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January 06, 2006

Saluting Hugh Thompson, Jr.

Mike the Mad Biologist pays his respects to a recently-deceased American hero:

Hugh Thompson Jnr, a former US military helicopter pilot who helped stop one of the most infamous massacres of the Vietnam War has died, aged 62.

Mr Thompson and his crew came upon US troops killing civilians at the village of My Lai on 16 March 1968.

He put his helicopter down between the soldiers and villagers, ordering his men to shoot their fellow Americans if they attacked the civilians.

"There was no way I could turn my back on them," he later said of the victims.

Mr Thompson, a warrant officer at the time, called in support from other US helicopters, and together they airlifted at least nine Vietnamese civilians - including a wounded boy - to safety.

He returned to headquarters, angrily telling his commanders what he had seen. They ordered soldiers in the area to stop shooting. [BBC]

I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't know Thompson's story until now.


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I never heard of this man or this story either. Everyone knows (or at least should know) about the My Lai massacre from high school history. Why this important part of the story was omitted in my history class is genuinely strange. I'm betting most of you never heard this story either. Shouldn't everyone be taught that anyone can be a hero by standing up for what's right? Now more than ever we need more people like Hugh Thompson.

I'd never heard it either. Now there's an American hero. Not to digress, but why the hell is it that guys like this are dead at 62 while Orrin Hatch, Pat Robertson, and the rest of the crew are still going strong?

BTW, thanks for sharing this story with us, Lindsay. I've already passed it along to a number of people because I feel it's that important to know. Hugh Thompson may end up being only a footnote in the history of the Vietnam War, but the example he set transcends all history and speaks to the what is is best in mankind. Humans can be (and often are) the scourge of all creation, but at times we possess such nobility that it makes me proud to be a homo sapien.

May he rest in peace.

This was one of the men featured on a 60 Minutes piece last year. They took him, and a couple of the other men who stepped in, back to the place where it all happened. They found a woman who lived there at the time, and she thanked them for what they'd done. It was very moving. This man in particular seemed very humble, and looked at his shoes often, I think because he didn't want to brag about what he'd done.

I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't know Thompson's story until now.

Not many people do. I was alive then, and followed the news coverage of the expose and the courts-martial, and I knew a helicopter pilot had stopped the massacre, but I couldn't have told you his name.

Re not knowing... the NPR story today made a point of saying that there were people at the Pentagon who didn't want any positive attention lavished on this man; and that he was shunned by other military officers at the time. Despite the aura of pragmatism with which much that is military in nature enshrouds itself, the behavior of these officers mostly resembles the non-rational servitude that one sees in faith-based institutions.
If irony is good for you, then the story about the bird-flu vaccine derived from the blood of a Vietnamese survivor is simply delicious. (Go ahead- write your own headline...)

As a follower of history, I see all kinds of little foot notes of people doing the right thing when others would not. There was a Christmas day, early in WWI that was sort of similar. A number of British and German soldiers called a truce. They took the time to deal with the dead and then they shook hands and enjoyed each others company. Some had even known each other. At one point they were even playing a bit of footy. Until the generals got wind. They made sure things like this didn't happen again. They made sure animosity was there.

Make no bones, Thompson was an American hero in every sense of the word. They didn't want the glory, they just did the right thing. It's as simple as that. Other officers didn't like them. The Pentagon didn't like them... they disobeyed orders, etc. They did what Nazi soldiers couldn't do, what many soldiers hadn't been able to do. They did the thing soldiers in Abu Ghraib couldn't do. That's what makes him so special.

It's nice to see someone, once in a great while, doing the right thing.

And how. This is a perfect example of humanity winning out over (for those of us in the left wing) cronyism, or (for those of you of the right wing) get-along, go-alongism. Hugh Thompson, Jr. deserves his salute.

There were similar massacres during the Korean War, because booby-trapped Communists were said to rush the troops along with the refugees.

John Stith, I remember reading about the Christmas truce of 1915. It really bugged me that it was forbidden after that year.

There was actually a good number of Germans who attempted to thwart their war machine during World War II. Though Oskar Schindler is misleadingly portrayed in "Schindler's List" as a lone bon vivant who conned his way into saving 1100 Jews during the war, he was actually a German spy before the war, as his widow, Emilie, relates in her book "Where Light and Shadow Meet" and in the documentary "Schindler." It was Schindler's contacts in the German Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence, a separate entity from the S.S. intelligence) who freed him from the Gestapo when he was captured, and not just because he had greased a few palms. He had worked for them, they knew him.

