The Hero of My Lai

Hugh Tompson Jr.jpg

W/O Hugh Thompson – 1968

This past week was the 47th anniversary of the My Lai massacre, which occurred on March 16, 1968.

I had been discharged from the Army the previous November after doing four years . My brother, who had been drafted for 2 years did a “tour” in the war zone.

There are so many young today to whom the Vietnam War is ancient history. Videos of young looking guys in different green uniforms, different helmets, open helicopters accompanied by ‘60s “Fortunate One” songs and Country Joe. They can relate as much as they can relate to Napoleon’s hat. They can’t.

Fully one third of the combat deaths in Vietnam were conscripts – drafted off of the streets of Flint, Michigan or Jersey City, Tucson or Oklahoma City, sent for basic training, perhaps infantry training and dropped in the jungle. The son of a butcher or a grocery store manager would have to kill or be killed by the son of a rice farmer. No one faces conscription today.

So what would you do if you saw a war crime committed with your own eyes? Right in front of you with no effort to hide it from you – as if you didn’t matter?

Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson did, that long ago day at My Lai.

On the morning of March 16, 1968, Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson was flying reconnaissance over “Pinkville,” where intelligence said Viet Cong were hiding. The intelligence was wrong.  My Lai was a neutral village of rice farmers, just trying to get by.  While he drew no fire to indicate that the enemy was present, each pass made Thompson more aware that something was terribly wrong on the ground.

Thompson realized that U.S. soldiers were slaughtering civilians that day, shooting civilian men, women and children in a ditch. Thompson landed his helicopter, confronting Lt. William Calley and Captain Ernest Medina and was essentially told to mind his own business – they were just “following orders”.

“Thompson: What’s going on here, Lieutenant?
Calley: This is my business.
Thompson: What is this? Who are these people?
Calley: Just following orders.
Thompson: Orders? Whose orders?
Calley: Just following…
Thompson: But, these are human beings, unarmed civilians, sir.
Calley: Look Thompson, this is my show. I’m in charge here. It ain’t your concern.
Thompson: Yeah, great job.
Calley: You better get back in that chopper and mind your own business.
Thompson: You ain’t heard the last of this!”

As Thompson was speaking to Calley, Calley’s subordinate, Sergeant David Mitchell, fired into the irrigation ditch killing any civilians still moving

Thompson took off, refueled and returned to the ditch taking a small girl who was still alive out from under the dead bodies and flying her to a nearby hospital. Thompson then reported what he had seen to his company commander, Major Frederic W. Watke, using terms such as “murder” and “needless and unnecessary killings”. Thompson’s statements were confirmed by other helicopter pilots and air crew members.

There was murder right in front of them.

“Then we saw a young girl about twenty years old lying on the grass. We could see that she was unarmed and wounded in the chest. We marked her with smoke because we saw a squad not too far away. The smoke was green, meaning it’s safe to approach. Red would have meant the opposite. We were hovering six feet off the ground not more than twenty feet away when Captain Medina came over, kicked her, stepped back, and finished her off. He did it right in front of us. When we saw Medina do that, it clicked. It was our guys doing the killing.”

Thompson and his crew, in disbelief and shock, returned to their helicopter and began searching for civilians they could save. They spotted a group of women, children, and old men in the northeast corner of the village fleeing from advancing soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, Company C. Immediately realizing that the soldiers intended to murder the Vietnamese civilians, Thompson landed his helicopter between the advancing ground unit and the villagers. He turned to his two crew members, Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta and told them shoot the men in the 2nd Platoon if they attempted to kill any of the fleeing civilians. While Colburn and Andreotta focused their guns on the 2nd Platoon, Thompson located as many civilians as he could, persuaded them to follow him to safer location, and ensured their evacuation with the help of two UH-1 Huey pilots with whom he was friends.

Finally a cease fire order came from headquarters as word of Thompson’s report filtered up the chain of command.

