Larry Colburn was a gunner in Hugh Thompson's helicopter along with Glenn Andreotta on March 16, 1968 at My Lai, Vietnam. Following Thompson's lead, the team was responsible for the rescue of several Vietnamese civilians during the massacre. Thompson was the first to communicate back to headquarters about the killing occurring on the ground. Upon returning from the mission, Thompson reported what he had seen and experienced to his superiors, causing them to begin an investigation. He urged Colburn to do the same. Two years later, Thompson and Colburn both testified at the Peers Inquiry.
Larry Colburn remained close with Hugh Thompson, who passed away in 2006. Learn more about Thompson from the Hugh Thompson Foundation website.
In his interview with AMERICAN EXPERIENCE in May 2009, Larry Colburn discussed Hugh Thompson, their role at My Lai, and how that day affected the rest of their lives.
What was your specific job inside the helicopters?
My job in a helicopter whether it was a [OH] 23 or a gunship, was to — I had the right-hand 180 degrees of that aircraft. I was a helicopter door gunner. I was there to protect the aircraft, the pilot and assist the men on the ground.
You had the machine gun?
Yes. An M-60 belt-fed machine gun hanging from a bungee cord — not a mounted gun.
And do you remember the first time you fired that gun in anger, and what that was like?
I remember the first time I saw a person try and shoot me. Flying low level and approaching spider holes in a dike, and I remember thinking, "If I were a Vietcong, I would be right there." And sure enough, as soon as we aligned ourselves with that hole, I saw a head come out of the hole and I saw a muzzle. I saw the person point the weapon at me and fire, and I got a couple of rounds off, my gun jammed, and I almost ended up in the pilot's lap. He was sitting directly to my left.
What did you need to be a pilot?
Pilots, I think, are notoriously thrill-seekers and they are willing to take chances. You have to be an effective pilot. You have to be able to some degree, put your own safety aside and to [do] whatever it takes to complete the mission.
Tell me about Hugh Thompson — what was he like?
The thing I’ll never forget about Hugh Thompson is his sense of humor, and his swagger and his southern charm. He was notorious in the gun company, because he was a character and a very, very good pilot.
What [sort] of character?
His background — he spent some time as an enlisted man in the Navy. And then he left the Navy, and went to flight school and became a warrant officer in the Army. So, he knew both sides. He knew what it was like to be enlisted and he was a junior officer I guess, a warrant officer pilot — W1. He used to call himself a Wobbly-One. So he knew both sides, and he had great communication skills, and all the enlisted fellas really liked him because he was one of the guys, unlike some officers who were rather aloof. We weren’t supposed to fraternize, but when you are working as part of a crew in close proximity on an aircraft, you bond and you become friends.
Tell me more about his swagger.
He had that John Wayne swagger going on — the way he walked, the way he talked, thick southern drawl. He was from Stone Mountain, Georgia. He went to high school there, wore a rebel flag on his flight helmet. He was just a character, and he loved to laugh.
[At] 24, did he have a sense of who he was?
[He had] self-confidence, yes. He was Cherokee. His father’s father walked the Trail of Tears, and he used to tell me about his childhood — much later, after Vietnam — and he said that his parents didn’t believe in double jeopardy. He said if he made a mistake or got in trouble at school, he’d go home and get it from his mother, and then when his father got home, he’d get it again. So he had a very strict upbringing.
He knew right from wrong.
Absolutely. He had a very profound feeling for what was right and what was wrong. He had very solid moral footing, if you will. And he had that blood of a warrior; he was a Cherokee.
How do those two things mix — on the one hand the sense of right and wrong, and on the other hand the blood of a warrior? What was he like in combat?
My idea of a warrior is, partly, to be honorable. In combat, he was ruthless when he needed to be, but he didn’t indiscriminately fire on people. There was a period of time when we were conducting snatch operations, and it was basically kidnapping draft-aged males if we saw them in the field. We’d take them on their first helicopter ride, and I remember one that [was] very difficult to forget.
