The Heroes of My Lai

The My Lai story is one of heroes as well villains.  One such hero is Hugh Thompson, Jr., a helicopter reconnaissance pilot who came upon the My Lai massacre in progress.  Chief My Lai prosecutor William Eckhardt described how Thompson responded to what he found when he put his helicopter down: "[Thompson] put his guns on Americans, said he would shoot them if they shot another Vietnamese, had his people wade in the ditch in gore to their knees, to their hips, took out children, took them to the hospital...flew back [to headquarters], standing in front of people, tears rolling down his cheeks, pounding on the table saying, 'Notice, notice, notice'...then had the courage to testify time after time after time."


Ron Ridenhour is another hero of My Lai.  Without Ridenhour's persistent effort to discover what happened at My Lai, and his determination to bring the incident to public attention, Americans would never have learned the awful, but important,  lessons of My Lai.


(The accounts of Thompson and Ridenhour were given at a conference on My Lai held at Tulane University in December, 1994.  A video of the remarks of Thompson, Ridenhour, and chief prosecutor in the My Lai cases, Col. William Eckhardt,  is available for purchase: )



I'm Hugh Thompson.  I was a helicopter pilot that day, and I guess I was invited here to tell you about a day of my life.  That particular morning we were to provide reconnaissance for a ground operation that was going on in My Lai 4, which was better known to us as Pinkville." It was supposed to be a real big operation that day.  I flew a Scout helicopter covered by two gunships that flew cover for me, and my job was to recon out in front of the friendly forces and draw fire, tell them where the enemy was, and let them take care of it.

The village was prepped with artillery prior to the assault, and we went in right when the "slicks"  ---the troop-carrying aircraft that brought the Charlie company and Bravo company--- landed simultaneously right in front of them.  We started mak ing our passes, and I thought it was gonna be real hot that day.  The first thing we saw was a draft-age male running south out of the village with a weapon and I tol m to et him.  He tried, but he was a new gunner---  he missed him.  That was the only enemy person I saw that whole day.

We kept flying back and forth, reconning in front and in the rear, and it didn't take very long until we started noticing the large number of bodies everywhere.  Everywhere we'd look, we'd see bodies.  These were infants, two-, three-, four-, five-year-olds, women, very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever.  That's what you look for, draft-age people.  It came out in the interrogations that my crew and myself went through.  My gunner's big questions---were, "Were there weapons that day?" There was not the first weapon captured, to my knowledge, that day.  I think a count has been anywhere from two to four hundred, five hundred bodies--- it was that many.  I think that's a small count, including the three villages that were hit.

As we were flying back around the civilian people, there was one lady on the side of the road, and we knew something was going wrong by then.  Larry Colburn, my gunner, just motioned for her to stay down; she was kneeling on the side of the road. We just ordered her to stay down; we hovered around everywhere, looking, couldn't understand what was going on.  We flew back over her a few minutes later and most of you all have probably seen that picture; she's got a coolie hat laying next to her. If you look real close, some odd object laying right next to her--- that's her brains.  It's not pretty

We saw another lady that was wounded.  We got on the radio and called for some help and marked her with smoke.  A few minutes later up walks a captain, steps up to her, nudges her with his foot, steps back and blows her away.

We came across a ditch that had, I don't know, a lot of bodies in it, a lot of movement in it.  I landed, asked a sergeant there if he could help them out, these wounded people down there.  He said he'd help them out, help them out of their misery, I believe.  I was . . . shocked, I guess, I don't know.  I thought he was joking; I took it as a joke, I guess.  We took off and broke away from them and my gunner, I guess it was, said, "My God, he's firing into the ditch." We'd asked for help twice, both times--- well actually, three times by then, I guess--- every time that people had been killed.  We'd "help these people out" by asking for help.

Sometime later, we saw some people huddle in a bunker and the only thing I could see at that particular time was a woman, an old man, and a couple of kids standing next to it.  We look over here and see them and look over there and see the friendly forces, so I landed the helicopter again.  I didn't want there to be any confusion or something; I really don't know what was going on in my mind then.

