The word “hero” has been so overused recently as to be almost meaningless. Here is an attempt to recover it.
I thought I remembered about My Lai but I did not remember any of this. Don’t miss the last sentence.
Hugh Thompson, 62, Who Saved Civilians at My Lai, Dies
Obituary by Richard Goldstein
The New York Times January 7, 2006
Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot who rescued Vietnamese civilians during the My Lai massacre, reported the killings to his superior officers in a rage over what he had seen, testified at the inquiries and received a commendation from the Army three decades later, died yesterday in Alexandria, La. He was 62.
The cause was cancer, Jay DeWorth, a spokesman for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center where Mr. Thompson died, told The Associated Press.
On March 16, 1968, Chief Warrant Officer Thompson and his two crewmen were flying on a reconnaissance mission over the South Vietnamese village of My Lai when they spotted the bodies of men, women and children strewn over the landscape.
Mr. Thompson landed twice in an effort to determine what was happening, finally coming to the realization that a massacre was taking place. The second time, he touched down near a bunker in which a group of about 10 civilians were being menaced by American troops. Using hand signals, Mr. Thompson persuaded the Vietnamese to come out while ordering his gunner and his crew chief to shoot any American soldiers who opened fire on the civilians. None did.
Mr. Thompson radioed for a helicopter gunship to evacuate the group, and then his crew chief, Glenn Andreotta, pulled a boy from a nearby irrigation ditch, and their helicopter flew him to safety.
Mr. Thompson told of what he had seen when he returned to his base.
“They said I was screaming quite loud,” he told U.S. News & World Report in 2004. “I threatened never to fly again. I didn’t want to be a part of that. It wasn’t war.”
Mr. Thompson remained in combat, then returned to the United States to train helicopter pilots. When the revelations about My Lai surfaced, he testified before Congress, a military inquiry and the court-martial of Lt. William L. Calley Jr., the platoon leader at My Lai, who was the only soldier to be convicted in the massacre.
When Mr. Thompson returned home, it seemed to him that he was viewed as the guilty party.
“I’d received death threats over the phone,” he told the CBS News program “60 Minutes” in 2004. “Dead animals on your porch, mutilated animals on your porch some mornings when you get up. So I was not a good guy.”
On March 6, 1998, the Army presented the Soldier’s Medal, for heroism not involving conflict with an enemy, to Mr. Thompson; to his gunner, Lawrence Colburn; and, posthumously, to Mr. Andreotta, who was killed in a helicopter crash three weeks after the My Lai massacre.
The citation, bestowed in a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, said the three crewmen landed “in the line of fire between American ground troops and fleeing Vietnamese civilians to prevent their murder.”
On March 16, 1998, Mr. Thompson and Mr. Colburn attended a service at My Lai marking the 30th anniversary of the massacre.
“Something terrible happened here 30 years ago today,” Mr. Thompson was quoted as saying by CNN. “I cannot explain why it happened. I just wish our crew that day could have helped more people than we did.”
Mr. Thompson worked as a veterans’ counselor in Louisiana after leaving military service. A list of his survivors was not immediately available.
Through the years, he continued to speak out, having been invited to West Point and other military installations to tell of the moral and legal obligations of soldiers in wartime.
He was presumably mindful of the ostracism he had faced and the long wait for that medal ceremony in Washington. As he told The Associated Press in 2004: “Don’t do the right thing looking for a reward, because it might not come.”