Sometimes everything you thought was right turns out to be wrong, and the opposite of what you are doing turns out to be the right thing to do. At moments like these, the best leaders are able to turn around quickly and do whatever is needed to make a bad situation better--even if it means taking a huge risk.

That lesson is exemplified by Major Hugh Thompson, Jr., a helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam. On March, 16, 1968, he observed from the air as a  company of U.S. Army soldiers moved through a hamlet called My Lai, killing every Vietnamese person in sight, most of them elderly or small children. (Between 347 and 504 Vietnamese civilians died that day, depending on whether you accept the U.S. or Vietnamese tally. According to an analysis of a list of names of the dead by Trent Angers who wrote a biography of Thompson, 210 of them were 12 years old or younger and 50 were three years old or younger.)

The New York Times has provided an excellent analysis of the combination of leadership failures, faulty intelligence, miscommunication, inexperience on the battlefield, and grief over fallen comrades that led a group of American soldiers to believe it was their duty to kill every living occupant of Song My Village, a group of hamlets that included My Lai. After accounts came out in the press, there was an investigation and 26 officers were formally charged. Some were acquitted and others were pardoned with only one, Second Lt. William Calley, convicted. He served three-and-a-half years of house arrest.

One person's courage and quick thinking.

The My Lai massacre is a black spot on U.S. military history but Thompson's story is a source of inspiration for everyone. Thompson was born in 1943 and grew up in rural Stone Mountain Georgia. His grandmother was full Cherokee. His father served in the Navy during World War II, and his brother Thomas also served in the Air Force during the Vietnam war, according to Angers' biography.

Thompson had already served three years in the Navy, received an honorable discharge, and returned to Stone Mountain to work as a funeral director but felt it was his duty to re-join the military when the Vietnam conflict began. He enlisted in the Army and trained as a helicopter pilot. On March 16, 1968, a few weeks before his 26th birthday, Thompson and his two-man crew were ordered to provide support to C Company, First Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment as they carried out their mission to clear My Lai of the remnants of a Viet Cong unit. 

But as Thompson and his crew flew overhead, what they saw didn't look right. There were bodies everywhere, and they were mostly elderly people or children. At first, the helicopter crew thought artillery fire had killed these civilians, but then they saw a wounded and unarmed young woman lying on the ground and marked her with green smoke--a sign that she posed no threat--so that she could receive medical care. Instead, Larry Colburn, the gunner in Thompson's helicopter, said he watched as Captain Ernest Medina, the officer in charge of C Company walked over and finished her off. When that happened, he said, "it clicked. It was our guys doing the killing." (That account comes from an interview with Colburn in Voices of a People's History of the United States​ by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove. Medina denied these and other charges relating to My Lai. He was court martialed and acquitted for his part in the event.)

Thompson and his crew continued flying over the scene and they saw a group of civilians running toward an earthen bunker with American soldiers following them. So, according to multiple accounts, Thompson did something that went against his military training and against the traditional concept of friend and enemy in war. It also took unthinkable courage. He landed the chopper directly between the advancing Americans and the bunker. He told the Americans that if they fired on the Vietnamese civilians--or on him--his crew would fire on them. He ordered Colburn and the helicopter's crew chief Glenn Andreotta to cover him with their weapons. Then he motioned for the civilians inside the bunker to come out and he arranged for their evacuation with other helicopter pilots who were his friends. The C Company soldiers looked on but thankfully held their fire. 

Not everybody's hero.

Back at base, Thompson made an official report about the massacre. As a result, senior officers canceled further planned missions to sweep nearby villages, saving hundreds or perhaps thousands of civilian lives, according to Angers' biography. Although the Army tried to cover up the incident, news of it broke the following year, and Thompson was summoned to Washington to be questioned as part of the investigation. In those days the war was still on and many young Americans were dying every day, including Andreotta, shot in combat three weeks after My Lai. So not everyone saw Thompson as a hero. One congressman in the investigation argued that the only soldier who should be disciplined was Thompson, for turning his guns on his fellow soldiers. Thompson told 60 Minutes years later that he received death threats over the phone and the bodies of mutilated animals appeared on his porch.

But times change, and so does our understanding of right and wrong. In 1998, 30 years after My Lai, and eight years before Thompson would die of cancer, he, Colby, and Andreotta (posthumously) received the Soldier's Medal, the highest honor awarded for bravery not involving direct combat with the enemy. Thompson also traveled to My Lai, where there is now a small museum devoted to him and his actions that day. 

He told historian Jon Wiener, 

"One of the ladies that we had helped out that day came up to me and asked, 'Why didn't the people who committed these acts come back with you?' And I was just devastated. And then she finished her sentence: she said, 'So we could forgive them.'" 

Thompson said he himself could never forgive the Americans who killed those civilians. "I'm not man enough to do that," he said. But he learned something else from his trip back to My Lai, and it made all the difference. 

"I always questioned, in my mind, did anybody know we all aren't like that? Did they know that somebody tried to help? And yes, they did know that. That aspect of it made me feel real good."

Published on: Mar 16, 2018
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