The Man Who Intervened at My Lai

Hear the 2004 Interview

Hugh Thompson at Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

hide captionHugh Thompson waits to be introduced during March 1998 ceremonies at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Jessica Persson/Getty Images

Hugh C. Thompson Jr., the Army helicopter pilot who helped rescue Vietnamese civilians from U.S. troops at My Lai, dies at 62. He had suffered from cancer. His heroic action on a dark day in U.S. history helped change the rules of military conduct.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

US A: American soldiers lining up unarmed Vietnamese civilians and slaughtering them in a ditch. A man of good conscience might have radioed his command post and said, `I just saw something incredible. You might want to send a team there to check that out.'

What Hugh Thompson did was heroic. He landed his helicopter between the US soldiers and the civilians, and then he told the US soldiers on the ground that if any of them moved to harm any more civilians, his crew would be ordered, ordered, to open fire on their fellow US soldiers. They stopped the massacre and took the few survivors to a US Army hospital.

Only four soldiers ever stood trial for the My Lai massacre. Only one, Lieutenant William Calley, ever served time for the killings. Mr. Calley spent several months under house arrest before being paroled. Hugh Thompson and his crew received Distinguished Flying Crosses and in 1998 he was given the Soldier's Medal for life-saving bravery.

We last spoke to Hugh Thompson in May of 2004 as stories broke about prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison. He ran a small flying service and was invited to lecture at service academies and military bases, where he told soldiers that it is the duty of anyone who wears the US flag on their arm to refuse to abuse civilians or prisoners.

HUGH C: Soldier is instructed to take out the enemy, take out the threat as quickly as possible. When there is no more threat, you don't kill no more. Matter of fact, the laws have been changed since My Lai. Used to be against the law to disobey an order. Now it's against the law to obey an unlawful order.

: Hugh Thompson, who died yesterday at the age of 62. If a war crime can have a hero, he was the hero at the My Lai massacre.

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