Reluctant hero relates My Lai lessons

Story of Vietnam massacre told to Spalding students

March 17, 2000|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Hugh C. Thompson Jr. stood on the auditorium stage of Archbishop Spalding High School yesterday morning and urged the assembled students to stand by their consciences as he did more than 30 years ago in the Vietnamese village of My Lai.

"Some very bad things were happening right about now 32 years ago at a place called My Lai," Thompson told the approximately 900 students at the Roman Catholic high school in Severn. "Everything went wrong that day."

Thompson, a retired Army captain who was a 25-year-old helicopter pilot at the time, did what he could. His actions, which initially brought him scorn within the military, have made him a reluctant hero.

On the morning of March 16, 1968, during a sweep of the South Vietnamese village, Thompson and his two-man crew saw hundreds of bodies piled in ditches -- mostly old men, women and children. They saw unarmed villagers running for cover from U.S. Army soldiers.

The young warrant officer from Georgia landed the chopper, confronted the American ground troops and stopped the massacre. Then he flew back to his base and reported what he had seen.

"I took a stand, reported it and that's when I started being treated very bad," Thompson told the silent students.

"When you see something going wrong at school, at home or on the street, call it your conscience [or] training, it's going to tell you it's wrong," the retired Army captain said. "You have to listen to that. Don't listen to your buddy."

Thompson's actions halted a slaughter that took the lives of about 500 civilians, but it wasn't until two years ago that the military publicly recognized Thompson for his courage. The Army awarded Thompson and his door gunner, Lawrence Colburn, the Soldier's Medal -- the highest decoration for bravery not involving direct combat. The chopper's crew chief, Glenn U. Andreotta was awarded the medal posthumously.

Thomas W. Strother, the Archbishop Spalding social studies teacher who invited the war hero to speak at the school, announced yesterday that Thompson is up for another award.

In January, Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in the fall.

"I'm shocked and humbled that someone would go to the effort," Thompson said.

Thompson, self-proclaimed patriot who wears ties decorated with American flags and counsels veterans in Louisiana, has never been comfortable with the label of hero.

"We were doing our job that day, trying to protect innocent people," Thompson, 56, told the students. "If there was a hero, it was my crew chief."

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