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.