The boss of the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris, aside from defending the Abwehr from becoming another arm of the S.S., also saved several hundred Jews himself, (see Heinz Hoehne's book, "Canaris") although he had originally been such a staunch anti-Communist that he had masterminded the Condor Legion with Goering, and with him was primarily responsible for the Guernica massacre himself. But many of Canaris's men, though working for Hitler's intelligence unit, had unalloyed, untainted records of saving people from the Nazis and working against Hitler, including Major General Hans Oster, who masterminded several of the bomb plots against Hitler, and Hans von Dohnanyi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who compiled lists of Hitler's regime's crimes, and did the work of freeing the aforementioned Jews. The latter four people were all hung to death, three of them in the same concentration camp, by the Nazis, after brutal interrogation and torture, and if you go to Westminster Abbey, you'll see a statue of Pastor Bonhoeffer on the pediment, where he richly deserves to be.

(This should go without saying, but of course none of the foregoing should be read as an apology for any Nazi war crimes. But in that war, too, there were many dissenters who bucked the opprobrium of their fellows to do the right thing.)

The book "Four Hours in My Lai", by Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, gives a full account of Thompson's actions. It's worth noting that virtually all of the 400-500 victims at My Lai were killed before Thompson's intervention, and that there were well over 100 who lived because he stepped in.

Also worth noting is the fact that this was only one of many massacres, and the main reason it reached public consciousness is that there was a Stars and Stripes photographer covering the action. It's also worth noting that the massacre was not the work of a crazed lieutenant and his henchmen--there was a colonel observing the massacre from a helicopter as it unfolded.

Thompson was initially given a medal for action against the enemy, an obvious attempt to get him to keep quiet, and was not awarded his proper medal, the Soldier's Medal, until 1998. The massacre, the intervention of the president to downplay and cover up its extent, and the burying of Hugh Thompson's story constitute a very dark chapter in our history.

Wow, what a story!!!
thanks for sharing a story you wouldnt see a paper...that was amazing!!
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I can't second gordo's recommendation of Four Hours in My Lai strongly enough. Aside from the excellent account of Thompson's actions, it provides a full picture of the underlying causes of the My Lai Massacre, the context in which it took place, the subsequent investigation and the attempts to hide evidence of the massacre. Most people know of Lt. William Calley and that's it, but the story is much more far-ranging.

If I'm not mistaken, Bilton and Sim's book is based on the BBC television production of the same title. It would be interesting to see if that was still obtainable somehow.

I join the many that had never heard of this story until this morning, when NPR did a clip on Mr. Thompson's passing.

This story was reported but, maybe not widely enough.

His moral courage is astonishing to read of. It represents the best of this country and its military and I would think of humanity. See from a Lafayette La newspaper

"Why this important part of the story was omitted in my history class is genuinely strange. I'm betting most of you never heard this story either. Shouldn't everyone be taught that anyone can be a hero by standing up for what's right? Now more than ever we need more people like Hugh Thompson."

Interesting. In Denmark Thompson is used as an example of how a soldier should behave, protecting civilians against even your own armed forced.

He is used when teaching soldiers/officers about lawful orders, and which orders they are required to not follow. the excuse that someone was just following orders are not accepted in the Danish military - soldiers/officers are trained in realizing when an order is unlawful, and have a duty to not only disregard such orders, but to keep otheers from following them, and to reprot or arrest the officer that gave the orders.

Even though I haven't been in the military, I know his story.

We should also keep in mind whom was in charge of the original investigation into the massacre of the 504 civilians and tried to cover it up by saying in his investigation report, "In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."

To this day he has never fully explained his actions in the investigation into the massacre and said publicly in 1994, "I mean, I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored."

You can read more about him here.

I had heard this story in school, though I had kept it filed pretty far from the front of my mind. So at least some American schools acknowledge it.

I'm rereading Four Hours in My Lai right now. It's an excellent book, though very hard to read. Painful.

One of the things that comes out clearly is that the massacre was the culmination of a process of gradual escalation of atrocities carried out against the civilians in the area. Rapes and murders were carried out with impunity, and the soldiers involved in the massacre had every reason to believe that there would be no repercussions.

