Hugh Thompson: Reviled then honored for his actions in Viet Nam
By Nell Boyce
Reprinted from US News and World Report
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.
As the helicopter hovered a few feet over a paddy field, the team watched a group of Americans approach a wounded young woman lying on the ground. A captain nudged her with his foot, then shot her. The men in the helicopter recoiled in horror, shouting, “You son of a bitch!”
Thompson couldn’t believe it. His suspicions and fear began to grow as they flew over the eastern side of the village and saw dozens of bodies piled in an irrigation ditch. Soldiers were standing nearby, taking a cigarette break. Thompson racked his brains for an explanation. Maybe the civilians had fled to the ditch for cover? Maybe they’d been accidentally killed and the soldiers had made a mass grave? The Army warrant officer just couldn’t wrap his mind around the truth of My Lai.
Before My Lai, Americans always saw their boys in uniform as heroes. Their troops had brought war criminals, the Nazis, to justice. So when the massacre of some 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians by U.S. soldiers became public a year and a half later, it shook the country to its core. Many Americans found it so unbelievable they perversely hailed Lt. William Calley, the officer who ordered his men to shoot civilians, as an unjustly accused hero. But My Lai did produce true heroes, says William Eckhardt, who served as chief prosecutor for the My Lai courts-martial. “When you have evil, sometimes, in the midst of it, you will have incredible, selfless good. And that’s Hugh Thompson.”
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. He went back to Colburn and Andreotta and told them if the Americans fired, to shoot them. “Glenn and I were staring at each other, dumbfounded,” says Colburn. He says he never pointed his gun at an American soldier, but he might have fired if they had first. The ground soldiers waited and watched.
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 and sickening revelations: murdered babies and old men, raped and mutilated women, in a village where U.S. soldiers mistakenly expected to find lots of Viet Cong.
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.
The Pentagon’s investigation eventually suggested that nearly 80 soldiers had participated in the killing and coverup, although only Calley (who now works at a jewelry store in Columbus, Ga.) was convicted. The eyewitness testimony of Thompson and Colburn proved crucial. But instead of thanking them, America vilified them. Many saw Calley as a scapegoat for regrettable but inevitable civilian casualties. “Rallies for Calley” were held all over the country. Jimmy Carter, then governor of Georgia, urged citizens to leave car headlights on to show support for Calley. Thompson, who got nasty letters and death threats, remembers thinking: “Has everyone gone mad?” He feared a court-martial for his command to fire, if necessary, on U.S. soldiers.
Gradually the furor died down. 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.