Daily Archives: 7 January 2006

Hero of My Lai Has Died

Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who interrupted the My Lai massacre in 1968, has died.

NEW ORLEANS — Hugh Thompson Jr., a former Army helicopter pilot honored for rescuing Vietnamese civilians from his fellow GIs during the My Lai massacre, died early Friday. He was 62.

Thompson, whose role in the 1968 massacre did not become widely known until decades later, died at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Alexandria, hospital spokesman Jay DeWorth said….

As the years passed, Thompson became an example for future generations of soldiers, said Col. Tom Kolditz, head of the U.S. Military Academy’s behavioral sciences and leadership department. Thompson went to West Point once a year to give a lecture on his experience, Kolditz said.

“There are so many people today walking around alive because of him, not only in Vietnam, but people who kept their units under control under other circumstances because they had heard his story. We may never know just how many lives he saved.”

A U.S. News heroes page has more details of that day.

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 [crew chief Glenn] 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 [door gunner Lawrence] 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 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.

via Winds of Change

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