Would you risk your life to save people you’ve never met?
U.S. Army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson did. On March 16, 1968 the Vietnam War was raging and Thompson, door gunner Lawrence Colburn and crew chief Glenn Andreotta were flying over My Lai, a village of huts nestled among trees and rice paddies.
What they saw stunned them. In Thompson’s words, “Everywhere we’d look, we’d see bodies. These were infants, two-, three-, five-year-olds, women, very old men, no draft-age people...”
After circling the village, they landed to learn more. In a ditch was a pile of blood soaked bodies, among them were people writhing in pain as they struggled to survive. An Army sergeant offered to help these people.
Thompson and his crew set green gas markers by other wounded Vietnamese intending to get them medical aid but as their helicopter lifted off, an Army captain shot to death the people they’d marked. Meanwhile, the sergeant began firing into the ditch.
Realizing this was a massacre in progress Thompson and his crew quickly landed again, this time between advancing U.S. troops and terrified Vietnamese huddled in a bunker. A U.S. soldier was about to toss a hand grenade into the bunker, when suddenly Thompson intervened.
Thompson stepped between the heavily armed U.S. combat troops and the Vietnamese and yelled to his crew loud enough for everyone to hear to fire on any U.S. soldiers who attempted to kill anyone else.
This created a tense standoff that could explode in gunfire at any second. On either side of him were soldiers with nervous fingers touching hair triggers, as Thompson convinced the villagers to come out of the bunker.
“Nine or ten” frightened people came out and he kept each of them close to him. He transmitted a message to a helicopter gunship to transport these villagers to safety, which the gunship did.
Thompson and his crew stepped carefully to the ditch and they saw some movement. Andreotta went in and came out carrying a three year old child covered in blood who had been clinging to her dead mother. They took that child into the helicopter with them and flew out safety.
It turned out the child hadn’t been wounded; the blood was seeping from the bodies around her.
Sick to his stomach from what he’d seen Thompson confronted his command staff. But an Army cover-up soon began.
Official reports announced a major victory, with 128 of the enemy killed and only one U.S. soldier wounded. (It later turned out he had shot himself in the foot.)
The cover-up might have worked but for the determination of another U.S. soldier, Ron Ridenhour who knew one of the soldiers involved in the My Lai massacre. Over beers, Ridenhour listened to this soldier describe what happened.
In Ridenhour words, “He said, ‘Yeah, we massacred this whole village. We just lined them up and killed them.’ I said, What do you mean?’
“He said, ‘Men, women and kids, everybody, we killed them all.’ I said, ‘…how many was that?’ He said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, three or four hundred I guess, at least. A lot, everybody we could find. We didn’t leave anybody alive, at least we didn’t intend to.’ “
A shocked Ridenhour couldn’t let this go. He conducted informal interviews with other soldiers involved in the massacre and heard similar sickening stories. After his discharge, in March, 1969 he wrote a letter describing the My Lai massacre.
He sent it to President Nixon, the Pentagon, the State Department, congressmen and the media and it led to extensive investigations and ultimately, 25 soldiers were prosecuted.
Despite the magnitude of that blood bath, only Lieutenant William Calley was ever convicted. He received a life sentence that President Nixon commuted to 31/2 years of house arrest.
“According to eyewitness reports…several old men were bayoneted, praying women and children were shot in the back of the head, and at least one girl was raped and then killed. For his part, Calley was said to have rounded up a group of the villagers, ordered them into a ditch, and mowed them down in a fury of machine gun fire.” (PBS, American Experience, posted 3/29/05)
You may be wondering what could possess a group of U.S. troops to commit these atrocities and I have no answer. I have never been a soldier and never faced what they did, little sleep, constant fear, nearly invisible trip wires that set off explosives, and sudden enemy fire and death in villages that looked like this one.
Not counting the five officers, the average age of the 120 U.S. soldiers who attacked My Lai was just 20. In later interviews, they explained they were “following orders,” and doing what they were trained to do.
However there were soldiers who refused to carry out these orders as they risked being shot on the spot or face a subsequent court-martial for refusing orders during combat.
The likely reason there were no draft age Vietnamese men in My Lai is that they were probably fighting U.S. soldiers elsewhere. But it doesn’t excuse the massacre of old men, women and children. A memorial in My Lai has 504 names, with an age range from 82 to a one year old baby.
Yet on that dark, disgraceful day in U.S. history, three brave men attempted to stop the massacre putting their lives in grave danger.
For years, some people saw them as traitors for threatening to kill U.S. soldiers and for helping to expose this massacre, which provoked world outrage and widespread Anti-American sentiment. It would be 30 years before the three (Andreotta posthumously) were awarded the Soldier’s Medal, the Army’s top award for bravery not involving direct contact with the enemy.
But they didn’t do it for medals. They knew what they witnessed was terribly wrong and they had to do something about it, and did.
Success Tip of the Week: Only you can decide if risking your life to help others is a price you’re willing to pay. If you survive, may it elevate your spirit and reinforce your convictions as a person of compassion and principle as it did for Thompson, Colburn and Andreotta.
Editor's Note: The research for this article came from a variety of sources but the quotes except as noted are from a Tulane University conference on My Lai (12/94), which included Thompson, Ridenhour and chief prosecutor in the My Lai cases, Col. William Eckhardt.
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