Courage under fire

Two people died in the last week or so that exemplify courage. First is Lawrence Colburn:

Along with his pilot, Hugh Thompson Jr., and their crew chief, Glenn Andreotta, Mr. Colburn set out that morning on a routine aerial reconnaissance mission. When the men spotted wounded civilians — casualties in US ground efforts to root out the enemy Viet Cong — they dropped colored smoke to mark the victims’ location for the US medical units that they assumed were on the way.

As the men continued their surveillance, they observed that the injured civilians were not being aided, and were instead being killed.

‘‘It became obvious to us what was happening when we lingered by one of the bodies that we’d marked,’’ Mr. Colburn said in an interview on the PBS program ‘‘American Experience.’’ ‘‘It was a young female with a chest wound, but she was still alive. . . . We saw a captain approach the woman, look down at her, kick her with his foot, step back, and [he] just blew her away right in front of us.’’


Thompson first landed the helicopter near an irrigation ditch where women, children, and the elderly were sheltering. Thompson approached a soldier standing over the group and ordered him to help the civilians out of the ditch. The soldier agreed but began executing the group after the helicopter took off, Mr. Colburn said.

Later, from their air, Thompson and his crew identified a group of Vietnamese hiding in a bunker and a unit of US soldiers advancing on them. Thompson again landed the helicopter and confronted the lieutenant, then called on Mr. Colburn and Andreotta for help. Thompson said that he would personally remove the Vietnamese from the bunker to safety, and that if the Americans fired on them, Mr. Colburn and Andreotta should shoot them.

They risked their lives to save civilians from their fellow US soldiers, that takes a special kind of courage. They must have known they would not be rewarded:

When news of the massacre publicly broke, Thompson repeated his account to then-Colonel William Wilson[4]:222–235 and then-Lieutenant General William Peers during their official Pentagon investigations.[11] In late-1969, Thompson was summoned to Washington, DC to appear before a special closed hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. There, he was sharply criticized by congressmen, in particular Chairman Mendel Rivers (D-S.C.), who were anxious to play down allegations of a massacre by American troops.[4]:290–291 Rivers publicly stated that he felt Thompson was the only soldier at My Lai who should be punished (for turning his weapons on fellow American troops) and unsuccessfully attempted to have him court-martialed.[3] As word of his actions became publicly known, Thompson started receiving hate mail, death threats and mutilated animals on his doorstep.[5]

Thompson was vilified by many Americans for his testimony against United States Army personnel. He recounted in a CBS60 Minutes television program in 2004, “I’d received death threats over the phone…Dead animals on your porch, mutilated animals on your porch some mornings when you get up.”[12]

The second person is Marion Pritchard:

She was said to have fed, clothed, hidden, or otherwise aided as many as 150 people, many of them children. She insisted that she could not have done her work without the assistance, overt or implied, of neighbors, friends, and other members of the resistance. She observed, her son Arnold Pritchard recalled, that only rarely if ever during the Holocaust could one person single-handedly save the life of another.

Along with about 10 friends, she helped obtain false identity documents and hiding places for Jews. Despite severe food shortages, they scrounged up extra ration cards and provisions. She put her social work training to use by finding host families to take in Jewish children and prepare the families for the perils they faced.

At times, she performed what was known as the ‘‘mission of disgrace,’’ falsely declaring herself to be the unwed mother of a baby to conceal the child’s Jewish identity. A toddler spent several months with her before she found a safer home outside Amsterdam.

For nearly three years, Ms. Pritchard cared for a Jewish man, Fred Polak, and his two young sons and daughter, taking up residence in the country home of an acquaintance where they were hidden. In case of a Nazi roundup, they perfected a routine by which the father and his children could slip beneath the floorboards within 17 seconds. They gave the baby daughter sleeping pills to prevent her from crying.

One day, three Germans and a Dutch policeman came to search the house and left, having failed to detect the hideaway. Shortly thereafter, the Dutchman, who nonetheless suspected that something was awry, returned and discovered the hideout. Before he could make an arrest, Ms. Pritchard grabbed a small revolver that she had kept for such an emergency and fatally shot him.

Another person who was willing to risk their life for strangers. People like her, unfortunately, don’t come around too often.

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