I walked over to the ground units and said, "Hey, there's some civilians over here in this bunker.  Can you get them out?" They said, "Well, we're gonna get them out with a hand grenade." I said, "Just hold your people right here please, I think I can do better." So I went over to the bunker and motioned for them to come out, everything was OK.  At that time I didn't know what I was going to do, because there was more than three or four there, more like nine or ten or something like that.  So I walked back over to the aircraft and kind of kept them around me and called the pilot that was flying the low gunship and said, "Hey, I got these people here down on the ground, and you all land and get them out of here." So he agreed to do that, which I think was the first time a gunship's ever been used for that.  There's enough of them there that he had to make two trips and he picked them up and took them about ten miles or so behind the lines and dropped them off.

A short while later we went back to the ditch.  There was still some movement in there.  We got out of the aircraft and Androtta, my crew chief, walked down into the ditch.  A few minutes later he came back up carrying a little kid.  We didn't know what we were gonna do with this one either, but we all get back in the aircraft and figure we'd get him back to the orphanage or hospital back over at Quang Ngai.  In examining him in the aircraft that day, the kid wasn't even wounded, or we didn't see any wounds, I'll put it that way.  He was covered with blood, and the thought was going through my mind and my crew's mind, "How did these people get in that ditch?"

After coming up with about three scenarios, one of them being an artillery round hit them, you wipe that out of your mind 'cause every house in Vietnam, I think, has a bunker underneath it.  If artillery was coming there, they would go to the bunker; they wouldn't go outside in the open area.  Then I said, well, when artillery was coming, they were trying to leave and a round caught them in the ditch while they were going for cover.  I threw that one out of my mind.  Then something just sunk into me that these people were marched into that ditch and murdered.  That was the only explanation that I could come up with.

Taking the child to the hospital was a day I'll never forget.  It was a very sad day, very mad day, very frustrated and everything.  So later in the afternoon, (this was brought up when everything hit and became public during interrogations, the Department of the Army IG was asking me about the incident and I had totally blocked it out of my mind.  I had no idea what this guy was questioning me for), after the mission that day, I went back to our operations area, which is over in LC Dottie and I was very upset.  I was very mad.

I reported to my platoon leader.  He said let's go see the operations officer.  In turn we went to our commander and the words were said for me that day that, you know, dean this up.  "If this damn stuff is what's happening here," I told him, "You can take these wings right now 'cause they're only sewn on with thread." I was ready to quit flying.

My commander was very interested.  Within a day or so--- I don't think it was that day, it was probably the next day--- we were called up to the command bunker at LC Dottie and everybody gave their statements.  This was a full colonel (a full colonel is next to a general); that means he can walk on water.  He was very interested it seemed; I remember him taking notes and that was it, I do believe.  I don't know if I was called again to report to the commanding general.

There was one thing in my mind that I think, but I can't be positive.  Our two units were like sixty miles away.  So we didn't have contact with these ground people every day.  A lot of people don't understand that sixty miles into Vietnam is a long way away You just don't go there.  I guess I assumed something was being done.  It wasn't a colonel's position to come down to a Wl and inform him of his investigation, that just was unheard of.  It seemed like it was just dropped after that.

Approximately two years later is when it was broke publicly and that's when all the investigations started.  I was called before the US Senate, the Department of the Army IG and for every one of the court-martial investigations.  They appointed Lieutenant General Peers to investigate this.  I honestly think the Army thought they had a 'yes-man' when they got Lieutenant General Peers and found out when he released his final report that he was not a "yes-man." I think he made a fairly accurate report of what happened that day.

I believe too, as everybody says, there was a cover-up and everybody's talked about that the cover-up started on the ground. In my mind, I'm not real sure that's where the cover-up started.  I would not be the least bit surprised if this cover-up started "up" and worked its way all the way back down.

It was probably one of the saddest days of my life.  I just could not believe that people could totally lose control and I've heard people say this happened all the time.  I don't believe it.  I'm not naive to understand that innocent civilians did get killed in Vietnam.  I truly pray to God that My Lai was not an everyday occurrence.  I don't know if anybody could keep their sanity if something like that happens all the time.  I can see where four or five people get killed, something like that.  But that was nothing like that, it was no accident whatsoever.  Pure premeditated murder.  And we're trained better than that and it's just not something you'd like to do. [BACK]


I was drafted in March of 1967 and went through basic training and advanced infantry training and parachute training school.  That all took about six months and I arrived in Hawaii assigned to Scofield barracks in the 11th infantry brigade in September of 1967.  The 11th was then scheduled to ship out for Vietnam sometime in December.