We had a suspect that we were trying to chase down, and he just wouldn’t stop. And we were firing right in front of him, and he wouldn’t stop. He would turn around and laugh at us and keep running as if he thought it were a game. And Hugh had enough sense to realize that if this person was [mentally] challenged in some [way] — he didn’t understand that he could die at any second. And we chased him for ten, fifteen minutes, and it was hot and we were getting really frustrated and the aircraft was overheating, and we couldn’t keep doing this. So [Thompson] said, "who wants to take him?" And he was on my side of the aircraft, so I thought he meant take him down. And I was planning on hitting the suspect in the legs or something just to stop him so we could take him in for interrogation. I began to point my weapon at the suspect, and Mr. Thompson said, "No, no, no. Unload your gun, put it up in the bubble, take your seatbelt off, get out on the skids, and I’ll get real close to him and you tackle him." And I was 18, and I said, "Okay." We weren’t taking any fire — it was a relatively quiet operation.
And that became something that all the gunners and the crew chiefs wanted to do — they wanted to tackle people off a 23. [Thompson] called it, he said, "bulldog him." He had a real sense for humanity, and when to use force and when not to use force.
Did you end up tackling this guy and getting him on [the helicopter]?
I was a little short, but we got him, yeah. I planned to land on top of him, but in midair, I remembered I was wearing about thirty pounds of body armor, and hit the ground pretty hard behind him. But we took him in, and he was actually carrying a card that said, "Don’t take me in for interrogation. I’ve already been interrogated fifteen times. I’m challenged." And [Thompson] made the right call. Other people would have just taken him out.
Was he a skilled pilot? Was he good in the pilot seat?
Hugh Thompson was a very talented pilot. Yes.
How did that manifest itself?
Well, [when] flying low level, you never want to do the same thing twice. You don’t want to fly in any particular pattern, because Vietcong — North Vietnamese — are very good at reading you. And the next time you do something, if you show them a pattern, they’ll have a surprise for you. And it could be in the form of a 250-pound bomb booby trap, so you never do the same thing over and over again. And you fly low and fast and not erratically, but you mix it up, and he was very good at that. You never hover in one place too long. You always keep moving. So, he was very good at that. His real talent was when things got tense — he had a way of opening his mic, and we were all connected with an intercom through a headset in our flight helmets. And [Thompson] could tell when the crew was getting a little tense, and he had a way of injecting levity when at the most frightening times. And he’d settle the crew down and continue on.
He doesn’t sound like he had much fear himself.
If he did, he hid it quite well.
What was his attitude towards the war, being there — cynical, patriotic?
We didn’t discuss politics or justifiable war. We were preoccupied. We wanted to go home, and we didn’t want to die over there.
I guess for a group of guys whose main goal was to get home and not die, being with Hugh was probably a good thing.
Hugh Thompson never lost a crewman. And Hugh Thompson never lost a crewmember in his entire career as a pilot, and he was extremely proud of that. He got everybody home safe.
So was it a good thing for you when you would draw him for a mission?
We knew we were in for an exciting day when Hugh Thompson came walking over to the aircraft.
The Tet Offensive was in early February… only five, six weeks later, in mid March, what were you told about the mission you would do on the 16th?
I believe the morning of My Lai, Mr. Thompson said, "There’s going to be a big combat assault on this village, and it’s supposed to be a VC stronghold." And that’s all I heard.
What did that mean to you that day?
Well again, I had mixed feelings about it, because normally, if [we] were told it was a hot area, it wasn’t. So, you just had to be ready for anything at anytime. So we just took it as another mission. It started out like a lot of other missions.
Take me through that early part of that day — you guys were going in before the soldiers, is that right?
Yes. Just before.
What was the idea of it?
First, there was an artillery prep that day, and we made sure that the artillery was finished. And we came on station at about 7:30 in the morning, and it was crystal clear. We came in at altitude, and dropped down and started flying low level. And the first thing we encountered was [an enemy] suspect. I think we came over a hill; he didn’t hear us. We must have been downwind, and we came over [a] rise, and he was in the middle of a rice paddy, in between two tree lines. We caught him out in the open. Mr. Thompson said, "I’m gonna take him on the right," which meant it was my job to fire on him. And he was carrying a carbine and a pack. He was obviously VC, and he was evading, and [I] couldn’t hit him — winged him a couple of times, but he made it to a treeline and got away. [He] got a couple of shots off at us. I think we called a gun-run in on him, but that was the only Vietcong or the only enemy suspect I saw that day.
