Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Hugh Thompson Jr. A hero dies

/ good guys /
I learn about this only today. Twenty five days after the fact. Hugh Thompson Jr:
"...a former Army helicopter pilot honored for rescuing Vietnamese civilians from his fellow GIs during the My Lai massacre, died Friday. He was 62.

Thompson, whose role in the 1968 massacre did not become widely known until decades later, died at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Alexandria, La., said hospital spokesman Jay DeWorth."

During the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, Thompson:

...on March 16, 1968, with door-gunner Lawrence Colburn and crew chief Glenn Andreotta came upon U.S. ground troops killing Viet Namese civilians in and around the village of My Lai. They landed their helicopter in the line of fire between U.S. troops and Viet Namese villagers and pointed their weapons at the soldiers to prevent more killings. They also evacuated civilians who had been hiding in a bunker, then landed again to pick up a wounded child. Andreotta was killed in battle three weeks later; Colburn is still living and was with Thompson when he died in the Veterans Affairs Medical Center outside New Orleans. The three were honored in 1998 with the Army's Soldier's Medal, the highest award for bravery not involving conflict with an enemy.

Lawrence Colbourn gave the account of what happenned that day in an interview a few years ago:

"... As we lifted off, we heard automatic weapons fire. Glenn said, "My God, he's firing into the ditch again." Wounded people were climbing out of the ditch and they were shooting them. We checked other people we'd marked and sure enough, they'd been finished off. It felt like by marking these bodies, we were indirectly killing them ourselves.

They raped the women with M16s, bayonets. They sodomized children. They decapitated people. They killed a monk, threw him down a well with hand grenades. It was so obscene. They did everything but eat the people.

I didn't join the Army to do that sort of thing, even if they were sympathizers...

...WE SAW SOME people in a bunker. There was a squad coming their way. We could see the kids peeking out, little kids with Prince Valiant haircuts, black bangs, black pajamas and sandals.

...Thompson landed again. Glenn and I got out of the aircraft, took out the guns. Hugh walked over to this lieutenant (Brooks), and I could tell they were in a shouting match. I thought they were going to get in a fist fight. He told me later what they said:

Thompson: Let's get these people out of this bunker and get 'em out of here.

Brooks: We'll get 'em out with hand grenades.

Thompson: I can do better than that. Keep your people in place. My guns are on you.

Hugh was outranked, so this was not good to do, but that's how committed he was to stopping it.

He walked back to the aircraft. He said: "I'm going to go over and get them out of the bunker myself. If the squad opens up on them, shoot 'em." And he walked away.

Glenn and I looked at each other. We looked at the GIs we were supposed to protect, we looked at Thompson....

... Hugh went to the entrance of this little earthen bunker and motioned for the people to come out. It took a few minutes.

He kept his body in between Lt. Brooks and the people he'd gotten out of the bunker, got them over to our aircraft, and got on the radio with his buddy, the gunship pilot who was circling above: "Danny, do me a favor. Can you come down here? Can you shuttle some of these people out of here before they get killed?"

They landed. This is unheard of, to land a gunship and use it as a medivac. Makes you a sitting duck. Breaks all kind of military rules. But Hugh had thrown caution to the winds.

We passed over the ditch one more time and Glenn said: "I saw something move." Hugh landed again and Glenn charged in there, mired above his knees in what was once human beings. Maybe 175 people stacked three or four high. He picked this little fellow up but couldn't get out of the ditch because it was hard to get footing so he handed the child up to me and I grabbed him by the back of his shirt. I remember thinking: I hope the buttons are sewn on well because they're going to have to support his weight...

This is an act of bravery and moral conviction that is truly impressive. It requires not just the guts to stand off a squadron of blood-drunk goons, but to stand off a squadron of your comrades-in-arms, whom you are conditioned to depend on for your life in a war zone, despite the nagging suspicion that if someone got into trouble over this it probably will be you.

That indeed, was the case:

...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...

...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 Cally”.

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...

His and his friends' bravery was recognized thirty years later after determined efforts by admirers. The My Lai massacre was far from the only US army massacre in Vietnam. The difference with My Lai was that there were people around brave enough to report and publicize the events. So some sort of sham trial was set up and people's (killers') hands were slapped. Indeed, this particular publicized massacre of 500 people in cold blood, resulted in a scapegoat being sentenced to less than what he would have been for manslaughter in the US.

As Vietnam era level atrocities kill again in Iraq, Thompson's heroism offers a heartening example of moral clarity - and shows that no "harsh realities" of war deprive a person of their ability to act as moral agents.

There are no excuses.

May he be remembered lovingly by the people he saved, their children and their chidren's children. May he always serve as an anti-Rambo of sorts, the symbol of everything good an army isn't.


Anonymous said...

Well put. I know its not the point of this post, but it is the best version of the story I have read.

- barista

Renegade Eye said...

Well written powerful post.