    I was assigned to a very small unit with about thirty men, which was to be our brigade long-range reconnaissance patrol unit (LRRP).  There were about thirty men and we went out and did what they call jungle warfare training out in the forests and jungles of Hawaii every day.  But about two weeks before we were scheduled to ship out to Vietnam, our small detachment was disbanded because the brigade was under-strength.  About half the men, fifteen of the enlisted men, were sent off to Charlie company 1st of the 20th, Lieutenant Calley's company, or Captain Medina's company, probably.

    I was sent off to eventually to become a doorman on a light observation helicopter doing, ironically, almost exactly the same thing Hugh was doing at the same time, although we did it with two small ships rather than with the small ship with the two sharks or the two gunships covering.  Our small ships, one flew very low, about thirty, feet off the ground and the other flew higher, in circles, to cover it and our mission was, as his was, to draw fire and then engage whoever it was that fired at us.

    We arrived in Vietnam four days before Christmas in 1967, ended up in the detachment a few days later.  And we practiced, went out, basically learned how to stand on the skid of a helicopter while it's flitting and fluttering and dipping and diving around the hedgerows over tree lines.  And to hold our machine guns and hit things and shoot.  We did this for about two weeks.  On our first mission we were called to go out and provide what they called light aircover for an infantry company, for two infantry companies, actually, which were about to sweep through a fairly large village, I would guess.  A hundred to a hundred and fifty homes on the highway about ten miles south of  where we were.  Our area of operation was immediately south of Hugh's and we had the southernmost part of I-Corps, which was the northernmost part of South Vietnam in which American troops found themselves.

    On this mission we went out and it's our first combat mission---our first alleged combat mission---we went out to fly around in this village and to protect the infantry soldiers from an ambush.  They got on line, literally they made a line long enough for all the men in two infantry companies to stretch out in one long line and then they started walking through the village.  Our job was to fly over the village and to fly behind the village to see if anybody was either trying to ambush them or to flee.  Sure enough, out of the back end of the village after a few minutes here came a young man, military age, running, fleeing out of the village. There was a trail to the back end of the village down along it leading off to the mountains to the west, and this guy came out of there and he was running, like, to beat the band.  We fly down alongside him and we're trying to get him to stop, we're waving at him, we're motioning at him, we're telling him---and he's like, not me, man, I'm getting out of here, he's steady trucking along.

    The other doorman, the crew chief, was, his door was to this this time.  And so, after a few minutes of this, the pilot said, "Slow him down--- fire a burst in front of him.  Let him know we're serious." So the doorman fired first and instead of firing in front of him, he hit him in the hips.  And the man went down in a heap, of course.  And lay there in his own blood and began to bleed.  We were totally freaked out, because this was our first mission; we never fired at anybody in anger before or under combat conditions or anything else.  We shot this guy and didn't intend to.  So we were, we were pretty upset.  The pilot was especially upset, and he began to get on the radio and to call to the ground company, to the officers in the ground company to come help this guy.  He was pretty frantic, and it took him about twenty minutes to get there and the pilot is steadily on the radio saying, "Come on!  Come on, hurry, this man needs help!  This man needs help!"

    You could hear the infantry officer getting more and more frustrated as he ran.  You could hear him moaning, you could hear him, "(pant, pant) I'm coming!  I'm coming! (pant, pant)" over the radio.  It took him about twenty minutes to get there, but finally they break out on the same trail through the other side of the back end of the village and run down the trail to the guy. The officer gets there, runs up to him, stops, leans down, looks at him, stands up, pulls out his .45, cocks it, BOOM!  Shoots the guy in the head.  Looks up at us, he gets on his radio and says, "This man no longer needs any help."

    Well, that was my introduction to the reality of Vietnam as I saw it.  For four months, I did this, went out and stood on the skids of this helicopter, flew about thirty feet off the ground and it was literally a bird's eye view.  Now most of our missions were what they call hunter-killer missions, doing the same thing Hugh was doing.  We were going out at, usually, first light and last light.  The catechism was that's when the VC were on the move, and indeed frequently it was.