What happened next?
Then we started to just check the perimeter. We’d start from the center of the village, and circle in larger and larger circles to increase the perimeter, just to try to draw fire to see if anyone was there — to clear the place for the ground troops that were on their way in.
And how much fire were you taking?
Just that one carbine, first thing in the morning. We were not receiving fire.
So you assumed what therefore — if you weren’t getting fire?
I assumed, when we weren’t receiving fire that day, that it was going to be a better day for the guys on the ground and for us. And they could complete their combat assault and sweep through -- clear the place, and get out of there.
There wouldn’t be much death that day.
Well, what begins to happen — take us through, give us the next step… you’re starting to see things — you drop smoke?
We saw people leaving the area, which was not unusual. It was a Saturday morning; people would go to market on Saturday morning. And we saw groups of men, old men, women and children leaving the village. We didn’t think it was unusual. [The Army] probably dropped some flyers before artillery prep as well, so it was good the civilian population got out of the way. This was right in the center of Son My, the village. We saw them leaving, we thought, "Wonderful, they’re getting out of the way. Let’s continue our recon." We were off or out of that particular area for ten, fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. When we came back, those same people were dead or dying on the road that they were leaving on, and they were the same people. That’s when we started marking wounded people.
What does that mean?
We’d drop a green smoke grenade, or just identify the color of the smoke, and tell our low gunship that we’re marking a civilian here that could use medical attention. Dropping purple smoke, green smoke — whatever it was. We marked a half a dozen people we saw, not just alongside the road, but in paddies around the village. [We] left again to continue reconnaissance, came back, and the people that we’d marked were dead. And it was obvious — well not quite obvious — it became obvious to us what was happening when we lingered by one of the bodies that we’d marked. It was a young female with a chest wound, but she was still alive. And we saw a captain with a squad of American soldiers approaching her, and Mr. Thompson decided he’d move back, stay at a hover, and watch. And that’s what we did, and we saw a captain approach the woman, look down at her, kick her with his foot, step back, and [he] just blew her away right in front of us.
Did that surprise you?
Yes. Simultaneously, all three of us — Glenn Andreotta, Hugh Thompson, and I — said, "You son of a bitch!" We screamed it. There was no reason. She was no threat. There was no reason to do that. Later on we found that it was Captain Medina — Ernest Medina, who did this.
Was this unusual?
It was. We didn’t indiscriminately kill civilians, it wasn’t our job. We were looking for Vietcong and NVA.
So what -- there must have been some recognition that something was wrong… you put together the evidence in some way.
When we saw that Captain shoot this woman, we knew who killed the other people. Mr. Thompson went through every scenario he could to give benefit of the doubt to the men on the ground. He did not want to believe that our people were doing this, and he rethought the whole thing a number of times. It couldn’t have been artillery. There is some testimony that one of the other gunships — the sharks that were on station — fired on civilians that day. I’m not sure. Is it Vietcong, who's doing this? But when you see it right in front of you, it becomes obvious what happened.
How did Thompson feel about this?
He was furious. That was not his idea of being an American soldier.
How did that anger manifest itself?
He got right on the radio. And one of the main problems that day was we had no direct communication with the men on the ground, which was just silly. Tactically, it was a huge mistake. We were the closest aircraft to the men on the ground and yet we couldn’t communicate with them. We had to call our low gunship, who, I think, went through the command helicopter flying at altitude, back down to triangulate to the men on the ground, back to the low gunship, and then to us. And so lack of communication was one of the big problems that day. Mr. Thompson got on the radio and just said, "This isn’t right. These are civilians. There are people killing civilians down here." And that’s when he decided to intervene.
What did you do?
Mr. Thompson, as the aircraft commander, after viewing this atrocity in its early stages asked us, "If we’ve got to do something about this, are you with me?" And we said, "Yes, we’d better act right now."
Did you realize there might be consequences in acting, in intervening?
