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Chat Participant: What happened when you flew over My Lai that day?Next,
Hugh Thompson: We didn't just fly over one time. It was our mission to recon out in front of the American troops. That's what we were doing. I had gunship coverage. It wasn't probably until my second time on station after refueling that we noticed a large number of bodies, which were in our minds unexplained. The reason they were unexplained is they were women, kids, infants and old men. We started questioning what was going on here. We had not received fire. We were not being shot at and it was just unexplainable to us. We had about four direct encounters with the American forces, trying to help and assist civilians that had been wounded.
Chat Participant: How did you decide what to do?
Hugh Thompson: It was clear to us that something was going wrong. And at one time we had asked for assistance on a wounded civilian and a captain walked up and shot the girl we'd asked assistance for. Another time, we'd seen an irrigation ditch full of bodies, of which some were still living. We landed and talked to the Americans on the ground, said there are some wounded civilians in the ditch, can you help them out. And we were told, yes, we'll help them out of their misery. I said, quit joking, how bout helping them, and they said OK. As I took off, they walked to the ditch, and we heard machine-gun fire. [Crewmate] Glen Andreotta, in a shocked type voice, said, "My God, they are firing into the ditch." That was two times we'd asked for help and got people killed. Shortly after then, we saw some Vietnamese who had just made it to a bunker and were hiding inside the bunker. On the other side of the opening, we saw the American forces coming toward them. We just kind of figured those people were dead in about 15 seconds if we didn't do something. That's when we elected to land the aircraft between the American forces and the bunker.
"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:
"I was very upset at that time, and I thank God to this day that they stood where they were, and didn't prevent me from attempting to do what I was doing. I would hate to think about what could have happened or might have happened. I do thank the good Lord many times that they remained at ease."Then:
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.Years later:
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.
Chat Participant: Do you think that the atrocities committed at My Lai where inevitable given the nature of the war in Vietnam?
Hugh Thompson: No. Soldiers are taught to fight. Soldiers are taught to kill the enemy. This is not what occurred at My Lai.
Chat Participant: Mr. Thompson, what do you think were the factors that allowed My Lai to happen? Do you think it was an isolated incident or just the one that got people's attention?
Hugh Thompson: I think My Lai was a very isolated incident. Don't misunderstand me. I know civilians get killed in war. And I know that civilians get murdered in war. I've had other people tell me this happens all the time. They weren't there. They don't realize how large My Lai was. The Americans, I think, state 112 got killed. The Vietnamese figures 504, and I think they missed a lot. There was over 500 people murdered that day. I would have a hard time living with myself if I thought I was part of an action such as this. More than likely, larger numbers of people had been killed that day by artillery or air power, but not marched down into a ditch and murdered.
Chat Participant: What was your view of the war immediately prior to this incident? And what was it afterward?
Hugh Thompson: I was a military person, I was sent there to fight a war. My country deemed this war appropriate. So one incident by a very small group of people is not going to change my opinion of the war.
Chat Participant: You must be proud of what you did.
Hugh Thompson: I think what we did that day was correct, the correct thing to do. I had a real hard time for 30 years, not really 30 years, because interest waned, but during all the trials and investigations, I had a real hard time understanding why in the world everybody was trying to make me the bad guy. It's hard to live with that.
Eventually he would be a most welcome guest speaker at the US Military Academies.
But for an indication of what his neighbors thought of him, here's a recollection from fellow Vietnam veteran and author John Harriman, one of his many contributions here:
An army warrant Officer helicopter pilot by the name of Hugh "Buck" Thompson was flying overhead of the incident that day. He saw what was going on. He reported the incident over his radio. And then he did something that should force every man and woman in uniform into deep reflection.
Buck landed his helicopter. He got into the face of men who were killing innocent people in whatever frenzied state of mind possessed them. And he personally put a stop to the infamous My Lai massacre.
Of course, the deep reflection that I mentioned is this: "Would I have had the courage to do what Buck Thompson did?" He might well have died in the very ditches where the Vietnamese died, killed by their same bloodied killers.
"Could I ever muster that level of courage in myself?" It's a question for all soldiers, in all wars. That includes you. It's a question that defines the term, courage, at every level. It's a term that keeps new My Lais from happening.
I'm proud to say I knew Buck. He was a captain when I met him, and a long-time Army neighbor of mine in post housing at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Truth be told, he was a bit of a rake, a Gus McRae-type straight out of "Lonesome Dove." He was a heavy smoker, hard drinker, fabulous storyteller. You know the type--once he got going on a story you never knew whether it was a joke or the truth until he got to the punch line. Every tale was a journey.
But the one tale he never told was that of his own courage at My Lai. That news leaked out of his wife Joyce's mouth under the influence at one of the neighborhood blended Margarita sit-arounds.
I had heard about the pilot who stopped the killing at My Lai. From the moment I knew this was Buck's story, I was awestruck. From then on, the word, courage, to my mind, was defined by Buck Thompson's action that day. Compared to him, I don't know even the meaning of the word.
Last week Buck Thompson died at age 62. Many who eulogize him in the media today declare him to be the exception, and the killers at My Lai the rule. A few stories note that he never received as much recognition or credit as he deserved. This last one is true.
For instance, none of those writers knew he was called "Buck".