The Army tried to cover it up with the usual “several hundred V.C. were attacked and killed today”. Thompson was quickly awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with a concocted citation, which he threw away. The operation at My Lai was deemed a military success; Captain Medina got a letter of commendation. General Westmoreland added his “outstanding”; “dealt the enemy heavy blow”. Later, he reversed himself by writing in his memoir that it was “the conscious massacre of defenseless babies, children, mothers, and old men in a kind of diabolical slow-motion nightmare that went on for the better part of a day, with a cold-blooded break for lunch”.

The official report several months later indicated that some 20 civilians had been “inadvertently” killed in the fog of war. Colin Powell, then a 31 year old Major added his white-wash.

The secret however, could not be kept. Several soldiers wrote to their congressional representatives concerned over the senseless killing of civilians throughout the war zone. Most in Congress ignored the letters – but not Congressman Mo Udall, Senator Ed Brooke and bless his heart, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who opened investigations. Thompson was called to testify.  And he told them what he did and what he saw.

The media got hold of the story – and the pictures. The pictures did not break in the New York Times. Nor the Washington Post. Neither paper wanted to run the story.

The pictures and the story broke in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in November 1969.

Courts Martial followed. Fourteen officers were charged with suppressing information – most of the charges were dropped. Once officer went to trial and was acquited.

Captain Medina was acquitted of all charges.

Lt. William Calley was charged and convicted of the murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians. He got a life sentence. President Nixon immediately released him from prison placing him under house arrest at Ft. Benning. He served three and a half years.

Other enlisted men charged with murder could not be tried as they had been discharged and could not be required to stand trial for crimes while in the military.

Thompson was hated by many in the American public for his involvement in testifying against United States Army personnel. He recounted in a CBS 60 Minutes television program in 2004, “I’d received death threats over the phone…Dead animals on your porch, mutilated animals on your porch some mornings when you get up.”

It took 30 years for the United States to honor Hugh Thompson, awarding him and his crew the Soldier’s Medal in 1998, the highest decoration not involving combat with the enemy. The Army wanted to do it quietly and hush-hush. Thompson refused. It had to be public and his crew had to be there as well. President Clinton awarded the medal. Glenn Andreotta received the medal posthumously; he had been killed in Vietnam one month after defending civilians at My Lai.

Thompson later served as a counselor in the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs, and gave a lecture at the United States Naval Academy in 2003 and the United States Military Academy in 2005 on Professional Military Ethics. He also spoke at the United States Air Force Academy and to United States Marine Corps officers at Quantico. Thompson and his crew’s actions have been used as an example in the ethics manuals of U.S. and European militaries.

At the age of 62, after extensive treatment for cancer, Thompson was removed from life support and died on January 6, 2006, at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Pineville, Louisiana. Colburn came from Atlanta to be at his bedside. Thompson was buried in Lafayette, Louisiana, with full military honors.   On February 8, Congressman Charles Boustany (R-La.) made a statement in Congress honoring Thompson, stating that the “United States has lost a true hero, and the State of Louisiana has lost a devoted leader and dear friend.”

The memorial to the My Lai dead in Vietnam lists 504 names from ages 1 through 80.



About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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12 Responses to The Hero of My Lai

  1. There were hundreds of My Lai type massacres – perhaps thousands. The massacre of civilians in Vietnam was a routine occurrence. Officers deliberately encouraged them to inflate body counts. Nick Turse writes about this in Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam:


    • Norman Pilon says:

      I agree:

      Vietnam was My Lai. By setting this particular massacre apart from all others, the impression is that this sort of thing was unusual, and thus it becomes exculpatory of the manner in which America conducted the ‘rest’ of the war.

      The truth is that the enemy was indeed the Vietnamese peasantry, as are all the peasants of the Third World who only live on $1.00 or so per day.

      It wasn’t that long ago in historical terms that humanity lived on no dollars per day at all. How did they do it? And many lived rather well, as many still manage to.

      If people can fend for themselves, they have no masters. In the ‘jungle,’ they are independent.

      Thus they must be hounded out of the jungle and off of their tiny farms so that ‘we’ can brighten their future with a God given ‘right’ to a money wage. Except in times of recession. When many have no jobs. And then it’s just their own fault for lacking initiative.

