“Didn't you take your life in your hands, Hugh, when you got out and told the American soldiers who had been killing that they'd better quit and let these people get out of the bunker,” Wallace asked Thompson, who wouldn’t answer.
“Yes sir, he did,” says Colburn. “And he didn’t even take a weapon with him. He had a side arm. He didn’t even have it drawn. He just placed himself … And I was thinking that, at that point, anything could have happened. And we watched Mr. Thompson go to the bunker and bring the people out.”
I learned at about 3 a.m. that Hugh Thompson had died: My first thought, after great sadness, was an additional sadness that I couldn't now speak to him, when giving him his honoured place in my history of dissenting soldiers. I'll let Richard Goldstein's smart obit remind those who don't know or remember:
Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot who rescued Vietnamese civilians during the My Lai massacre, reported the killings to his superior officers in a rage over what he had seen, testified at the inquiries and received a commendation from the Army three decades later, died yesterday in Alexandria, La. He was 62.
I tried for at least an hour to find some online excerpts of Seymour Hersh's writing on My Lai. (I said "first hero" for Thompson because without Hersh' My Lai would still be a secret if the Pentagon had their way). But he's protected his copyright rather to excess, so I'll lean instead on 60 Minutes, which interviewed Thompson last year.
That day back in 1968 was truly barbaric. Young, inexperienced American troops, told by their leaders that My Lai was an enemy stronghold, rounded up civilians, burned down their huts and then shot hundreds of them down in cold blood.
Thompson, believing at first it was a legitimate combat operation, was flying his small chopper over My Lai that day, trying to draw enemy fire away from the American GIs on the ground. But there was no enemy fire.
When he saw the piles of bodies, he felt sick and ashamed. What happened was so shocking, so inconceivable, that 60 Minutes asked Thompson and his gunner, Larry Colburn, to go back with us to Vietnam and explain it all to us for a story in 1998.
Thompson told 60 Minutes he landed his chopper near a rice paddy, and while his crew covered him with M-60 machine guns, he managed to save some civilians from being murdered. But he says he could not stop others from being gunned down even after they had been marched into a ditch.
Approximately 170 people were marched down in there, including women, old men, babies. And GIs stood up on the side with their weapons on full automatic and machine gun fire.
“There were no weapons captured. There were no draft-age males killed. They were civilians,” says Colburn, referring to the ditch filled with bodies. “It was full … some of the people were still, they were dying, they weren't all dead.”
After the massacre, Thompson actually went back to flying combat, only to be ostracized by his peers - only recently being asked to talk ethics to young recruits, and only being awarded a Congressional Medal under President Clinton.
I don't, I think, need to draw the bright line between Thompson and our newest generation of truth tellers, from Joseph Darby and Timothy Ashford blowing the whistle on torture to Camilo Mejia and Aidan Delgado refusing to stay in the institution that engendered it. What's interesting to me, and what I hope my reporting for this book can explore a little, is the different lessons drawn from those experiences by officers, enlisted men, those close or not to decision-making.
And I'll ask Mejia, Delgado, and Stephen Funk if they see a contradiction in Thompson's otherwise noble statement, said to a Vietnamese survivor of that day:
“I saved the people because I wasn't taught to murder and kill. I can't answer for the people who took part in it,” says Thompson. “I apologize for the ones that did. I just wished we could have helped more people that day.”