© Jack Woodville London
“You men stand at ease.” Colonel Henderson looked at his notepad, scribbled something, then looked back up at the pilot and door gunner standing in front of him in the LZ command post. “You say you saw civilians on the road? Is that right? About how many?”
“Eight to ten, Sir. And a water buffalo.” Mr. Thompson, the pilot, a warrant officer, tried to unclench his jaw and release the grip in his hands. He had already broken his flight helmet and was afraid that if he didn’t settle down he wouldn’t make any sense.
“And then you landed? Is that right?” He wrote ‘landed’ on his notepad, then looked up again. “Then what?”
Thompson’s concern proved correct. He had poured out the story so fast that he had got it out wrong. He took a deep breath and started over.
“No, Sir. What happened is that we were flying shoelaces over the road and saw the civilians, then we peeled off and saw some wounded and we marked them with smoke.”
Thompson closed his eyes and remembered. In his mind he again saw the people on the dirt road, as plainly as if he was back there. The village, a hundred yards to the west, had gone up in flames, all the thatched huts on fire. The only stone building in the hamlet, the one with the columns, had been knocked down by artillery fire. He had observed a soldier on the ground pointing a rifle down a well and another dumping a granary of rice into a sewer pit.
“Sir?” click went his headphones, as his crew chief got on the intercom. “What happened to those people on the road?” Andreotta meant the people who, not ten minutes before, had been running away.
Thompson had keyed his microphone to answer, then realized that the peasants now were sprawled all over the path. There were babies, children, women, very old men, the same ones, but now riddled with bullet holes. Even the water buffalo had been shot to death. He rolled the cyclic and pitched downward to swing the helicopter over the road. A wounded woman appeared on the far side of the trees and he lifted the nose to fly toward her.
His other crewman dropped a green smoke canister near the woman.
“Dolphin One, this is Scout One,” he spoke over his radio to a larger helicopter flying on top. “Need medevac dustoff. Girl on the grass.”
Turn, climb, turn.
“What the hell?” click
Thompson knew that he was in the headquarters, reporting to the colonel, with his eyes closed, but his mind was still flying over the village, where he saw an infantry captain on the ground run up to the woman, green smoke from the canister drifting near her. The captain kicked her once, then lifted his rifle and put a bullet into her head. Thompson felt himself shaking.
“We were hovering, Sir. Six, eight feet off the ground, maybe twenty feet away, watching him. He just shot her. She was already wounded. I’d called in a dustoff for her, and this guy shot her.”
Colonel Henderson made a note on his pad. ‘Smoke.’
Thompson then had put the helicopter into a short climb, pulled the cyclic, and circled back west of the village, where he saw the ditch. Heads. Legs. Arms. Bodies. The babies’ faces were round, eyes wide, mouths twisted, most still being clutched by their dead mothers. Some of the bodies in the ditch were writhing.
“Shark One? This is Scout One.” click “Relay to Command/Control for me. It looks to me like there’s an awful lot of unnecessary killing going on down there. Something ain’t right about this. There’s bodies everywhere.”
Thompson had pulled the collective and landed the scout helicopter in front of the ditch. A lieutenant on the ground approached; Thompson pushed his way past Andreotta to get out of the helicopter.
“What’s going on here, Lieutenant?” he had shouted.
“This is my business.”
“What is this? Who are these people?”
“Just following orders.”
“But, these are human beings, unarmed civilians, sir.”
“Look, Thompson, this is my show. I’m in charge here. It ain’t your concern.”
“Yeah, great job.”
“You better get back in that chopper and mind your own business.”
“You ain’t heard the last of this.”
Thompson had backed away toward the glass canopy of the helicopter, keeping his eyes on the lieutenant and on the writhing ditch just beyond him. A sergeant stepped up to the ditch and fired into it. The bodies stopped writhing.
‘Ditch,’ the colonel noted. That god-damned Barker, he thought. That dumb sonofabitch is flying around in the command / control chopper right on top of this god-damned mess. He looked up at the pilot and his door gunner, a Spec 4 named Colburn. Thompson was in his flight suit, Colburn in his fatigues. They still had blood on their clothes, especially the sleeves. My first day in charge of this fucked-up brigade and they start shooting people in a ditch. He looked at the word again. ‘Ditch.’
