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February 26, 2019

Saviors Rising from the Ashes of the My Lai Massacre

My Lai village, 1970 | Courtesy of Flickr user manhhai

In the midst of a war-torn Vietnam, three U.S. infantry companies moved into the village of My Lai on March 16, 1968. Under direct orders to eliminate Viet Cong soldiers, U.S. troops killed livestock and burned houses to prevent the Viet Cong from resupplying. This was to be a simple mission, but the events that unfolded made this mission into one of the most brutal encounters in the Vietnam War.1 In only a few hours, a squad of U.S. soldiers would massacre approximately 300 to 500 villagers. Many villagers lined up in ditches to be executed. As their homes burnt, dozens of women and children were shot, stabbed or raped. These atrocious acts halted when a U.S. helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson, and his small crew comprised of Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta, intervened. Their reconnaissance mission suddenly turned into a rescue mission.2 Reflecting back on the My Lai massacre decades later, Colburn, Thompson’s gunner, recalled seeing the Vietnamese “begging for mercy.” He explained, “there was no mercy until Thompson arrived.”3

Hugh Thompson Jr., 1966 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr. was a tall and slender twenty-five-year-old American pilot, who was born and raised in Georgia. In his childhood, a well-disciplined Thompson once fought with several boys in school who had been making fun of a handicapped child. In 1961, he was 18 when he joined the U.S. Navy. After three years, he left the Navy and briefly returned to civilian life. Soon after, he re-enlisted into the U.S. Army and arrived at Vietnam in 1967 as a warrant officer, a reconnaissance pilot with the 123rd Aviation Battalion. His job involved flying into enemy territory and spotting enemy positions.4

On March 16, 1968, Thompson was flying his helicopter with his crew above My Lai when he noticed bodies of all ages laying across rice paddies. This scene confused him, since there were no reports of a battle that took place. From above, Thompson saw a young woman who lay wounded. He threw a smoke grenade down and signaled for medical back-up. After calling for help, ground command responded with “Yes, I will help her.” Only a few minutes later, a captain arrived at the scene only to push the injured woman with his foot and open fire on her with an M-16. Upon witnessing this, Thompson said to himself, “She’s history, and I’m sitting here. My God, he just killed her.” Realizing that Americans were responsible for killing these civilians, Thompson and his crew decided to take action.5

As they flew by, Thompson glimpsed at least one hundred more bodies lying in a ditch. Several soldiers had been shooting at those who attempted to escape. Swiftly, Thompson landed his helicopter and asked to speak to whoever was in charge. Sergeant Mitchell, a nearby officer, told him that the only solution to helping those in the ditch was to end their misery. Thompson, believing this to a cruel joke, ordered Mitchell to help the villagers. Mitchell simply replied, “OK, Chief, we’ll take care of it.” A lieutenant, William Calley, stepped in and too showed little concern for the villagers. Thompson, irritated, told the lieutenant, “There’s lots of wounded here,” to which Calley’s response was a simple “Yes.” Thompson asked Calley to call for support, but Calley, a higher ranking officer, insisted that nothing could be done. Knowing there was no point in further arguing with Calley, Thompson bitterly returned to his helicopter and took off. By getting the troop’s attention and with lieutenant Calley’s arrival, Thompson believed that he halted the killings.  Unfortunately, as soon as Thompson was in the air, the men below continued to fire at the villagers.6

In the three months since they arrived in Vietnam, Charlie Company, the soldiers who instigated the My Lai massacre, had seen four of their men killed and thirty-eight wounded. Most of these deaths and injuries came from mines, booby traps or distant snipers. The Viet Cong’s guerrilla tactics prevented the U.S. soldiers from fighting back. Only two days before the My Lai massacre, a landmine blew apart a well-liked sergeant in the company. One day prior to the massacre, the commander of Charlie Company, Captain Ernest Medina, prepared his men for the upcoming operation. He convinced them that tomorrow’s attack would be the perfect opportunity to avenge their fallen comrades. Medina’s speech reinforced the idea that the Vietnamese were subhumans who had to be “hosed down” and “wasted.” According to Army intelligence, the area around My Lai was a Viet Cong stronghold and its inhabitants were either Viet Cong guerrillas or sympathizers. However, when Charlie Company arrived on the morning of March 16, no guerrilla fighters were present. They only found civilians going about their lives – many of whom cooking rice for breakfast. Sa Thi Qui, a survivor of the massacre, later said that the villagers were initially not afraid because U.S. troops had previously passed through the village; some of them had given candy to the children.7

