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!


Further Reading:

Previously at OTB:

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    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.

    It continues today: Spec. Darby, who blew the whistle on Abu Ghraib, is a pariah in his own town.

    If Bush had a shred of decency, he would long ago have appeared on a platform with Darby, praising him for coming forward.

  2. Steve Plunk says:

    It is simply unrealistic to compare My Lai and Abu Ghraib.

  3. dutchmarbel says:

    Yes, very unrealistic. My Lai was killing mainly innocents and Abu Ghraib was torturing mainly innocents. Hugh distinction. Killing is much worse than torturing. I think. Or is torturing worse than killing???

    Darn, it is so confusing sometimes. Choices, choices, choices.

  4. Herb says:

    The anit war activists are at it again, In Vietnam and now in Iraq, the anti war extremists spread their hate, discontent, lies and half truths about in order to gain support for their chickensh** self serving, and cowardly and pacifists movements.

    Their cause, brought about the deaths of thousands of our troops in Vietnam and now they are doing the same thing in Iraq.

    I hope each and everyone can sleep with the blood of Americans on their minds.