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Reprinted from Acadiana Profile Magazine,
A division of Acadian House Publishing, Inc.

Vol. 18 No. 6  March/April 1998
©1998 Acadian House Publishing, Inc.

U.S. troops had killed hundreds of unarmed
Vietnamese civilians in the infamous My Lai
massacre in March of 1968. Then Hugh
Thompson and his crew stepped in, risking
their lives to stop the slaughter.


    War is a terrible thing. It can bring out the ugliest and most brutal side of people, yet it can summon forth the most noble instincts that live within the hearts of human beings. This was certainly the case during the Vietnam War and the war before that and the war before that.
    During the Vietnam War, many soldiers were cited for extraordinary acts of courage and bravery in the face of life-threatening circumstances. One of these people was Hugh C. Thompson Jr. of Broussard, La.
    Thompson, now 54 years old, is being recognized for his heroic and successful efforts to save the lives of innocent civilians who were being pursued by American soldiers. He has been aptly described as the hero of the My Lai massacre – the soldier who stepped in to stop his fellow soldiers who were on a murderous rampage, totally out of control, at My Lai, South Vietnam.
    W.R. Peers, the three-star Army general who spearheaded the official inquiry into the My Lai (pronounced Me-Lie) atrocities, has saluted Thompson as a hero:
    "He was the only American who cared enough to take action to protect the Vietnamese noncombatants. If there was a hero at My Lai, he was it."
    In fact, the U.S. military was so impressed with Thompson’s integrity and grace under fire that they have incorporated accounts of his courageous deeds in cadet ethics courses at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

     It was on the morning of March 16, 1968 that Thompson was flying his helicopter just above the tree tops in search of enemy soldiers. It was a reconnaissance mission in support of U.S. troops on the ground. Onboard with him were Larry Colburn and Glenn Andreotta.
    What they saw instead was U.S. soldiers gunning down unarmed civilians and countless bodies of Vietnamese people in a ditch. To say only that they were stunned by what was going on would be an understatement.
    Wanting to get a better look at what he thought he was seeing, Thompson brought his chopper down to a hover just a few feet off the ground. There he spotted a civilian who appeared to be about 70 years old. She was crouched down in a fetal position, hiding, obviously fearing for her life.
    "Larry motioned to her to just stay there, stay down; in other words, just play dead. He tried to convey to her that she should stay put for a few minutes and that we’d be right back to help her. We came back a few minutes later, and her brains were blown out. That old lady wasn’t a threat to anybody," Thompson says.
    Nearby was an irrigation ditch filled with the bodies of Vietnamese women, children, babies and old men. Not far from there were other people who were wounded but still alive.
    "We asked our guys (U.S. ground troops) to help them out. One of the GI’s said, ‘The only way we’re going to help them out is to help them out of their misery,’ " Thompson recalls.
    The way that all those bodies ended up in the ditch was that they were rounded up at gunpoint in the village, marched to the ditch, then shot down there in barrages of gunfire.
    "By this time, realizing this, I was pretty upset," Thompson says. "What was going on wasn’t right."
    He and his crew got back in their aircraft and took off. As they did, they spotted a group of U.S. soldiers advancing on a small group of civilians who were frantically taking cover in a makeshift bunker. Unable to stand the thought of more civilians being murdered, Thompson hurriedly landed his helicopter in front of the GI’s, blocking their path to the Vietnamese people.
    Thompson then stepped out of the aircraft and ordered his men to cover him while he tried to get the civilians out of the bunker and lead them to safety.
    "Y’all cover me. If our guys open up (i.e., start shooting), you open up on them," he instructed his men.
    Thompson then hurried over to confront the U.S. soldiers and told them to hold their fire while he tried to get the civilians out of the bunker.
    "We can get them out – with a hand grenade," one of the soldiers said in an angry and aggressive voice.
    "But these are unarmed civilians," the outraged Thompson shouted back.
    The soldiers did stay put as Thompson made his way to the bunker to try to coax the wary Vietnamese out. He tried to appear friendly and non-threatening as he motioned to them to come out. The terrified Vietnamese were, understandably, real reluctant to leave the bunker, not knowing for sure whether they were being coaxed out only to be gunned down.
    "They finally started coming out, and that is when I realized I had more people than I knew what to do with," he recalls, explaining that his helicopter was too small to carry anyone besides his crew.
    "As they came out, they huddled around me. There were nine or ten of them total – a real old man, women, kids, and a little boy about two years old who was standing there holding on to his mother’s knee," he points out.
    Thompson walked back to the chopper to radio his buddy who was piloting a larger gunship to come pick these people up. As he did, all nine or ten of the refugees stuck very close, never leaving his side and the protection which he represented. Thompson’s buddy arrived a little while later and transported the Vietnamese to the safety of the U.S. base. It took him two trips, due to the size of his aircraft.

