Heroes of My Lai finally recognized Massacre: Helicopter pilot and crew trained weapons on American troops nearly 30 years ago to end killings.

March 07, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Nearly 30 years to the day after they risked their lives to stop the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, a helicopter pilot and his crew were honored yesterday by the U.S. Army, graying veterans and even former anti-war demonstrators on a quiet knoll above the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Former pilot Hugh C. Thompson Jr. and his door gunner Lawrence Colburn stood under a bright blue sky while an Army band played. A general recalled their heroism on a morning of madness in a far-off, steamy jungle. They put an end to a massacre that claimed some 500 civilian lives.

"It is clear the crew saved the lives of at least 11 Vietnamese civilians," said Maj. Gen. Michael W. Ackerman, himself a helicopter gunship pilot in Vietnam. "Values tested in battle provide the ultimate test."

The general pinned on the prestigious Soldier's Medal, the highest award for bravery not involving conflict with the enemy. And he noted the reference to Thompson in the Army's official report on My Lai: "If there was a hero at My Lai, he was it."

The soft-spoken Thompson, who counsels veterans in Lafayette, haltingly thanked the Army, his crew, and his late father and ill mother for "laying an ethical and moral foundation." He also said "welcome home" to the veterans present and those whose names are on the wall, adding, "In a very real sense, this medal is for you."

Colburn, now a manager for a medical supply company in Atlanta, said he hoped the public "would never forget the tragedy and the brutality of war." And he recited Gen. Douglas MacArthur's definition of a soldier: "The soldier, be he friend or foe, is charged with the protection of the weak and the unarmed."

The chopper's crew chief, Glenn U. Andreotta, was awarded his medal posthumously. The Chicago native was killed less than a month after the My Lai massacre. His name is etched on panel 48 E of the black marble wall. After the ceremony, Thompson walked to the Wall, bent over and traced Andreotta's name on a piece of paper.

On the morning of March 16, 1968, Thompson skimmed his helicopter along the tree line in Vietnam's Quang Ngai province. Peering down, he and his crew saw a trench full of dead civilians, with U.S. soldiers relaxing nearby.

They saw an American soldier flip a prone and unarmed woman over with his foot and spray her with automatic weapons fire. Then they saw villagers chased into a bomb shelter by other soldiers.

Thompson set his chopper down between the American troops and the fleeing civilians and angrily confronted an officer. He then told Colburn to train his machine gun on the soldiers and ordered him to open fire if they attacked the villagers. He radioed for evacuation helicopters and coaxed the villagers into them. Heading back to base, Thompson once more passed over the body-filled trench and noticed some movement.

Thompson set the chopper down again and Andreotta waded into the trench and lifted out a wounded child.

When the crew arrived back at headquarters, Thompson threw down his helmet and angrily told his commanders what he had seen. They ordered a cease-fire, and the killing ended.

Both Thompson and Colburn were witnesses in the trial of Lt. William L. Calley, the only officer convicted for the My Lai massacre, and later testified in the official investigations. While they were deemed heroes in the tight-knit Army helicopter community, they were largely unknown to the American public.

That began to change 10 years ago when David Egan, a professor emeritus of architecture at Clemson University, saw a BBC production on My Lai that mentioned Thompson. Egan began a tireless effort to gain Thompson a medal, writing hundreds of letters to lawmakers and Pentagon officials.

"Left to its own devices, the Army might never have recognized the heroism of Warrant Officer Thompson and his crew," wrote Harry Summers, a retired Army colonel, in his syndicated column this week.

Thompson was previously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery, and both Colburn and Andreotta received the Bronze Star. But the Army, after prodding from Egan, realized the more appropriate award would be the Soldier's Medal.

While the medal was approved in August 1996, it took the Army another 19 months to actually confer it. Pentagon sources said officials were debating whether to have a public or private ceremony, fearing a large public gathering would open the old My Lai wound, which Summers called "the most disgraceful incident in the Army's more than 200-year history."

Army officials denied any qualms about a public ceremony, explaining they were only looking for a proper location. They suggested a ceremony at the Hall of Heroes inside the Pentagon; Thompson said the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was more proper.

"The important thing is we awarded it," said Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, the Army's chief of staff, after the ceremony.

A line of well-wishers snaked around the knoll. There were children, young Army officers, and teary-eyed veterans like John Fox, of Orlando, Fla., who served with Thompson in Korea in the early 1970s. Embracing Thompson, he said, "It's long overdue."

And there were some, like Rosser McCormick, a Washington, D.C. artist, who came to the the Mall three decades ago to protest the war Thompson was fighting.

"I think they found themselves in an extraordinary situation and took a stand courageously," said McCormick, who stood in line HTC and then grasped Thompson's hand. "I simply said, 'Well done. Thank you. And welcome home yourself.' "

Pub Date: 3/07/98

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