Flimsy Sanity: My Lai Hero Hugh Thompson Dies Friday

Flimsy Sanity

In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. - Friedrich Nietzsche

Sunday, January 08, 2006

My Lai Hero Hugh Thompson Dies Friday

Friday, Hugh Thompson died of cancer at age 62. Hugh Thompson was a helicopter pilot in 1968, on a day American soldiers gunned down more than 500 unarmed civilians in a village called My Lai. The dead were women, old men and children. And even more of them would have died if Thompson had not confronted his fellow soldiers, stopped their murderous rampage and airlifted a number of civilians to safety. So how does the military treat someone who tries to stop murder? This is part of an old 60 Minutes interview:
But from the very beginning, the military tried to cover up the massacre. And that wasn't all. Thompson is uncomfortable talking about it, but before the Hall of Fame ceremony in Nashville, he and Colburn told 60 Minutes that the U.S. military had stopped providing him with adequate back-up on his chopper missions after My Lai.

“He was placed in a very precarious position as far as the missions that he was carrying out,” says Colburn. “He didn’t have any adequate cover in my opinion. Instead of being followed by two armed gun ships, he had another scout helicopter.”

Scout helicopters are not equipped with the machine guns and rockets carried by the larger Huey gun ships.

“It seemed like he was really going out on a limb when he was going out without adequate cover,” says Colburn.

How many choppers did he lose? “I think three or four, something like that,” says Thompson.

Actually, Thompson crashed a total of five times. And the last time, he broke his back.

Why has none of this ever been told before? “I don’t know,” says Thompson. “I just sorta like went underground. I didn’t mention it to anybody.”

Thompson may have clammed up, but word of what he had done followed him when he returned from Vietnam to the United States. And he kept paying a price for turning on his fellow soldiers at My Lai.

“I'd received death threats over the phone,” says Thompson. “We didn’t have caller ID. But it was scary. Dead animals on your porch, mutilated animals on your porch some mornings when you get up. So I was not a good guy.”

He said that when he went to the Officer’s Club, there would be “100 people in there after work, and five minutes after I was there, you know, it seemed like it was me and the bartender left.”

“This was because the truth, I don't think, was out there. This was, I was somebody that was crying and whining about a few people getting accidentally killed,” says Thompson. “There was no accidental killing that day. It was murder.”

But when Thompson testified about those murders to Congress in 1970, his testimony was kept secret. He says they didn’t want the story out: “Well, not when one of the senior Congressmen here in the secret testimony say if anybody goes to jail that day, it'll be that helicopter pilot.”

With the truth hidden away, Thompson admits he felt very much alone. For years, he remained silent about My Lai. The military, meanwhile, continued to give him the cold shoulder.

Ronald Ridenhour was an investigative journalist who played a central role in spurring the investigation of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. He heard of the massacre from friends while serving in Vietnam, and on his return to the United States sent letters to numerous congressmen and government officials. The only Congressman to respond was Morris Udall. Independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, after extensive conversations with Ridenhour, broke the My Lai story on November 12, 1969, The only soldier prosecuted was Georgia's Lt. William Calley who was convicted and served three years under house arrest until pardoned by Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter, then governor of Georgia, was instrumental in the state wide campaign to show support for Calley by urging people to drive with their lights on. Colin Powell also whitewashed the incident.


  • At 1:22 PM, Blogger Omnipotent Poobah said…


    Calley was one of the reasons why people treated soldiers so poorly during Vietnam. Hugh Thompson was one of the reasons why that was very wrong.

    This is another example of the unfairness of life, the banality of evil, and the value of a hero.

    A tip of the hat to you for remembering the ones who didn't masacre at-will and reminding us of those who seek to protect their own sorry asses while those of true courage go moatly unnoticed.

  • At 2:51 PM, Blogger Shephard said…

    Agreed. Good to rememeber the past some times. It sheds light on the present. ~S

  • At 7:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I remember this. I can't forget it and every day of this war, I fear we will return to the nightmare. All the players for this theater of horror are in place. Thanks for posting this.

  • At 8:40 PM, Blogger Neil Shakespeare said…

    I'll second Poobah's comment as well. I sure didn't know about the shameful behaviour of Carter in this! I remember it well when it came out. Most folks' attitude was "What's a few hundred gooks? Ask me they should kill 'em all." Which is the same attitude today about Iraq. Not much has changed.

  • At 10:09 AM, Blogger Flimsy Sanity said…

    I thought it so unfair that Thompson was treated like a pariah and Calley as a hero. Of course My Lai was just one incident that got publicized when such crap went on all the time.

    Similar in some ways to Oliver North acquiring hero status in some circles. Says a lot about people's ethics and morality.

    Neil: I didn't know about Carter's loyalties either until I read about it a couple days ago. Disappointed me also as I always thought him a very moral being.

  • At 9:58 PM, Blogger No Hassle Loans said…

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