Vet wants to receive medal on his terms My Lai hero objects to private ceremony, no awards for crew

November 29, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Sixteen months after the Army approved a medal for the unsung hero of the 1968 My Lai massacre, Army Secretary Togo D. West Jr. is scheduled to present the award in a private ceremony in his office next week.

But a dispute is threatening to jeopardize the ceremony, set for Wednesday, to honor Hugh C. Thompson Jr. Thompson, who as an Army helicopter pilot saved the lives of My Lai villagers and alerted superiors to the carnage and thus helped end it, prefers a public ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Of a public ceremony, Thompson said yesterday from his home in Louisiana: "That's what I thought it was always going to be. I thought the appropriate place would be the Wall."

He also said, in reference to holding the ceremony in West's office, "If they want to have it in the back corner and not have anybody there, I don't know what's going to happen."

Thompson is scheduled to receive the coveted Soldier's Medal, denoting heroism and the voluntary risking of life. But he is requesting that the two crew members with him that day, Larry Colburn and the late Glenn Andreotta, also be awarded Meritorious Service Medals, signifying outstanding noncombat

achievement.

"I think Larry deserves a medal," Thompson said, adding that Andreotta -- who was killed in Vietnam a month after My Lai -- should receive one posthumously. "We were a team."

Should the Army refuse to award Colburn a medal, Thompson said, he would ask that his old gunner -- rather than West -- pin on his Soldier's Medal. "If they refuse to give him an award, that's what I will ask for," he said.

Asked whether he intended to turn down the invitation to West's office if his requests were not met, Thompson said: "I haven't done that yet. They're supposed to call back Monday."

Dove Schwartz, an Army spokesman, would say only that Army officials are completing details for the ceremony. "No one here has anything to say on that until Monday," Schwartz said.

The My Lai massacre occurred on March 16, 1968, when an Army platoon led by Lt. William L. Calley Jr. went on a murderous rampage against a village of Vietnamese civilians suspected of collaboration with the Viet Cong. Calley was convicted of 22 murders. Estimates of civilians killed range as high as 500.

The morning of the massacre, Thompson, a warrant officer, was flying his helicopter -- with Colburn and Andreotta aboard -- over the village of My Lai when he saw a trench filled with bodies.

He landed his aircraft, confronted the more senior Calley, and was later credited with saving more than a dozen villagers huddled in a bunker. Returning to headquarters, he told his superiors what was happening at My Lai, and they ordered a cease-fire.

Lt. Gen. W. R. Peers, who led the official inquiry into the massacre, wrote of Thompson: "If there was a hero at My Lai, he was it."

Thompson's efforts to save the villagers and end the killing were largely unknown at the time of the massacre. The Army approved the Soldier's Medal for him in August 1996, but the presentation was stalled by internal Army politics. Until Tuesday, Thompson said yesterday, he had not even been officially told that the medal had been approved.

Sources said the Army feared that a public ceremony and the attendant publicity might rekindle interest in My Lai.

David Egan, a Clemson University professor of architecture who had spearheaded a nine-year effort to gain the Soldier's Medal for Thompson, and several retired Army generals have been pressing for a public ceremony, either at the U.S. Military Academy or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

"I was shocked and profoundly saddened to learn the secretary of the Army is attempting to schedule a private medal presentation," Egan said yesterday. A private ceremony "likely will lead the public to erroneously conclude the Army is ashamed to honor Thompson for his moral courage and physical bravery."

Thompson said that if he is the only member of his helicopter crew to receive a medal, he may leave it at the Vietnam memorial.

"I'll bring the medal to the Wall and tape it on Andreotta's name," he said.

Pub Date: 11/29/97

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