Hugh Thompson Jr., a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot died at age 62 on January 6, 2006.
Early in the morning of March 16, 1968, Thompson, door-gunner Lawrence Colburn and crew chief Glenn Andreotta came upon U.S. ground troops killing Vietnamese civilians in and around the village of My Lai.
Thompson flew over the northeast corner of the village and spotted a group of about ten civilians, including children, running toward a homemade bomb shelter. Pursuing them were soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, C Company. Realizing that the soldiers intended to murder the Vietnamese, Thompson landed his aircraft between them and the villagers. Thompson turned to Colburn and Andreotta and told them that if the Americans began shooting at the villagers or him, they should fire their M60 machine guns at the Americans: "Y'all cover me! If these bastards open up on me or these people, you open up on them. Promise me!" He then dismounted to confront the 2nd Platoon's leader, Stephen Brooks. Thompson told him he wanted help getting the peasants out of the bunker.
According to Thompson's gunner, Spec. Lawrence Colburn, "Glenn and I got out of the aircraft, took out the guns. Hugh walked over to this lieutenant [Brooks], and I could tell they were in a shouting match. I thought they were going to get in a fist fight. He told me later what they said. Thompson: 'Let's get these people out of this bunker and get 'em out of here.' Brooks: 'We'll get 'em out with hand grenades.' Thompson: 'I can do better than that. Keep your people in place. My guns are on you.' Hugh was outranked, so this was not good to do, but that's how committed he was to stopping it."
After coaxing the 11 Vietnamese out of the bunker, Thompson persuaded the pilots of the two gunships flying as his escort to evacuate them. While Thompson was returning to base to refuel, Andreotta spotted movement in an irrigation ditch filled with approximately 100 bodies. The helicopter again landed and the men dismounted to search for survivors. After wading through the remains of the dead and dying men, women and children, Andreotta extracted a live boy. Thompson flew the survivor to the hospital in Quang Ngai.
Upon returning back to their base at about 1100, Thompson heatedly reported the massacre to his superiors. His allegations of civilian killings quickly reached Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker, the operation's overall commander. Barker radioed his executive officer to find out from Captain Medina what was happening on the ground. Medina then gave the order to Charlie Company to "knock off the killing".
In late 1969, 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-SC), 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.In 1998, the Army honored the three men with the prestigious Soldier's Medal, the highest award for bravery not involving conflict with an enemy. Thompson and his crew's actions have been used as an example in the ethics manuals of U.S. and European militaries.
"He was treated like a traitor for 30 years, so he was conditioned to just shut up and be quiet. Every bit of information I got from him, I had to drag it out of him."
Trent Angers, Thompson's biographer
"What a great man. There are so many people today walking around alive because of him, not only in Vietnam, but people who kept their units under control under other circumstances because they had heard his story. We may never know just how many lives he saved."
Col. Tom Kolditz, head of the Army academy's behavioral sciences and leadership department
"You can't imagine what courage it took to do what he did. "
Seymour Hersh, journalist who "broke" the My Lai massacre story.