Hugh Thompson, My Lai Hero, Dies at 62
Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., the man who stopped the My Lai massacre, has died at 62.
Hugh Thompson Jnr, a former US military helicopter pilot who helped stop one of the most infamous massacres of the Vietnam War has died, aged 62.
Mr Thompson and his crew came upon US troops killing civilians at the village of My Lai on 16 March 1968. He put his helicopter down between the soldiers and villagers, ordering his men to shoot their fellow Americans if they attacked the civilians. “There was no way I could turn my back on them,” he later said of the victims. Mr Thompson, a warrant officer at the time, called in support from other US helicopters, and together they airlifted at least nine Vietnamese civilians – including a wounded boy – to safety. He returned to headquarters, angrily telling his commanders what he had seen. They ordered soldiers in the area to stop shooting.
But Mr Thompson was shunned for years by fellow soldiers, received death threats, and was once told by a congressman that he was the only American who should be punished over My Lai.
In the 1980s, Clemson University Professor David Egan saw him interviewed in a documentary and began to campaign on his behalf. He persuaded people including Vietnam-era Secretary of State Dean Rusk to lobby the government to honour the helicopter crew. Mr Thompson and his colleagues Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta were finally awarded the Soldier’s Medal, the highest US miltiary award for bravery when not confronting an enemy. Mr Thompson was close to tears as he accepted the award in 1998 “for all the men who served their country with honour on the battlefields of South-East Asia”. Mr Andreotta’s award was posthumous. He was killed in Vietnam less than a month after My Lai.
Mr Colburn was at Mr Thompson’s bedside when he died, the Associated Press reported. Mr Thompson died of cancer. He had been ill for some time and was removed from life support earlier in the week.
A U.S. News profile put it this way:
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.”
It’s a true shame that it took the Army twenty years to recognize this man’s bravery which, to use the cliqued boilerplate of most medals, were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service. [Update: Indeed, the medal citation ended: Warrant Officer Thompson’s heroism exemplified the highest standards of personal courage and ethical conduct, reflecting distinct credit on him and the United States Army.”]
Rest in piece, Chief.
CW4 BillT has more at Castle Argghhh!
- Hugh Thompson, “CNN – ‘Blood and fire’ of My Lai remembered 30 years later , ” CNN, March 16, 1998.
- Nell Boyce, “Heroes: Hugh Thompson: Reviled, then honored, for his actions at My Lai,” U.S. News, Aug. 20, 2001.
- “Cold War: Chat with Hugh Thompson,” CNN.
- Scott Simon, “NPR : Hugh Thompson: A Hero at My Lai,” NPR Weekend Edition, May 22, 2004.
- “Forgotten heroes of My Lai receive honors,” CNN, March 6, 1998.
- “Heroes of My Lai,” UMKC Law School.
- MAJ Tony Raimondo, “Four Hours in My Lai: A Case Study,” School of the Americas, Fort Benning, Georgia.
- “Murder in the name of war – My Lai,” BBC, July 20, 1998.
- Series: “Special Report: MyLai,” BBC, March 1998.
- “The My Lai Massacre ,” American Experience, PBS, March 29, 2005.
Previously at OTB: