'Hero' faces the horror of experiences in My Lai
By PAUL CLANCY
2000, The Virginian-Pilot
NORFOLK - "I do not profess to be a hero. I'm not a hero," Hugh C.
Thompson Jr. contended Monday. To him, it's as simple as that.
But others think differently.
On March 16, 1968, Warrant Officer Thompson, flying a Scout helicopter over
a hamlet known as My Lai, noticed the bodies of Vietnamese civilians lying
in a ditch. Then as he and his crew members watched in horror, more
villagers were gunned down in cold blood.
Thompson "kind of snappedI was not thinking from then on out," he told
officers and alumni at the Armed Forces Staff College on Hampton Boulevard.
"I saw Americans approaching an opening to a bunker where I could see an
old man, an old woman and a little baby," Thompson said. "I realized they
had about 15 seconds to live."
Thompson set his helicopter down between the civilians and the advancing
"I told my crew chief and gunner, 'If they open up, you open up. Y'all
cover me,' " he said.
For several agonizing moments, a standoff among American troops took place,
but it ended as Thompson had hoped.
"I do thank God every day that everybody played it cool," Thompson told
guests at the Hampton Roads Navy League and the Armed Forces Staff College
"I would hate to think what would have happened if they'd opened up on
them," he said.
Already, 504 villagers lay dead, but Thompson's actions were credited with
stopping the carnage there.
Thompson's intervention is now a textbook case in doing the right thing in
a horrendous military situation. But at the time, Thompson was going on
After warning the Americans to hold their fire, the unarmed Thompson walked
to the bunker and convinced the frightened civilians to come out. Then,
realizing there were more people than he could carry out, he called in
another helicopter and had them flown to safety.
As he was leaving, his crew chief, Glenn Andreotta, spotted movement among
the dead villagers in the ditch, and Thompson set the chopper down.
"Glenn had such a love for human life, it was unbelievable," Thompson
said. "He bolted out of that aircraft like he was driven by some force. He
got into the ditch, stepping over people, stepping on them, and came back
out with this little kid who was about 3 years old."
They took the bloodied child to a hospital and then returned to report the
terrible story to their commanders.
As a result, the assault was called off and a long agony of reckoning,
re-evaluations for the Army and other military branches began.
But Thompson received no hero's welcome home. In fact, according to "The
Forgotten Hero of My Lai, the Hugh Thompson Story," a book published last
year by Trent Angers, powerful members of Congress, including the chairmen
of the House and Senate armed services committees, tried to sabotage the
prosecution of those responsible, and instead sought to have Thompson and
his crew court-martialed for threatening the lives of fellow soldiers. That
and threats on his life made Thompson's return home to Lafayette, La., a
Finally, 30 years after My Lai, Thompson, along with Lawrence Colburn, the
gunner, and Andreotta, who was killed three weeks after the incident, were
awarded the Soldier's Medal, the highest award for bravery not involving
conflict with an enemy.
Thompson has been asked to lecture on military ethics at the nation's top
military academies and war colleges. He has received the Courage of
Conscience Award sponsored by the Peace Abbey in Massachusetts and
affiliated with Harvard Divinity School. He's been nominated for the Nobel
Peace Prize by members of Congress from his state.
The Army has had a difficult time facing up to the slaughter, but that is
After hearing Thompson speak, Lt. Col. Kevin S. Donohou, commanding officer
at Fort Story, said, "The Army has recognized that this is a terrible
blemish on what we are, and I think the leadership is willing to look at
the bad and accept the fact that there's going to be some ugliness if it
means that it won't happen again."
Donohou said he taught military leadership and ethics to 300 West Point cadets.
"And every one of them was forced to put themselves in Hugh Thompson's
position and try to articulate and understand why he did what he did, and
would they have done the same thing or not," Donohou said.
The feeling in the Army, he said, is "Let's take My Lai and let's put it up
there in all its ugliness, let the cadets see what happened, and talk about
"Just because your boss and your boss's boss and your boss's boss's boss
all seem to be saying it's right, it's still wrong," Donohou said.
Stephen H. Ries, a professor of joint military education at the Armed
Forces College, said the case "still has a deep scar to it that causes
people to not want to talk about it."
But, he said, "We want to study it so we won't repeat it."
As Thompson told his audience, "Back this school any way you can. People
who are still in school, still in the military, it's your job not to let
anything like this ever happen again."
Reach Paul Clancy at 222-5132 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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