“Did you get their names, Mr. Thompson?”
Thompson hadn’t even tried to read their name tapes. The lieutenant had been shouting at him while cradling a machine gun across his chest. The soldier who had fired into the ditch was turned away from him. He had gotten into the helicopter and keyed the intercom.
“Did you see that?”
They had lifted off and circled back to the west.
More infantry, M-16s at the ready, was advancing toward a group of women and children who were running toward a bunker on the north side of the village. Thompson scooted just above the trees, turned the helicopter to face the platoon, and landed between it and the fleeing civilians.
“Dolphin One, this is Scout One. Come in.” click
“I’m down on the northeast corner. Do you see me?”
He said something to Andreotta and Colburn when he got out of the helicopter but what it was just wouldn’t come back into his memory. His two crewmen also stepped out and clutched their M-60s. The civilians made it to the bunker behind his helicopter and huddled. Thompson then had jogged forward to the platoon leader on the ground.
“Hey,” he had yelled. The helicopter’s main rotor whumped in the air at idle, whump whump, shaking the ground. “Hey, hold your fire. I’m going to try to get these people out of that bunker. Just hold your men here.”
He hadn’t known that lieutenant either. He should have asked their names, or made a point of looking at their tapes, anything.
“We can help you get ‘em out, Mister. With a hand grenade.”
“Just hold your men here. I think I can do better than that.” Thompson had caught his breath, waiting to see if the platoon leader would indeed hold his men in place. The lieutenant jerked his head in a nonchalant direction, toward an NCO; his men relaxed in place. Some sat on the ground, others took out field rations and began to rip the cans open. Thompson then walked back to his helicopter.
“Stand here,” he said to both Colburn and Andreotta. The crew chief and the door gunner stayed beside the glass canopy while the pilot reached into the console and pulled out his microphone.
“Dolphin One, this is Scout One.” click “I’m holding in place on the ground. Can you land to evacuate about a dozen civilians? They’re in a bunker right behind my chopper.”
The larger helicopter didn’t answer over the radio frequency. Instead, Thompson had felt its rotor wash come over him as Dolphin One sat down. He turned back to his crew and said “Cover me.” He made eye contact, they understood, and Thompson ran to the bunker, then herded the terrified civilians toward Dolphin One, its doors off and rotor turning slowly. Within three minutes all the women and babies and old men were on board.
“Sir!” Colonel Henderson raised his voice. “Thompson? You okay?” He snapped his fingers and Hugh jerked his consciousness back into the commander’s office in the LZ. “You need some coffee or something? How long you been out there?”
“About 0700 this morning. We refueled a couple of times. One trip to the hospital, Sir. I’m all right. This is just….”
“How the hell did you guys get all that blood on you?”
Dolphin One had lifted off to take the civilians to a safer zone. Scout One had lifted off to return for fuel. The flight path took it directly back over the ditch, where Andreotta had yelled at Thompson.
“Land, Sir! Hurry!” click “The ditch! Something’s moving!”
The helicopter was a couple of feet off the ground and settling when Andreotta jumped from his seat and ran. Thompson and Colburn had watched him dig right into the bodies and pull a child out from under a shot-up corpse. The crew chief carried a bloodied lump of baby, clothed in nothing but a pair of underwear, and climbed back into the helicopter. They delivered the child to a field hospital in the division rear area.
‘Quaing Ngai – hospital’ the colonel wrote on his notepad. He looked out the window of his command post. My Lai wasn’t more than two kilometers away, on the plain toward the Pinkville estuary. He gazed at the smoke rising from burned hooches and, he suspected, bodies. He had flown over the village himself after Barker ordered the cease fire but he hadn’t seen the numbers of bodies described by the pilot now standing in front of him.
“Trees, Sir. The ditch was right up against the trees. Unless your helicopter was low, west of the trees, and facing east it would have been hard to see them.”
“So that’s why I just saw the VC bodies on the road?”
“I don’t know about VC, Sir. I just saw babies and women.”
