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Vietnamese, 2 U.S. vets reflect on My Lai horrors

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Thirty years after the My Lai massacre, the carnage wrought on this tiny hamlet by the soldiers of Charlie Company may belong to history, but on Saturday it was far from forgotten.

While diplomats and government officials in Hanoi routinely seek to play down such events, preparations were in full swing in this small corner of central Vietnam for the anniversary of arguably one of the most infamous moments in U.S. military history.As schoolchidren in a local village practised martial-like dances with tiny national flags, others were sweeping gravestones at a nearby war cemetery or repainting statues depicting the My Lai victims.

"I feel very painful for my native place," said Phan Van Hung, 16. "I was disgusted when I learned what the Americans did on this land."

Thirty years ago on Monday the men of Charlie Company - acting under the command of Lt. William Calley - unleashed hell on this place, killing some 500 civilians in a frenzy of slaughter.

This year residents of this area, together with local officials, and two Americans who tried to halt the bloodbath are due to mark the occasion by taking part in a ceremony together aimed at healing the wounds.

And those wounds run deep.

"I think it hasn't gone away," former door gunner Lawrence Colburn said in an interview. "There were toddlers, there were infants. . . . It was horribly wrong. But you have to remember. You are obliged to remember in the hope that we won't do such a thing again."

Colburn, who lives in Woodstock, Ga., was a member of a helicopter crew that tried to stop the killings of March 16, 1968, in My Lai - in a war which by that stage had already become terribly wrong.

He and his fellow airmen placed their own lives at risk by landing between the marauding U.S. troops and fleeing civilians.

In Washington last week Colburn and pilot Hugh Thompson were honored for their bravery with a Soldier's Medal. A third crew member, now dead, will be honored later.

While debate still surrounds what really happened at My Lai, Colburn and the Vietnamese residents of the area indicated that a central question remained - why?

"I can't think too much about it," said Pham Thi Thuan, 60, a survivor of the horror who escaped by feigning death. "If I think about why they did it I can't sleep."

"They (the soldiers) were ready for revenge," said Colburn. "They were told it was an enemy stronghold, they had lost buddies to booby traps, and they went in hot. Someone began running, someone started shooting. The leadership that should have nipped that in the bud failed."