This quick snapshot was taken by a U.S. soldier during the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968. The women and children shown here would be killed only moments after this picture was taken | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

After witnessing Calley and others shooting at the villagers, Thompson knew he needed to intervene. Differences in radio frequencies prevented him from contacting Colonel Henderson, the commander of the Americal Division’s 11th Infantry Brigade. If he returned to a landing zone to notify his superiors, more civilians would have been murdered by the time something was done.8 While he was looking at his options, Thompson saw several women and children in a field rushing towards a nearby bunker below. Not far from the group were about ten soldiers running after them. He radioed Danny Millians, his friend who was a pilot flying nearby, about the situation, and then Thompson flew his helicopter close to the bunker. Both he and his two crewmates knew that these villagers would die in a matter of minutes. Thompson looked at his crew and boldly told them, “These people are going to die. I’m not going to let this happen. We’ve got to do something. Are you guys with me?” Without pausing to think, Andreotta replied, “If we’re going to do something, we better do it right now!” Eighteen-year-old Colburn wondered, “How did we get into this?” In a race against time, the helicopter dashed towards the open rice paddy field.9

As Thompson landed his helicopter in the field between the Vietnamese civilians and the incoming U.S. troops, he was afraid of what might happen to him. He and his crew might be killed in a firefight or even spend the rest of their lives in jail. However, despite the dangers, Thompson was determined to prevent any more deaths. With the engine still on, Thompson stepped off the helicopter to confront the officer in charge who was about fifty yards away. Meanwhile, Colburn and Andreotta, carrying several machine guns, kept a close watch from a safe distance hoping that this would not lead to a violent showdown. At the same time, Millian flew his gunship close by to assess the situation. Thompson walked towards the lieutenant in charge, Stephen Brooks of the 2nd Platoon in Charlie Company. “Hey, there’s some civilians over here in this bunker! Can you get them out,” called Thompson. Brooks sneered, “We can get them out with a hand grenade!”10

Vietnamese workers near My Lai, 1971 | Courtesy of Flickr user manhhai

The two men got into a heated argument. Colburn and Andreotta could barely hear Thompson screaming from a distance. After a five minute verbal confrontation, Thompson headed back to the helicopter. A fuming Brooks held back his anger as he stared at the gun-wielding Colburn and Andreotta. When Thompson reached his aircraft, he told his crew to prepare for confrontation. He told them, “They’re coming this way. I’m going to go over to the bunker myself and get these people out. If they fire on these people or fire on me while I’m doing that, shoot ’em!” They nervously stayed still, pointing their guns toward the floor in fear that they would accidentally fire at the U.S. troops. Colburn was more concerned that one of the soldiers would try to flush the villagers out of the bunker with a grenade. While still cautious, Brooks and his men sat down for lunch and cigarettes.11

Out of the one hundred U.S. soldiers that entered My Lai that day, only about thirty participated in the murders. Although the majority of the soldiers did not partake in the massacre, they also made no attempts to stop it. Several of those soldiers later testified that they chose not to intervene for fear of being shot among the madness.12 For those that took part in the killings, they likely experienced “battlefield frenzy”: a mental state that embattled their minds. With this mindset of anger and revenge, they felt no remorse over killing the villagers.13

With Colburn and Andreotta on the lookout, Thompson headed inside the bunker. He found a total of nine Vietnamese civilians – five children, two men, and two women. One of them was an old, frail man and one of the children was tightly gripping a woman’s leg. The villagers were initially scared of Thompson, but slowly their trust grew, and they followed him out. Thompson, distraught, realized not everyone would fit inside the helicopter. Using his radio, Thompson called for back-up. Millians and Brian Livingston, another gunship pilot, answered. Aware of the danger of the situation, both still agreed to help. Colburn and Andreotta continued to tensely watch the American soldiers resting from afar. Uneasy, Colburn waved his hand at the soldiers as a friendly gesture and one of them waved back. Millians unconventionally landed his aircraft. Both he and Thompson realized that there would still not be enough room for the civilians. It would take two trips to escort them all to safety. With Livingston flying close by for protective support and Thompson stationed on the ground with the Vietnamese civilians, Millians took two round-trips in flying the villagers to safety a couple miles away. After twenty minutes, they had safely evacuated all nine of these villagers.14

