On a spring-like afternoon, 30 years removed from the day of deadly terror that gripped a small rural hamlet known as My Lai, the U.S. Army belatedly honored two men whose deeds of courage and conscience helped put an end to the massacre of Vietnamese civilians on March 16, 1968.
Graying, but still trim, Hugh Thompson Jr. and Lawrence Colburn were awarded the Soldier’s Medal for landing their helicopter in the line of fire and confronting the murderous troops of Charlie Company, who killed some 500 men, women and children on that March morning.
Friday’s ceremony came after a 10-year crusade, launched by a South Carolina professor and supported by low-ranking Army officers, forced the military to face what the presiding officer, Maj. Gen. Michael Ackerman, admitted was “one of the most shameful chapters of the Army’s history.”
“I proudly and humbly accept it, not only for myself, but for all the men who served their country with honor on the battlefields of Southeast Asia,” Thompson said about his medal, his voice wavering. “I would like to thank all of them, who served their country with honor. In a very real sense this medal is for you … Welcome home.”
Colburn thanked Thompson “for his courage” and moral leadership that day, then also paused to gain control of his emotions, his hand softly rapping the wooden lectern as he struggled for composure.
“It is my solemn wish that we all never forget the tragedy and brutality of war,” Colburn said. “I would like to quote Gen. Douglas MacArthur: ‘The soldier, be he friend or foe, is charged with the protection of the weak and the unarmed. It is his very existence for being.”’
When the ceremony was over, Thompson and Colburn walked a short way to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Kneeling at panel 48-E of the wall, they made a rubbing of the inscribed name of Glenn Andreotta, the third crewman on their aircraft who never made it back from Vietnam. Andreotta is to be awarded the Soldier’s Medal posthumously.
Thirty years ago, Thompson and his two-man helicopter crew had navigated a dangerous and unenviable assignment. They were to zoom low over My Lai and draw enemy fire so the gunships behind them could blanket the area with rockets and machine-gun bursts.
After bracing themselves for a deadly encounter, the three soldiers found the skies above the tiny hamlet were silent. Thompson, then a 24-year-old warrant officer and helicopter pilot, could see wounded Vietnamese women and children on the ground below, but the only armed men wore American uniforms.
A U.S. soldier turned over a wounded Vietnamese girl with his foot and shot her. Others fired into an irrigation ditch, where the bodies of dead and wounded men, children and women were lying.
Thompson landed his helicopter and confronted his fellow Americans. They ignored him and moved on toward a hut where an old woman and two children were huddled. His citation records show Thompson jumped back into his aircraft and set it down “in the line of fire” between the hut and the U.S. troops.
Thompson ordered Colburn, his door-gunner, to turn his M-60 machine gun on his fellow Americans and shoot anyone who attempted to harm the villagers. Then he confronted an American officer who was leading the troops.
Other gunships arrived, and the airborne troopers began to evacuate a dozen civilians. Then Colburn spotted a toddler alive in the irrigation ditch, clinging to a dead woman. They pulled the boy onto the helicopter and flew him to a hospital at nearby Quang Ngai.
Thompson’s angry report of what he had seen spurred a cease-fire order back at headquarters. “He is the guy who stopped the My Lai massacre … stopped the Americans who were doing the murdering,” said Lt. Col. Guy Shields, who was in the crowd Friday.
“There are two parts of courage. One is the physical part, one is the moral part,” said General Dennis Reimer, the Army chief of staff, and a Purple Heart winner.
Sen. Max Cleland, a Democrat from Georgia who lost both legs and an arm to a grenade explosion in Vietnam, rolled his wheelchair across the new spring grass to shake the heroes’ hands. “The Army has finally come to terms with what was a black day,” he said.
Thompson had received a Distinguished Flying Cross, and his crewmen Bronze Stars. But the pilot believed his flying cross was a tarnished prize, since it was given for bravery under enemy fire - when the only danger that day had been from Americans. The coveted Soldier’s Medal is the highest award for life-saving bravery not involving contact with an enemy.
Thompson and Colburn credited David Egan, a professor at Clemson University, for the recognition they received Friday. After seeing Thompson on a television documentary 10 years ago, Egan began a long, frustrating letter-writing campaign that prompted low-level Army officers, Congress, and finally the Pentagon, into action.
Thompson had refused to accept his medal unless his two crewmates were similarly honored and unless it was given at a public ceremony at the memorial wall.
A similar letter-writing campaign in 1968, by former soldier Ron Ridenhour, prompted the Army to investigate the atrocity at My Lai, known as “Pinkville” to the soldiers in Lt. William L. Calley’s Charlie Company. Veterans of Charlie Company had told Ridenhour how they and their comrades had raped, burned and murdered that day.
The Army charged Calley with the murder of 109 civilians, including babies, in 1969. The investigation ultimately concluded that more than 400 people died at My Lai and nearby hamlets. Calley was convicted of the murder of at least 22 civilians and sentenced to life in prison. But after President Nixon intervened, Calley served only three years under house arrest. He lives in Georgia.
Thompson, 54, is a Veterans Administration official in Lafayette, La. He remained in the service for 13 years after Vietnam, testified in the Calley court-martial and then flew helicopters for an oil company in Louisiana. Colburn left the Army after Vietnam and lives in Georgia.
The two soldiers will return to Vietnam later this month with a “60 Minutes” crew to visit a monument at the nearby village of Son My, on the shore of the South China Sea, that lists the names of 504 victims.