Interesting. In Denmark Thompson is used as an example of how a soldier should behave, protecting civilians against even your own armed forced.

He is used when teaching soldiers/officers about lawful orders, and which orders they are required to not follow. the excuse that someone was just following orders are not accepted in the Danish military

Thank you Kristjan. This is in keeping with what we know of the Danes and their actions during World War II. Anyone who's in Washington, D.C. should go to the Holocaust Museum, to see further examples of such resistance to unlawful orders and to war crimes. Denmark and the Danes, in particular, are honored for carrying hundreds of their Jews and other minorities to safety in fishing boats, upon the Nazi takeover.

The My Lai massacre is not at all out of keeping with the course that war has taken. It's business as usual. The Korean conflict, as mentioned, had such massacres of unarmed civilians; World War II; World War I; it goes on and on. When I first began studying history, I thought that Hitler's worst crime, besides the Gestapo torture, was the Total War; the targeting of civilians, young, old, women, babies, in a word, non-combatants. I still think so, but sadly, these crimes were not just his. My mother used to say it: War is the crime.

When I was a kid, I learned of our destruction of the Native Americans, by the hundreds of thousands, but I never understood Vietnam. I saw pictures, of the naked Vietnamese girl running and crying, or of the young man being shot in the head by the South Vietnamese soldier, but I didn't know what it meant. No-one ever explained it to me. My parents even marched in protest against that war, but I never understood it.


This wikipedia article does not say that Colin Powell was in charge of investigating the My Lai massacre.

He was in charge of investigating allegations of brutality, and those allegations did not include My Lai.

You can surely say that he should have dealt with it in the more generalized report he was doing, but...he was not in charge of investigating My Lai.

How many know that S. Vietnamese were relocated to S. America after supporting the U.S. ? Or that "the company" has a long history of operations subverting legitimate governments and instituting corporate farming instead of peasant farming ? The Reds may be gone as an opponent but they knew many unsavory things done by the "Champion of Democracy"......gawd...the nerve. Vietnam ? If McNamara is to be believed, it was due to a total misunderstanding by Washington of the political realities there.

We didn't know until we happened across Howard Zinn storytelling on C-Span. He eulogized somebody we both heard as I.F.Stone, so when neither of us could find anything on I.F.Stone we fell back on Zinn (whom we privately call Finn) in the immortal and irreplaceable People's History.
Another forbidden memory-holed secret moral mutiny you may never have heard of was a revolt of black sailors shafted with extremely dangerous ammo duty, made into a film ("Mutiny") with the help of Morgan Freeman, and a revolt on the part of exhausted GI's right after WWII that kept us out -- we are not making this up -- of China. They were going to go into China (think Vietnam x100) to salvage Chiang Kai-shek of all the dictators, and what stopped the brilliant all-knowing generals and secretaries was ordinary soldiers going on strike.

>film ("Mutiny")

I think that refers to the Port Chicago Mutiny. There was a fire and explosion in World War II at a munitions-loading facility at Port Chicago in California. The explosion came after (white) junior officers had kept a mostly black detachment of sailors on munitions-loading duty, and forced them to increase their speed and capacity until conditions were completely unsafe (though this duty was already a highly dangerous crap duty). It was no surprise that they mutinied. They were offered amnesty from courts-martial on the condition that they returned to work, but since the explosion had taken out half the town, they refused. The incident led directly to the full integration of the armed forces, where before black soldiers had been ghettoized.

Upon being integrated and sent to sea, as one of my professors related, one of the main actors in the mutiny got in a fist-fight with one of his fellow sailors, a big Alabaman who objected to "eatin' with no n-----." This Alabaman was so impressed that the black sailor would go up against him, knowing that he'd be beaten (the black sailor was very short, and the Alabaman very big) that they became fast friends after that, often fighting together against people who made comments like the Alabaman had made in the first place.

We read about many mutinies during wartime, and they have such varied causes. Following World War I, the German ratings (below-decks sailors) mutinied against their superior officers, in what was essentially a Communist insurrection. A number of officers were killed, the red flag was raised over Kiel, and the inter-war street-fighting and murder between socialists and right-wingers began. The Kiel mutinies were agitation against mistreatment by an underclass (though in this case, a white one), so the Port Chicago mutiny probably relates a bit more closely to that one than to the My Lai rescues, which were a reaction against a straight-up war crime.

