Remembering a real war hero

Hugh Thompson died last week. He was a difficult kind of hero. He
took a stand for decency and humanity, and some people vilified him for

News of his death did not get anywhere near the attention it deserved.
Maybe that’s because we are still so uneasy with that day almost 37
years ago when American soldiers showed a capacity for depravity and
savagery that called all kinds of moral assumptions into question.

Was it an isolated aberration or just grizzly proof that Americans are
not immune from the kind of evil that can shut down years of civilized
living and turn a man into something his family wouldn’t recognize?
Even as we go to war again, we don’t seem to have a solid answer.

In the village of My Lai, in what was then South Vietnam, American men
went on a killing spree on March 16, 1968, that left hundreds of people
who had nothing to do with the war _ old men, women, children _ dead in
a ditch. There was rape and mutilation.

And Hugh Thompson, a
warrant officer and pilot, saw it all from the air and put his
helicopter down in the middle of it, between the soldiers gone mad and
the few remaining villagers left alive. He told his two-man crew to
open fire on their fellow Americans if they had to. He called in nearby
gunships to fly four adults and five children to safety. And he flew
one small child to a hospital.

The child was spotted moving in the killing ditch and pulled from among the bloody corpses.

News of the barbaric slaughter was slow to reach the folks back home.
The Army did not move quickly or thoroughly to investigate the reports
of a massacre. But in 1970, author Seymour Hersh laid it all out for
us. He won the Pulitzer Prize for telling us about Lt. William Calley
and the men under his command who allegedly were looking for the Viet
Cong when they crossed over to the dark side and created a hellish
bloodbath of innocents.

Thompson and his crew _ door-gunner
Lawrence Colburn and crew chief Glenn Andreotta _ simply couldn’t
accept what they saw from their helicopter. They landed and showed
incredible courage. They went against their own when they knew their
own were brutally, criminally wrong.

It was the kind of courage
not easily fit into Army history. Some people, including one crazed
congressman and some fellow soldiers, thought Thompson and his crew
deserved condemnation rather than praise. It was not until 1998 that
Thompson, Colburn and Andreotta were given the prestigious Soldier’s

It was a posthumous award for Andreotta, who was killed
in action three weeks after My Lai. Even 30 years after the killing,
Army officials were wary of reviving memories of the day the war in
Vietnam went terribly, murderously wrong.

Calley was eventually
tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the massacre, but
President Nixon reduced his sentence and he served an insultingly brief
three years of house arrest.

Thompson apparently lived a quiet
life after Vietnam. He did visit West Point once a year to lecture on
his experience. He died of cancer last week in a Department of Veterans
Affairs medical center in Louisiana. He was 62.

Seymour Hersh
has, of course, moved on to Iraq, where he has written about another
generation of soldiers and other dark chapters.

But it will be
years before Hersh or anyone else tells us the full story of this
underreported war in Iraq. And it will be years before we know how well
the courageous legacy of Hugh Thompson was embraced by those who
followed him.

(Bob Kerr is a columnist for The Providence Journal. He can be reached by e-mail at bkerr(at)