Progressive Writers Bloc

A Soldier to Be Remembered

By Uncle Bill Warner

Hugh 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 children.

Thompson, figuring 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.

Thompson ordered 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.

Despite the 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.

We Americans 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).

Hugh Thompson 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 didn’t want to believe that Americans could gun down 504 unarmed civilians. We were above that sort of thing, weren’t we?

Thompson and his surviving crewmember, Lawrence Colburn were finally awarded the Soldier’s 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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