    Now we would pop up over a tree line or a hedge row and there'd be two or three guys standing out in the rice field with guns.  We'd engage them and usually we'd kill one or two of them, but they were well trained and they'd all run in different directions.  Usually some would get away and some wouldn't, but in that entire four-month time we only killed thirty-six people, I believe, in that neighborhood.  We replaced a unit in that same area which was doing exactly the same thing, and had only been there for eight months before we arrived, and they killed over seven hundred people in eight months.  What that said to me, since we were out doing the same thing, exactly the same thing in exactly the same area, is that they were killng---they were just out there killing a lot of people, folks.  They were being a lot less discriminating than we were about who we were engaging.  We were looking for people with guns, which is what we were supposed to be doing.

    Well, in that four months I guess I witnessed those sorts of events about six times, six or seven times.  We would identify somebody just as Hugh had.  We'd say, OK, here's somebody who is looking suspicious or whatever.  And some infantrymen would walk up to him and just shoot him.  I mean, no provocation.  They just walk right up to him.  I'm not talking about something that's ambiguous, I'm talking about murder.  I'm talking about somebody walking right up, pointing a gun and, without provocation, pulling the trigger.  I oppose that, of course, and so did most of us, but I don't know that we were really quite getting the drift of what was really going on there.

    We flew into the area of operations south of us, on a kind of courier mission one day, and flew over a hut, where we could see some guys in there torturing a Vietnamese.  They were skinning this guy alive.  So the atrocities were, I'm afraid, far too common.  I thought that it was kind of the way we were fighting the war, but still I was unprepared.

    After about four months, I basically got fired from my job in the helicopter company.  I couldn't get along with my sergeant who, of course, was the sergeant, and I was the private, so pretty soon I had to go, and I did.  I went and volunteered then for the division long-range reconnaissance patrol team.  I hadn't seen my friends who'd gone to Charlie company in probably two months.  When they were not out on patrol, and they were in for stand-down, to come in and take a shower and get a couple of hot meals, they would come over and visit and we'd talk.

    But I hadn't seen them in a couple of months since they had gone off with Task Force Barker and gone up to LZ Dottie, which was I guess about thirty miles north of us along the highway.  So when I left the aviation company my first night, reassigned temporarily to headquarters, which is basically a holding administrative unit, at least for my purposes at that time it was.  I ran into a guy I had known in Hawaii, who had been in my company who had gone to Charlie company.  He had since transferred into the divisional LRRP company where I was headed.  We sat down and said "Hey, what are you doing?" "What are you doing?  Well, let's get a beer and go talk." So we went and found a beer and found an empty tent with a table and sat down in it and started to tell each other our war stories and get caught up on what we had done and what we'd seen since we'd last talked to each other.  After a minute or two he says, "Hey man did you hear what we did at Pinkville?" I knew Pinkville, which was My Lai 4, because we had done some missions up there and there had been---it's known as a hot area.  'So what'd
you do at Pinkville?" He said, "Oh, man, we massacred this whole village." I said, "What?" He said, "Yeah, we massacred this whole village.  We just lined them up and killed them" I said, "What do you mean?' He said, "Men, women and kids, everybody, we killed them all." I said, 'Well, how many was that?" He said, "Oh, I don't know, three or four hundred I guess, at least.  A lot, everybody we could find.  We didn't leave anybody alive, at least we didn't intend to."

    It's hard for me to really describe exactly what my reaction was, because it's difficult to, the language doesn't quite, at least I haven't found a way to capture it, but it was I guess you would say, an epiphany.  It was an instantaneous recognition and collateral determination that this was something too horrible, almost, to comprehend and that I wasn't gonna be a part of it. Just simply having the knowledge, I felt, made me complicit, unless I acted on it.

    So I started to act on it, and I spent the remainder of my time in Vietnam trying to locate people who had been there and of course part of it was easy because I was going straight to the divisional LRRP company.  Four or five people who had been my friends in Hawaii and had gone to Charlie company had transferred into the divisional LRRP company within a week or ten days after the massacre.  So I was able to go in and talk with them and two of them were very good friends.