      For certain, My Lai should be remembered. And Thompson, also.

      But My Lai recalled as the emblem of what all wars are in their day to day brutality: it’s about mercilessly separating people from their means of life so as to drive them into the beckoning arms of global capital, and nothing more.

      As for Thompson, his deed was indeed heroic in the circumstances. But what about those who out of conviction dodged the draft? To my mind, equally heroic. The kind of heroism that in fact does more for genuine human freedom than any act of so called martial valor in behalf of any invading and occupying army.

      But on the battle field, the only soldiering that could be considered to be “ethical” — if that word means anything at all — is that in behalf of those whose way and means of life is to be obliterated. By this yardstick, the Vietnamese fighting the American aggression were the true heroes.

      And then what of those among the slaughtered of My Lai who, denied of any recourse to arms, faced their murderers with the dignity that belongs only to those who know the certainty of their imminent death while gauging the utter absurdity of the madness driving their assailants on to the task of their butchery? Are they not also heroes? If this isn’t only about Thompson, but also about the people of My Lai.

      Your piece, as usual, Torrito, was quite good. As always, thought provoking. And wrenching.

      BTW: I do not in any way discount the fact that the young American men and women who are conscripted into the U.S. military — by economic or legal necessity — are every bit as much the victims and the casualties of war as the people they are set against. Their circumstances are a trap from which there is scant room for escape. The guilty ones are those who command and deceive the nation.


      • toritto says:

        Hi Doc and Norman – We are in full agreement that My Lai was not at all unusual – I’m sure it happened all the time. Ample evidence has been presented; in fact Doc linked a book devoted to the subject,

        My post however is about Hugh Thompson and what HE did. It is not possible to discuss his actions without mention of My Lai – not to infer that it was the ONLY and therefore exculpatory atrocity. Thompson had a moral compass; he knew a crime when he saw one. And he did something about it. He didn’t just get in his chopper and fly away thinking “Hey it’s not my problem”.

        “Thompson was summoned to Washington DC and appeared before a special closed hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. There, he was sharply criticized by Congressmen, in particular Chairman Mendel Rivers (D-S.C.), who were anxious to play down allegations of a massacre by American troops. Rivers publicly stated that he felt Thompson was the only soldier at My Lai who should be punished (for turning his weapons on fellow American troops) and unsuccessfully attempted to have him court-martialed. As word of his actions became publicly known, Thompson started receiving hate mail, death threats and mutilated animals on his doorstep.”

        We know about My Lai because of Thompson and his crew. The other thousands of murders are hidden from our eyes.

        Many thanks Doc and Norman for reading and commenting. Best regards


        Liked by 1 person

  2. sojourner says:

    I was eighteen, and it made the papers here, also. No mention of Thompson, however, which isn’t surprising,

    I had one friend killed there, and several others who came back insane.


  3. toritto says:

    P.S. – for Norman – as far as draft dodging, I had two brothers. Of the three of us, two of us served. My youngest brother simply went awol when he got his deployment orders. He was picked up by the MPs, charged with being awol, given non-judicial punishment and released. He simply left again. The MPs finally got tired of picking him up; they had too many to look for.

    So we had all stripes in our family. Regards


  4. Excellent article, and discussion. Thank you for this.


  5. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks for highlighting such genuine heroism and moral courage. Regards Thom.


  6. Elizabeth says:

    I’m 71 yo and remember reading about the My Lai massacres years ago! I never realised then that in the middle of it all was a war hero who never got recognised! Wow that is such a story….should be turned into a full length film! But I suppose it would never be allowed to go on air! Such atrocities and such lies surround us all, even more so today!

    Liked by 1 person

    • toritto says:

      Hi Elizabeth! Glad you liked. Sorry, but I see they took a couple of the pictures down. I’ve since learned that either the link to the pics needs to be incorporated into the post or copied into my computer and using the add media button placed in the post.

      Thompson was indeed a hero. Come again anytime!
      Regards from Florida


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