Saturday, January 07, 2006

Hugh Thompson (1944-2006)

Although his actions have become obscured over the years, there was one American who acquitted himself admirably during the horrific 1968 My Lai massacre, which took the lives of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians.

He was Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot who rescued several civilians during the massacre and reported the killings to his superiors, who promptly initiated a coverup.

Thompson died yesterday at his Louisiana home. He was 62.

On March 16, 1968, Thompson and his two crewmen were flying on a reconnaissance mission over My Lai when they spotted an Army platoon amidst the bodies of civilians strewn throughout the hamlet.

Thompson realized that a massacre was taking place. He put his copter down near a bunker in which 10 or so civilians were being menaced by American troops, persuaded the Vietnamese to board the copter and ordered his crew to shoot any American who interferred. None did.

"They said I was screaming quite loud," he told U.S. News & World Report in 2004. "I threatened never to fly again. I didn't want to be a part of that. It wasn't war."

Thompson not only flew again, he remained in combat and then trained copter pilots after he returned to the U.S. He later counseled Vietnam veterans

When Seymour Hersh broke the My Lai story in the New York Times in November 1969, Thompaon came forward, testified before Congress and a military inquiry, and at the court-martial of Lt. William L. Calley Jr., the platoon leader at My Lai. Calley was the only soldier to be convicted for the massacre.

Thompson received death threats for his actions, but refused to remain silent. He spoke out at antiwar rallies and other events and lectured at West Point and other military posts regarding the moral and legal obligations of soldiers.

Thompson and the surviving member of his crew attended a service at My Lai on the 30th anniversary of the massacre.

"Something terrible happened here 30 years ago today," Thompson told reporters. "I cannot explain why it happened. I just wish our crew that day could have helped more people than we did."

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