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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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It was Best.
He was not a very nice person, but he felt that the round-up of Danish Jews would cause problems between Denmark and Nazi Germany.

Denmark was a example to the rest of the occupied countries, and Best didn't want that ruined, so he warned the Danish government about what was going to happen. The Danish government warned the Danish Jews, and a number of ordinary Danes took upon themselves to save the Jews, by transporting them across to Sweden. Most of the major coordinators had to flee to Sweden as well, as they became known to the Nazis.

It is fairly accepted that Best ordered the Nazi coast guard to let the ships used to transport the Jews to get across to Sweden. The people involved in the transportation didn't know this though, and thought that they were risking everything.

A couple of eyars ago, I read a very interesting memoir from just after the war. The author was a high school teacher that had run the biggest transportation route. The Danish fishermen making the transportations took money for the risks, and while the Jewish society paid much of it themselves, people like the high school teacher loaned a lot of money to pay - we are speaking amounts equivalent to millions of dollars. The people who loaned him the money knew that there were no way to get it back if he was caught, but they still were willing to run the risk (they couldn't give it to him, as the money was usually not their own).
As far as I understod, the Danish state paid those loans after the war.

"But there is nothing that will make me forget what your people did."

The Danes did have their moments, but regretfully I can't say that my family were in any way involved.

My Danish grandparents thought of the resistance as troublemakers, and were almost certainly anti-seminists, in that frightening casual way that many of their generation were (speaking of someone that were greedy as a 'real Jew').

My Australian grandparents (I'm half Danish, half Australian), consists of one German warprisoner, who married an Australian after the war, and stayed there.
Family legend has it that he wasn't a Nazi, and given the fact that he came from mostly socialist Hamburg, it is possible. However, it does put me in a rather embarresing situation, and might to some degree explain my vocal anti-Nazist/anti-racist stance.

Kristjan, that's wild. I knew of SS Werner Best, but it didn't even occur to me that that may have been who you meant, because the idea of him ever helping someone never would have entered my mind. Hans Bernd Gisevius, who was a Gestapo officer before Himmler took over the agency, wrote:

"Best was always sent forth when the necessity arose of expressing regret for a new wave of arrests or of explaining away one of the multitudinous 'unfortunate accidents' that occurred in the course of the Gestapo's work... Best always pretended to be boiling with rage... At each of these visits of condolence he would give vent to a number of mysterious hints to the effect that now the cup was overflowing, now something was really going to be done about it... provided that in this last case you, Herr So-and-So, withdraw that troublesome complaint... Up to the very last there were Germans who considered Best a decent fellow, an unfortunate innocent who had fallen in with bad company..." (Bis Zum Bittern Ende/To the Bitter End: The Plot to Kill Hitler, 1933-1944, Gisevius)

Of course, each voice from the time had its own self-interest and its own rivalries to consider. But even if it was all done from crafty public-relations motives, at least some good came of it.

>my vocal anti-Nazist/anti-racist stance.

Even within the same family, one finds these good and bad people, on each side of the war-crimes divide. I remember reading of a German who turned against Hitler while a POW in Russia, along with many of his fellow prisoners. He returned home to Germany to find that his own wife had denounced him to the Stapo. He divorced her.

Also, I remember seeing another 60 Minutes program, this one on the sons and daughters of important figures from the Third Reich. The image that stayed with me was of Heinrich Himmler's son, who had a terrible time living with the guilt of what his father had done. He writes poetry now, to try to expunge his feelings.

--How many know that S. Vietnamese were relocated to S. America after supporting the U.S. ?--

I've never heard that any S. Vietnamese were relocated to South America. Where's the source for this?

Even if some were, what does that prove? South Vietnamese refugees escaped to many places, including China, to escape a vindictive, conquering army coming from the north. Their fears proved very well founded. I could go a lot further here at this point, but won't.

Except to say, what is your source and what is your point?

Dubya would have had him arrested and thrown in the hole with Padilla.

Another hero of My Lai was Ron Ridenhour. He was the soldier who had heard rumors of My Lai. He started talking to the guys in C co, 11 Bgd, Americal Div and managed to piece together the story. It was his letter to the Inspector General that actually exposed the incident.

Powell arrived at Americal Division after the My Lai massacre. He claims not to have heard anything about it while he was there. He was charged with investigating the letter from Sp4 Tom Glen which laid out a pattern of abuse by members of the Division, but there is every indication that he didn't actually look into much. His answer to Glen and his report to Abrams was a staff answer that was patently untrue, but fit the view of the US Army at the time: that Division troops and the Vietnamese population really, really liked each other. Powell's claim is very likely true. He has since proven that he is quite capable of making myth fit the situation while ignoring the facts.

