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How Vietnam Vet Hugh Thompson Stopped the Mai Lai Massacre

Major Hugh Thompson Jr., a U.S. Army helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. Image credit: LA Times.

It’s been just over 52 years since the Mai Lai massacre in South Vietnam. 

It’s an event that isn’t talked about much because it was evil — an evil perpetrated by American soldiers. Along with the No Gun Ri massacre in South Korea, it’s among the largest publicized massacres committed by U.S. troops in the 20th century. 

But the story isn’t devoid of all good. Three men, including helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr., stepped forward and risked their lives to end the massacre. They were shunned when they returned home, like many Vietnam Veterans, but never regretted their actions that day. 

While she’s no Veteran, author J.K. Rowling had it right when she wrote: “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies — but just as much to stand up to our friends.” 

 

The Mai Lai Massacre 

On March 16, 1968, a company of U.S. Army soldiers murdered between 347 and 504 unarmed South Viatnamese civilians in the Son Tinh District of Vietnam. 

Before the day of the massacre, U.S. military intelligence pointed to the village of Son My — wherein lie the My Lai hamlets — as a location for the evasive Viet Cong 48th Battalion. The strategy was to wait until the locals had left for the market and then wipe out the last of the battalion hiding there. 

The company of U.S. soldiers was tired and battered after four months in the jungle. They had recently suffered 28 casualties. One of the captains was reported saying, “They’re all VC, now go and get them,” when asked what the soldiers should do about civilians. 

On the morning of March 16, around 100 soldiers led by that same captain landed in Son My in helicopters. They filed through the various hamlets, or settlements, killing any VC soldiers they encountered. 

1st Platoon, led by Second Lieutenant William Calley, as well as 2nd Platoon, led by 2LT Stephen Brooks, entered the small settlement of Tu Cong. Both platoons began firing on people in the rice fields and brush, seemingly without warning. That’s when the violence broke out. Soldiers were reported stabbing villagers with bayonets. A group of 15 to 20 women and children were all executed in front of a church by shots to the head. 

The largest killings occurred in the hamlet of Xom Lang, which U.S. soldiers had marked as “My Lai” on the map. The troops rounded up 70 to 80 villagers and forced them into an irrigation ditch, where they were shot to death on the orders of 2LT Calley. A testimony by PFC Paul Meadlo told the gruesome tale. 

“They were shooting women and children just like anybody else. We met no resistance and I only saw three captured weapons. We had no casualties. It was just like any other Vietnamese village – old papa-sans, women and kids. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive.” 

 

Hugh Thompson Jr.

Major Hugh Thompson Jr. was flying over the area in his Hiller OH-23 Raven when he noticed the devastation. After several radio attempts were made, he landed the helicopter in a nearby ditch. 

“We started noticing these large numbers of bodies everywhere,” he told a journalist at the LA Times, “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.”

When Thompson questioned his fellow troops, they claimed to be “just following orders.” But he soon witnessed a captain kick over and shoot an unarmed woman, and when he took flight again, he saw soldiers firing into a ditch. His suspicions were confirmed. 

He decided to do something when he spotted a bunker full of civilians cowering from the bloodshed. Landing his helicopter in between the villagers and the soldiers, he told crew chief Glenn Andreotta and gunner Lawrence Colburn to cover him. 

Thompson told the soldiers that his crew would fire on them if they killed the villagers — a group of mostly women and children. When the soldiers claimed that the villagers had grenades, Thompson said, “Just hold your men right where they are, and I’ll get the kids out.” 

He was able to lead the group of 12 to 16 villagers away from the bunker and to the safety of the helicopter, where they were flown out in two groups. 


A memorial headstone on one of the ditches where the My Lai villagers were killed. Image credit: CNN.

Aftermath

Despite his rescue of the villagers and the halt of subsequent killing, hundreds of South Vietnamese innocents died that day. Thompson immediately reported the massacre to his superiors. However, when word got out, he was horrified. 

A Stars and Stripes headline read: “U.S. infantrymen had killed 128 Communists in a bloody day-long battle.” And the Army would’ve continued to cover it up, too, were it not for the Americans who continued to speak out, and journalist Seymour Hersh, who exposed it. 

The report made worldwide news, and perhaps marked a turning point in the war, which already had so much opposition. It was discovered that more than 128 people had been killed — in fact, the number was closer to 350 to 500 — and some of the bodies had been sexually assaulted and mutilated. 

Overall, 26 soldiers were charged with related crimes in 1970 and ‘71, but only 2LT William Cowley was convicted. He was formally charged with the murder of 22 people and sentenced to life in prison, but ended up serving only three and a half years in house arrest. 

 

30 Years Later, Hugh Thompson Jr. Was Finally Recognized

When he returned stateside, Thompson received a lot of backlash from Americans, civilians and military alike. Many supported Calley’s story and the idea that the villagers were all VC sympathizers. 

It also took the Army 30 years to acknowledge Thompson’s deed. In 1998, they awarded him with the Soldier’s Medal — the highest combat merit that can be awarded for actions not taken against an enemy. 

Reportedly, Thompson refused to accept the medal when they tried to award it to him out of the public eye, and he also demanded that his crew members be awarded — though Glenn Andreotta had died in Vietnam all those decades ago. 


Hugh Thompson Jr. receives the Soldier’s Medal, 30 years after his actions at My Lai.

Thompson also revisited My Lai. 

“There were real good highs, and very low lows,” Thompson said of the visit.

“One of the ladies that we had helped out that day came up to me and asked, ‘Why didn’t the people who committed these acts come back with you?’ And I was just devastated. And then she finished her sentence: she said, ‘So we could forgive them.’ I’m not man enough to do that. I’m sorry. I wish I was, but I won’t lie to anybody. I’m not that much of a man.”

There’s a museum there dedicated to the villagers who lost their lives. Thompson is also celebrated. 

 

National Vietnam War Veterans Day 

52 years after the My Lai massacre, and on National Vietnam War Veterans Day, we’re living in uncertain times; in the midst of a global health emergency, a two-decade war raging in the Middle East, and teetering on the brink of economic recession. 

But for all the uncertainty and hard times, we must remember the hard times of the past — and that they ended, too. More than anything, we need to recognize and honor the people who acted with integrity, goodness, and valor in these times. 

National Vietnam War Veterans Day is for Thompson, and it’s for all the other Vietnam War Veterans who served honorably. During this crisis, we remember you. 


Find out why Veterans are affected by the homelessness crisis, and how you can help. 

 

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