to Be Remembered
Uncle Bill Warner
Thompson Jr. died on January 6, in New Orleans. As a young helicopter
pilot in Vietnam, Warrant Officer Thompson was flying low over a
village called My Lai with his younger crewmates Glenn Andreotta
and Lawrence Coburn when he began to notice a huge number of civilian
bodies everywhere. They were witnessing an event of incredible horror
that they could not comprehend. He landed his helicopter near a
ditch filled with bodies, some still alive and asked a sergeant
if he could be of help. A certain Lt. Calley told him to mind his
own business and get out of there. He did so, and as he lifted off,
he was nauseated to see our soldiers firing into the ditch. Not
knowing what to do, he circled the scene of the massacre for several
minutes until he saw a bunch of elderly civilians and children running
for shelter with American soldiers chasing them. Having fled earlier,
there were no enemy soldiers at My Lai, only old men, women, and
that these people had about 30 seconds to live, landed his helicopter
between them the pursuing troops. He was told by the officer in
charge that the way to get them out of the bunker where they had
sought refuge was with a hand grenade. Thompson had seen enough
carnage, and resisted.
his crew to shoot any soldier that fired at these helpless civilians.
He then coaxed the people out of hiding and called in two gunships
to fly the four adults and five children to safety, which they did.
He then saw a four-yr.old child moving among the bloody bodies in
the ditch and waded in, pulled him out and flew him to a hospital,
thinking of his own young son. (Note: On returning to My Lai this
March, he met a young man who was introduced to him as the one Thompson
had rescued from that ditch back in 1968
an emotional reunion,
to say the least!)
The 60's singer/song
writer Joe McDonald has posted the list of the 504 victims killed
at My Lai on his web site at countryjoe.com/massacre.htm.
The list includes name, age, and sex of each victim. (Yes, they
all have names!) Viewing the list is a little like visiting the
Vietnam Memorial for coming to grips with the magnitude of the incident,
except nearly half the names on this list are either children, 12
or younger, or the elderly, age 70 and up. Fifty of the names are
listed as age 3 or younger. The list was provided by the Vietnamese
Embassy to Trent Angers, author of The Forgotten Hero of My Lai:
The Hugh Thompson Story.
many eyewitness reports, no courts-martials resulted! The Army seemed
to prefer a cover-up. After about a year and a half had elapsed,
people began to come forward and talk about it, prompting a Pentagon
investigation which found about 80 G.I.s involved in the sordid
affair. Some of them had refused orders to murder helpless civilians,
but did nothing to stop the others. Thompson and his crew stood
alone in their heroism.
would like to forget about the fact that war has a dehumanizing
effect on the participants, even Americans. We are quick to point
at others who act like monsters, but slow to look in the mirror.
The Nuremburg War Crimes Trials after World War II, held at our
behest, emphasized that war crimes by the Nazis or Japanese would
not be tolerated, and that I was only following orders
was not a good defense. Neither was Gott Mit Unser (God
is on our side).
has left us, but not before he proved that there are heroes and
there are heroes. At first, he was attacked for being insubordinate
and for making America look bad. Rallies were held in
support of Lt. Calley, whose defense was, I was only following
orders. America didnt want to believe that Americans
could gun down 504 unarmed civilians. We were above that sort of
thing, werent we?
his surviving crewmember, Lawrence Colburn were finally awarded
the Soldiers Medal by the U.S. Government at the Vietnam Memorial
in Washington on March 6, 1998 for their heroism 30 years before
in standing up for the morality and humanity which superceded wartime
passions. Lt. Rusty Calley, the only soldier convicted in the My
Lai massacre had his life sentence commuted by President Nixon to
a mere 3½ years under house arrest. Today he works in a jewelry
store in Columbus, Georgia.
So what did
we learn from all this? First and foremost, I think, is the recognition
that war can turn even our own troops into the type of soldiers
we condemn in other countries. In the movies and the recruiting
posters we have the good guys (us) vs. the bad guys (them). In reality
the soldiers on both sides are caught up in an atmosphere of carnage
that rips them out of their normal existence. Participants at all
levels on both sides can descend into barbarity. War is all too
human, but war is degrading to our humanity.
I think that
the example of moral courage shown by Hugh Thompson and his crew
is something Americans can be proud of. Too bad it took us thirty
years to recognize their valor!
It takes uncommon
courage to stand up for innocent victims on the opposing side. Going
along with the madness, or just following orders, is
a shoddy excuse, and no defense. Hugh Thompson is gone at age 62,
a victim of cancer, but I hope his memory will inspire moral courage
in all Americans to stand up against the evils perpetrated in war,
and the evil of war itself.
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