Witness to a Massacre | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Witness to a Massacre 

Stories from the man who stopped the killing at My Lai.

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By Michael Marsh

About 30 people, most of them law students, sit in a ninth-floor lecture hall of DePaul University's downtown campus. The school's International Human Rights Law Institute is sponsoring this forum, whose subject is 1968's My Lai massacre, when American soldiers under the command of Lieutenant William Calley killed 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians--the hamlet's women, its children, and its elderly. Only the intervention of a U. S. Army helicopter crew prevented more deaths.

The pilot of that chopper, Hugh Thompson, will be speaking today, but first there are preliminaries. Jerry Kykisz and Joe Fornelli, staff members at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, talk about their combat experiences and artwork. Trent Angers, author of a book on Thompson, says, "I don't care what country you're from. Evil is evil." A 1998 segment of 60 Minutes is projected onto a screen. It's Mike Wallace's report on Thompson's and chopper gunner Larry Colburn's return to Vietnam, where they met survivors of the massacre. There's a clip from Wallace's 1969 interview with Paul Meadlo, a soldier who participated in the killings. He asks Meadlo how a father of two small children could shoot babies. "I don't know," the soldier replies. "It was one of those things."

After the lights are switched back on, Thompson walks into the room. As the audience applauds, he flashes the peace sign with his right hand. He wears a tie that resembles the United States flag. He will speak off-the-cuff. He's a storyteller who doesn't need notes.

Only a fraction of the soldiers in Calley's unit killed civilians, he says. Many soldiers refused to participate in the slaughter, and one shot himself in the foot to avoid it. "Innocent civilians get killed in war," he says. "These people were not killed in war. It's not what a soldier will do." He says incompetent officers, peer pressure, prejudice toward the Vietnamese, and a desire to avenge fallen comrades fueled the slaughter.

Before ending his three-day visit to Chicago, Thompson will have spoken at DePaul, Loyola University, and John Marshall Law School about the My Lai massacre. This is what he's been doing since 1998--visiting high schools, colleges, military academies, and veterans groups. When he's not traveling he's helping veterans as a supervisor in Louisiana's department of veteran affairs. "I think we are rated as the third best state department of veteran affairs in the United States," he says in an interview. "That's pretty good, I think."

The younger of two brothers, Thompson, who's now 57, grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia. His father was an electrician who served in the army and navy in World War II and spent over 30 years in the naval reserves. His parents taught him to stand up for others. During his school days, Thompson once scolded a group of boys for making fun of a physically handicapped child. After high school, he spent three years in the navy, then switched to the army and entered its warrant officer flight program. Mastering the controls of a helicopter came so hard to him that his brother had to talk him out of quitting. "I guess I appreciate him for that. If you flunk out of flight school or quit, you're going to be a point man on an infantry squad in Vietnam. That was an incentive. I didn't graduate at the top of my class by any stretch of the imagination. I think I was the last one to solo."

He finished the program in 1967 and was soon in Vietnam. On the morning of March 16, 1968, Thompson's crew was sent out to cover American troops advancing on My Lai. There was no hostile fire, and Thompson returned to his base to refuel. When they got back over the village, Thompson, Colburn, and crew chief Glenn Andreotta were stunned by what they saw.

"We started noticing all those bodies everywhere. You're thinking, 'What happened here?' This little thing in your mind is saying what happened, but you don't want to believe it because it didn't look good. We rode the white horses and wore the white hats. We were the good guys. And it didn't look that way to me....I can remember thinking, 'Dammit, isn't this what the Nazis did?'"

Spotting a girl thrashing in pain, the helicopter crew radioed for help. A captain walked up to her, nudged her with his foot, and shot her. Thompson began screaming into his radio, protesting the killings. On the ground, Lieutenant Calley was goading his men to open fire. Angers would write: "Calley then leaned on Meadlo again and together they began slaughtering the helpless people in the ditch. Amid the wailing and screaming, heads and limbs were being blown off. Blood and guts and bits of brain were everywhere. When it was over forty or fifty more Vietnamese people were dead or dying, and Meadlo was sobbing openly."

