AKA Hugh Clowers Thompson, Jr.
Birthplace: Atlanta, GA
Location of death: Alexandria, LA
Cause of death: Cancer - unspecified
Remains: Buried, Lafayette Memorial Park, Lafayette, LA
Race or Ethnicity: Multiracial
Sexual orientation: Straight
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Stopped the My Lai massacre
Military service: US Navy (1961-64); US Army (1966-83)
A whistleblower who discovers fraud or bribery has the luxury of time, to think things over and decide what to do. Hugh "Buck" Thompson had no time at all between stumbling across the My Lai massacre as it happened, and deciding what to do about it.
On 16 March 1968, Thompson was a US Army helicopter reconnaissance pilot, flying in advance of friendly forces in Vietnam on a mission to draw fire and thus locate the enemy. His H-23 Scout helicopter did not come under fire that morning, but as he flew over a tiny town called My Lai, accompanied by crew chief Glenn Andreotta and door-gunner Lawrence Colburn, Thompson struggled to comprehend what he was seeing below -- too many dead villagers to count, but no enemy soldiers in sight. He brought his helicopter down near a pile of dead and injured locals' bodies and tried to help the wounded, but was told by a platoon leader, Lieutenant William Calley, to back off. Thompson and his men returned to their chopper but as they took to the air, Andreotta screamed that the Americans had opened fire on the wounded villagers.
Finally fully understanding what he was seeing, Thompson again landed his helicopter, this time touching down in the direct line of fire as American soldiers pursued about ten locals, including old people and several children. He gave his gunner an order: "If these bastards open up on me or these people, you open up on them. Promise me!" But the gunner never had to follow that order -- the American soldiers stood down after the chopper blocked their way. Under cover of his aircraft’s guns, Thompson confronted Lieutenant Stephen Brooks, an officer who was leading the pursuit of the villagers. Both Calley and Brooks outranked him, but without waiting for permission Thompson, Andreotta, and Colburn then coaxed the cornered and terrified villagers out of hiding, called in more helicopters to carry the wounded to safety, and dug several other injured locals out of the mud and blood.
More than 500 Vietnamese men, women, children, and infants had been murdered, though the body count was always minimized by military spokesmen. Thompson filed a full report on the atrocity, but there was no investigation. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions, but the official citation was all fiction, stating that he had rescued civilians "caught in intense crossfire" -- as if it had been a military battle instead of a war crime. Official hearings were finally held two years later, after reporter Seymour Hersh wrote about the massacre in the pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Thompson repeatedly testified to what he had seen, and investigators recommended filing charges including murder, rape, and sodomy against up to thirty officers and enlisted men.
In the military and media, though, many saw Thompson's acts as betrayal. Congressman L. Mendel Rivers publicly stated that the only criminal at My Lai was Thompson himself, since he had ordered guns turned on Americans, and after that remark was published in newspapers Thompson received countless death threats. Remarkably, most media accounts portrayed Calley as a good soldier who had perhaps had a bad day, and numerous "rallies for Calley" were held in major American cities. Only one soldier -- Calley -- was convicted of any crimes at My Lai, but when he was sentenced to life in prison in 1971, President Richard M. Nixon promptly ordered his penalty reduced to house arrest, and three years later Nixon had Calley's sentence commuted to time served.
"I had a real hard time understanding why in the world everybody was trying to make me the bad guy," Thompson told a reporter in 1999. "It's hard to live with that." He left the military in 1983, then worked as a helicopter pilot for oil companies off the Louisiana coast, and volunteered as a counselor for veterans. In 1998, in a ceremony held at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, Thompson, Andreotta, and Colburn received the Soldier's Medal for their heroism at My Lai three decades earlier. Andreotta's medal was bestowed posthumously -- he was killed in Vietnam less than a month after the events at My Lai. Thompson died in 2006.
Father: Hugh Clowers Thompson, Jr.
Brother: Thomas Thompson
Brother: Wesley Thompson
Wife: Joyce Thompson (div., three sons)
Girlfriend: Mona Gossen (real estate agent)
High School: Stone Mountain High School, Stone Mountain, GA (1961)
University: Troy State University (attended, 1964-66)
Distinguished Flying Cross 1968
Soldier's Medal 1998
Cherokee Ancestry (paternal)
Risk Factors: Smoking, Alcoholism
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