Day 452: The Bright Light Of The Vietnam War

originally published March 27, 2013

It is perhaps the greatest failure of the American film production machine that no one has thought to put the story of Hugh Thompson Jr. on the big screen. I have read about some fascinating lives over the past 452 days, but Hugh’s is at the top of the list. Were I an American, Hugh would make me proud to salute the same flag.

To find the patriotism-inspired stories of military honor and bravery in the Vietnam War, you’d first have to wade through the confusion and vague discomfort that goes along with a war that was,  in reality, little more than a dick-wagging proxy war between two superpowers, the leaders of which were not among the brave men and women suiting up in combat gear. But this article isn’t about politics, it’s about heroics.

It’s about Hugh Thompson Jr.

Hugh touched down in the guts of the Vietnam conflict in December, 1967. He had trained to become a helicopter pilot, and earned a reputation as a brilliant and ballsy chopper-master. Just a few months earlier, Hugh had been back at home in Georgia, running a funeral home. Now he was being sent into the thickest stew of crossfire in what was at the time the worst place on Earth to be.

By March of 1968, Hugh had his own chopper. He proudly wore the banner of Company B (known as the Warlords) as a part of the 23rd Infantry Division. He led a team of three, and I think each of them deserves a mention and a photo.

This is Glenn Andreotta, born in New Jersey and raised in St. Louis. He spent a year in Vietnam as a radio repairman before being assigned to Thompson’s helicopter as the crew chief.

On the left, that’s Lawrence Colburn, who showed up for the war about the same time as Thompson. One of his first assignments upon arrival was as the door gunner aboard Thompson’s helicopter.

On the morning of March 16, 1968, Thompson’s chopper spotted two possible Viet Cong suspects. They encouraged the Vietnamese to surrender (a large gun sticking out of a helicopter can be great motivation for that), then brought them back to base for the pros to interrogate them. Before leaving though, Hugh tossed down a green smoke signal, as he’d spotted some wounded civilians and he wanted to be able to find them again. After refueling, Hugh returned to his signal, only to find them all dead.

I should point out that the spot where Hugh and his team had marked the wounded was a place called My Lai. If you know the story of what went down there on that notorious March day, then you know what’s coming. If you don’t… well, it ain’t pretty.

Hovering close to the ground, Hugh scooted over near a wounded woman lying in a rice paddy. He watched as Captain Ernest Medina of the 20th Infantry Regiment walked up to her, poked her with her foot, then shot her dead. Not far away, Hugh spotted a ditch filled with Vietnamese bodies, some still moving. American troops were the only people in sight holding weapons.

Hugh landed, then engaged 2nd Lieutenant William Calley in a heated debate over what was going on. “What is this? Who are these people?” Hugh demanded. “Just following orders,” was Calley’s reply. “But these are human beings, unarmed civilians, sir.” “Look Thompson, this is my show. I’m in charge here. It ain’t your concern.”

And with that, Hugh was sent back to his chopper. That’s when things turned really ugly.

Back in the air, Hugh and his team could only watch as Sgt. David Mitchell began executing every breathing body left in that ditch. Hugh pointed his bird at the northeast corner of My Lai, where he saw a huddled pack of about ten civilians – some of them children – racing toward a homemade bomb shelter. American soldiers were in pursuit.

Hugh brought the helicopter down directly in between the civilians and the pursuing troops. He called back to Lawrence Colburn, “If these bastards open up on me or these people, you open up on them. Promise me!”

Colburn had his trigger finger ready. Ready to fire on American soldiers who were following the most bat-shit awful orders issued in the thick of a war. Glenn Andreotta was right there, backing up his team.

Hugh went face to face with platoon leader Stephen Brooks, who was ready to use a hand grenade to clear the civilians out of the bunker. Whatever Hugh said to Brooks must have worked; he was permitted to call in the two nearby escort choppers to have them take everyone hiding in the bunker to safety. Hugh and his team couldn’t prevent the outright murder of between 350 and 500 unarmed civilians at My Lai that day, but they saved as many as they could.

On their way out to refuel, Glenn Andreotta spotted some movement in that ditch, which was piling up with bodies. Hugh had barely landed when Glenn leapt from the chopper, and proceeded to scramble through an ungodly pile of bodies until he found one boy who was still breathing. He pulled him out, and brought him to the helicopter. They had saved one more.

Needless to say, the aftermath of My Lai was not a hero’s welcome for Hugh and his team.

Glenn Andreotta was killed just three weeks later when his helicopter was shot down near Quang Ngai City. My Lai had been well-covered by the Army’s chain of command, so Hugh was sent back into the shit, where his helicopter was shot down four times. The last one resulted in a broken neck, which wound up punching his ticket home.

Once the My Lai story broke, Hugh testified. Democratic Congressman Mendel Rivers not only tried to discredit Hugh, but felt his actions were traitorous and deserving of a court-martial. Hugh’s actions hit the press, and he was bombarded with hate mail, death threats, and even mutilated animals getting dropped off on his doorstep.

Seriously… why are the people who are willing to leave butchered animals on other people’s doorsteps always targeting good people?

Eventually, all three of these men were recognized as the heroes they were. In 1998, they were all awarded the Soldier’s Medal, the Army’s highest honor for bravery without directly involving enemy troops. Hugh and Lawrence Colburn returned to My Lai and met some of the villagers they’d saved that day. Lawrence was at Hugh’s side when Hugh succumbed to cancer in 2006.

Hollywood won’t make the Hugh Thompson Jr. movie, yet they keep letting Tyler Perry make those goddamn Madea flicks.

A hero like this deserves to be a household name.

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