RIP - Hugh Thompson, US Army Pilot

Hugh Thompson
April 15, 1943 - January 6, 2006

Helicopter pilot who intervened to save lives during the US Army massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai

HUGH C. THOMPSON JR, was a helicopter pilot who tried to halt the infamous My Lai massacre by American troops, during the Vietnam War. He valiantly rescued 15 defenceless civilians while training his machine guns on US infantrymen commanded by the infamous Lieutenant William Calley, threatening to “blow them away” if they did not stop the slaughter.
March 16, 1968, was one of the darkest days in US military history. Thompson believed Calley’s men behaved like Nazis: “We were supposed to be the guys in the white hats — they were the enemy that day, I guess.” When evidence of the 504 civilian deaths in the atrocity was finally made public in late 1969, Thompson was immediately castigated by pro-Vietnam War politicians conducting an inquiry for the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.

Concerned to protect the image of the US Army, the chairman, L. Mendal Rivers, and one of his fellow Southern Democrats claimed that the real guilty party at My Lai was the rogue helicopter pilot who they argued had committed a crime by threatening to shoot American troops.

Only 30 years later was Thompson belatedly recognised as a genuine American hero by the Pentagon. In March 1998, he received the Soldier’s Medal, the US Army’s highest award for bravery in peacetime. It was presented by a two-star general at a special ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, complete with band, flags flying, much razzmatazz and full media coverage.

A nine-year letter-writing campaign to get him the award had won support from President George Bush Sr, General Colin Powell and several retired general staff officers and senators. The Clinton White House had held up presenting the award for 18 months. Cynics believed that the sitting President did not want to draw attention to his having avoided going to Vietnam while Thompson had nobly served his country.

Hugh Clowers Thompson Jr was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1943, and moved to nearby Stone Mountain — population 2,000 — when he was 3. His father, Hugh C. Thompson Sr, served with both the US Army and Navy in the Second World War and then spent 30 years with the US Navy Reserve. Thompson’s paternal grandfather was a full-blooded Cherokee, forced off tribal land in North Carolina in the 1850s and resettled on a farm in Georgia.

Both his parents were Episcopalians, and strict churchgoers. Thompson’s mother, Wessie, had a simple creed with her two sons, Hugh and his brother Tommie, who was five years his senior: “Do your chores. Don’t lie. And don’t run if you’re about to get a whipping.” Hugh Sr was a local Scoutmaster and his boys had Scout laws drummed into them. They were taught to be polite during meals, to say “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am ” when talking to adults, and always to stand up for the underdog. In one early encounter Hugh Jr got into a scrap with a group of boys at school making fun of a physically handicapped child.

Before his teens he was earning money ploughing local cornfields, and at 15 had a part-time job with a local undertaker. A few weeks after his 18th birthday, before he graduated from the local Stone Mountain High School, he married a local girl secretly. The marriage was annulled a few months later just as Thompson joined the US Navy and spent three years with a Seabees construction unit.

After a brief return to civilian life in 1964, during which he became a licensed funeral director, Thompson re-enlisted — this time in the US Army, which was becoming heavily engaged in the Vietnam War. There had been a massive build-up of army helicopters in Vietnam, which meant a dramatic increase in pilot recruitment. Thompson enlisted and trained at Fort Walters, Texas, and Fort Rucker, Alabama.

By the time he arrived in Vietnam in late December 1967, he was a 25-year-old chief warrant officer, a reconnaissance pilot with the 123rd Aviation Battalion. It was dangerous work, flying low over enemy territory in advance of ground operations, spotting enemy defensive positions and calling in gunships to engage.

On March 16, 1968, Thompson was flying his small H23 scout helicopter, with its three-man crew, over a part of Quang Ngai province thought to be infested with Vietcong troops. He was in support of a search-and-destroy assault on several villages, which faulty intelligence had indicated were heavily defended. The US 1/20th Infantry Battalion attack was led by Charlie Company — commanded by Captain Ernest Medina. He sent in the 1st platoon led by Calley — with orders to clear out My Lai and several neighbouring hamlets.

Charlie Company was bent on revenge. Days earlier several of its members, including a popular sergeant, had been killed by Vietcong mines and booby traps. Without a shot being fired against them Calley’s men began slaughtering anyone they could find — old men, women and children. Groups of villagers, 20 and 30 at a time, were lined up and mown down. In the four-hour assault, men of the company’s other two platoons joined in. Many women and girls were raped and then murdered.

