Pilot who reported My Lai atrocity visits academy Former serviceman tells midshipmen of importance of moral courage

March 31, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

How can America prevent a repeat of its worst wartime atrocity: The slaughter by U.S. troops of innocent Vietnamese men, women and children in the dusty town of My Lai?

"I think by talks like this one," Hugh C. Thompson Jr. told a questioner in the standing-room-only crowd at the Naval Academy last night.

Thompson was a 25-year-old helicopter pilot the morning of March 16, 1968, when he and two crew members came across ditches filled with people who apparently had been gunned down by Army soldiers.

"Everywhere we looked we saw bodies," Thompson said.

To prevent further slaughter, Thompson confronted another soldier and demanded an end to the shooting, rescued villagers cowering in a bunker and plucked an injured boy from a body-filled trench. He returned to headquarters and reported the incident.

Early last month, 30 years after My Lai, Thompson and his door gunner from that day, Lawrence Colburn, were awarded the Soldier's Medal, the highest decoration for bravery not involving direct combat.

Last week, they returned to My Lai for a reunion with some of the villagers they saved and their children. "That'll make you feel good," he said.

Among the questions from midshipmen was the one that has haunted Thompson for 30 years: Why?

"It can never be answered," Thompson said. "Peer pressure, I'm sure, had something to do with it. And y'all midshipmen I'm sure understand something about peer pressures. But you've got to draw the line somewhere. Because once you give into it, it can start snowballing."

Thompson also was asked to tell midshipmen, who are bound for the Navy and Marines, how to work for an organization that has shown an ability to cover up such horrors as My Lai.

"I haven't given up on my country yet. Nor have I given up on my military," he said.

Thompson's speech was the latest evidence of the academy's efforts to bolster the ethical training of midshipmen. Those efforts emerged after the academy's reputation was tarnished by a 1993 cheating scandal and a series of other crimes -- drug sales, a car-theft ring, sex assaults -- in 1995 and 1996.

The academy has since created a character development department and has incorporated ethics classes and seminars into every part of the curriculum.

In his Georgia drawl, Thompson said he was uncomfortable with the word "hero" that has been pinned on him -- most recently on Sunday by Mike Wallace during a segment on "60 Minutes."

"The only thing we were doing that day was our jobs," Thompson said.

"You have to have moral courage," he said, "and I don't think you can get it in a classroom. It has to come from deep inside you."

When a midshipman asked, half in jest, why then did academy students spend so much time in ethics classes, Thompson said they can learn about moral behavior in the classroom, "but the biggest part of it is already inside you."

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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