What didn’t matter?
We were ready to face the consequences. It was so obviously wrong. When you see babies machine-gunned, you must intervene.
So what happened next?
We continued to recon, checked on some of the people we marked earlier with smoke. They were gone.
And [at] that point, we returned to the people we marked with smoke — just to make sure, to confirm what we’d seen — and they were— they’d been killed as well. Then Glenn Andreotta keyed his mic and told Mr. Thompson about an irrigation ditch that he saw bodies in. Glenn spotted it because Mr. Thompson would normally break left which would put — Glenn sat on the left — it would put his eyes on the ground. I was looking at the sky and rotor blades, so Glenn had an opportunity to see a lot of what was going on that day, and he probably had better eyes than I did as well.
Mr. Thompson took his advice and went and checked out this ditch, and it-- when we got there it was— it had bodies in it — women and children and elderly people. Mr. Thompson noticed there was an American soldier standing right near the ditch, so he landed the aircraft. In that we couldn’t communicate with [the people on the ground], he took it upon himself to physically land the aircraft, get out, which was— you don’t do that normally. You’re a sitting duck. You don’t land. It went against all the aerial scout concepts, but he had to speak to these people on the ground to see what was happening.
He approached the soldier that was near the ditch and said, "They are civilians, we gotta help them out." And the soldier said, "Yeah, we’ll help them out of their misery."
And Mr. Thompson pulled a little rank on him and said, "Listen soldier, these are civilians. We’re gonna help them." And he was also on the radio to our low gunship, trying to get some support for what he was doing here. And the soldier said, "Oh okay, I’ll help them out, I’ll help them out."
Mr. Thompson came back, got in the aircraft, we lifted off, and we were 15, 20 feet off the ground and we heard automatic weapons fire. And the first thing you do is jump because you think it’s directed at you, but when we realized it wasn’t us, Glenn— I remember Glenn saying, "He’s shooting into the ditch." And Mr. Thompson was just beside himself. He felt helpless. There was nothing he could do, and these people weren’t just marched into the ditch and shot. These people were marched into the ditch while begging for mercy for their children. And there was no mercy that day.
Do you know who that soldier was?
It was an enlisted man. Later on we encountered a lieutenant.
Again, Glenn spotted some people in an earthen type bunker peering out of a small hole and brought it to Mr. Thompson’s attention. And Mr. Thompson noticed that there was a squad of American soldiers approaching the same bunker, and he calculated they had less then 30 seconds to live if these people on the ground continued the behavior that they were taking part in.
So, in that we had no communications again, he landed the aircraft again in between the people in the bunker — who appeared to be civilians — and the approaching squad of Americans. [Thompson] got out of the aircraft, left it at flight idle — which, thinking back, it was a good idea because people tend to stay away from an aircraft with moving rotor blades. So I think it was intentional. Plus, it’s like a getaway car. You want the engine running.
But he walked about fifty meters, maybe seventy meters away, faced this Lieutenant. Glenn and I got out of the aircraft — Glenn on the left, I was on the right — and we took our weapons down, took some ammunition with us, and just set up a little perimeter around our aircraft and watched Mr. Thompson. And he was in heated argument with this lieutenant — it was obvious by his body language.
Can you describe the lieutenant?
It was too far away for me to see, and I couldn’t hear what they were saying. It was too far away, plus there was a helicopter running there, and I had a flight helmet on. But there were some hand gestures that indicated to me that they didn’t agree. Mr. Thompson came back to the aircraft, motioned for Glenn and myself to come close, and said, "I’m gonna get the people out of the bunker myself. If these people fire on them when I’m doing that, shoot them."
And he walked directly over to the bunker, unarmed. Had a side arm but he didn’t even take it out of its holster. And at that point, I didn’t know what was going to happen — there could have been Vietcong hiding in there. We saw two or three faces — children, women. He approached the entrance of the small bunker and motioned for the people to come out. Glenn and I just turned and faced the oncoming American squad.
