Hugh Thompson: Shining Beacon In Vietnam’s Darkest Massacre

When Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., flew over the area of Son My, his mission was close-air support. What he saw was the mass killing of civilians by U.S. Military forces. Thompson landed his helicopter and ordered his crew to shoot any soldiers who shot at the Vietnamese. Then he escorted a group of civilian Vietnamese into the helicopter for rescue. His reports ended the bloodshed that day.

At first, scorned was the military reactions to Thompson and his crew. In time, decades later, they received Solider’s Medals, the highest award for bravery not involving direct contact with the enemy.

The My Lai massacre went down as one of the most shameful atrocities of war committed by the United States. In the end, somewhere between 347 to 504 civilians died at the hands of our soldiers.

Although it would be impossible to understand every detail of the My Lai Massacre, to appreciate what Thompson did one must understand something of the chaos, and how his crew acted like heroes despite this.

My Lai

What we now refer to as My Lai was an area stretched over two villages, Son My and Quang Ngai, otherwise known as the Pinkville area by U.S. troops at the time. This was South Vietnam, the part of the country we were trying to preserve.

The north was the Commies, protected by the National Liberation Front, otherwise known as the Viet Cong by our troops. The south was the symbol of freedom we needed to protect.

One of the most difficult aspects of the Vietnam conflict was the ability of the Viet Cong soldiers ability to hide, not only in the jungle. In many cases, they hid in plain site. Viet Cong entered South Vietnamese villages, threatening the locals if they squealed. U.S. soldiers had no flawless way of discerning who were the good guys.

The Massacre

One could write a book on what happened in My Lai. In fact, someone did. I will do my best to organize the larger parts of the massacre, but in the end, historians have pieced this story together from eyewitness accounts, some of whom were protecting themselves.

March 16th. 1968: The glaring question is how could something like this happen? No explanation will excuse the events that unfolded, but we can trace a few points of logic, wrestling the inhumane motivations behind the soldiers.

The soldiers had been in position for a few months, since December 1967. At first, there was little action, but by March of the next year, they’d suffered 40 casualties from landmines and traps, believed to be Viet Cong attacks. To say the least, the troops were angry and afraid.

When the United States Army identified the Son My (My Lai) region as a key strategical location for flexing. They assembled a task force, led by Lieutenant Colonel Barker, who would secure the villages of Son My.

The first attempt root out the Viet Cong by the Barker task force was not successful. This only further frustrated the troops. They had to go back.

The night before the second attempt, a man named Captain Ernest Medina advised the men in the task force that any villagers left in the village after 7 am the next day would have to be Viet Cong since the villagers would all be at the market by that time.

Medina instructed them to kill anyone still there. This included women and children.

Hugh Thompson’s Actions

Chief Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson | source:

When Thomson’s helicopter landed in the ditch near the action, he and his crew noticed the ditch was full of bodies, some of which were still moving. Thomson asked a nearby Sergeant to help him pull the still-moving Vietnamese from the ditch. The Sergeant responded by firing his weapon into the ditch.

Thompson’s crew took off, then circled back after they watched civilians beaten and killed by soldiers on the ground. There were women and children in the bunch, clearly not members of the Viet Cong.

Captain Medina’s assertions the night before were incorrect. It didn’t matter to the soldiers on the ground. They were moving forward with their orders.

Thomson’s crew landed near a bunker, where Thompson himself escorted about a dozen civilians to the helicopter. He’d ordered a Lieutenant to hold his men back. He’d also ordered his own men to shoot any soldier who defied his orders.

They shuttled the civilians to safety, returning to save more, but only saved a child they found in a ditch full of bodies.

The Fallout

Hugh Thompson, center, and Larry Colburn, right, receiving their Soldier’s Medals in 1998 | source:

Right away, Thomson reported the events of that day to his superiors, not holding back. He used words like “murder,” and “needless and unnecessary killings” to describe what he saw. It was his reports that eventually made it to the field, where Captain Medina ordered the cease-fire.

Barker and Medina received accommodations. They asked Thompson not to speak about the day. After an investigation, the army court-martialed 14 officers for the massacre. They convicted only one with a life sentence, of which he served months under house arrest.

Thompson’s testimony against the U.S. Army earned him death threats and dead animals on his porch. Despite this, he stayed with the army until 1983. It took until 1998, thirty years after the massacre, fort the United States to award Thompson and his crew for their actions.

The expression “War is messy” doesn’t quite capture what happened in My Lai. As a child of the ‘70s, we were the generation that grew into adults before the U.S. went to war again. It would be easy for me to cast judgment having never stood in the trenches. I won’t do that. Instead, I laud Thompson and his crew for doing what few struggle do every day, the right thing in a difficult situation.