- HUGH THOMPSON: "During flying around we came across a ditch. It had bodies in it, a lot of them -- women, kids, old men. I remember a thought going through my mind, 'How did these people get in a ditch?' And I finally thought about the Nazis, I guess, and marching everybody down into a ditch and blowing 'em away. Here we are supposed to be the good guys in the white hats. It upset me."
-- A 1989 "Frontline" PBS documentary, Remember My Lai.
- As of January 11, 2006, more than 3,000 blog entries have been posted since the January 6 passing of Hugh Thompson, Jr., the military helicopter pilot who landed his bird in the midst of the March 1968 "My Lai Massacre." He is credited with helping to stop the killing.
The blogs are from Left, Right, Center. They show a national grassroots outpouring over the death of little known 62 year old Thompson. The new blog technology allows a national ceremony of grief and admiration for a man rarely honored in the mainstream media.
The blogs celebrate in a new technology something philosophers and theologians, movies and novels have been honoring from ancient beginnings -- appreciation for those special individuals who answer the call of the moment to risk all -- to do what must be done -- whatever the cost.
Thompson ordered his gunners to shoot American soldiers if the killing of civilians continued. G.I.'s had ran "amuck" to kill more than 500 Vietnamese civilians in the hamlet known as "Pinkville" -- herding them into ditches, raping and shooting young women in what was later described as "a Nazi kind of thing."
Few, if any, shots had been fired that morning at American forces. But the destruction at My Lai was carried out by stressed, poorly led soldiers who had suffered numerous sniper and booby trap attacks -- and viewed civilians in the village as part of the communist war effort.
Thompson's life moved on in obscurity while the anti-establishment whistle blowing journalist Seymour Hersh moved on to fame. Only in the 1990's did the story get fuller play when Thompson finally received military honors.
Thompson refused to condemn the Vietnam War, viewed My Lai as a largely isolated incident, and remained loyal to military culture.
A 1989 "Frontline" PBS documentary, Remember My Lai hosted by Judy Woodruff moved Thompson into the spotlight. A gripping on camera interview with the sometimes weeping ex soldier relived the moments when he moved into action. One result was lobbying to get official recognition for his deeds
- How Hugh Thompson inspired this writer
Thompson's story touched many in different ways.
I taught a unit on media and My Lai at University of Rhode Island -- showing the "Frontline" documentary Remember My Lai to a class of 300 as part of a case study of how a scandal seeps into the mainstream press after military whistle blowers force an internal investigation. Freelancer Hersh had seized upon the story to create a national scandal which helped force the United States out of Vietnam.
The interview with Thompson in the "Frontline" documentary helped inspire my research and writing for the website "American Human Rights Reporting as a Global Watchdog."
- Here is a Guardian account of what happened:
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.
They landed the helicopter in the line of fire between American troops and fleeing Vietnamese civilians and pointed their own guns at the U.S. soldiers to prevent more killings.
Colburn and Andreotta had provided cover for Thompson as he went forward to confront the leader of the U.S. forces. Thompson later coaxed civilians out of a bunker so they could be evacuated, and then landed his helicopter again to pick up a wounded child they transported to a hospital. Their efforts led to the cease-fire order at My Lai.
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. It was a posthumous award for Andreotta, who had been killed in battle three weeks after My Lai.
"It was the ability to do the right thing even at the risk of their personal safety that guided these soldiers to do what they did," Army Maj. Gen. Michael Ackerman said at the 1998 ceremony. The three "set the standard for all soldiers to follow."
Lt. William L. Calley, a platoon leader, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the killings, but served just three years under house arrest when then-President Nixon reduced his sentence.
- 1. In mythology and legend, a man, often of divine ancestry, who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for his bold exploits, and favored by the gods.
2. A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life: soldiers and nurses who were heroes in an unpopular war.
3. A person noted for special achievement in a particular field: the heroes of medicine. See Synonyms at celebrity.
4. The principal male character in a novel, poem, or dramatic presentation.
January 11, 2006
Frederic A. Moritz
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Citation Permitted Only With Credit
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