The Vietnam war was just so badly run anyway. We just didn't know how to fight against an insurrection. I wonder if Hugh Thompson's action sprang partly from a sense that things had gone awry (something, I think, that is common to all mutinies).

For an interesting account of the Vietnam War, Louis Wesseling, a former Shell Oil executive, then in Vietnam, wrote a book about it called Fuelling the War. He talks about the craziness of fighting the VC and the North Vietnamese army the way we did. It also gives interesting background to the porousness of the "front lines" in the war, which was what those who massacred seemed to be reacting to (that is, the impossibility of identifying enemy-controlled zones, or sorting the guerrilla enemy from non-combatants).

kei & yuri--

I.F. Stone was an independent journalist who had a weekly newsletter in the 1950s. It was sort of a primitive blog, picking up the stories that the New York Times ignored.

His books are hard to find. You can still get "The Trial of Socrates" at Amazon, which I highly recommend. Although I haven't read them, you can also get "The Truman Era", "The Haunted Fifties" and "The Hidden History of the Korean War" through Amazon. If you're looking for information, you can try looking for I.F. Stone or Isisdor F. Stone.

Thanks for the info on the planned China intervention. I'll definitely be looking for info on that. One does have to look at such plans somewhat skeptically, though--all sorts of hare-brained operations were planned and advocated by factions within the military in the immediate postwar period, but most never had a chance of getting approved.

"Denmark and the Danes, in particular, are honored for carrying hundreds of their Jews and other minorities to safety in fishing boats, upon the Nazi takeover."

1984, Denmark and the Danbes did indeed do some terrific deeds in order to save the Danish Jews during WWII, but it is important to realize that it wasn't the official Denmark that did it - it was private citizens, though with some undercover help from the official Denmark, as well as the German commander in Denmark - the later's role was largely unknown until fairly recently.

The official Denmark coorporated with Nazi Germany until 1943. Before the Danish occupation, German Jews were turned back at the Danish/German border. This was unknown until the Department for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the Danish Institute for International Studies started to dig into it five or six years ago. They have looked into what happened with the Jews that were turned back, and almost all died in the concentration camps.

When Denmark was occupied, and the Nazis demanded that the Danish police rounded up the Communists, the Danish police did it with much zeal, and arrested over 200 hundred members of the Communist Party, even though the Nazis had only demanded the arrest of 20 or so.

Also, quite shamefully was the treatment of German refugees after the war, especially the children. This was again unknown until recent research revealed it.

So, what I am trying to say, is that there were one time where the Danes rose to the occation, but there were many shameful episodes as well.

Re .."How many know that S. Vietnamese were relocated to S. America after supporting the U.S. ? Or that "the company" has a long history of operations subverting legitimate governments and instituting corporate farming instead of peasant farming.."-

The most eye-openng publication with regard to "the company" (& its minions) is McCoy's _Politics of Heroin in SE Asia_. That ANY social progress has come about in the world, despite the snotty, self-righteous, paranoid venality of Dick Cheney and his ilk is, perhaps, a legacy of a subset of a generation that challenged racism (and other "exceptionalisms") as an outcome of drug-enhanced self-awareness. Perhaps the nexus of LSD and the urge (and opportunity) to "seek truth outside one's cultural parameters" was just our luck, though... Considering the "Might" in "Might makes Right" that was available to "us" after WWII, it was gonna take some powerful medicine to counteract that kind of entropy... & still does. ^..^

Thank you Kristjan,

Well it goes to show you that there are good and bad people of every race. And war does sometimes allow the good people to show their true colors. But mostly, it seems to turn the world into a horrid cesspool, full of lawless sadists brutalizing people, and their panicked victims, who too often turn to brutalizing people as well, whether to stay alive, or from paranoia.

I hadn't read about the German refugees in Denmark, though I had read about the Czechs and the Poles expelling them. Again, I understand the punishment of the Nazi soldiers, but there were a lot of bewildered children and other Germans who hadn't done a thing, who suffered horribly after the war. Gang rape was a common occurrence, at least in the Russian zones.

But there is nothing that will make me forget what your people did. When I visited the Holocaust museum, I only knew of several dozen people who had stepped in to help the Jews, that is, the Abwehr circle, and the White Rose. My clearest memory from that visit is of visiting the memorial to the saviours of the Jews, and, astonished, seeing row upon row of Danish names. I have never thought of Denmark since then without thinking of that.

What was the name of that German commander?

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