    One of them and I had been drafted on the same day.  We went through basic training together; we were in the same basic training company together; we were in the same advanced infantry battalion together; we both volunteered for special forces together; we were accepted together; and we went to jump school together.  We both refused to sign an extension converting us from two-year draftees to four-year enlistees.  So we both ended up being shipped off to Hawaii instead of going on to special forces school after jump school.

    This kid's name was Mike Terry and Sy talked about him last night, for those of you who were there.  He was, I thought, one of the finest people I ever met.  He was the all-American boy, wrestler in college, all-state champion, had respect for everybody around him, didn't swear, didn't speak badly of women, was not into the macho sort of bragging that was going on by a lot of people.  He was just a very fine human being.

    We had talked about this before we arrived when we were on our way to Vietnam, before we got there and after we got there, because I began to hear complaints from these guys about Lieutenant Calley, this guy who was their officer who they just loathed, who they thought was incompetent and a whole lot of otlier things.  So I arrived in the LURP (LRRP) company and began to go out on missions.  On my first five missions, of the six men who were on our team, four of them had been at My Lai.  I was going out with these guys and gathering this information.  I would go and talk to them and I would try to find each of them, get each of them in a one-on-one conversation

    I'd ask them, "Hey, man what happened at Pinkville?" And it would be like lancing a boil.  I mean, if you asked them, they were compelled to talk.  They couldn't stop talking.  They were horrified that it had occurred, that they had been there, and in the instances of all of these men, that they had participated in some way.  The story I'd been told about what Mike Terry had done and what my other friend, Billy Dougherty, had done were, I thought, stunning and terrifying in a certain way. But I didn't ask Mike about it for, I guess, probably a month, I don't know why, exactly, but we went out on a mission, we went off into something called Happy Valley, which is west of the city called Tam Khe, in the northern part of the Americal divisional area of operation.  Sat up on a hill for four days, and watched a trail, and watched fully combat ready North
Vietnamese soldiers walk down this trail, counted them, and called in artillery a couple of times as they were marching to a battle which was across the valley from us and we could see it.  We sat there and whispered through these four days and watched and when they came finally to get us at last light, they dropped us at the fire base that this battle was being operated out of.  We went and got some food and talked to a few of the grunts who had just come back out of this battle.  Then Mike and I went off and found ourselves a bunker to lay up on top of for that night and sleep.

    We lay, down and I asked him, "Hey, Mike, what happened at Pinkville?  Tell me what happened at Pinkville." And he tells me this terrible story of going in with Lieutenant Calley, and sweeping through the village and watching these murders and the rapes and everything that was going on and seeing what was happening, what happened at the ditch.  About eleven o'clock Mike and Billy sat down within fifteen or twenty feet of the ditch to have their lunch.  They took out their C-rations and opened their food and started eating but they couldn't really finish it, because there was too much noise coming from the ditch.  People who are mortally wounded but not yet dead make a lot of noise.  People die hard; they don't want to give up life.  The people in this ditch were laying there.  Those who were still alive were groaning and crying out and some of their limbs were flopping spasmodically, which happens to people who are mortally wounded.

    There must've been a terrible God-awful racket, a horrifying sound, I'm sure.  They couldn't eat, so they stood up, two of them and they walked over to the ditch and they divided up the survivors and they walked down the ditch, one on each side, finishing off all the survivors.  "There's one, you take him".  "OK".  Pow, pow "There's one, you get him".  "OK".  Pow, pow. Up and down the ditch once.  When they returned to their food, the ditch was quiet.

    When the first guy, whose name was Butch Gruber, told me this story, he told me about the ditch and about what Mike and Billy had done.  But I needed to hear it from them.  When I asked them about it, they said, "Yeah, yeah, it's all true".  Mike told me the story and it was really a cloudless night and there were a zillion stars out there.  After he finished we just lay there for a couple of minutes and finally I said "Mike, my God, Mike ... don't you know that was wrong?" And he said, "I don't know, man, I don't know, it was just one of them things." He rolled over; a couple of minutes later I could see he was asleep.  We never really talked about it much after that.

    I spent the rest of my time looking for people who were not in our company and found about three or four more, I suppose. I had a friend who had been in Charlie company and who transferred out only a week before the massacre.  He knew what I was up to but I didn't know how I was gonna do it, what the mechanics of it would be.  I knew I wa going to, I was determined to cause an investigation of some kind.  I was a kid; I had no idea how to do it, but I knew the first thing I needed was the facts.

