Hugh Thompson died yesterday. He was not well known but to me he, Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Anrdreotta, were THE great heroes of the Vietnam war. Thompson was a helicopter pilot who saw American forces shooting civilians at My Lai in 1968 and intervened to stop the killing. Thompson landed his helicopter between the Americans and their victims; his crew, Colburn and Andreotta, turned their guns on their own countrymen to bring an end to the My Lai Massacre. Thompson and his crew evacuated the wounded civilians, including an infant. In an event that encapsulates the best and worst of wartime events, Hugh Thompson stands out as a man of courage and integrity.
Thompson’s acted in the finest military tradition. He was a soldier who knew the boundaries of combat. That tradition has been all too often ignored and discounted in our history. Certainly in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq. I cannot imagine how difficult Thompson’s actions were. He clearly saw that what was happening on the ground was wrong and, at great risk, acted to stop it when he could have just ignored it. For his heroism, Thompson was shunned by the military establishment. A commentator on NPR said that Thompson was deeply distressed by the hostility he faced for what doing what was in fact the right thing. The US government finally recognized their heroism in 1998 when Thompson, Colburn and Andreotti (posthumously) were awarded the Soldier’s Medal for their actions at My Lai.
As a soldier in Vietnam, I never faced anything remotely as difficult as My Lai. I can only hope that I would have acted as courageously as Hugh Thompson and his crew. I hope that I would do so today as well.
Although it took America 30 years to recognize Thompson’s, Colburn’s and Andreotta’s heroism, their actions were celebrated in the 1968 song “Pinkville Helicopter” by Thom Parrott. I find it more than a little ironic that while conservative “support the troops” America marginalized these heroes, they were recognized by an anti-war musician.