11 January 2006
Comrade pays tribute to US army helicopter pilot who intervened to stop 1968 My Lai massacre of Vietnamese
“After he did what he did — did the honourable and moral thing and told the truth — some of his countrymen turned their backs on him. His colleagues in the military turned their backs on him. His own government turned its back on him.” – Gunner Lawrence Colburn
JIM DEE, Daily Ireland USA correspondent
Army Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson 1969
The funeral will take place tomorrow (Wednesday) in Lafayette, Louisiana, of a US soldier who risked his life to stop an infamous massacre in Vietnam nearly 40 years ago — a massacre that forever changed the way many US citizens view their military.
Hugh Thompson was shunned for decades as a traitor by many of his military comrades after his intervention to stop the My Lai massacre. He died on Friday at a veterans hospital in Alexandria, Louisiana, aged 62.
On the morning of March 16, 1968, Warrant Officer Thompson was piloting a US helicopter above My Lai village when he and the two airmen on board — gunner Lawrence Colburn and crew chief Glenn Andreotta — witnessed US troops massacring hundreds of unarmed civilians.
“It started out as a regular air-support and reconnaissance mission,” said Lawrence Colburn, the only surviving crew member, during a phone interview with Daily Ireland from his home in Georgia.
Colburn said there had been three helicopters in their unit — two gunships, and the low-flying scout chopper that Thompson, Andreotta and himself were in.
“Our job was to go out and try to draw fire, try to entice people to shoot at us and give up their position so we could use the gunship on them. But there wasn’t anyone shooting at us,” said Colburn.
Ground troops were then dropped into the village from transport helicopters and they began searching the village, which was in Quang Ngãi province, an area viewed by the United States as a haven for North Vietnamese guerrillas.
Colburn said they could see a lot of people exiting the village as the US ground troops began being lowered.
“There were old men, women and children were leaving the village. It was a Saturday morning, so they were going off to market.
“And we thought: ‘That’s good. They’re getting out of here before the insertion.’ Then we watched the helicopters come and drop off the ground troops, and they began to sweep through the village. So we widened our perimeter to make sure that there were no surprises coming up.”
Colburn said the area had been so quiet that, when they had to leave briefly to refuel, they had not even called for backup.
“We just went, refuelled and came back on station. And when we came back on station, we started seeing those people, that those people who’d earlier been leaving the village to market were in piles and they had been shot. And they appeared to be unarmed civilians. We were baffled as to how these people were ending up dead when we weren’t receiving any fire,” he said.
Colburn said they had begun dropping canisters of green smoke to mark where wounded civilians were so they could get medical attention. He said they had just marked the location of one woman when a squad of infantrymen approached her, led by Captain Ernest Medina.
“She had a gushing chest wound and was just lying there helpless. There was no weapon or anything And we were expecting Captain Medina to render medical assistance,” Coburn said.
“Instead, he walked up to the woman and kicked her with his foot and then he stepped back and just blew her away. And then it all kind of clicked, like: ‘Oh, my God. What are our people doing?’”
Hugh Thompson then circled the chopper and they spotted an irrigation ditch with hundreds of Vietnamese people in it, and a US soldier standing over it.
Colburn said: “Thompson landed and actually got out of the aircraft — which is something that you don’t do — and he went over to the soldier and said: ‘We’ve got to help these people out. These are civilians.’ And the fellow at the ditch said; ‘Yeah, yeah. I’ll help them out.’ And as we were taking off, we heard automatic weapons fire, and crew chief Glen Andreotta came over the headset saying: ‘Oh, my God! He’s firing into the ditch again!’ Thompson was absolutely furious.”
Andreotta then spied some civilians peering out of an earthen bunker, and a squad of US soldiers heading towards them. So Thompson lowered his helicopter onto the ground between the soldiers and the bunker, and again hopped out and confronted Lieutenant Stephen Brooks.
Although Colburn could not hear the heated argument that ensued, he said he had later learned that Thompson had said to Brooks: “‘How do we get these people out of this bunker? They’re civilians.’ And the lieutenant, who outranked Mr Thompson — who was a warrant officer — says: ‘Yeah, I can get them out of there with hand-grenades.’ And Thompson said: ‘You keep your men in place because I have instructed my guys to fire on you if you continue doing this.’ And he just walked away. He was cutting his career short when he said that to a ranking officer.
“And he came back to the aircraft and told Glenn Andreotta and myself: ‘I’m going to go over to that bunker and get those people out of there myself. And if these guys open up on ’em, shoot them.’”
Colburn added: “And Mr Thompson went over to the bunker with only a side arm but he didn’t even have it drawn and he coaxed the people out of the bunker. We thought there were two or three in there, and there were 12 or 15 that came out.”
Thompson then called to the other choppers to help him evacuate the wounded, and eventually the ground troops stopped killing the villagers. By the time it was all over, some 500 Vietnamese — unarmed old men, women and children — had been killed.
The My Lai massacre remained unknown until journalist Seymour Hersh exposed it in 1970. Glenn Andreotta died in action a month after the massacre but Thomson and Colburn would later testify at the trial of Lieutenant William Calley.
Of the 26 soldiers subsequently put on trial for the massacre, Calley was the only one convicted, being found guilty of premeditated murder in 1971. He was sentenced to life in prison but, two days after his sentence, President Richard Nixon ordered his release from prison. Calley spent the next three-and-a-half years under house arrest at Fort Benning in Georgia. He maintained that he had only followed Captain Ernest Medina’s orders in carrying out the massacre. In a separate trial, Medina denied issuing the orders and was acquitted.
Despite the acquittals, revelations about what US troops did at My Lai helped turn US public opinion against the war and changed the way many US citizens viewed their military. Within four years of the trials, the United States would pull out of Vietnam in defeat.
Lawrence Colburn left the military a year after My Lai. Hugh Thompson stayed in the military, despite being ostracised and vilified by many military members who viewed him as a traitor. Colburn and Thompson lost track of one another as the years went by, and it was not until an English journalist wrote a book and produced a documentary about My Lai in the late 1980s that they were finally reunited. That documentary was seen by a Clemson University professor, who then began a nine-year-long letter-writing campaign to have Thompson recognised as a hero.
In 1998, the campaign paid off. All three crew members — Thompson, Colburn and Andreotta (posthumously) — were awarded the prestigious Soldier's Medal, the highest award for bravery not involving conflict with an enemy.
Lawrence Colburn said being shunned by his military colleagues had exacted a very heavy toll on Thompson.
“He had his bouts with the drink, and I think he had four broken marriages. He had hard miles on him. He would go into the officers’ club and people who knew how he was, they considered him to be a turncoat, and they would get up and leave. They wouldn’t speak with him. He found dead animals on his porch and got hate mail. And all he did was tell the truth,” Colburn said.
“After he did what he did — did the honourable and moral thing and told the truth — some of his countrymen turned their backs on him. His colleagues in the military turned their backs on him. His own government turned its back on him. But he never turned his back on them, to the very end. He always spoke highly and proudly of being an American,” said Colburn.
Thompson eventually left the army and worked for a while flying helicopter missions to oil rigs along the Gulf of Mexico, before ending up as a counsellor at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
After they were recognised for what they did at My Lai, Thompson and Colburn later would speak to military cadets at West Point about the importance of being honourable soldiers.
“They were wonderful to us. Standing ovations for Mr Thompson. They highly respected him,” said Colburn
“He was a career military man who tried to stress the importance of being honourable within the military. He was the best PR man the army ever had but they took 30 years to realise it.”