Saturday, January 07, 2006

Hugh Thompson, My Lai whistleblower, R.I.P.

Not likely to get much press, but some of us remember.

Hugh Thompson Jnr, a former US military helicopter pilot who helped stop one ofthe most infamous massacres of the Vietnam War has died, aged 62.

Mr Thompson and his crew came upon US troops killing civilians at the village of My Lai on 16 March 1968. He put his helicopter down between the soldiers and villagers, ordering his men to shoot their fellow Americans if they attacked the civilians.

"There was no way I could turn my back on them," he later said of the victims.

Mr Thompson, a warrant officer at the time, called in support from other US helicopters, and together they airlifted at least nine Vietnamese civilians - including a wounded boy - to safety.

He returned to headquarters, angrily telling his commanders what he had seen. They ordered soldiers in the area to stop shooting.

But Mr Thompson was shunned for years by fellow soldiers, received death threats, and was once told by a congressman that he was the only American who should be punished over My Lai.

A platoon commander, Lt William Calley, was later court-martialed and sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killings.

President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence to three years' house arrest.


I was wrong about US coverage.
Here is a link to US News and World Report. Snips here. More at the link.

He and his two younger crew mates, Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta, were flying low over the hamlet on March 16, 1968, trying to draw fire so that two gunships flying above could locate and destroy the enemy. On this morning, no onewas shooting at them. And yet they saw bodies everywhere, and the wounded civilians they had earlier marked for medical aid were now all dead.

As the helicopter hovered a few feet over a paddy field, the team watched a group of Americans approach a wounded young woman lying on the ground. A captain nudged her with his foot, then shot her. The men in the helicopter recoiled in horror, shouting, "You son of a bitch!"

Thompson couldn't believe it. His suspicions and fear began to grow as they flew over the eastern side of the village and saw dozens of bodies piled in an irrigation ditch. Soldiers were standing nearby, taking a cigarette break. Thompson racked his brains for an explanation. Maybe the civilians had fled to the ditch for cover? Maybe they'd been accidentally killed and the soldiers had made a mass grave? The Army warrant officer just couldn't wrap his mind around the truth of My Lai.
Thompson set his helicopter down near the irrigation ditch full of bodies. He asked a sergeant if the soldiers could help the civilians, some of whom were still moving. The sergeant suggested putting them out of their misery. Stunned, Thompson turned to Lieutenant Calley, who told him to mind his own business. Thompson reluctantly got back in his helicopter and began to lift off. Just then Andreotta yelled, "My God, they're firing into the ditch!"

Thompson finally faced the truth. He and his crew flew around for a few minutes, outraged, wondering what to do. Then they saw several elderly adults and children running for a shelter, chased by Americans. "We thought they had about 30 seconds before they'd die," recalls Colburn. Thompson landed his chopper between the troops and the shelter, then jumped out and confronted the lieutenant in charge of the chase. He asked for assistance in escorting the civilians out of the bunker; the lieutenant said he'd get them out with a hand grenade. Furious, Thompson announced he was taking the civilians out. He went back to Colburn and Andreotta and told them if the Americans fired, to shoot them. "Glenn and I were staring at each other, dumbfounded," says Colburn. He says he never pointed his gun at an American soldier, but he might have fired if they had first. The ground soldiers waited and watched.

Thompson coaxed the Vietnamese out of the shelter with hand gestures. They followed, wary. Thompson looked at his three-man helicopter and realized he had nowhere to put them. "There was no thinking about it," he says now. "It was just something that had to be done, and it had to be done fast." He got on the radio and begged the gunships to land and fly the four adults and five children to safety, which they did within minutes.

Before returning to base, the helicopter crew saw something moving in the irrigation ditch–a child, about 4 years old. Andreotta waded through bloody cadavers to pull him out. Thompson, who had a son, was overcome by emotion. He immediately flew the child to a nearby hospital.

Thompson wasted no time telling his superiors what had happened. "They said I was screaming quite loud. I was mad. I threatened never to fly again," Thompson remembers. "I didn't want to be a part of that. It wasn't war." An investigation followed, but it was cursory at best.

A month later, Andreotta died in combat. Thompson was shot down and returned home to teach helicopter piloting. Colburn served his tour of duty and left the military. The two figured those involved in the killing had been court-martialed. In fact, nothing had happened. But rumors of the massacre persisted. One soldier who heard of the atrocities, Ron Ridenhour, vowed to make them public. In the spring of 1969, he sent letters to government officials, which led to a real investigation and sickening revelations: murdered babies and old men, raped and mutilated women, in a village where U.S. soldiers mistakenly expected to find lots of Viet Cong.

Addendum June 29, 2006

There is a website dedicated to the memory of Hugh Thompson.
Link here.

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