In 1969 Lawrence Colburn quietly became known as one of three U.S. soldiers who helped stop the 1968 My Lai massacre, widely considered one of the darkest moments of the Vietnam War. On March 16 of that year, the men of Charlie Company, among them patrol leader Lieutenant William Calley, opened fire on about 500 civilians, many of them women and children, during a “search and destroy” mission. The next year the world would discover that it was pilot Hugh Thompson, 24, who landed his helicopter between the soldiers and civilians to stop the massacre. Thompson ordered his gunners—Colburn, then 19, and Glenn Andreotta, 20—to fire on U.S. soldiers if they continued the rampage. Meanwhile, Thompson rescued about a dozen civilians inside a bunker and airlifted them to safety with the help of two nearby helicopter gunships. The three soldiers ultimately were awarded the Soldier’s Medal, but Colburn, 58, is the only survivor among them.
Q: Have you ever thought about what the motivation was of the men who participated in the massacre?
A: Oh sure, I’ve tried to put myself in their position many, many times. I’ve always wondered, “Would I have been one of them that splintered off?” I like to think I wouldn’t—because about 170 men, about one-third of them, took part in the raping, the butchery, and sodomy. I did have this thought recently: When Hugh landed our aircraft between the troops and the people in the bunker, he left the aircraft on flight-idle—the rotor blades were turning. I think he did that on purpose—not only because that was our ride out of there, it’s like the getaway, keep it running—but it was more intimidating, with the blades turning. I think one of the reasons the [military] people on the ground didn’t do anything when Hugh made his move over to get those people out of the bunker is that Hugh didn’t even take a weapon with him. I think they were gobsmacked. Here’s this pilot, unarmed, walking over and sticking his head into a bunker and they must have just thought: “This should be good, watch this guy get his head blown off.” Because anything could have been in that bunker. He didn’t know. But somehow he did know. That they were just innocents. And sure enough: We thought they were just two or three people; it was almost comical, out came 6, 7, 10, 11—so there were about a dozen people jammed into this little bunker. So we had to call out a gunship; then he thought, “I’m in a three-seat helicopter, all the seats are taken, how am I going to shuttle these people out of here now that I have them out of the bunker?” It was unheard of to use a gunship as a medevac. But one of his friends was flying low-gun that day, and he took two loads [of Vietnamese civilians] and dropped them 2 to 3 miles down the road and just got them out of there.
Q: Did you ever think about how fate brought you to that place?
A: Oh, sure. I’ve thought about that. I remember when Hugh landed in between the squad of Americans and the people that were coming from the bunker. He came to the aircraft and told Andreotta and myself, “If they fire on me or these people as I’m getting them out of the bunker, shoot ’em.” Then he walked away, and Glenn and I were standing there and I remember the first thing I thought of: my mother. [Laughs] “Ma, how did I get into this? How am I going to get out of this?” But I thought, I don’t want to die this way.
Q: Did you think you were going to die?
A: First of all I felt like life can’t be that cruel, but I was 18, so what did I know? I felt protected somehow because I knew what we were doing was right. If I did die doing it, I would have been okay with that. Because it was so obviously wrong what was going on.
Q: And what about the little boy you saved? You went back years later and a film crew found him.
A: We quizzed him to make sure it was the right person—and he said, “This guy picked me up. He came over to me and I thought he was going to kill me, and I was holding onto my mother and he picked me up and then he put me down and then he picked me up again and then he put me down.” And it’s true; he picked up and set him down about two or three times because he was checking other people on the way out because Glenn was trying to see if he could save them. And only the boy would know that. [Long sigh]
Q: What did he say to you when you first met up with him as an adult?
A: Well, he didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Vietnamese; he just clung to us for three days. He just held onto us. Called us “Poppa.”
Q: Have you heard anything of Calley and the rest?
A: Calley retired out of Columbus, Georgia. I can’t imagine what it’s been like being inside his head for the last 40 years. I’m sure he’s had his personal hell. I’ve had people suggest someone invite Calley to go back to Vietnam. Because we were asked this when we were over there, and they’d talk to us about what we did. And they asked, “But why didn’t the people who committed these atrocities come with you, and ask for forgiveness so we could forgive them?”