Saturday, January 07, 2006

My Lai massacre hero dies

smh.com.au: "Hugh Thompson, a former US Army helicopter pilot honoured for rescuing Vietnamese civilians from his fellow soldiers during the My Lai massacre, has died, aged 62.

Thompson, whose role in the 1968 massacre did not become widely known until decades later, died at the Veterans Affairs Medical Centre in Alexandria, hospital spokesman Jay DeWorth said.

Trent Angers, Thompson's biographer and family friend, said Thompson died of cancer.

"These people were looking at me for help and there was no way I could turn my back on them," Thompson recalled in a 1998 Associated Press interview.

Early on the morning of March 16, 1968, Thompson, door-gunner Lawrence Colburn and crew chief Glenn Andreotta came upon US ground troops killing Vietnamese civilians in and around the village of My Lai.

They landed the helicopter in the line of fire between American troops and fleeing Vietnamese civilians and pointed their own guns at the US soldiers to prevent more killings.

Colburn and Andreotta had provided cover for Thompson as he went forward to confront the leader of the US forces. Thompson later coaxed civilians out of a bunker so they could be evacuated, and then landed his helicopter again to pick up a wounded child they transported to a hospital. Their efforts led to the ceasefire order at My Lai.

In 1998, the Army honoured the three men with the prestigious Soldier's Medal, the highest award for bravery not involving conflict with an enemy. It was a posthumous award for Andreotta, who was killed in battle three weeks after My Lai.

"It was the ability to do the right thing even at the risk of their personal safety that guided these soldiers to do what they did," Army Major General Michael Ackerman said at the 1998 ceremony. The three "set the standard for all soldiers to follow".

Lieutenant William Calley, a platoon leader, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the killings, but served just three years under house arrest when then-President Nixon reduced his sentence.

Author Seymour Hersh won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for his expose of the massacre in 1969 while working as a freelance journalist. The massacre became one of the pivotal events as opposition to the war was growing in the United States.

Thompson's role in ending My Lai didn't come to light until the late 1980s, when David Egan, a professor emeritus at Clemson University, saw an interview with Thompson in a documentary on the massacre. He launched a letter-writing campaign that eventually led to the awarding of the medals in 1998.

"I proudly and humbly accept it not only for myself but for the men who served their country with honour on the battlefield in Southeast Asia," Thompson said at the time of the award."

AP

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