    So I had gone down to the division historical section where they keep an account of all the battles and everything, the official history of the division.  There I found the official report that had been released to the press, reporting the battle at My Lai, in which it was reported, I believe, that a hundred twenty-eight people had been killed---a hundred twenty-eight VC had been killed with force, as it was reported.  I found the coordinates of the village, the specific date, a lot of very specific information, the sort of thing you need to make a persuasive complaint, I think.

    The one thing I needed that I didn't have was somebody who had been there, who was a witness and who had not participated.  I didn't have any reason necessarily to believe my friends wouldn't be honest when they were asked about it. On the other hand, they had participated in this terrible crime and maybe they wouldn't.  So I felt I needed somebody that I could count on and I knew of such a man, his name was Michael Bernhardt.  But he was still out in the field; I could never find him because he was simply never available.

    The reason he was never available is that Captain Medina, he believes the reason, I should say, he was never available, was that Captain Medina had come to him that night after the massacre, knew that he hadn't participated, knew that he was a potential troublesome person and threatened him.  He said "Bernhardt, you better keep your mouth shut about this, buddy." And Mike said, "Yes, sir." He stayed out in the field; they wouldn't let him out of the field.  He tried to transfer into the LRRP company They wouldn't let him.  He tried to transfer every place, they wouldn't let him.

    Every time they thought an ambush was coming, they'd send him up to the front of the line, where they thought the ambush was gonna be.  He walked point in all the dangerous places and in the last four months he got jungle rot so bad, he could barely walk and they wouldn't let him out of the field.  Finally, with about three weeks to go, he just jumped on a supply chopper as it was lifting off and without anybody's permission and went into the infirmary, the aid station, at the 11th brigade headquarters at Duc Pho and the doctors said, "Holy Mackerel, what's wrong with you?  I mean, why weren't you here earlier?"

    Jungle rot, for those of you who don't know, is a kind of ulceration that appears on your skin and is caused by a combination of filth and dampness, wetness and some bug, I'm sure.  It begins as just a little small open sore and it just spreads and spreads and spreads and gets bigger and bigger and bigger and Bernhardt had these open wounds all over his legs, could barely walk. Two days after he went into the brigade aid station he was at 2nd Surgical Hospital in Chu Lai, which is where I was then and we were all ready to come home.

    We only had a few weeks left in our tours and most of us were out of the field by then.  My friend Pat Thiele who was the guy who knew what I was doing, found out that Bernie was over in the hospital and came and told me.  We went over there and Pat left us alone and Bernhardt and I talked, felt each other out for about thirty minutes and we finally realized that we felt the same way about it.  We kind of showed our hands.  I asked him what he intended to do and he had a plan.

    When he got out of the service, he was gonna go around.  He knew where the officers were; he had the chain of command down.  He was gonna go around and assassinate them, one at a time.  That was his plan.  Now I have to say I believe he was serious---we were serious people.  And I said, "Well, you won't get out for a while anyway."  He was an RA, he was an enlisted volunteer, so he still had some time left to serve.  "So why don't we try my plan." I said, "I'm gonna get an investigation going ." He said, "How?" I said, "I don't know, you know, but somehow.  And if I do, will you tell the truth?" He said, "If you tell the truth, I'll tell the truth." I said "OK".  So I went home and talked to my friends and my relatives and all of my people who I thought had been my mentors.  They all, almost to the person, said, "Shut up. Shut up. This is none of your business---leave it alone."

    One person said, "Write a letter and send it to the Army.  Tell what you know and how you knew it." I decided that was half-good advice, that I should do that, but I shouldn't restrict it just to the Army.  I wrote such a letter and in the end of March 1969 sent it out to thirty different Congressmen, Senators.  Mo Udall, who was Congressman from Arizona---I lived in Arizona at the time acted on it, and called on the House Armed Services Committee to call on the Pentagon to conduct theinvestigation and they did so. The Pentagon responded to my letter less than two weeks later.  It was their contention that they had acted independently of Congress and maybe they did, I have no idea. [BACK]

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