To set the record straight, no one pointed any weapons at anybody. When Mr. Thompson gave that order, Glenn and I both moved our weapons from this position to directly down at the ground, and then we looked at these people. They stopped, and there was a stare down for a minute or two. And I remember looking at one American soldier and waving to him as if to say, "We’re on the same side." And he waved back, and I thought, "Mr. Thompson’s going to pull this off, he’s gonna get away with this."
So here you are, you waved to the soldier, you had no physical confrontation....
Mr. Thompson did what he said he was going to do. He approached the bunker, and we were getting ready to shuttle these people — two, three people — out of the area to safety. Three people came out, six people came out, twelve people came out. Eleven or twelve people came out of this little bunker, so Mr. Thompson came back to us and said, "I didn’t really think this through. I thought there were two or three people. We have a three place helicopter and all the seats are taken. How are we gonna get these people out of here?"
That’s when he got on the radio and called a friend of his, Dan Millians, a gunship pilot. He said, "Danny I need a favor. Will you come down here and be a medevac for these people? And take them down the road and leave them a few miles down the road and then come back on station?" And Dan Millians said "okay."
So he landed his helicopter?
He landed a gunship, which is even worse than putting a 23 on the ground, but he did it at Hugh’s request. I believe he made two runs to get all of the people out, but he took them down the road and left them in a safe place.
What do you imagine would have happened to those 12 people?
No question, they would have died if Mr. Thompson wouldn’t have intervened.
I want to make sure we understand — I want to make [sure] it’s absolutely clear. When Mr. Thompson comes back from this argument, what does he tell you to do?
He told us to cover him. "Cover the aircraft. Keep your eye on these approaching American soldiers. I’m going over to the bunker and get these people out myself. And if the people — these American soldiers — fire on these people or me when I’m getting out of the bunker, shoot them." And then he just walked away.
Glenn and I were gobsmacked. We were standing there looking at each other. I remember thinking, "How did we get into this? How did I end up here?" And to be absolutely honest with you, the first thing I thought of was my mother. "Oh my God, Mom, get me out of here." But, trying to think what she would want me to do, and she would want me to do exactly what Mr. Thompson was doing.
Do you think you could have and would have been able to shoot American soldiers?
I may have been able to create a diversion somehow. Unless they fired on me, I don’t think I could have. I would have probably died there. I couldn’t turn a gun on an American soldier.
What did you see on their faces, anything?
By that time, it was winding down. A lot of them were taking their rucksacks off, starting to open c-rations in the midst of all this carnage, eat their lunch, which we found disturbing.
It didn’t seem like any big deal to them, apparently?
It had to be though, because they hadn’t really engaged with the enemy. They were probably in shock themselves at what they’d done. And later on I’ve heard some of the soldiers that took part, they put themselves into shock by following these illegal orders.
[After] Millians takes these civilians away, what happens next?
Mr. Thompson is still on a rampage. He’s still just furious because of the behavior of these men on the ground that were supposed to be acting like honorable soldiers. We continued our reconnaissance, went back to the ditch and, again, Glenn said, "I see some motion down in the ditch."
And you could tell — when you flew up to this scene, you could see how people had tried to escape the ditch. They were wounded, they may have made it a meter or two out the ditch, and then someone had shot them in the back of the head. The survivors were under maybe two or three layers of bodies. Glenn saw this child move, so Mr. Thompson landed very quickly -- left side of the aircraft facing the ditch. We both got out. Glenn was there first because he was on the left side. I remember coming out from the right thinking, "I really don’t wanna go wading in this ditch, but I will."
And by the time I got to the ditch, Glenn was already in the ditch, wading through bodies to get to this child. And he picked up this little Vietnamese person and started back to the aircraft with him. Put him down once or twice to check other people to see if he could help them, but I think everyone else was bleeding out basically. Glenn handed the boy up to me, and I remember taking the boy in my left hand by the back of his shirt thinking, "I hope these buttons are sewn on, or if the shirt lets go I’m going to lose the boy."
Then Glenn couldn’t get out of the ditch himself. He was mired in this mess, and so I turned my rifle around and gave Glenn the strap at the butt-end, and took the boy with one hand, and pulled Glenn out with the other. Glenn ran to the left side. I went to the right side with the boy, and we got in.
