My Lai still causes Army to flinch, delaying a medal Soldier's effort to stop '68 massacre brings painful recognition

November 14, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- On the morning of March 16, 1968, Warrant $$ Officer Hugh C. Thompson Jr. skipped his helicopter along the tree line in Vietnam's Quang Ngai province and saw a hellish scene below: a massacre at a village called My Lai.

Thompson set down his chopper, angrily confronted a fellow American soldier and saved more than a dozen villagers cowering in a bunker. He then plucked an injured child from a body-filled trench before heading back to headquarters. Throwing down his helmet, he told commanders what he saw. They ordered a cease-fire, and the killing ended.

Now, nearly 30 years later, an effort to finally recognize Thompson's heroics is being stalled by Army politics. Approved for the Soldier's Medal in August 1996 -- thanks largely to a nine-year effort by a Clemson University professor -- Thompson has not yet received the decoration or even been officially notified by the Army that it has been granted.

Amid this unusually long delay, Army officials are debating whether to award the medal in a private or public setting. Some argue a public ceremony would rekindle interest in one of the Army's most sordid episodes, sources said. "It's really disappointing," said one Defense Department official involved in the effort to approve the decoration. "The whole intent was to present a medal to a guy who was truly a hero."

Said Lt. Col. Peter Dagnes, an aide to Assistant Army Secretary Sara E. Lister, the top personnel official: "The award was approved and the Army is just trying to figure out how to make a presentation." But Dagnes could not explain why nearly 15 months later Thompson has yet to be notified of the award.

Lt. Col. Bill Harkey, an Army spokesman, could not explain the delay either. But he dismissed the notion that it resulted from a dispute over whether Thompson should be given the award publicly or privately. "We're just trying to come up with a proper location," he said.

The setting doesn't matter, he said, since any ceremony would dredge up memories of the My Lai atrocities.

Thompson's efforts are not in dispute. W. R. Peers, a three-star Army general who spearheaded the official inquiry at My Lai in 1969, later wrote of Thompson: "He was the only American who cared enough to take action to protect the Vietnamese noncombatants. If there was a hero at My Lai, he was it."

Those who have championed Thompson's cause are dumbfounded that the Army would not want to publicize his actions, accounts of which have been woven into cadet ethics courses at the U.S. Air Force Academy and in a mock My Lai trial at West Point.

"If the Army had any sense they'd call attention to it," said retired Army Col. Harry G. Summers, Jr., a decorated Vietnam veteran and syndicated columnist who has written about Thompson.

Thompson, now an official with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Louisiana, was traveling and could not be reached. But Larry Colburn, who was his 18-year-old door gunner that morning, vividly recalls that day.

Flying a reconnaissance mission on a clear March morning with Thompson and Glenn Andreotta, another crew member from Chicago, Colburn suddenly saw the trench full of bodies.

"I think we were all shocked to see that many kids and women and old men," said Colburn, now a manager for a medical supply company in Atlanta, "and not see any [arms] fire, no captured weapons."

Thompson set down his chopper and approached the more senior Lt. William L. Calley. He got into a bitter argument with Calley about what was occurring, according to "Four Hours in My Lai," a 1992 book by Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim. Calley would become the only soldier convicted at My Lai.

Taking off again, the crew soon saw other soldiers running toward a bunker where villagers had fled. "I remember he [Thompson] said, 'This is not right, what's going on here,' " recalled Colburn. Thompson set down the helicopter.

"He said, 'If they fire on those people, shoot them,' " Colburn remembered. "He wanted me to cover him." After telling another officer not to fire at the civilians, the muscular 25-year-old Georgia native walked to the bunker, as a dozen U.S. soldiers stood by.

"I remember thinking to myself, 'He's crazy. He could die right here.' Then [the villagers] all came out of there like he's their cousin," Colburn said.

Climbing back into his chopper, Thompson hovered above the irrigation ditch, dropping down once more to pick up a toddler, who was covered in blood and slime but not seriously hurt. By now, Thompson was overcome. "He was in tears," said Colburn.

Colburn is not surprised that the Army seems reluctant to publicly celebrate Thompson for his actions.

Both men testified in courts-martial against the soldiers charged with complicity in My Lai, and at Pentagon and congressional investigations. "We're not popular," said Colburn. "The Army doesn't admit mistakes."

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