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'Blood and fire' of My Lai remembered 30 years later

March 16, 1998
Web posted at: 7:29 a.m. EST (1229 GMT)

MY LAI, Vietnam (CNN) -- A solemn crowd of more than 1,000 people, including former U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers, gathered Monday to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the My Lai massacre, when American troops came to this remote hamlet and began killing hundreds of unarmed civilians.

"Something terrible happened here 30 years ago today," Hugh Thompson, a U.S. Army pilot who used his helicopter to shield Vietnamese from the slaughter, told the crowd. "I cannot explain why it happened. I just wish our crew that day could have helped more people than we did."

As Thompson spoke, the crowd surged forward to catch a glimpse of the pilot hailed as a hero. Many in the crowd, particularly Vietnamese soldiers, applauded after his brief remarks.

An honor guard carried wreaths to the memorial honoring massacre victims, a statue that depicts some people dying and others comforting the dying. Mourners set places for the dead at funeral feasts and burned incense. They also burned fake paper money in the hopes that the deceased could use it in the afterlife.

The 6-acre (2.4-hectare) memorial site is a haunting place. A peaceful, flower-strewn park surrounded by rice paddies, it features headstones marking graves and sites of mass killings, along with a museum with graphic photos of the massacre.

"May we never forget again the heartbreak and brutality of war," said Lawrence Colburn, the gunner on Thompson's helicopter in 1968. "I believe in my heart and pray to God that we can achieve peace on Earth."

After the speeches, some members of the crowd walked to a site a little over a mile (1.6 km) away to break ground for a "peace park."

"We cannot forget the past, but we cannot live with anger and hatred either," said Mike Boehm, a U.S. veteran of the war who organized the park effort. "With this park of peace, we have created a green, rolling, living monument to peace."

'Every day, I remember'

Former U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers were present for the ceremony, but no diplomats from the United States attended. One official in Vietnam's ruling Communist Party was on hand. Both governments, now preaching reconciliation, have downplayed the anniversary.

But in My Lai, the memories are still fresh.

"Every day, I remember," said Nguyen Chung, 61, who lost his father and 6-year-old daughter in the massacre. "I usually keep it in my heart, but the emotion grows as their death day grows near."

Added Phan Thi Nhanh, who was rescued by Thompson's helicopter when she was 14: "We don't say we forget. We just try not to think about the past, but in our hearts we keep a place to think about that."

Earlier in the day, loudspeakers blared a commentary: "In just two hours, American invaders killed 407 people in this hamlet alone. The American invaders left the village with blood and fire and mass graves."

Frenzy of death

The massacre is remembered as one of the darkest moments of the Vietnam War.

On March 16, 1968, the men of Charlie Company under the command of Lt. William Calley opened fire on civilians during a "search and destroy" mission in My Lai and neighboring villages in central Vietnam. The villages' young men had left to work in the fields, leaving old men, women and children, all unarmed.

Calley, the only American tried in connection with the massacre, was convicted and sentenced by a court-martial to life imprisonment. He was freed after three years under house arrest when then-U.S. President Richard Nixon intervened. Calley, now a jeweler in Georgia, refuses to discuss the massacre.

The return to My Lai was the second for Thompson, who has been hailed as a forgotten hero in an episode that had few. Thompson landed his helicopter between the soldiers and civilians, ordering Colburn to fire on the Americans if they continued pursuing the villagers. Thompson radioed two helicopter gunships behind them and together they airlifted a dozen civilians to safety.

Earlier this month, Thompson and Colburn received the Army's Soldier's Medal, the highest U.S. military award for bravery not involving conflict with the enemy. Crewmate Glenn Andreotta, who died in a helicopter crash three weeks after My Lai, also received the award.

On Sunday, Thompson and Colburn met two of the women they helped save in 1968. Another survivor came to shake Thompson's hand a few feet from the ditch where she had hidden under a pile of bodies for hours. Meeting the survivors "was the second happiest day of my life," Colburn said Monday. "The first happiest day of my life was the birth of my son."

Another hoped-for reunion failed to materialize -- one boy the crew rescued, now 36, is serving a five-year prison term for theft. Village officials describe him as a "walking casualty" of the massacre.

Thompson and Colburn lit incense sticks and placed them in an urn by a stone marker at the ditch. As he walked away, Thompson lowered his head and crossed himself.

"I issue Lt. Calley a personal challenge to face the women we faced today who asked the questions they asked, and look at the tears in their eyes and tell them why it happened," Colburn said.


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