From the air, Thompson and his crew spotted another ditch filled with Vietnamese. Thompson touched down and asked some soldiers to help them. As he flew away, he heard gunfire. Andreotta said, "My God, they are firing into the ditch!' "

Thompson could see an elderly couple and a small child in hiding and American soldiers approaching. Thompson was the leader of the helicopter team, but he says he, Colburn, and Andreotta mutually agreed to act. "I just figured those three people were fixing to die and I was not going to let that happen," Thompson says. "I was going to save them. I set the aircraft down this time between the civilians and the Americans and told my people, 'If they open up, you open up. Cover me.' " He confronted the soldiers and told them they would be shot if they attacked the civilians. "I do thank God to this day that everybody played it cool." Colburn later told Thompson the soldiers showed visible relief as Thompson walked away; they'd been given a reason not to continue the killing.

After that standoff, nine people emerged from a bunker and huddled behind Thompson, who radioed a helicopter with more room than his own. The second chopper made two trips and carried the people to safety. Back in the air, Thompson flew over a ditch and Andreotta saw movement there. Thompson landed and Andreotta leaped out. "Glenn Andreotta was out of that aircraft, driven by something, I don't know what." Andreotta stepped over mangled bodies and retrieved a little girl. They flew her to an orphanage.

Thompson's frantic radio messages made their way to army commanders who ordered the killing to stop. In his book, Angers claims the massacre was part of a larger operation designed to clean out more hamlets than just My Lai. He credits Thompson with saving countless lives.

Though Thompson calls himself a mild-mannered man who's respectful of authority, when he returned to his base he yelled at several superiors before calming down. He reported the massacre to a major and a colonel. Later he talked with an Episcopalian priest, crying fitfully. Thompson took a week of R & R in Hawaii, and when he got back he was told that Andreotta had been killed. That August Thompson's helicopter was shot down, and a spinal injury ended his war in Vietnam.

Eventually, 25 officers and soldiers were charged with murder, rape, assault, and other crimes at My Lai. Thompson spent 18 months testifying at hearings. His nights brought anonymous death threats over the telephone. Other soldiers snubbed him. "During the trials, I was not treated very well. I was considered a traitor, a communist, a sympathizer."

Only Lieutenant Calley was convicted. He was sentenced to life in prison at hard labor. But many sympathetic Americans called him a scapegoat and patriot, and President Nixon immediately ordered him released from the stockade and placed under house arrest. In late 1974 Calley was paroled. "Justice was not served," Thompson says.

He retired from the army in 1983 and spent eight years piloting men and supplies between southern Louisiana and offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico before joining Louisiana's department of veteran affairs. He lived in comfortable obscurity. But 11 years ago British journalist Michael Bilton's documentary on My Lai aired on British television. PBS stations in this country picked it up. This renewed attention led to media appearances by Thompson and Colburn, and to a nine-year campaign by Clemson University professor David Egan to honor them both and Andreotta. Two years ago they received the army's Soldier's Medal, which is awarded for actions on the battlefield not related to combat against enemies. Several months later they received a Courage of Conscience Award from the Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Massachusetts. Other recipients of the award have included Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Maya Angelou. A year later, Angers completed his biography.

The public appearances began after Thompson received the medal. At first he was nervous about speaking to veterans, but it turned out they admired him. "They agree that those people committing the acts that day were not soldiers, therefore it's a black mark on them also. They're as mad now at them as they were at me 30 years ago, because the truth is out there. It tarnishes their military careers. They're part of it just like I am. I've been received real well. That's been a big surprise."

Thompson is glad that the My Lai massacre was not forgotten. "The only reason it might not happen again," he says, "is it's been brought out and people have been taught about it and know the consequences if they do something stupid like that. So that's good."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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