My Lai Soldier: Apology Could Answer Survivors William Calley remained silent for 40 years about his role in the My Lai massacre, one of the worst atrocities in the history of American warfare. His apology last week may not be too late, says Lawrence Colburn, an American soldier honored for trying to stop the tragedy.
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My Lai Soldier: Apology Could Answer Survivors

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My Lai Soldier: Apology Could Answer Survivors

My Lai Soldier: Apology Could Answer Survivors

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Unidentified Man: It was early in 1968 that a company of American troops swept through the hamlet of My Lai and left behind nothing but ruins. The leader of the first platoon of the company involved, First Lieutenant William Calley, was accused of 102 murders.

RAZ: The My Lai Massacre was one of the worst atrocities in modern American warfare, and for more than 40 years, William Calley remained silent about his role in it. He was the only U.S. officer convicted in the attack on that Vietnamese village that left hundreds of unarmed civilians dead.

Calley was given a life sentence, but after three years, President Richard Nixon had it commuted. Last week, William Calley spoke publicly for the first time about My Lai. At a Kiwanis Club meeting in Columbus, Georgia, he said, quote, "not a day goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened."

Three American soldiers were honored by the U.S. Army for helping to stop the massacre. They were part of a helicopter crew that landed between a group of Vietnamese civilians and U.S. troops who were preparing to fire on them. Two of those American soldiers are no longer alive, pilot Hugh Thompson and crew chief Glenn Andreotta. The gunner on that helicopter was Lawrence Colburn. I spoke with him from the studios of member station WABE in Atlanta, and I asked him whether William Calley's apology comes too late.

Mr. LAWRENCE COLBURN: It depends upon what he does from this point forward. If he would somehow be able to make the trip back to My Lai and face the survivors and apologize there face-to-face, it would be a healthy thing for him to do.

RAZ: Take us back to that day. You were in a helicopter flying over the village of My Lai. When did you realize something wasn't right?

Mr. COLBURN: We were on station first thing in the morning before the insertion of the ground troops, and we were there to provide air support and reconnaissance for the men on the ground, and we did that. We reconned the area before they came in.

It was relatively quiet. And when we came back into the immediate area of the village, the people we saw leaving earlier were leaving on this main road, which we thought was a good idea that they get out of the area. But when we came back into the village area, they were still on the road, but they were dead or dying, mainly women, children, elders. That's when we knew something was amiss.

RAZ: At one point, Hugh Thompson, the pilot, told you to prepare to fire on your fellow American soldiers in order to prevent a massacre of civilians. Were you prepared to do that?

Mr. COLBURN: Well, Mr. Thompson tried everything he could to stop what was going on on the ground. We realized it was our people when we saw a captain shoot a woman that we'd marked with smoke, hoping she'd receive medical attention.

RAZ: This is a woman who was injured that you had marked.

Mr. COLBURN: It was a chest wound, yes, and she was still alive. We marked numerous bodies, thinking we were helping them in some way, but indirectly, we were killing them because we gave up their position, and then the soldiers on the ground would not administer medical attention. They'd kill them. And when we saw a captain do it right in front of our face, that's when we knew that it was our people that were committing these atrocities.

RAZ: I want to put your actions into context here. I mean, American GIs were constantly being ambushed in Vietnam, often tricked into thinking they were approaching civilian areas that actually were Viet Cong hideouts. So I imagine that what you did and the fact that you reported this massacre to your superior officers wasn't popular with some of your fellow soldiers at the time.

Mr. COLBURN: I know Mr. Thompson experienced some grief for reporting it up the chain of command, but it was our responsibility to do that. Personally, the people I worked with understood what happened that day. They knew the truth. So they didn't pass judgment on Mr. Thompson, Glen Andreotta or myself.

RAZ: Lawrence Colburn, I understand you have visited My Lai several times over the years, most recently last year. How do you think the survivors in My Lai would feel about Mr. Calley's apology?

Mr. COLBURN: On more than one occasion, when Mr. Thompson and I traveled back to Quang Ngai Province, we met with the survivors. And after thanking us for what we did, they wanted to know why the people who committed the atrocities didn't come with us in order to ask for forgiveness so that they could be forgiven.

Mr. Thompson always had a hard time wrapping his head around that. He couldn't understand how these people that were so directly violated could forgive the people that killed their family members.

RAZ: And they would forgive William Calley? I mean, hundreds of people were killed at My Lai. It's considered one of the worst atrocities committed by U.S. troops in the history of American warfare. They would forgive him?

Mr. COLBURN: I think it's an opportunity for Lieutenant Calley to go face the survivors and answer the questions that they asked us that we couldn't really answer. If he's truly remorseful, it's an opportunity for him to seek that forgiveness, and chances are, he will be forgiven.

RAZ: Lawrence Colburn was awarded a Bronze Star and the Soldier's Medal, the Army's highest honor for bravery not involving combat, for his role in saving civilians during the My Lai Massacre in 1968.

Mr. Colburn, thank you for being with us.

Mr. COLBURN: Thank you.

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