America loses one of its great moral heroes of the Vietnam War.
There are different types of courage. The courage required to stand up forcibly for what is right while surrounded by your peers who have crossed the line into dishonorable and illegal behavior is one form. It’s called moral courage. It is rarer than physical courage in the heat of combat. Rarer still are examples of moral courage in combat situations where all discipline and leadership have broken down.
Hugh Thompson, who died of cancer in January at age 62, was one of the U.S. military’s towering examples of moral courage on the battlefield. On the morning of March 16, 1968, he was fly-ing an OH-23 light obser-vation helicopter in the vicinity of My Lai, while ground troops were sweeping the area. His mission was to recon and mark enemy ground targets for two Huey gunships flying top cover.
Thompson, his door gunner, Lawrence Colburn, and crew chief, Glenn Andreotta, had trouble making sense of what they were seeing below. There were piles of Vietnamese bodies and no weapons. Spotting a wounded woman in the road, they marked her position with smoke and radioed for help. Then they watched in horror as an American captain nudged the woman with his boot and shot her.
Thompson and his fellow crewmen were determined to stop the massacre. In what has become one of the defining events of the Vietnam War, Thompson landed his helicopter between a line of Americans and a group of helpless children and old people. Leaving his aircraft, Thompson confronted the lieutenant in charge of the ground troops and demanded assistance getting the civilians to safety. When the lieutenant said that he would get them out with a hand grenade, a furious Thompson responded that he would get them out himself. Instructing Colburn and Andreotta to train the aircraft’s weapons on the out-of-control Americans, Thompson coaxed nine Vietnamese, including five children, to leave with him. He then called in the gunships to fly the Vietnamese to safety.
Shaken to the core by what he had experienced, Thompson reported the incident to his chain of command, and later gave statements to a colonel sent to investigate the incident. Nothing ever happened, and Thompson came to believe that the Army had covered it up. Outraged, he threatened to quit flying. But he didn’t, and during his tour he was shot down five times. The last crash broke his back. After Vietnam he returned to the Aviation School as an instructor pilot.
When the My Lai story finally broke in 1970, the Army assigned Lt. Gen. William Peers to investigate. Thompson’s eyewitness testimony was essential to Peers’ investigation, as well as the subsequent congressional investigation and the court-martial of Lieutenant William Calley. Thompson’s reward for telling the truth was ostracism. Although he remained in the Army until he retired in 1983, he was shunned by his peers, received anonymous telephone death threats, and had dead and mutilated animals dropped on his front porch. During the closed congressional investigation, one senior U.S. legislator remarked that if anyone was going to jail, it was going to be “that helicopter pilot.”
As happens all too infrequently, Thompson lived to see himself vindicated. In 1998 the Army awarded him and Colburn the Soldier’s Medal, the highest American decoration for noncombat valor. True to his character, Thompson refused to accept it unless the Army also made a posthumous award to Andreotta, who had been shot down and killed three weeks after My Lai. Thompson also became a lecturer on battlefield ethics at West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy.
As Colonel William Eckhardt, the chief prosecutor for the My Lai courts-martial noted: “When you have evil, sometimes in the midst of it you will have incredible, selfless good. And that’s Hugh Thompson.”