By most estimates, the My Lai massacre of March 16, 1968, stands as one of the darkest moments in U.S. military history. Yet in the midst of the chaos and bloodshed in that Vietnamese village, one U.S. soldier followed his convictions. "Hugh Thompson showed that soldiers can perform extraordinary acts of bravery, even when the world around them has gone mad," says Dave Egan, the man who campaigned for the 1998 awarding of Thompson's Soldier's Medal.
The Louisiana-born Thompson was on a routine reconnaissance mission in his helicopter on March 16 with Glenn Andreotti and Larry Colburn. But instead of sighting enemy soldiers, the three men saw their U.S. comrades gunning down unarmed civilians. Nearby was a ditch piled with bodies. Shocked by what they saw, Thompson and Andreotti tried to help an elderly woman, and returned to find her shot. "By this time… I was pretty upset. What was going on wasn't right," Thompson told Trent Angers, who wrote The Forgotten Hero of My Lai.
The helicopter crew was about to take off and notify authorities when they spotted U.S. soldiers advancing on a small group of terrified civilians. Without hesitating for a moment, Thompson landed his craft in front of the GIs, blocking their way to the people. He stepped out and ordered his men to cover him while he confronted the soldiers.
Thompson tried to convince the GIs to hold their fire so he could bring the civilians to safety. One of the soldiers said angrily, "We can get them out with a hand grenade," but the troops did stay put while Thompson gathered the "nine or ten" women, children, and lone elderly man. He radioed a buddy flying a gunship, and in two trips all of the people were transported to a nearby U.S. base.
Thompson reported what he had seen to his command group. All told, over four hundred Vietnamese civilians had been killed. The troops had been given direct orders to kill everyone in the village, having been told that the inhabitants were aiding and hiding the enemy. Frustrated in their attempts to engage the Viet Cong and riled by their commanders, these soldiers violated the law.
After 28 years, Hugh Thompson was finally awarded the Soldier's Medal, which is presented for heroism and voluntarily risking one's life under conditions other than those in conflict with the enemy. It is the highest award for heroism next to the Congressional Medal of Honor. Thompson spent 23 years in the military, also earning the DFC and the Purple Heart. Of his actions, W.R. Peers, the three-star officer who headed the board investigating the My Lai incident, said: "Thompson was the only American who cared enough to take action to protect the Vietnamese noncombatants. If there was a hero at My Lai, he was it."