Larry Colburn

Larry Colburn died a week ago. He was the last survivor of the crew that intervened to stop the massacre at My Lai.

Mr. Colburn was the last surviving member of a three-man helicopter crew that was assigned to hover over My Lai on Saturday morning, March 16, 1968, to identify enemy positions by drawing Vietcong fire.

Instead, the men encountered an eerie quiet and a macabre landscape of dead, wounded and weaponless women and children as a platoon of American soldiers, ostensibly hunting elusive Vietcong guerrillas, marauded among defenseless noncombatants.

They dropped smoke flares to mark the wounded so that the soldiers on the ground could find and help them; when they came back around they found all the wounded dead.

Audaciously and on his own initiative, the pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr., swooped down and landed the copter.

“Mr. Thompson was just beside himself,” Mr. Colburn recalled in an interview in 2010 for the PBS program “The American Experience.” “He got on the radio and just said, ‘This isn’t right, these are civilians, there’s people killing civilians down here.’ And that’s when he decided to intervene. He said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this, are you with me?’ And we said, ‘Yes.’ ”

Mr. Thompson confronted the officer in command of the rampaging platoon, Lt. William L. Calley, but was rebuffed. He then positioned the helicopter between the troops and the surviving villagers and faced off against another lieutenant. Mr. Thompson ordered Mr. Colburn to fire his M-60 machine gun at any soldiers who tried to inflict further harm.

Mr. Thompson, Mr. Colburn and Glenn Andreotta, the copter’s crew chief, found about 10 villagers cowering in a makeshift bomb shelter and coaxed them out, then had them flown to safety by two Huey gunships. They found an 8-year-old boy clinging to his mother’s corpse in an irrigation ditch and plucked him by the back of his shirt and delivered him to a nun in a nearby hospital.

Crucially, they reported what they had witnessed to headquarters, which ordered a cease-fire. By then, as many as 500 villagers had been killed.

To our disgrace. Oradour-sur-Glane, SrebrenicaJallianwala Bagh, My Lai.

Seymour M. Hersh, the independent journalist who later uncovered the My Lai massacre, said of Mr. Colburn in a phone interview on Friday that “for a door gunner in Vietnam to point his machine gun at an American officer” under those circumstances “was in the greatest tradition of American integrity.”

The full extent of the gang rapes, massacre and mutilations by Charlie Company in My Lai and another hamlet, on the South Central Coast, was not exposed until two months after Mr. Colburn was discharged.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning report by Mr. Hersh for The Dispatch News Service in November 1969 provoked international outrage and eventually resulted in charges against more than a dozen officers. Only one, however, was convicted: Lieutenant Calley, for the murder of 22 civilians. He was sentenced to life imprisonment but ended up serving only three and a half years under house arrest at Fort Benning, Ga.

My Lai became a paradigm for unbridled brutality and an object lesson in battlefield ethics, but the crewmen whose audacious intervention prevented even more bloodshed were largely forgotten.

Their heroism was acknowledged with Bronze Stars, which they considered inappropriate recognition: The Bronze Star is awarded for bravery under enemy assault, they reasoned, and they had demonstrated courage in the face of friendly fire.

After the investigations and trial, Mr. Thompson and Mr. Colburn received something else, too: hate mail.

“One of the most infuriating things is being called a whistle-blower, as if we went and ratted someone out,” Mr. Colburn told Vietnam Magazine. “That is completely false; there was no back-stabbing going on. We were right in their face at My Lai. We were ready to confront those people then and there. And we did, the best we could.”

H/t Lady Mondegreen

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