Mr. Thompson knew that Quang Ngai hospital wasn’t too far away, and he wanted to get this boy evac-ed out of there. So, we left the boy with a nun at the hospital. She came out and met us when Mr. Thompson landed. And he took the child, told the nun, "He probably doesn’t have any family." And we went back on station again.
What did that ditch look like?
It appeared to be an irrigation ditch. The area where the people were executed basically was maybe fifty meters long. The ditch was three or four meters wide, two or three meters deep, and it was hard to estimate the number of bodies. I would think at least 200. It was hard because the bodies were stacked on top of one another. Mr. Thompson said it reminded him of old black and white footage of Nazis executing people.
What is Thompson’s aspect throughout all of this? Is he stony? Is there emotion?
Oh, very emotional. He was crying as he did all of this. It was difficult for everyone, but he was furious and extremely upset. Just such a disgusting display of human behavior, and these men were in American uniforms.
And is he radioing anybody?
What’s he saying?
Oh, he threatened to never fly again, and "if this is what it's gonna be like, I quit." He put his life on the line, his career on the line. He was a humanist. He saw that this was absolutely wrong. It was so obvious.
There must have been some conflict, because he was also proud of the Army — proud of what we were doing there?
How did he reconcile these things, or was that a conflict for him?
I think it haunted him for the rest of his life. The main thing that he beat up on himself about was, "Why didn’t I intervene more quickly? I could have saved more people."
I don’t know how he stayed in the military and continued his career. He was torn. He felt that the behavior he witnessed that day was a reflection on the entire United States Army, and he took that very personally — this is an organization he joined in order to make it his career.
The military may have turned their back on Mr. Thompson, but he never turned his back on the military. He continued his career. He became a company commander — another thing he was very proud of — and stuck with it.
So you brought the kid to the hospital, you then turn around, it’s around eleven o’clock I believe?
After all is said and done that day, you mean? We continued to recon. Again, check for any survivors. Pretty much everything in the village by then was gone. Children, women, elders, animals, everything was burnt and there was no reason for us to be there. They were getting ready to extract or move Charlie Company, but because of Mr. Thompson’s radio transmissions, he brought about a ceasefire.
What happens after the ceasefire? You go back to headquarters…
I think we went back to Chu Lai when it was over, not back to our landing zone, Dottie. I don’t remember if it was that day or the next day. All I remember is I was wearing the same fatigues, and they were covered in blood. Mr. Thompson sent someone down to our living area, and wanted me to come up and meet him and report what we’d seen to Colonel Henderson. I agreed to do that. Met Hugh outside the command bunker. Mr. Thompson went in first, came out, didn’t say anything — just showed me the door. I went in and told Colonel Henderson what I’d seen that day.
What did you tell him exactly?
I told him exactly that there was unnecessary killing of civilians going on that day — a lot of civilians. He made a couple notes on a legal pad, didn’t really react to it in a particular way. Dismissed me, and I left.
Given what you told him — and it was that day, by the way -- there was no question that Henderson knew...?
He knew. Thompson was throwing his flight helmet. I think he broke the flight helmet; he threw it on the ground. He wanted to tear his wings off his uniform. Said he’d never fly again. He was having a fit. Henderson had to get wind of that; he knew what was going on. He just wasn’t going to show emotion in front of an enlisted person. He’s above all that, you know, Bird Colonel.
What happened as time went by? Did you hear more about it? Did it fade away? What happened?
The next mission came up. We were preoccupied. Never had the luxury of repressing it because I had to talk about it right after Vietnam when I came back to the states. Mr. Thompson called me, said, "You’re gonna receive orders from Washington D.C. Don’t tell your [Commanding Officer] anything. Don’t say anything to anybody, just follow the orders."
And we were going to try to connect in Washington D.C. I don’t think we did that time, but sure enough, a week or two later the orders came and I was called into the [Commanding Officer’s] office... He called me into his office, threw the orders in front of me, and wanted to know what it was all about. I just told him, "Sir, I’m not at liberty to say."
What did you think was going to transpire when you got to Washington? What was your take about what this was all about?
