Hartmut Lau of Austin was awarded medals including a Purple Heart for his service in the Vietnam War in the late ’60s, but never discussed his experience there with his wife, Barbara, until he sat down recently with StoryCorps.
She asked him to talk about it. Painfully, he began to recount a harrowing wartime event that has haunted him ever since the day it happened.
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“I have one really, really horrible memory from Vietnam,” he tells her. “It was in one of those times, you know, when the s--- hits the fan. And in the middle of it one of the soldiers yells at me, ‘Behind you!’
“And I twirled around and I had an M16, and I saw this guy and I killed him. And it was after he was going down that it hit my consciousness that he had his hands up and wanted to surrender.
“What we always did is looked at the bodies of the Vietnamese that we killed, ’cause we’re looking for maps, papers, you know, anything of intelligence value. But, I didn’t go look at that body. You know, when you’re out there and you go through pockets on a corpse and you pull out a little diary and you open it up, and it’s got a picture of a woman and a baby. You know — couldn’t do it.”
His wife said he came home from the war seeming to be “perfectly normal.”
“I mean, you talk about no impact,” he responds, “but — I can close my eyes and see that guy collapsing with his hands up. And I think about that kid often.”
Lau’s West Point Class of 1967 lost 30 former cadets in 1968, according to NPR’s Morning Edition, one of the worst casualty rates during the Vietnam War.
StoryCorps is a public service focused on collecting, sharing and preserving people’s stories that originated in 2003 and debuted on Morning Edition in 2005. Its stated mission is to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.