The ditch where Charlie Company gathered and killed approximately 170 villagers. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With the civilians free from harm, Thompson and his crew took off from the field. Thompson hovered in the vicinity to see if there were any more survivors. They found a ditch full of bodies and Andreotta, believing that he saw movement, told Thompson to land the helicopter. Once landed, Thompson stayed in the aircraft while Andreotta and Colburn silently searched through the pile of corpses. Andreotta stepped down into the ditch, walking past corpses. He spotted a young boy, covered in blood. Although he was stuck under a few bodies, he was alive and unharmed. Andreotta found him, silent but terrified, clasping onto a corpse full of bullet holes – his mother. After pulling him out, he picked the boy up and gave him to Colburn, who stood above on the edge of the ditch. The three of them returned to the helicopter and Thompson took them to a hospital in Quang Ngai City. Seeing that the boy had no family left, Thompson gave the boy to a nun to be placed in a nearby orphanage.15

A memorial dedicated to the Vietnamese lives lost in the massacre; My Lai | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Military authorities ignored Hugh Thompson’s account of the massacre. It was not until a year later on November 1969 that the public even became aware of the massacre. In the following months, two dozen American soldiers were tried for military crimes. Lieutenant William Calley, charged with 102 counts of murder, received a life sentence. However, in November 1974, he got out of prison with a dishonorable discharge by President Nixon. 16 Thompson later spoke of the massacre as “one of the saddest days of my life…I just could not believe that people could totally lose control like the way it happened.”17

Sadly, Glenn Andreotta, only twenty years old, died in combat three weeks after the massacre.18 But, Thompson and Colburn reunited two decades later in 1989 to interview for the award-winning BBC-TV documentary film Remember My Lai.19 In seminars, talks and presentations, Thompson and Colburn advocated for moral and ethical leadership in combat. Both men returned to My Lai on March 1998, the thirtieth anniversary of the massacre, to pay their respects. They even reunited with Do Hoa, the eight-year old boy they rescued.20

Their bravery did not go unnoticed. Major Milliam Eckhardt, the main prosecutor during the My Lai trial case, later remarked, “When you have evil, sometimes, in the midst of it, you will have incredible, selfless good. And that’s Hugh Thompson.” Hugh Thompson, Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta (posthumously) were eventually rewarded with the Soldier’s Medal for their display of heroism outside of combat.21 The massacre at My Lai shows us that no matter how bad a given situation can get, there will always be people who will rise up and take action against the cruelty demonstrated by other human beings.

In 1998, thirty years after the My Lai massacre, Hugh Thompson Jr. and Lawrence Colburn gather at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. to be awarded the Soldiers Medal. | Courtesy of AP Press

  1.  Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2018, s.v. “American Massacre of Vietnamese Civilians at My Lai Is Revealed,” by Wendy Hicks.
  2.  Vietnam War Reference, Library Volume 3: Almanac, 2001, s.v. “Nixon’s War (1969-70).”
  3.  Howard Jones, My Lai : Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent Into Darkness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 88.
  4. “Hugh Thompson,” The Times (London), January 11, 2006.
  5.  Howard Jones, My Lai : Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent Into Darkness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 86-88.
  6.  Howard Jones, My Lai : Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent Into Darkness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 88, 89.
  7. Claude Cookman, “An American Atrocity: The My Lai Massacre Concretized in a Victim’s Face,” The Journal of American History 94, no. 1 (2007), 155, 156.
  8.  Howard Jones, My Lai : Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent Into Darkness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 36, 89.
  9.  Howard Jones, My Lai : Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent Into Darkness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 105.
  10.  Howard Jones, My Lai : Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent Into Darkness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 105, 106.
  11.  Howard Jones, My Lai : Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent Into Darkness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 106-107.
  12.  Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, 2010, s.v. “My Lai Massacre,” by Batten Donna.
  13. Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 160.
  14.  Howard Jones, My Lai : Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent Into Darkness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 107-109.
  15.  Howard Jones, My Lai : Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent Into Darkness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 118-120.
  16.  Vietnam War Reference, Library Volume 3: Almanac, 2001, s.v. “Nixon’s War (1969-70).”
  17.  Howard Jones, My Lai : Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent Into Darkness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 342.
  18.  Howard Jones, My Lai : Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent Into Darkness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 144.
  19.  Howard Jones, My Lai : Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent Into Darkness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 342, 343.
  20.  Howard Jones, My Lai : Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent Into Darkness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 345.
  21.  Howard Jones, My Lai : Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent Into Darkness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 257, 344.

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