Fifty years ago, on 16 March 1968, one of the darkest events of the Vietnam War took place in the village of My Lai.
This article is not about what would be revealed to the world a few years later as a massacre of several hundred mostly infants, children, women and old men by the men of Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division. Rather, it is about a kind of heroism that we usually do not associate with war.
It is about a hero by the name of Hugh Thompson. He was the pilot of a three man Hiller OH-2 Raven helicopter flying scouting missions over the operations that were being carried out on the ground below that day.
He was already a distinguished soldier. During his time in the military he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and an Air Medal. But it would be decades before he would be awarded the Soldiers Medal for the heroic actions he undertook during that bloody day at My Lai on March 16, 1968.
As he and his fellow crewmembers, Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn, flew over the village area that day, they became aware that something was wrong. They began spotting bodies everywhere below them, civilian bodies. They could see American soldiers chasing people down and shooting them. Something switched on in Thompson’s head.
This was not right.
He decided to land his helicopter in the field near the troops to talk to whoever was in command to get them to stop what was happening.
He was a Warrant Officer at the time. He confronted a Lieutenant on the ground and tried to find out what was going on and to try to get them to cease the operation. He was told by the Lieutenant that it was not his business that they were simply following orders.
And still the killing was going on.
Thompson took off again and as they lifted up they saw some soldiers chasing down a group of what looked like women and children. He could not let this happen. He landed his helicopter between the soldiers and the civilians and as he got out, he told his crew something that even he couldn’t believe. He told them that if the American soldiers open up on the civilians they were to start firing at the Americans.
We can only imagine what went through all of their minds at that moment, but they agreed to that order. You can be sure that they were all hoping that they would not have to do that.
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As he approached the soldiers, he told them to stop. They were not listening, so he did the unbelievable, he drew his own sidearm and pointed it at them.
This caused enough confusion in the soldiers that he and his crew, along with some other helicopters were able to rescue a couple dozen women and children. Though he was able to do this, the massacre continued. He reported what was happening over his radio many times, but nothing was done to stop the massacre. He landed back at headquarters and angrily told superiors what was happening there.
Immediately after this, the order went out that all ground units in the area of My Son, where the village of My Lai was located, were to cease their search and destroy operations.
Thompson would be called upon to testify at the only trial that eventuated from the events at My Lai, the Courts Martial of Capt. William Calley in 1973. Another 25 officers and enlisted soldiers were charged, but all save Calley were acquitted or pardoned.
Thompson was roundly condemned at the time by individuals in the United States military and government, as well as by the public for his role in the investigations and the trials concerning My Lai. It is not surprise then that Thompson eventually suffered from post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, divorce and terrible nightmares.
But he knew he had done the right thing that day in March of 1968, and right up through the trials.
Three decades after the massacre at My Lai, Thompson and his two crewmembers, Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn were awarded the Soldiers Medal (Andreotta posthumously), the United States Army’s highest award for bravery not involving direct contact with the enemy.
War really is hell. It defies everything we hold dear in terms of the preciousness of human life. Killing is part of that reality. Still, even in war there are limits, borders that must not be crossed. Those borders are often perilously thin, and in the smoke and heat of battle, it is all too easy to lose sight of them. A soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine is still required to keep his humanity close. He is obligated to honor moral codes, yes, even in the midst of war. We all know that this is difficult, but most are able to remain moral.
Some situations are harder than others. It is those situations that require a bravery even greater than that which is usually required on the field of battle. The inner struggle of conscience defines who we are in all circumstances. Still, we are not perfect and sometimes we need the courageous example like that which Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson showed on that day in 1968 to keep us on the right side of those tenuous borders.
Yes, we lift up those who risk their lives for their fellow soldiers in the heat of battle with obvious selflessness and love for their brothers and sisters. And we do so properly. But it is also good and proper that we lift up the immense bravery of a soldier like Hugh Thompson who stepped into the middle of the chaos at My Lai, risking his life and his career in an attempt to call us back to our more noble selves.
What he did that day went against everything that would seem to be traditional. But what he did was the bravest act that was done that day. His actions at My Lai and in the difficult years after, point us to our better angels, precisely because it was done in the most difficult of circumstances. He did the right thing, he responded to his conscience. He knew the risks to his career, to his freedom, and potentially to his own life, but he stood his ground, and later, endured the consequences of those actions and in doing so, proved himself to be a true hero.
Thompson would retire from the Army in 1983.
Thompson returned to My Lai in 1998 to meet with some of the survivors. In 1999 he received the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. He died in Pineville, Louisiana on January 6, 2006
The Veterans Site wishes to honor Hugh Thompson for his truly uncommon courage. War is an ugly reality, but Hugh Thompson showed us that, even in the midst of war, our humanity and our moral character are still our primary assets.
Rest in Peace good soldier. Hooah!
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.