Snubbed Hero – Hugh C. Thompson, U.S. Army (1943-2006)

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BY DUANE A. VACHON PH.D. – March 16th 1968 a day that most of us have forgotten. It is one of the most shameful days in the long and bloody Vietnam War.  A day that brought disgrace on America.

It was on that fateful day that somewhere between 200 and four hundred innocent children, women and men were massacred in the Vietnamese Hamlet of My Lai.  The exact number has never been confirmed by any authority.


On that morning a young Warrant Officer, Hugh Thompson had been tasked to   provide reconnaissance for a ground operation that was going on in My Lai 4.  Thompson was flying a Scout helicopter and had two gunships that flying cover for him. His job was to recon out in front of the friendly forces draw fire, tell them where the enemy was, and let them take care of it.

Earlier in the morning the village had been softened up with artillery fire prior to the inserting of the assault by troops into the LZ.  Thompson went in with the “slicks” that were carrying troops from Charlie and Bravo company part of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade.

Thompson landed simultaneously right in front of them.  Thompson told a congressional enquiry that as soon as the troops were on the ground he immediately started making passes.  One of the first things he saw was a draft-age male running south of the village with a weapon.  He directed his door gunner to “light up” the male.  The gunner tried but he was a new gunner and he missed the man.  Thompson told the enquiry that was the only enemy that he saw all day.

Thompson continued flying over the village, reconning in front and in the rear, and it didn’t take very long until he and his crew started noticing a large number of bodies everywhere.  Everywhere they looked, they saw bodies.  These were infants, two-, three-, four-, five-year-olds, women, very old men.  What there was not was any draft-age people whatsoever, none, zero.  When you are flying recon you are briefed to look for, draft-age people.  In the follow up investigations that followed the massacre one of Thompson’s crew ask the question, “Were there enemy weapons that day?”  It seems that there was not any weapons captured, that day. No enemy weapons, and a body count that has been anywhere from two to four hundred or five hundred bodies.


Around mid-morning Thompson and his crew watched in horror as an American Army officer walked up to an injured Vietnamese girl, flipped her over with his foot _ and shot her dead. It was his first glimpse of the massacre that led to the court martial of Lt. William Calley, one of the pivotal events as opposition to the war was growing in the United States.

Calley was eventually sentenced to life in prison but his sentence was reduced by President Richard Nixon. He served three years under house arrest.

Thompson would recall in a 1998 Associated Press interview seeing bodies piled in a ditch and watching American soldiers approaching Vietnamese women, children and old men.

“These people were looking at me for help and there was no way I could turn my back on them,” Thompson said.

He placed his chopper down in front of the advancing Americans and gave Colburn a direct order: Train your M-60 on the GIs and if they try to harm the villagers, “You open up on them.”

Thompson radioed to two gun ships behind him, and together they airlifted at least nine villagers to safety.

By the end of his tour of duty, Thompson had been hit eight times by enemy fire and lost five helicopters in combat. He left Vietnam after a combat crash broke his back, and was awarded both a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

But Thompson’s role in ending My Lai didn’t come to light until the late 1980s, when David Egan, a professor emeritus at Clemson University, saw an interview with Thompson in a documentary on the massacre.

Egan wrote more than 100 letters to Congress and high-ranking government officials. He pressed others to write. Among those who did: Dean Rusk, secretary of state during the Vietnam years.

Still, no recognition came until Aug. 22, 1996, when the Army told Thompson he’d been approved for the Soldier’s Medal, given to those who risk their lives in situations where an opposing army is not involved. He was faxed a copy of the citation.

Though his acts are now considered heroic, for years Thompson suffered snubs and worse from those who considered him unpatriotic.

Fellow servicemen refused to speak with him. He received death threats, and walked out his door to find animal carcasses on his porch. He recalled a congressman angrily saying that Thompson himself was the only serviceman who should be punished because of My Lai.

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Soldier’s Medal – Citation -Hugh Thompson

For heroism above and beyond the call of duty on 16 March 1968, while saving the lives of at least 10 Vietnamese civilians during the unlawful massacre of noncombatants by American forces at My Lai, Quang Ngai province, South Vietnam.  Warrant Officer Thompson landed his helicopter in the line of fire between fleeing Vietnamese civilians and pursuing American ground troops to prevent their murder.

He then personally confronted the leader of the American ground troops and was prepared to open fire on those American troops should they fire upon the civilians.  Warrant Officer Thompson, at the risk of his own personal safety, went forward of the American lines and coaxed the Vietnamese civilians out of the bunker to enable their evacuation.  Leaving the area after requesting and overseeing the civilians’ air evacuation, his crew spotted movement in a ditch filled with bodies south of My Lai Four.  Warrant Officer Thompson again landed his helicopter and covered his crew as they retrieved a wounded child from the pile of bodies.  He then flew the child to the safety of a hospital at Quang Ngai.

Warrant Officer Thompson’s relayed radio reports of the massacre and subsequent report to his section leader and commander resulted in an order for the cease-fire at My Lai and an end to the killing of innocent civilians.  Warrant Officer Thompson’s heroism exemplified the highest standards of personal courage and ethical conduct, reflecting distinct credit on him and the United States Army.