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Vietnam War pilot says he's not a hero

May 01, 2001

Vietnam War pilot says he's not a hero



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town

Hugh ThompsonPhoto: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

Hugh Thompson, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot who is one of several soldiers credited with stopping a slaughter of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai during the Vietnam War, said Monday he does not consider himself a hero.

Thompson, speaking to students at Mercersburg Academy, said a hero is someone who goes "really out of the way" to do something significant.

Thompson said that his former comrade, Glenn Andreotta, was the real hero.

Thompson, Andreotta and Larry Colburn were over the small hamlet of My Lai in South Vietnam in 1968 when they observed the beginning of a U.S. search and destroy mission against 504 Vietnamese, most of them civilian.

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It became a gripping memory from the conflict that resulted in the conviction of a U.S. officer who helped lead the attack.

When Thompson saw the attack taking place, he landed his helicopter in the line of fire between fleeing civilians and U.S. troops.

The civilians who were shot were laying in a ditch in the hamlet, Thompson said.

Thompson said Andreotta spotted a child moving amongst the bodies and ran from the helicopter before he could get it safely on the ground.

Andreotta walked across the pile of bodies to reach the child, and some of the people who were not dead grabbed his pants legs hoping he could help them, Thompson said.

"It wasn't a good sight," Thompson said.

Thompson later became the prosecution's key witness at the trial that brought Lt. William Calley and others to justice for the attack.

But bringing attention to what he thought was wrong was not easy for Thompson.

He said he received death threats over his actions, and it took 30 years for the U.S. to honor Thompson for his actions.

"I honestly believe something like that will never happen again," Thompson told about 400 students.

Thompson's appearance was part of the school's Schaff Lectures, which are offered to students every year to teach them about fundamental human values.

Thompson said he hopes his experience will help students "stop and think and make the right decision."

Thompson tried to prepare students for the life challenges they will soon face. Although students may make a decision they know is right, they may be confused by the outcome, Thompson said. Thompson told students that people will be mad at them sometimes for doing what is right.

"Life's not easy. Think about your actions," Thompson told them.

Thompson said he was impressed by the atmosphere at Mercersburg Academy.

"I salute everyone of you because I know you're getting a good foundation here," Thompson said.

Mercersburg Academy is a 108-year-old boarding and day college preparatory school.

Thompson has revisited My Lai since the notorious 1968 incident, which helped turn the tide of public opinion against the Vietnam War.

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