I knew that either the [Inspector General] or Peers or some committee, wanted — they wanted a second source on what Thompson was talking about. Our stories meshed perfectly, because we were sitting literally shoulder to shoulder, seeing the same thing. So there’s no variation on our stories at all. That’s why, during the trials, the defense attorneys weren’t able to punch any holes in our story. Airtight. Because we saw the same thing at the same time.
Why wasn’t Glenn with you?
Glenn didn’t want to report to Henderson. Glenn, I think, wanted to make the military his career, and he had enough sense to think ahead, and he wanted to protect his career in the military. This could be devastating if you were a career military person. Living proof -- Hugh Thompson. [It] cost him dearly.
Frozen in rank. Ostracized. He used to tell stories about walking into the officers' clubs after people found out who he was, and fifteen minutes after entering the officers' club, he would be sitting by himself.
Did he say those stories with anger? Bitterness?
Sadness. It hurt him.
....I can’t imagine the internal turmoil that he went through. He would disguise it by being glib or being funny. But he was -- that’s how he coped. At the end of the day, it destroyed him. He didn’t expect anyone to even thank him for what he did. He was a humanist. He realized -- and I’ll know for the rest of my life, I don’t care what anyone says, you can call us anything you want -- what we did was morally the right thing to do. He believed that as well.
Sometimes you cope in a way that’s healthy, sometimes you don’t. Mr. Thompson never expected any thanks. He didn’t expect-- thirty years later he was shocked that someone was going to recognize what he’d done with the Soldiers’ Medal. When they told him he was going to receive the Soldiers’ Medal, he said, "What about my crew?" And they said, "Oh, well no, we can’t." And he said, "I don’t want it then. You either include my crew or you take the medal." That’s just the way he was.
But why did it destroy him?
He never forgave himself for waiting so long. He thought he could have stopped things earlier if he would have intervened. He-- he was deeply wounded, scarred by the way he was treated when he came back.
And how would you describe that treatment?
Being ostracized. Being frozen in rank. In country, we even suspected that the missions he was sent on after My Lai — instead of 23 with two B-model gunships and support, they sent him out by himself or with another 23 to do low level reconnaissance in very dangerous areas. He crashed four, five helicopters within a two, three month period. He was beginning to think — and I don’t think he was being irrational — he thought that someone was trying to make him go away.
Tell us about the experience of testifying in front of the Peers Commission, if you remember it. The physical- the layout of the room…
General Peers came in late. I remember being this enlisted person — lowest ranking person in the room — and there was a Major bringing me coffee. So that stuck in my mind. General Peers was a father figure. He was white-headed and took his jacket off, put on a sweater. It was casual. He seemed like a reasonable, rational human being who wanted to get to the bottom of this.
Was he careful in his questions to you — did you take him through the story, kind of? Do you remember?
I’ve gone back and re-read the testimony. He just wanted to get as much information as he could. And I think he realized — once he started interviewing me — how close the Thompson story and my story were. So, I think it really helped him realize that, yes, this really did happen.
That little boy in the ditch -- did you ever expect to see that kid again?
No I never expected— I thought it was a little girl. It was this pretty little four- or five-year-old face, I thought. I misjudged the child’s age... I thought, "That’s good, maybe he won’t remember any of this." But it turns out he was eight years old. He remembers everything, and we quizzed him.
You met him?
Yes. In 2001 we were reunited, and we were very skeptical. How could this possibly be the same person, you know? But Hugh and I took him aside, asked him some questions through an interpreter that only he would know, and he knew. So, it was the same boy.
What did he remember?
He remembered watching his mother and siblings murdered in front of his face. He remembers being buried, drowning in the blood in the ditch. He remembers the helicopter ride. And when we did leave him at the hospital, he only stayed a short time. Culturally, he had to make sure his mother and sisters were buried properly, so he made his way some 10 miles through the jungles by himself — eight years old — back to the village to make sure his mother and sisters were buried properly.
Is he today bitter?
Oh yes. He hates the people that did this to him and his family. Hates them.
And what about you and Hugh?
We’ve become his— he calls us "Papa." He used to call Hugh "Papa."
Tell me, Larry, what you feel towards those men on the ground, the ones that participated? They didn’t all participate?