Thompson early on spotted a young woman injured in a field. He dropped a smoke canister to indicate that she needed medical help. He later told a court martial how Captain Medina went over and shot her with his rifle. Medina claimed that he thought she had a grenade. Later Thompson halted at a drainage ditch on the western side of My Lai — filled with 170 bodies of massacred villagers. One of Thompson’s crew rescued a child still alive and flew it to hospital at Quang Ngai. In another incident Thompson saw a group of 15 civilians hiding in a bunker.

Calley’s men were about to attack them when Thompson landed his helicopter and challenged the 1st platoon commander, asking for help to get the women and children out. “The only way you’ll get them out is with a hand grenade,” replied Calley. Thompson returned to his helicopter and told his gunners to open fire on Calley’s men if they advanced any closer. He then called down gunships to rescue the civilians, who were flown out of the village to safety.

On returning to Chu Lai military base Thompson reported everything to his commanding officer. The allegations were passed on to brigade and divisional commanders but a local inquiry whitewashed Thompson’s complaints, claiming that the civilians deaths had been caused by artillery fire.

An elaborate cover-up ensued which involved falsifying brigade documents and included Thompson being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving the lives of Vietnamese civilians “in the face of hostile enemy fire”. The citation omitted to mention that the hostile fire was coming from his own side. He threw the medal away, believing that his commanders wanted to buy his silence.

A year later the Pentagon learnt the truth and a high- level inquiry was conducted by Lieutenantt-General William R. Peers. So impressed was Peers with Thompson’s courage he chose him as his personal pilot when he went on a 12-day fact-finding trip around Vietnam during the course of his investigation.

Thompson later appeared as a witness at the courts martial of several men involved in the massacre or cover-up. The only person convicted was Calley, who served a few months in jail before having his life sentence reduced and being given parole.

During his time in Vietnam, Thompson was shot down five times — finally breaking his spine. He received a commission, but back in America some of his uninformed colleagues regarded him as a turncoat. The full extent of the carnage at My Lai had been deliberately hidden from the American public. Returning to Fort Rucker he went to the officers’ mess for a drink. All 12 men there got up and walked out. One anonymous postcard he received asked: “What do you think war is? ” Calley meanwhile — facing a trial — was being regarded as a hero. Even Jimmy Carter, Governor of Georgia, held a “Rally for Calley”.

The My Lai experience and its aftermath affected Thompson badly. He grappled with alcohol and had several failed marriages. After service in South Korea, Thompson returned to the US, dropping the name Hugh and calling himself by his family name Buck, trying to distance himself from past events. He left the army briefly and then re-enlisted, flying with medical evacuation units, and instructing trainee pilots.

He retired from the army in November 1983, and worked as a helicopter pilot for oil companies off the Louisiana coast.

In 1989 he appeared in a Yorkshire Television documentary, Four Hours in My Lai, which won a Bafta and an Emmy. After it was shown in America, David Egan, a former soldier and professor of architecture at the University of South Carolina, began a campaign to have Thompson’s bravery recognised and his wartime DFC replaced by something more fitting.

The US Army agreed finally after seven years, but wanted the Soldier’s Medal presented quietly, preferring to keep what happened at My Lai in the background. Thompson resisted. He wanted a ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial and the bravery of his fellow helicopter crew members to be recognised as well. They also received the Soldier’s Medal, one of them posthumously.

Mike Wallace, of the CBS 60 Minutes programme, took Thompson and his surviving crew member, Larry Colburn, back to My Lai, where they were introduced to three women who survived the massacre. On a second visit three years later he met an electrician from Ho Chi Minh City called Do Hoa, aged 42, who aged 9 was one of the children Thompson rescued from the bunker.

Thompson worked for the Louisiana Department of Veteran Affairs for six years, giving lectures to students and schoolchildren. He delivered addresses to the military academies of the army, navy and air force and regularly attended the West Point Military Academy, speaking about ethics.

He died in Alexandria, Louisiana, after a short illness.

After his annulled marriage in 1961, his three subsequent marriages were dissolved.

He is survived by three sons, and by his long-time partner, Mona Gossen.

Hugh Clowers Thompson Jr was born on April 15, 1943. He died on January 6, 2006, aged 62.


Book Reviewer
Seconded - thanks for that Shrek....synchronicity...... I just linked to a site about My Lai today.

An honest upright American soldier and true patriot......<< Stand STILL>>

'‘A nation that forgets its past has no future.’ Winston Churchill

Red Shrek said:
Returning to Fort Rucker he went to the officers’ mess for a drink. All 12 men there got up and walked out. One anonymous postcard he received asked: “What do you think war is? ”
I've heard that sentiment voiced on arrse recently, I'd use the poster's name but it would sully Hugh Thompson's memory.

Many talk of moral courage, precious few display it. Go well Sir.

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