Hugh Thompson
Hugh Thompson as he appeared
in February 1998

“It wasn’t armor or weapons that stopped those frenzied troops, but the moral authority conveyed by setting that machine down where Thompson did…” Michael Fumento Hugh Thompson will forever be known for an extraordinary act of conscience and courage: putting a stop to the My Lai Massacre, in which 504 unarmed South Vietnamese villagers were terrorized and killed by U.S. soldiers on March 16, 1968. 

That morning, Warrant Officer Thompson, 24, was piloting his fragile OH-23 aeroscout helicopter over My Lai with his crew chief, Glenn Andreotta, 20, and his gunner, Larry Colburn, 18.  When the three realized that they were witnessing a massacre, Thompson landed his ship between fleeing Vietnamese survivors and pursuing American soldiers.  There, Thompson told his crew that if the American soldiers tried to harm the cowering villagers, then they should open fire upon the Americans.

Next, enraged and armed only with a holstered pistol, Mr. Thompson confronted an American lieutenant.  Mr. Thompson won that face-down, and the Americans pressed no farther..   Desperate to transport the frightened Vietnamese to safety, Thompson contacted by radio two larger gunships hovering above and begged them to come to his aid.  The gunship pilots, Danny Millians and Brian Livingston, respected Thompson and landed nearby.  Between them, the gunships transported nine Vietnamese to safety. 

After next rescuing a small boy from an irrigation ditch filled with more than one hundred dead and dying, Thompson,  Colburn, and Andreotta (who would be killed three weeks later), flew back to base to register an insistent and loud protest.  While they would not learn of it until days later, their threats to protest up the chain-of-command forced to a halt a division-level operation that had planned further massacres of neighboring hamlets.

Following his dramatic intercession of March 16, 1968, Hugh Thompson’s commanders worked to cover-up the truth.  He continued to fly, but those commanders “neglected” to provide the two heavier gunships that were standard protection for aeroscout helicopters.  This continued for months until Thompson’s fifth crash broke his back and he was evacuated to an Army hospital in Japan.

LarryMr. Thompson remained in the Army, and for nearly two decades was widely reviled by his peers for his efforts at My Lai and for his truth-telling in subsequent investigations and legal proceedings.  Despite this, and despite anonymous threats upon his life, he chose to make a career in Army Aviation.  Stubborn, to be sure, but Hugh Thompson lived to fly helicopters.  And there in Army Aviation he remained until retirement in 1983 at the rank of Captain.

Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in the aftermath of the Massacre, Mr.Thompson dismissed the thing, always viewing it as an attempt to buy his silence.  More important to him, in any case, was the Department of the Army’s grudging award in March 1998 of the Soldiers Medal, the highest award the Army can bestow for bravery other than in combat with the enemy.  Even then, Thompson refused to accept the medal unless it was also given to his crewmates, Larry Colburn, and, posthumously, Glenn Andreotta.  Mr. Thompson, however, was most pleased by the acclaim of his peers, who in 2004 voted to induct him into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame.

During his last decade, Mr. Thompson worked as a veterans advocate and counselor for the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs.  And, accompanied by Mr. Colburn, he lectured on battlefield ethics at the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and at the U.S. Marine Corps Base at Quantico, VA.  The two also appeared before large audiences at numerous colleges and universities.

Speaking to and with young adults led Mr. Thompson and Mr. Colburn to the discovery of a public life, a vocation, one they would pursue together until Mr. Thompson’s death in 2006.  Together, they entered into a covenant with young men and women to promote and sustain a “moral conversation” about matters of state, matters of war, matters of honor, duty, and conscience.  In these meetings, which they soon grew to love, they sought to introduce a “moral seriousness” too much absent from the larger American culture.

Hugh Thompson, Jr. was born in Atlanta, GA, on April 15, 1943.  He died in Lafayette, LA on January 6, 2006, at age 62.