“Do you know anything about the VC count, Mr. Thompson? Or the weapons cache?” Lieutenant Colonel Barker had radioed a body count of one hundred twenty-eight dead VC and a bunch of weapons. It had been a good day, except that Colonel Henderson hadn’t seen one hundred twenty-eight VC bodies either.
“Okay, Mr. Thompson. Thank you. Will you step outside a moment? You stay, Specialist.”
Thompson saluted the new brigade commander and turned to leave. He, too, could see the smoke still rising in a plume above My Lai. A Chinook was landing on the pad just outside the command post. The Dolphins had flown back to Quaing Ngai. It seemed stark, and humid.
“At ease, Specialist. You were door gunner, is that right?” Henderson looked at Colburn, sized him up, saw a scared nineteen year old.
“That stuff Mr. Thompson was saying, about the bodies in the ditch and shooting that woman. Is that true?”
“Yes, Sir. I think there must have been more than fifty bodies in the ditch, Sir. Plus what we saw on the road.”
’50 – 60 in ditch’ he wrote on the notepad. ‘Plus road.’
“And that soldier shooting into the ditch?”
“I heard a shot, Sir, but my seat is at an angle to the pilot so I didn’t actually see the man shoot.”
“And the dustoff for the civilians?”
“Yes, Sir. We landed. Mr. Thompson got out and stopped the men on the ground. We called in one of the Hueys and it took them off. Then we landed and picked up the baby and took it to the hospital. Then Mr. Thompson said we had to come report this.”
Henderson thought for a moment, then called out through the door for Thompson to come back inside.
“Men, thank you for reporting this. I’ll look into it. That’s all.” He stiffened and waited for them to salute. They saluted. “And men? I’ll tell you what. It took a lot of courage for you to come in and report this. A lot of courage. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome, Sir.”
Henderson waited until the pilot and the door gunner left his command post. He looked out his window and watched them walk back to the scout helicopter, wondering if they were in any shape to fly. He heard sounds on the other side of the partition, a duty clerk typing away, his XO talking to a logistics officer about resupply, some chatter about intelligence reports from Pinkville. He closed his door, walked back to the desk and picked up his notepad.
He tore his notes into tiny pieces, then lit them with his Zippo lighter. They burned to ashes. He crushed the ashes in his hand.
Hope, he thought. I hope to God this never gets out.
Then he called the duty clerk in. It was time to bring Lieutenant Colonel Barker into the CP so that they could write up the VC body count.
Author’s Note: Thompson, Colburn and Andreotta were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their heroic work at My Lai. Andreotta was killed by a sniper less than a month after My Lai. Thompson and Colburn were broken up as a crew shortly afterward. Lieutenant Colonel Barker died in a mid-air collision in Vietnam. Hugh Thompson died in 2006, with Larry Colburn at his side.
Because of the deaths and because of the destruction of Colonel Henderson’s notes, some of the dialogue is fictionalized, although drawn entirely from Thompson’s, Colburn’s, and Henderson’s testimony of the events at Colonel Henderson’s, Captain Medina’s, and Lieutenant Calley’s trials and on the congressional report of the My Lai investigation.
Jack Woodville London
Jack Woodville London is an author in Austin, Texas. Jack studied creative writing at Oxford University and the Academy of Fiction, St. Céré, France. His articles, reviews, and historical commentaries have been published in On Patrol (Journal of the USO military service organization), Stars and Stripes, Dispatches, (Journal of the Military Writers Society of America), The Huffington Post, Austin American Statesman, and civilian and military newspapers throughout the United States and Europe. He was honored as Author of the Year (2011-2012) by the Military Writers Society of America and is a member of and on the Awards Committee of the Center for Fiction, New York City.
His first two novels, Virginia’s War and Engaged in War, won recognition and awards in contests ranging from Best Novel of the South, Romantic Novels with a Twist, and Historical Fiction, Silver Medal in the London (England) Literary Festival, and overall winner, Indie Excellence Award (2013). His fiction work in progress will complete that series; its working title is Children of a Good War.
His third book, A Novel Approach, released in September 2014, is a short and light-hearted work on the craft and conventions of writing, designed to help writers who are setting out on the path to writing their first book. It won the eLit 2015 gold medal for books on the craft of writing.