Published on January 6, 2013
By Thomas Van Hare
The massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam War was a horrific event. US troops of the Army’s Americal Division, acting under orders (or their interpretation of orders, at least), entered a small village and murdered at least 347 unarmed, innocent civilians (some counts put the death toll at 504). With cold, calculating brutality, the soldiers went from house to house, shooting everyone, including women and children.
The story of My Lai is justifiably considered to be one of the darkest in the history of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Yet there is one positive story that is almost never told, despite the extensive reporting of the events of that day. This is the story of an Army helicopter pilot and Warrant Officer — WO1 Hugh C. Thompson, Jr. That day, WO1 Thompson and his two-man crew witnessed the massacre first hand. What is sometimes reported is that despite pressure to cover up the details in the aftermath, they took a stand and refused to “look the other way”. What is rarely reported is what they did as the massacre unfolded. As it happened, even at risk to his own life and that of his crew, WO1 Thompson not only held the higher moral ground that day, but even actively intervened to save lives.
WO1 Thompson’s Helicopter and Mission
Today in history, on January 7, 2006, marks the passing of a truly great American, Hugh C. Thompson, Jr. It isn’t likely that there will be great fanfare or that his funeral will be attended by thousands, or even by a few of the media. Nonetheless, the life of this American hero deserves recognition and therefore, on this date, we take time to recognize his actions that day at My Lai. Indeed, this story is written not just to document this critical piece of history, but to help document the exemplary actions of WO1 Thompson that day. What he did stands as a reminder of the power of an individual to intervene and do good in this world, even when witnessing and being directly ordered to take part in the most extreme atrocities.
On March 16, 1968, as most other days in Vietnam, WO1 Thompson was flying a Hiller OH-23 Raven observation helicopter. He was assigned to Company B, known as the “Warlords”. The unit was part of the 23rd Infantry Division (“Americal”). He was tasked to support Task Force Barker in its mission clearing a suspected Viet Cong presence from a series of villages in the Quang Ngai Province.
With its small size and three-man crew (pilot, flight engineer and door-gunner), his OH-23 Raven could move quickly and hover close to the earth, spotting enemy movements, avoiding engagement, and moving quickly around the battlefield. This was a mission that WO1 Thompson had been performing since his arrival in Vietnam around Christmas of 1967.
Despite his experiences over the previous months, nothing could have prepared him for what he saw that day.
First Evidence of Wrongdoing
That morning, WO1 Thompson took off in his OH-23 Raven and performed a first flight over village the US Army called “My Lai 4”. This was where, unbeknownst to him, the worst of the atrocities were to be committed. WO1 Thompson flight took no enemy fire and he concluded quickly that there was little or no Viet Cong presence in the village.
Shortly thereafter, he spotted two Viet Cong guerrillas a short distance outside the village. With his helicopter and with the presence of his escort — two UH-1D Huey gunship helicopters — he was able to use a show of force and bring the pair of Viet Cong to surrender. The two men were then taken captive and airlifted to a forward station for interrogation and processing. While picking up the two surrending men, he made note of two wounded other Viet Cong located nearby. As they were unable to move or fight, he marked their location with a green smoke marker so as to attract the attention of the ground forces — a green smoke signal meant that the men needed assistance.
After returning to My Lai 4, he noted that the two Viet Cong he had marked earlier were now dead. At first, he thought that strange, but then he started reconnoiter around the village. Approximately 200 meters south of My Lai 4, he spotted a wounded woman in a rice paddy. Thinking this to be an unintentional civilian casualty from the Americal Division’s fight with the Viet Cong in the area, he dropped another green smoke marker and moved off.
As he flew nearby, he watched as a US officer approached the woman. Later, in testimony, he identified later as Captain Ernest Medina, the commanding officer of C Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment. As WO1 Thompson held his position in a low hover, he observed Capt. Medina prod the woman with his boot to confirm she was alive. Then he watched as Capt. Medina leaned forward and simply shot her dead.
Witness to Massacre
WO1 Thompson then flew over to a nearby irrigation ditch to hover in the cover it provided so as to think through what he had just witnessed. He arrived over the ditch to find it filled with the bodies of numerous civilians. He realized then that what he had just seen in the rice paddy was happening on a grand scale in the village. Try as he might, he couldn’t make sense of it. He decided, however, that he wanted witnesses to support a formal report that he would file after landing. Therefore, he radioed his two covering UH-1 Hueys gunships that were flying escort higher above (piloted by Dan Millians and Brian Livingstone):
“It looks to me like there’s an awful lot of unnecessary killing going on down there. Something ain’t right about this. There’s bodies everywhere. There’s a ditch full of bodies that we saw. There’s something wrong here.”