     Still very upset over what he now realized was the systematic slaughter of an entire village, Thompson and his men lifted off again to see if they could help out elsewhere. As they flew over the irrigation ditch filled with bodies one of his men spotted some movement, as if someone might still be alive down there.
    "So we stopped to check it out. Glenn went down into the ditch. As he did, I stood guard on one side of the aircraft and Larry was on the other, covering us in case anybody started shooting.
    "When Glenn came out of the ditch he was carrying a little two- or three-year-old child, still alive, but covered with blood. The child was traumatized but not wounded.
    "Seeing him with that little kid really got to me. You see, I had a little boy that same age back home in the States. And I was thinking, ‘What if that were my son?’
    "Larry helped Glenn out of the ditch. We put the kid in the aircraft and took off. We flew to an orphanage about 10 miles away, in Quang Ngai.
    "I carried the kid from the chopper and gave him to a nun there. I told her, ‘I don’t know what you’re going to do with him, but I don’t believe he has any family left.’ (We learned later that the child was a girl.)"
    Thompson reported the atrocities to his superiors back at the base, and they ordered an immediate halt to the carnage. He says he’s not sure if he was the first to report it.
    Meanwhile, some 400 to 450 Vietnamese people lay dead. All of this happened on the same day, within a span of about four hours.
    The only U.S. casualty was a soldier who claimed that he accidentally shot himself in the foot. It was unclear whether this was accidental or whether he did it on purpose to avoid having to carry out the orders to "kill anything that moves." Several ground troops reportedly refused to kill unarmed civilians though they were threatened with being court martialed or being shot themselves by fellow GI’s. Their testimony and the testimony of Thompson, Colburn and others was heard by the Congressional Committee which investigated the My Lai massacre.
    It was learned during the investigation that the soldiers were given direct orders from their superiors (including Lt. William Calley) to kill everyone in the village; the people in this village were suspected of either aiding the enemy or being Viet Cong themselves. The troops were told that the raid on the village would be their chance to take revenge on the elusive enemy who had killed their buddies through sniper fire, land mines or booby traps. The soldiers and their commanding officers were extremely frustrated in their efforts to engage an enemy whom they could not seem to find. In their frustration, they overreacted and violated the law by slaughtering unarmed civilians by the hundreds. This dark day in Vietnam was an extreme embarrassment to the men and women who served their country with honor in Vietnam, Korea and World War II.

     Top-ranking officials in the Pentagon have, understandably, not relished the thought of bringing another round of media attention to this sorry chapter in U.S. military history. And for this reason, among others, they took a long time to agree to award the Soldier’s Medal to Hugh Thompson – 28 years after the fact, to be exact.
    The award might never have been given were it not for a nine-year crusade by Clemson University professor David Egan, who knew of Thompson’s heroic deeds and felt very strongly that he should be honored for them. Egan and his wife wrote more than 100 letters, beginning in 1988, to congressmen, senators, military officials and others, appealing to their sense of fairness and patriotism. They asked these people to join them in urging the government to formally recognize the heroic deeds of Thompson and his men.
    The award was finally approved by the Army, quietly, in August of 1996, but wasn't awarded until March of '98. The reason for the delay was that Thompson balked when the Army told him the award would be presented in a private ceremony in the Pentagon – and that it would be given just to him, not to his crew. Instead, he wanted the medal presented at a place that is open to the public – preferably the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (the Wall of Names) in Washington, D.C. – and he wanted his two men awarded, as well. (One of them, Glenn Andreotta, would receive it posthumously, as he was killed in the line of duty in Vietnam only three weeks after having helped rescue the civilians at My Lai.)
    The Soldier’s Medal is presented for heroism and voluntarily risking of one’s life under conditions other than those in conflict against the enemy.
    Thompson, who spent a total of 23 years in the military, has received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart, for wounds he sustained in battle. The father of three boys ranging in age from 18 to 34, he currently works as a counselor with the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs in Lafayette, helping former military personnel to receive the benefits to which they are entitled.

     Asked why he got so deeply involved in the time-consuming effort to have the government recognize Thompson’s bravery, Egan offered this explanation:
    "Thompson is a symbol. He is symbolic of the vast majority of American soldiers in Vietnam who served their country with honor. He showed that soldiers can and do perform extraordinary acts of bravery, even when the world around them has gone mad.
    "The Hugh Thompson story reaffirms our faith in the U.S. Army and our profound gratitude to America’s veterans of military service."
    Egan, a 56-year-old Army veteran who served in France in the early 1960s, says he feels that Thompson and his crew deserve a place of honor in the annals of American military history.
    "Their rescues at My Lai are a timeless symbol of unselfish moral courage for all who served in America’s armed forces," he concludes.

To be continued...

Next: Hugh Thompson returns to Vietnam for the dedication of the My Lai Peace Park and for a reunion with some of the people whose lives he saved 30 years earlier.

©2000 Acadian House Publishing, Inc.

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