key is, you have to be willing to pay a price for it."