The Personal Decision to Take Action
Suddenly, he spotted some movement in the ditch among the bodies. Some were still alive. US troops were nearby and so he set down his OH-23 Raven on a flat spot of land nearby. Leaving his helicopter, he moved to climb down into the ditch. His landed helicopter attracted some interest and an Army sergeant named David Mitchell approached. WO1 Thompson asked how they might assist the wounded and was shocked when Mitchell suggested instead that he simply put them out of their misery. Outranking the sergeant, WO1 Thompson realized that he was in a position to ensure that the sergeant couldn’t carry out his intent.
However, just then the platoon leader (1st Platoon, C Company), Second Lieutenant William Calley, walked up. As WO1 Thompson later reported, their conversation went like this:
- 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 (sarcastically): “Yeah, great job.”
- Calley (threatening): “You better get back in that chopper and mind your own business.”
- Thompson: “You ain’t heard the last of this!”
WO1 Thompson returned to his helicopter, recognizing that Lt. Calley was a superior officer and had just issued a serious, personal threat to not intervene. Angry at what was happening and feeling powerless to stop it on the spot, he took off in his helicopter and headed away. As he flew from the area, his crew chief in the OH-23 Raven, Specialist Glenn Andreotta, reported that he had just seen Lt. Calley killing the few injured who were still alive in the ditch (for the record, WO1 Thompson’s door-gunner was Specialist Lawrence Colburn, who also participated equally in the heroic intervention that day).
Saving Lives by Standing Up to Atrocity
WO1 Thompson then spotted a group of 10 Vietnamese women and children fleeing My Lai. They were heading toward a small bunker. An US Army infantry squad was pursuing them on foot, clearly intent on adding to the body count of dead civilians. Thinking that the world had gone mad, WO1 Thompson quickly set his helicopter down near the bunker. He turned to his two crewmen and, recognizing the risk he was taking in intervening, ordered, “Y’all cover me! If these bastards open up on me or these people, you open up on them. Promise me!”
Then he leapt from the cockpit and moved to intervene as the soldiers ran up. Immediately, he was challenged by the 2nd Platoon’s leader, Lt. Stephen Brooks, who demanded that Thompson step aside. However, despite that Lt. Brooks was the senior officer, WO1 Thompson stood his ground. Later in testimony, he reported that the conversation went like this:
- Thompson: “Hey listen, hold your fire. I’m going to try to get these people out of this bunker. Just hold your men here.”
- Brooks: “Yeah, we can help you get ’em out of that bunker — with a hand grenade!”
- Thompson: “Just hold your men here. I think I can do better than that.”
Somehow, Lt. Brooks backed down. On WO1 Thompson’s demand, he took his squad and moved on. WO1 Thompson then called in the two supporting UH-1 Huey gunships to evacuate the civilians from the bunker. This required two flights by one helicopter while the other remained overhead for combat support in the event that any real combat broke out. Despite facing personal risk from other US Army forces, WO1 Thompson remained with the civilians until all were airlifted to safety. They were taken to a nearby US Army fire base.
Reporting and Ending the Massacre
With the evacuation of the civilians complete, WO1 Thompson returned to his helicopter and took back off. He realized that he was running low on fuel. Nonetheless, he landed to pick up a wounded 4 year old boy to transport for medical care. With the boy on board, he headed back to his base.
Once there, rather than refuel and return to My Lai 4 in accordance with his orders, he reported the massacre to his superior officers. Emphatically, he begged them to intervene. He provided the details of the events as he had just witnessed them. The report came as a shock to the senior officers who were present. WO1 Thompson’s heated reporting was quickly passed up the chain of command until it reached the operation’s overall commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker (head of the aptly named Task Force Barker).
Lt Col. Barker called on the radio to Capt. Medina at My Lai 4 and asked for an immediate report of what was going on. Capt. Medina, on getting the radio call, sensed that the massacre had to end. He curtly replied that he would look into it. Then, switching off the transmitter, he turned to his men and issued an order to his unit, Charlie Company, to “knock off the killing”.
Aftermath and Convictions
As a result of his report, WO1 Thompson was summoned to brief the senior commanders overseeing all of the 20th Infantry’s operations in Vietnam. WO1 Thompson found himself standing in front of Col. Oran Henderson, commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade. Col. Henderson had oversight responsibility above Task Force Barker. Without hesitation, he provided a detailed, extensive, and uncompromising report.
