As a bloody war rages across Vietnam, Hugh Thompson Jr. flies his helicopter over a rural village in search of enemy troops, but what he sees is sickening. Below, a massacre is taking place, as innocent women and children fall at the hands of American soldiers. Unable to face the horror, Thompson is forced to go against his orders, beginning an ordeal that will haunt him for decades to come.
Thompson was born to strict Christian parents in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 15, 1943. When he was a child, his family took an active stance against racism, often supporting struggling ethnic minorities in their community, and these values stayed with Thompson after he joined the United States Navy in 1961.
After receiving an honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy in 1964, Thompson moved to Stone Mountain, GA, where he planned to settle down and start a family. However, the following year, America entered the Vietnam War – and Thompson felt that it was his duty to reenlist.
For the past decade, the Soviet-backed North Vietnamese Army had been at war with the government of South Vietnam, which in turn was supported by allies including the United States. While the communist forces in North Vietnam sought to unify the country, the U.S. hoped to stop the spread of communism by supporting South Vietnam.
After years of increasing their military presence in the region, America officially entered the war on March 8, 1965. On that day 3,500 marines arrived in the city of Da Nang. And over the course of the next eight years, some 2.7 million U.S. troops would serve in Vietnam. Nearly 60,000 of them would never see home again.
In the midst of this bloody chaos, Thompson enlisted in the U.S. Army. After completing his training at Fort Wolters in Texas, he was posted to Company B in the 123rd Aviation Battalion – part of the 23rd Infantry Division – and in December 1967 he departed for Vietnam.
On March 16, 1968, Thompson was given an order that he would never forget. Along with the other men who made up his helicopter crew, gunner Larry Colburn and chief Glenn Andreotta, Thompson was to back up Task Force Barker in a search and destroy mission at a village in South Vietnam.
On the ground, the soldiers of the 23rd Infantry Division’s Charlie Company were struggling to survive in their harsh surroundings. Indeed, over the course of three months, they had lost more than 40 men. So when intelligence suggested that the village of Songmy was a stronghold of Viet Cong troops, they intended to wipe out the enemy for good.
That morning, some 100 men from Charlie Company landed in the rural village, and although there was no sign of the enemy, the U.S. troops believed that Vietcong guerillas were concealed somewhere nearby. The villagers, who had been preparing for market, initially allowed the soldiers to herd them into a communal area.
However, then the killings began. According to one witness, they started without warning, with one soldier attacking villagers with a grenade and a bayonet. Next, troops opened fire on a group of women and children who were praying at a temple. They were all shot in the head.
In one particularly gruesome incident, U.S. troops rounded up a group of 80 villagers, forcing them into a nearby ditch. As the women attempted to shield their children, the soldiers massacred them all. And when the surviving children tried to walk away, they too were shot down and killed.
Overhead, Thompson and his helicopter crew began to notice the large number of bodies on the ground. At first, they assumed that the company’s initial shelling of the area had caused the casualties. Then, slowly, the awful truth started to dawn on them.
While flying over the area, the trio spotted a young woman lying wounded on the ground. Following protocol, they marked her location with green smoke, signaling that she was unarmed and in need of assistance. But when commanding officer Captain Medina approached, he murdered the girl in front of their eyes.
Suddenly, Thompson and his crew realized that it was U.S. troops committing the atrocities, slaughtering unarmed civilians throughout the village, and after spotting the ditch full of victims, they landed the helicopter and attempted to provide aid. However, when they confronted Lieutenant Calley, the commander of Charlie Company, they were told that the men were simply following orders.
Undeterred by Thompson’s challenge, the men of Charlie Company continued to fire on the citizens trapped in the ditch. Thompson and his crew had seen enough. They retreated to their helicopter, determined to save as many civilian lives as they could.
The trio then noticed a group of children, women and elderly men being chased by soldiers. Bravely, Thompson landed his helicopter between the U.S. troops and the villagers. Furthermore, he informed his crew that he would shoot any men trying to continue the massacre of those who were attempting to escape.
With the help of Andreotta and Colburn, Thompson managed to evacuate the civilians to safety. The crew also picked up a child whom Andreotta had spotted moving in the ditch below. And having saved all of the villagers he could, Thompson now turned his attention to those responsible for the massacre.
However, although Thompson reported the killings to his superiors, the U.S. government initially managed to prevent the news from going public. And when the story did eventually break, Thompson found himself vilified for speaking out. Meanwhile, a date for a court martial was set.
The verdict that was delivered would likely stun modern observers. Although 26 officers and soldiers were charged in relation to the massacre at My Lai, only Lt. Calley was convicted. Even more incredibly, it would be 30 years before Thompson and his crew were recognized for their actions that day. Finally, in 1998 all three were honored with the Soldier’s Medal – a decoration given in recognition of bravery outside of enemy contact.
Despite being ostracized by many of his peers, Thompson continued to serve in the U.S. Army until 1983. Then 15 years later, he returned with Colburn to My Lai, where the pair met some of the survivors they had rescued that day. According to a 1998 CNN article about the event, Thompson’s message to the crowd was heartfelt. “I cannot explain why it happened,” he said “I just wish our crew that day could have helped more people than we did.”