Some days I think I am really old, and that the things I lived through are being forgotten, that my nephews and nieces think of me as a history book. But I am glad to read here that, even if Majikthise didn’t know the history, she made an effort to learn, and for that I am glad. I wish to mention a few things.

IF Stone’s Weekly was publishing right up through 1970, when I went to Vietnam, and was available at the University of Minnesota, where I had been reading it since 1967. The Weekly is one of the milestones of publishing in this country, and is one the things which make this country great. You should read some of the back issues concerning events in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. It will change your perception of history quite a bit.

Another thing which makes this country remarkable is the leadership provided by the courage of people like Hugh Thompson. I think, in addition to his courage at My Lai, you should know about his job. He flew the “target” chopper, the bait, allowing his helicopter to be targeted and shot at so that the gunships could locate enemy concentrations and shoot at them AFTER Thompson and his crew took the fire. So he was a ballsy guy, and he flew headlong into enemy fire on every mission. (He flew a very fast, highly maneuverable, chopper which could return fire as well as evade fatalities). In the military, people like this are natural leaders.

When reading of My Lai, you should contrast this leadership personality with the ugly little vision of LT Calley, who’s only claim to leadership was his military rank, and who had no concept of ethics: he stated on numerous occasions that soldiers were his tools, to use for killing, and that the Army never taught him right from wrong.

So, while Calley’s men were following orders, some of them even weeping while they machine-gunned people in the ditch, Thompson’s men were wading into human gore deeper than their boots (9 to 12 inches deep of blood, fluids, and body parts), to pull wounded children and tiny babies to safety. They turned their arms on American troops because they trusted their leader, and because, like him, they considered the consequences of their actions when they went into combat.

Hugh Thompson, Pilot, Lawrence Colburn, Door Gunner, and Glenn Andreotta (who saved the tiny baby in the ditch), Crew Chief, all won the Soldiers Medal, and the Medal for Andreotta was presented posthumously, because he was killed in action only a few months after the My Lai Incident. Ronald Ridenour deserves to be remembered as well, as the soldier later assigned to the unit who kept asking questions, and who then brought the massacre to light by involving Congress and the Press.

I was in Vietnam, in the US Infantry, when LT Calley was convicted. What the history books aren’t telling you is that the Infantry soldiers were disgusted with Calley, and with the Americal Division, and with the idea that we committed atrocities on a daily basis. We wanted Calley convicted, by a ratio of about two or three to one. And make no mistake, every soldier in Vietnam attended the Geneva Convention classes. We knew about illegal orders and killing unarmed people.

This needs to be discussed and brought into the open. When the right wing screamers were proclaiming the Vietnam War to have been a noble cause during the last election fiasco, very few of us were opposing those statements and trying to bring history back into focus. We know the protests and the opposition helped to end the war, but we also know how wrong and unjust it was, how even the military didn’t support it, and how the Tonkin Gulf incident was a lie (for which President Johnson was not impeached, and some of us fear this may be a defense for Bush and his lies).

How would you like to serve in an infantry unit that was more than sixty percent Black, and find propaganda leaflets on the ground during a patrol, leaflets which said (a paraphrase);

“Black American GI, Why are you killing colored peoples struggling to be free, just like the KKK is killing your people back in Detroit, and Watts? Why do you attack us like the FBI and Police attack your people, like they attack your Black Panther Freedom Party? Why do shoot and bomb us for trying to bring our country together, like the southerners shoot and bomb black people in Mississippi and Alabama?”

We confronted these things, and discussed them (while wearing pistols, grenades, and rifles), and learned to face some ugly things, as soldiers in a war do. If you read The 13th Valley, by John M. Del Vecchio, you will encounter long philosophical discussions of many of the things I mention above. The discussions are very true to form.

Anyway, I wanted to bring these things up because I think they are a little like Hugh Thompson, everyone should know of them.. They should be part of our historic consciousness when we conforn the wingnuts over what America is, and what her history means. Thanks for the forum.

Thank you for your very thoughtful and informative comment, Leung Shu Ren. I will definitely check out "The 13th Valley."

Yes, thank you for your insight.

I know a few people who has been in UN/NATO actions, but their duty was much more clear cut than the duty of the US soldiers during Vietnam. I don't know any soliders who are in Iraq, which would eb much more similar to back then.

He got to see the baby he saved at the anniversary in '98. What a moment! And the women waiting for Simpson and the others to offer forgiveness. What an opportunity. Everyone gets a second chance. Hugh and his crew were the only ones awake in the enchanted kingdom. The power of example! All the best mate, you did a good job.

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