On hearing the details of what had happened, Col. Henderson ordered that Task Force Barker cancel its follow-on missions to other surrounding villages in the Quang Ngai Province. The Colonel’s order that day probably saved hundreds of additional civilian lives. It seems likely that the massacres would have been repeated multiple times over during the coming days as Capt. Medina and others “interpreted” the orders they had received in their own unique way. According to later assessments, Capt. Medina’s understanding was that the orders meant that he was to kill any civilian populations in the area that were supporting Viet Cong operations. He viewed this as part of a broader “pacification” program.
Despite the extraordinary nature of the atrocity, the US Army’s subsequent investigation took more than a year and a half to begin. Strangely, despite overwhelming evidence, the Army prosecuted only a handful of those responsible for the so-called My Lai Massacre. Facing overwhelming evidence of command responsibility that focused on Capt. Medina and others surrounding him and with clear evidence of complicity of those directly under his command, only Lt. Calley was ultimately convicted for the atrocities committed that day. Even that conviction, however, was not as severe as it should have been. Lt. Calley’s sentence was reduced because he was “following orders”. Procedural rules limited further action in the investigative and legal process because the evidence was considered “corrupted” by congressional testimony taken under promise of immunity.
Although most likely the claim that the evidence was “corrupted” could not have withstood serious legal scrutiny, particularly in light of case law established after World War II during the trials of Nazi and Japanese war criminals, the US Army decided not to proceed. Given the politically charged nature of the Vietnam War and ongoing tenor of domestic protests back at home in the USA, the My Lai Massacre, as it quickly came to be known, was viewed as a polarizing, political event. For the Army, that fact transcended the simple question of prosecuting those responsible for what constituted outright war crimes.
Putting these Events into Context
Ultimately, the actions of WO1 Thompson and the others that day at My Lai stand as an example that should be studied, not ignored as has been the case. By his actions and reports, WO1 Thompson not only saved lives that day, but put an end to the atrocity. Amidst the horrors of the massacre, WO1 Thompson’s example of courage and morality, even at grave personal risk, uniquely demonstrate the true nature of the US Army. Indeed, in the aftermath of the My Lai Massacre, the US Army changed how it instructs military officers about personal responsibility, following orders, and war crimes.
The lessons of what happened at My Lai should be global and not strictly limited to the US Military. However, other countries not only allow but even endorse such atrocities, even in the most egregious circumstances. Sometimes, soldiers are directed to fire upon civilian populations — and they do so, believing wrongly that by following orders they are absolved of responsibility. Modern history is replete with such examples — the Russians willfully murdered over 2 million civilians in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Today, with Russian support, the Syrian Army and Air Force carries out regular massacres of civilians in villages, towns, and cities.
For them, however, WO1 Thompson’s example of intervention on moral grounds stands head and shoulders above their own experience. Either they lack the will to reject orders, fear the consequences, or so dehumanize their victims that they do not consider their actions to be war crimes. Sadly, WO1 Thompson’s singular example of courage and humanity during the darkest moment of the Vietnam War is a lesson lost on most of the rest of the world.
A Final Note
A month after WO1 Hugh Thompson lost his long battle with cancer, Cong. Charles Boustany of Louisiana stood to honor him in the US Congress. On February 8, 2006, Cong. Boustany, from the floor of Congress, spoke with honesty and conviction — “United States has lost a true hero, and the State of Louisiana has lost a devoted leader and dear friend.” He went on to note, “We are all humbly indebted to Hugh’s service, and a grateful Nation honors his memory.”
One More Bit of Aviation History
WO1 Thompson served the bulk of his remaining tour in Vietnam before finally being sent home with broken back suffered in a helicopter crash due. His injuries were the direct result of combat action and enemy fire. In all, five times during his deployment in Vietnam, his helicopter was shot out from under him. Each time he survived. Each time, he volunteered to return to duty and flew repeatedly on missions that were designed to draw out enemy fire. He flew at low level, taking their fire and, in doing so, he pointed out the targets to other aircraft nearby.
Above all, despite his record of extraordinary bravery under fire, it was WO1 Thompson’s actions at My Lai that that mattered most to him. In later years, he commented, “These people were looking at me for help and there was no way I could turn my back on them.”
In 1998, Hugh Thompson was awarded the Soldiers Medal for his actions that day, the highest military award for non-combat action. At the medal ceremony, Army Maj. Gen. Michael Ackerman stated, “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.” Maj. Gen. Ackerman also noted that WO1 Thompson and his crew “set the standard for all soldiers to follow.” In large part with reference to WO1 Thompson’s actions that day, today’s US Army manuals publish the moral standard of conduct for all US Army soldiers, in the field and at home.
In this way, WO1 Thompson’s legacy continues to this very day.