No, no. It’s important to remember that not everyone participated in the atrocities.
But how do you- do you have any forgiveness for those men who did participate?
I could try to forgive them for getting caught up in this — seeking revenge, thinking they were following orders because they were ordered to do this. But when it became barbaric, and they began to rape girls and sodomize children and dismember people, no. I can’t forgive you for that. That’s— that’s too far over the line. I’m not gonna… It’s not my place to judge anyone, but I hate them, too, for doing that.
There’s no set of explanations that you could put together that would sort of say, "Okay, maybe I would have done the same thing?"
Some people have said we’re all capable of doing that. I disagree with you. There are people like Hugh Thompson who have solid moral footing and do what they think is right and what they know is right regardless of the situation.
And when you hear people say about this story, or about Hugh — they don’t want to talk about this story because it casts a bad light on America, it casts a bad light on who we are. What do you think about that?
I think as a nation we’ve been in denial for forty-some years. Not just My Lai, the whole Vietnam War — or as, it’s referred to in Vietnam, the American War. One of the reasons is because we lost. But, you know, face the music.
One of the most astonishing things Mr. Thompson noticed in returning to Vietnam — we met with a lot of the survivors. They thanked us for what we did. Mr. Thompson is highly respected in Vietnam. Then they ask Mr. Thompson why the people who committed these atrocities didn’t come with us and ask for forgiveness, so we could forgive them. Mr. Thompson just didn’t understand that Buddhist mentality that, in order to be forgiven, you must ask for forgiveness, atone for those sins, and then you carry on. He just couldn’t believe that these people who were treated that way had the capacity to forgive the people who did it.
But they did?
They will. If Lieutenant Calley went to Vietnam tomorrow and met with those survivors and asked for forgiveness, they would forgive him. It’s probably not a bad idea.
What do you want to say about Hugh Thompson finally? I mean he’s a key figure in this.
He and Glenn.
I just— I miss them both like a brother. So, I considered myself very fortunate to have been with [Hugh] that day.
What about Glenn, what happened to Glenn?
Glenn was killed in action about three weeks after My Lai.
That must have been a blow?
Of course, but it was very quick, which is a blessing.
As you put it, thirty years later there was a ceremony honoring you guys?
Honoring Hugh, he forced them to recognize Glenn posthumously, and [me] his old gunner.
Did he feel conflicted about that ceremony?
He was such a complex person. Just when I thought I knew him quite well, I didn’t know him at all. It’s hard to speculate as to what he was thinking. I think that when he was inducted into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame, that meant a lot to him — a lot more than the Soldiers' Medal because the Soldiers’ Medal was forced. Colonel Cavanaugh, David Eagan, Colonel Clemens, a lot of people behind the scenes went on a letter-writing campaign — unknown to Mr. Thompson, unknown to me — for six or seven years trying to push this medal through. And finally, I think the military [thought] it would be a good public relations move. And Hugh accepted it. But the Army Aviation Hall of Fame — it was really special because he was being recognized by his peers, when in the past he never was.
You were with him the day he died, is that right?
Yes. He went to a VA hospital for a routine procedure. He called me the day before, and gave me the telephone number so I could call him, check on him. He coded when he was on the table. [The] doctor told me they tried to revive him for six or seven minutes.... But the family was there — I just — he was gone. The family was kind enough to ask me to come. They had him on life support until I got there. When I got there they pulled life support, and the first thing he did was draw deep, deep breath. And the doctor just turned to the family and said, "This guy is strong." They took off fluids... and he lingered for three days and finally gave up the ghost.
Had the return to Vietnam closed a chapter for him in any way or put him at peace?
It was becoming a regular thing. He went back with Peers. He went back with CBS. He went back to dedicate a school in 2001 — that’s when we were reunited with Do Ba. So he was a frequent visitor.
Did you realize from the beginning how big this thing was, not just physically but in its importance?
I don’t think I understood the gravity of this whole situation — again, the big picture. How the military was going to maintain integrity and credibility after something like this. I didn’t realize — I never thought forty years later I’d still be telling this tale. That’s for sure.