50 Years Ago Today – the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam and the American Soldier Who Stopped It

by on March 16, 2018 · 7 comments

in Veterans, War and Peace

American Soldiers Killed 504 Vietnamese Civilians Including Many Children – It Could Have Been Worse If Helicopter Pilot Hugh Thompson Hadn’t Landed and Threatened to Shoot Other Americans

In today’s Los Angeles Times, progressive professor Jon Wiener wrote an amazing piece about not only the 50th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam on this day but of Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot who stopped it.

I met Wiener when I was canvasing members of the faculty at UC Irvine to join a union – I knew him as a prolific writer for The Nation magazine back in the Eighties – and I really expected he would be sympathetic and join. He didn’t – too much local politics on campus under the bridge – I think he said. And for years, I resented his decision not to throw his fate in with others on the campus. But today, from one lefty to another, I forgave him – because of this article. He began:

Everybody’s heard of the My Lai massacre — March 16, 1968, 50 years ago today — but not many know about the man who stopped it: Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot. When he arrived, American soldiers had already killed 504 Vietnamese civilians (that’s the Vietnamese count; the U.S. Army said 347). They were going to kill more, but they didn’t — because of what Thompson did.

Wiener writes that he met Thompson in nearly 2 decades ago when Wiener interviewed him for an LA radio program on KPFK.

He told the story of what happened that day, when he and his two-man crew flew over My Lai, in support of troops who were looking for Viet Cong fighters.

“We started noticing these large numbers of bodies everywhere,” he told me, “people on the road dead, wounded. And just sitting there saying, ‘God, how’d this happen? What’s going on?’ And we started thinking what might have happened, but you didn’t want to accept that thought — because if you accepted it, that means your own fellow Americans, people you were there to protect, were doing something very evil.”

Who were the people lying in the roads and in the ditch, wounded and killed?

“They were not combatants. They were old women, old men, children, kids, babies.”

Then Thompson and his crew chief, Glenn Andreotta, and his gunner, Lawrence Colburn, “saw some civilians hiding in a bunker, cowering, looking out the door. Saw some advancing Americans coming that way. I just figured it was time to do something, to not let these people get killed. Landed the aircraft in between the Americans and the Vietnamese, told my crew chief and gunner to cover me, got out of the aircraft, went over to the American side.”

What happened next was one of the most remarkable events of the entire war, and perhaps unique: Thompson told the American troops that, if they opened fire on the Vietnamese civilians in the bunker, he and his crew would open fire on them.

“You risked your lives,” I said, “to protect those Vietnamese civilians.”

“Well, it didn’t come to that,” he replied. “I thank God to this day that everybody did stay cool and nobody opened up. … It was time to stop it, and I figured, at that point, that was the only way the madness, or whatever you want to call it, could be stopped.”

Wiener recounts how afterwards, Thompson filed a complaint about the civilians he had witnessed killed, but the Army covered it up for years. Not until journalist Seymour Hersh found out about the massacre did it became international news. And Thompson did testify at the trial of Lt. William Calley, the commanding officer during the massacre.

Then came the backlash. Calley had many supporters, who condemned and harassed Thompson. He didn’t have much support — for decades. It took the Army 30 years, but in 1998, they finally acknowledged that Thompson had done something good. They awarded him the Soldier’s Medal for “heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.”

Thompson returned to My Lai 20 years ago and met some of those he had helped save. One woman asked him, ‘Why didn’t the people who committed these acts come back with you? So we could forgive them.’ Thompson added:

“I always questioned, in my mind, did anybody [Vietnamese] know we all aren’t like that? Did they know that somebody tried to help? And yes, they did know that. That aspect of it made me feel real good.”

Jon Wiener is a professor emeritus of history at UC Irvine, and he finished his piece in the Times:

Today there’s a little museum in My Lai, where Thompson is honored, and which displays a list of the names and ages of people killed that day. Trent Angers, Thompson’s biographer and friend, analyzed the list and found about 50 there who were 3 years old or younger. He found 69 between the ages of 4 and 7, and 91 between the ages of 8 and 12.

Nick Turse investigated violence in Vietnam against noncombatants for his book “Kill Anything that Moves.” He concluded — after a decade of research in Pentagon archives and more than 100 interviews with American veterans and Vietnamese survivors — that Americans killing civilians in Vietnam was “pervasive and systematic.” One soldier told him there had been “a My Lai a month.”

We know that Americans committed a massacre 50 years ago today; and we also know that an American stopped it. Hugh Thompson died in 2006, when he was only 62. I wish we could have done more to thank him.

Local Vets Host My Lai Massacre Exhibit

Locally, the local San Diego Veterans For Peace chapter continues to host the national My Lai Massacre exhibit and speaker series at two locations.

Today and tomorrow (Friday and Saturday), the press and the public is encouraged to stop by and reflect on an interactive art exhibit that will be shown at two different sites in San Diego (please see the attached flyer).

This exhibit, created and based in Chicago, honors the over 2 million Vietnamese killed in what we call the “Vietnam War” but which they refer to as the “American War”.  Veterans and subject matter expert speakers will be on hand at each event.

Friday, 2-9 PM at the First Unitarian Church of San Diego with speakers at 7:30 PM.

Saturday, 12-9 PM at the SD Peace Resource Center with speakers at 6:30 PM.

For more information or to arrange interviews with expert speakers or other local veterans, please contact: Gary Butterfield, President of the San Diego Veterans For Peace, who can be reached at Garyvfp@gmail.com or at 858-245-7700.

More details:

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Gilbert Field March 16, 2018 at 1:09 pm

The San Diego chapter of the Veterans For Peace is the Hugh Thompson Memorial chapter and we wear his name proudly.

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Laura D in OB March 16, 2018 at 10:28 pm

Gilbert, when and where do you meet?

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Gilbert Field March 18, 2018 at 7:10 pm
Laura D in OB March 18, 2018 at 7:18 pm

Thanks Gilbert.

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John P. Falchi March 16, 2018 at 2:51 pm

The My Lai Massacre exemplifies the type of war we were waging in Vietnam and which we continue to wage today in many places around the world. The interactive art exhibit and speakers program which the Veterans of Peace has brought to San Diego has made it possible for many of us to reflect on the activities of war which we continue to conduct around the world. It is a real response to the $63 Million Campaign which the Pentagon is conducting to whitewash what our soldiers are about around the world.

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Steve Zivolich March 16, 2018 at 3:26 pm

Most people killed in wars are not soldiers, but civilians. The only way to stop it is to prevent war itself.

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie March 17, 2018 at 10:01 am

Hey Steve – good to hear from you. Which reminds me, I’ll be contacting you regarding your experiences during May 1970.

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