My Lai hero urges teens to speak up

Pilot tells students of Vietnam massacre

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. "I'm somewhat embarrassed."

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."

He said Andreotta spotted movement in a corpse-filled ditch at My Lai and waded through bodies to retrieve a 4-year-old boy. The child was covered in blood but uninjured.

"This was just a little baby, picked up by the back of the neck and thrown on 150 bodies," Thompson recalled yesterday.

Thompson didn't hesitate to confront his Army superiors at My Lai. He landed his helicopter between American troops and fleeing civilians, and ordered Colburn and Andreotta to open fire on the soldiers if they attacked the villagers.

He told the students that civilians had been marched to ditches, hands over their eyes, begging for their lives. American soldiers made them kneel, then stand, then ordered them to turn around.

"My fellow Americans couldn't even look them in the eye," he said.

When Thompson returned to My Lai two years ago, he said a woman who survived the massacre asked him why the soldiers who killed the villagers didn't come.

"She paused and finished her sentence, `so we could forgive them,' " Thompson said. "I won't lie to you, ladies and gentlemen, I'm not that big a man."

Although he never wavered in the belief that he made the right choices 32 years ago, Thompson endured many difficult years before he was publicly proclaimed a hero. He told students about the death threats, the hate mail and the silence when he walked into an officers' club.

"It will hurt you a lot, but you have to take a stand or this world will destroy itself," he said. "The only reason I travel around now is to maybe make an impression on one of you to not be involved in negative peer pressure."

After giving Thompson a standing ovation, Archbishop Spalding students reflected on his message.

"He put his morals over his orders," said sophomore Ken Meidenbauer, 16.

"My dad's in the Army so I can understand some of what he went through," said Matthew Mason, a 17-year-old senior. "I hope everyone was paying attention because he gave us some really valuable advice."

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