The Americans Who Stopped My Lai


In view of the conflicting accounts of Bob Kerrey’s Raiders allegedly killing unarmed civilians in Vietnam, CBS News’ 60 Minutes rebroadcast, on May 6, a March 1998 program titled “Back to My Lai.”

Mike Wallace went back to Vietnam with gunner Larry Colburn and pilot Hugh Thompson, who, in a helicopter over My Lai in 1968, saw the massacre of civilians by american troops, and landing, threatened to open fire on those GIs to prevent any further murders. A third soldier, Glenn Andreotta, was also with them but was killed three weeks later.

The leader of those war crimes on the ground was Lieutenant William Calley—later convicted and sentenced to life in prison after Thompson and Colburn testified against him. After only three days in the stockade, Calley was placed under house arrest by President Nixon, who paroled him three years later. But, Mike Wallace recalled, “around the country, many Americans treated him like a hero.”

Wallace described, on-camera, what was happening before Thompson and Colburn intervened. The American troops, “who’d been told My Lai was an empty stronghold . . . burned down huts with their Zippo lighters.” They marched 170 people into a ditch—women, old men, babies—and “gunned them down in cold blood.”

As Colburn said, “There were no weapons captured. . . . They were civilians.”

The Army tried to cover up My Lai, but Sy Hersh broke the story.

On returning to My Lai in 1998, Hugh Thompson was approached by a woman who had been dumped into that ditch and survived, shielded by the bodies of the dying and the dead. She asked Thompson why he was different from those other Americans.

Thompson—who had a sidearm during the massacre, but took a chance and didn’t draw it when he ordered the soldiers to stop the killing—said to the survivor: “I saved the people because I wasn’t taught to murder and kill.”

This year, after the story broke about what happened under Bob Kerrey’s command in the village of Thanh Phong, Hugh Thompson appeared on the O’Reilly Factor on the Fox News Network.

Bill O’Reilly asked Thompson: “What went through your mind when you saw what was happening on the ground at My Lai?”

“Hitler,” Thompson said.

But, with regard to Kerrey’s Seven SEALs, couldn’t Thompson understand why, under such stress and fear, these soldiers, in the dark in a free-fire zone, would have snapped?

“Yes,” Thompson answered, “without proper leadership.”

In 1998, when Thompson and Colburn were back at My Lai, Mike Wallace asked Colburn, “Why did it happen? Why did these guys lose it?”

“I think,” said Colburn, “they had some inept, incompetent leaders on the ground that day.” He added: “There’s a big difference between killing in war and murder, cold-blooded murder.”

My Lai was clearly a war crime. But what about the civilians killed by Kerrey’s Raiders? Answering that question posed by Bill O’Reilly this year, Hugh Thompson referred to the one member of Kerrey’s team, Gerhard Klann, who says that in the village of Thanh Phong, he and the rest of Kerrey’s Raiders also slaughtered civilians—some 15 women and children (last week I erred in saying they were only children).

“If Gerhard Klann’s story of what happened at Thanh Phong is true,” Hugh Thompson said, “that is no way to treat prisoners of war. It would be a war crime.” For his own role in stopping a war crime, Thompson received death threats from veterans who didn’t want the story told.

On the night of 60 Minutes‘ rebroadcast of “Back to My Lai,” Andy Rooney, who still believes Kerrey is a hero because he “risked his life for his country in Vietnam,” nonetheless honestly admitted that when Dan Rather interviewed Kerrey on the May 1 60 Minutes II, “I was on Kerrey’s side, but it didn’t seem to me he was always telling the whole truth.”

It didn’t seem that way to me either. And it was clear to me that Gerhard Klann was telling the truth. Not only the way he looked throughout his testimony, but the fact that he was voluntarily incriminating himself as a participant in an atrocity that may well have been a war crime.

But five of the Kerrey Raiders, after years of silence, did sign a statement supporting Kerrey’s account—and not Klann’s.

On April 30, the New York Post reported that Kerrey had those five members transported to New York “from all over the United States.”

The five SEALs on that raid (along with staffers from “a PR agency . . . doing damage control for Kerrey”) were put up, said the Post, at an East Side hotel. Later, at Kerrey’s home, “the group met until 2 a.m., thrashing out a consensus of what they say happened” that night in 1969.

“By late Saturday afternoon [before the Times and 60 Minutes stories broke], Kerrey was emboldened,” the Post continued, “to claim that sections of the media were involved in a conspiracy against him.”

Kerrey’s exact words to the Associated Press:

“The Vietnamese government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort.” That sure sounds like a public relations press release. The high-powered PR star, John Scanlon, who died suddenly of a heart attack recently, told a friend that he was “giving advice” to Kerrey.

The May 7 Time magazine also reported that on April 27, the five Navy SEALs “dined at Kerrey’s house and talked the raid over for the very first time.” The next evening, they issued “a statement of facts.”

It should be noted that Gerhard Klann, who works in a steel mill in Butler, Pennsylvania, could not have afforded a public relations adviser. The gathering of the five Kerrey’s Raiders, and their subsequent unanimous statement affirming their leader’s story, reminded me of New York City’s 48-hour rule, by which whenever one or more cops are accused of a particularly brutal action, they’re given 48 hours during which they don’t have to speak to anyone—including Internal Affairs investigators from the police department.

That grace period allows the accused to orchestrate a common explanation of what they will say happened.

It doesn’t look as if the Pentagon will investigate what did happen that night in Thanh Phong. But I believe the report of the Seventh SEAL.