Saturday, March 19, 2016

An Example of Moral Courage: Hugh Thompson (1943–2006)

WO1 Hugh Thompson, Jr.

The My Lai Massacre was a mass murder conducted by a company level unit of the U.S. Army in the Son My village in the Quang Ngai province of South Vietnam on March 16, 1968. Between 347 (which was official count of the U.S. Dept of Defense) and 504 people (the number of names on the monument erected at the site) were killed. All of the victims were civilians and a majority of them were women, children (including babies), and elderly people. 

Hugh C. Thompson was a Chief Warrant Officer from Decatur, Georgia; he was the pilot of an OH-23 observation helicopter that day, flying reconnaissance over the My Lai 4 hamlet. In the tiny chopper with him was Spec 4 Lawrence M. Colburn and Spec 4 Glenn U. Andreotta (KIA 8 April 1968). They had already marked injured Vietnamese civilians with green smoke in order to bring medical assistance to them only to return to find those civilians had been killed. After flying over a deep drainage ditch and seeing that it was full of people, mostly women and children, and that some were still alive, they knew something was terribly wrong. 

Thompson put his chopper down between a group of American soldiers who were preparing to fire on a group of 11 Vietnamese (women, old men, and children) who were huddled in a bunker for safety. Before getting out of the helicopter, Thompson told Larry Colburn, his door gunner, to cover the GIs and if they tried to harm the villagers, to shoot them. He said, "Y'all cover me! If these bastards open up on me or these people, you open up on them. Promise me!" Colburn promised. He was behind a door-mounted M60 7.62mm machine gun. 

Colburn later said that he wasn't sure he would've followed Thompson's order to fire on the American soldiers if they'd tried to shoot the Vietnamese. He said, "I wasn't pointing my gun right at them, but more or less toward the ground. But I was looking their way." 

Thompson then called for two (UH-1) helicopter gunships to land and pick up the civilians. While waiting for the gunships to arrive, he stood between the American soldiers and the group of civilians. 

Coburn later said, "[Thompson] stood between our troops and the bunker. He was shielding the people with his body." 

By the end of his tour of duty, Thompson had been hit eight times by enemy fire and lost five helicopters in combat. He left Vietnam after a combat crash broke his back, and was awarded both a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross. His bravest act of all, though, was the one he took alone

It's not always easy to know the right thing to do, and to have the intestinal fortitude to do it. The right thing to do isn't always the thing that benefits us the most, or the thing our peers or family thinks is the proper thing to do, or what the church or the military tells us to do. The difficult choices are always those we must make alone. Not because they are safe, easy choices, or popular choices, or socially approved choices, but because they are right. 

How many people participated in the My Lai killings? Twenty-six U.S. soldiers were charged with criminal offenses for their actions at My Lai. Only one was convicted. Many more witnessed or knew about the murders; none tried to stop them. It took the soldiers an entire morning to kill 350 to 500 civilians with M-16 rifles, bayonets and grenades. A few of them expressed regrets years afterward, and sought to ease their consciences. Most though, didn't have what it took to stand up when it mattered, and say "No, I will not do this." Hugh Thompson and Larry Colburn and Glenn Andreotta stood alone that day. Everyone else either didn't know that what they were doing was wrong; or they thought that they were supposed to follow orders even if they knew those orders were wrong. In other words, they chose not to care about the difference in right and wrong; for them, that was someone else's decision. 

Hugh Thompson and his crew of two stood alone. And that's not easy. A hero is a person who stands tall when everyone else around him/her crawls. 

Friends, when you let someone else decide morality for you; you are acting immorally. All morality -- Hugh Thompson's morality; my morality; yours -- is individual; it isn't determined by the State or by the Church or by the U.S. Army or Marine Corps. 

It took three decades (until 1996) before the Army recognized Hugh Thompson's courage. He, along with SP4 Lawrence Colburn and SP4 Glenn Andreotta, was awarded the Soldier's Medal (the highest award the Army can give for valor not under enemy fire). Thompson refused to accept the medal when he was told the U.S. Army wanted to award it to him secretly. He insisted that the award be made publicly to him and to his crew. The citation said the three crewmen landed "in the line of fire between American ground troops and fleeing Vietnamese civilians to prevent their murder." 

For thirty years, Thompson was treated like a traitor, suffering snubs from fellow servicemen who refused to speak with him, and he received death threats as well. He was even verbally maligned by a U.S. Congressman. Through it all, he stood by his actions in the hamlet of My Lai 4. 

In 2004, Hugh Thompson told The Associated Press, "Don't do the right thing looking for a reward, because it might not come." 

Hugh Thompson died in a Veterans Affairs hospital in Alexandria, Louisiana on January 6, 2006 at the age of 62. Larry Colburn, who had flown from Atlanta, Georgia to be with him, was at his bedside. 

Hugh Thompson, on the right, and Lawrence Colburn, his helicopter door-gunner
My Lai village, 16 March 1998

Lawrence (Larry) Manley Colburn,  the last surviving member of a U.S. Army crew that ended the My Lai massacre of March 16, 1968, was diagnosed with cancer in late September 2016 and died Tuesday, December 13, 2016.  He was 67.