Hugh Thompson: a man you should meet
From US News and World Reports, August 20, 2004:
Skimming over the Vietnamese village of My Lai in a helicopter with a bubble-shaped windshield, 24-year-old Hugh Thompson had a superb view of the ground below. But what the Army pilot saw didn't make any sense: piles of Vietnamese bodies and dead water buffalo. He and his two younger crew mates, Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta, were flying low over the hamlet on March 16, 1968, trying to draw fire so that two gunships flying above could locate and destroy the enemy. On this morning, no one was shooting at them. And yet they saw bodies everywhere, and the wounded civilians they had earlier marked for medical aid were now all dead.
On that historic morning, Thompson set his helicopter down near the irrigation ditch full of bodies. He asked a sergeant if the soldiers could help the civilians, some of whom were still moving. The sergeant suggested putting them out of their misery. Stunned, Thompson turned to Lieutenant Calley, who told him to mind his own business. Thompson reluctantly got back in his helicopter and began to lift off. Just then Andreotta yelled, "My God, they're firing into the ditch!"
Thompson finally faced the truth. He and his crew flew around for a few minutes, outraged, wondering what to do. Then they saw several elderly adults and children running for a shelter, chased by Americans. "We thought they had about 30 seconds before they'd die," recalls Colburn. Thompson landed his chopper between the troops and the shelter, then jumped out and confronted the lieutenant in charge of the chase. He asked for assistance in escorting the civilians out of the bunker; the lieutenant said he'd get them out with a hand grenade. Furious, Thompson announced he was taking the civilians out.
Thompson coaxed the Vietnamese out of the shelter with hand gestures. They followed, wary. Thompson looked at his three-man helicopter and realized he had nowhere to put them. "There was no thinking about it," he says now. "It was just something that had to be done, and it had to be done fast." He got on the radio and begged the gunships to land and fly the four adults and five children to safety, which they did within minutes.
Before returning to base, the helicopter crew saw something moving in the irrigation ditch–a child, about 4 years old. Andreotta waded through bloody cadavers to pull him out. Thompson, who had a son, was overcome by emotion. He immediately flew the child to a nearby hospital. Thompson wasted no time telling his superiors what had happened. "They said I was screaming quite loud. I was mad. I threatened never to fly again," Thompson remembers. "I didn't want to be a part of that. It wasn't war." An investigation followed, but it was cursory at best.
A month later, Andreotta died in combat. Thompson was shot down and returned home to teach helicopter piloting. Colburn served his tour of duty and left the military. The two figured those involved in the killing had been court-martialed. In fact, nothing had happened. But rumors of the massacre persisted. One soldier who heard of the atrocities, Ron Ridenhour, vowed to make them public. In the spring of 1969, he sent letters to government officials, which led to a real investigation…
Not all soldiers at My Lai participated in the carnage. Some men risked courtmartial or even death by defying Calley's direct orders to shoot civilians. Eckhardt doesn't think these men were heroes, because they didn't try to stop the murderers. But Colburn thinks they did the best they could. "We could just fly away at the end of the day," he notes. The ground troops had to live together for months.
Colburn and Thompson lived in relative anonymity until a 1989 television documentary on My Lai reclaimed them as forgotten heroes. David Egan, a Clemson University professor who had served in a French village where Nazis killed scores of innocents in World War II, was amazed by the story. He campaigned to have Thompson and his team awarded the coveted Soldier's Medal. It wasn't until March 6, 1998, after internal debate among Pentagon officials (who feared an award would reopen old wounds) and outside pressure from reporters, that Thompson and Colburn finally received medals in a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
But both say a far more gratifying reward was a trip back to My Lai this March to dedicate a school and a "peace park." It was then they finally met a young man named Do Hoa, who they believe was the boy they rescued from that death-filled ditch. "Being reunited with the boy was just...I can't even describe it," says Colburn. And Thompson, also overwhelmed, doesn't even try.
Almost forty years ago, CW2 Hugh Thompson saw murder in the middle of a war and stopped it. Fewer than twenty hours ago, he died of cancer in the VA Hospital in Arlington, Virginia…