MICHELE NORRIS, host:
A hero died today and to tell his story, we need to go back nearly four decades to the war in Southeast Asia. It was 1968 and in a burst of retribution and rage, a group of American soldiers took vengeance on some villagers in Vietnam. The victims of the rampage were civilians. They were men, women and children, many with no connection to the enemy, and they were shot, mutilated and raped by American servicemen. In the end, 500 were killed. A year later, the world learned of the massacre at My Lai when journalist Seymour Hersh uncovered the story.
But it took decades longer for the story for the real heroes of My Lai to be told. On that bloody day, the death toll would have been higher if not for the actions of a helicopter crew that saved a handful of villagers. The crew's pilot was Hugh Thompson Jr., and he died today at age 62 at a VA hospital in Louisiana. In 1998, he talked to NPR about what happened as he flew above the scene of the horror with two other crew members, Lawrence Colburn and Glen Andreotta.
(Soundbite of interview)
Mr. HUGH THOMPSON: And one of us--I don't know who it was--saw some movement in the ditch. So we then set down. Two guys I think it was came over to the aircraft. `Man, what do you all want?' `You know, well, there's some civilians over in that ditch. You know, can you help 'em out?' And they said, `Well, we can help them out of their misery.' `Oh, man, come on. Quit joking around. How about helping them out?' `Yeah, OK.' And they walked away. And as we took off, we heard machine gun fire; it was on Glen's side of the aircraft, you know, and he comes over the intercom, you know, he said, `My God, they're shooting into the ditch.' And then that's when there was no use fooling ourselves anymore about what was going on.
NORRIS: Trent Angers wrote a book about Hugh Thompson and his crew, and he joins us now.
Mr. Angers, why did it take so long for the heroism behind this story to come out?
Mr. TRENT ANGERS (Author, "The Forgotten Hero of My Lai"): Well, I believe it was political. Essentially, there was a campaign on to have Hugh Thompson recognized as a true American hero and the Pentagon was not interested in talking about Vietnam, nor especially talking about My Lai. And so the campaign to get him recognized was being resisted with considerable force by certain people in the Pentagon.
NORRIS: Hugh Thompson Jr. landed his helicopter in the line of fire between American troops and the civilians. He actually confronted the leader of US forces. Was there anything in his makeup, in his background that would have hinted at this kind of bravery?
Mr. ANGERS: Yes. He took to heart the Ten Commandments and he had internalized the values of the Judeo-Christian traditions.
NORRIS: What happened to him after this? Was he ostracized by other soldiers?
Mr. ANGERS: He was very much ostracized, yes. He was even treated like a traitor by some of his fellow soldiers. When he was testifying against Lieutenant William Calley in the My Lai courts-martial in Washington in 1971, he would finish testifying and he would go in for a drink in the Officers' Club and the officers would all get up and walk out because they didn't want to be in his presence, so he was truly ostracized.
NORRIS: How did he handle that?
Mr. ANGERS: Badly. It depressed him. It upset him. It hurt him that he knew he had done the right thing, and when he--his reward for doing the right thing was to be treated practically as a traitor.
NORRIS: He eventually, though, was treated as a hero. He was awarded by the military. How did he spent the rest of his life?
Mr. ANGERS: Well, when he was finally recognized for being the hero that he is, he had a wonderful life. I could see the healing power of approval from people, which was exactly the opposite of the way that people treated him prior to 1998 when his story finally came out.
NORRIS: Mr. Angers, thanks so much for talking to us today.
Mr. ANGERS: You're welcome.
NORRIS: Trent Angers is the author of "The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story." Hugh Thompson died today at the age of 62.
MELISSA BLOCK (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.