An American Hero

Vietnam Veteran Speaks Out About My Lai

President Bush was "shocked, and appalled" by what American soldiers did to Iraqi POWs.

Now, meet an American hero who says he felt the same way more than 30 years ago in a different American war: Vietnam.

Hugh Thompson was a helicopter pilot in 1968, on a day American soldiers gunned down more than 500 unarmed civilians in a village called My Lai.

The dead were women, old men and children. And even more of them would have died if Thompson had not confronted his fellow soldiers, stopped their murderous rampage and airlifted a number of civilians to safety. Correspondent Mike Wallace reports.

For years, the U.S. military tried to cover up the My Lai massacre. And Hugh Thompson was treated not as a hero, but as a traitor. But this past March, all that changed for Thompson, at a special ceremony in Nashville, Tenn.

It was a night Thompson never dreamed would happen. For years, he'd been treated as an outcast, a turncoat, because he had dared to question his fellow American GIs who said they were just following orders.

But this night, at last, he was being honored and inducted into an elite fraternity, The Army Aviation Hall of Fame: "As an OH-23 pilot with the 123rd Aviation Battalion, CWO Hugh Thompson flew over the Vietnamese village of My Lai on March 16, 1968, as U.S. troops were killing civilians."

That day back in 1968 was truly barbaric. Young, inexperienced American troops, told by their leaders that My Lai was an enemy stronghold, rounded up civilians, burned down their huts and then shot hundreds of them down in cold blood.

Thompson, believing at first it was a legitimate combat operation, was flying his small chopper over My Lai that day, trying to draw enemy fire away from the American GIs on the ground. But there was no enemy fire.

When he saw the piles of bodies, he felt sick and ashamed. What happened was so shocking, so inconceivable, that 60 Minutes asked Thompson and his gunner, Larry Colburn, to go back with us to Vietnam and explain it all to us for a story in 1998.

Thompson told 60 Minutes he landed his chopper near a rice paddy, and while his crew covered him with M-60 machine guns, he managed to save some civilians from being murdered. But he says he could not stop others from being gunned down even after they had been marched into a ditch.

Approximately 170 people were marched down in there, including women, old men, babies. And GIs stood up on the side with their weapons on full automatic and machine gun fire.

"There were no weapons captured. There were no draft-age males killed. They were civilians," says Colburn, referring to the ditch filled with bodies. "It was full … some of the people were still, they were dying, they weren't all dead."

As Thompson and Colburn were recalling the horrors of that day for 60 Minutes, an elderly woman walked toward us. She said that she had been dumped in the ditch back in 1968, but had survived, shielded by the bodies of the dead and the dying.

"Sorry we couldn't help you that day," says Thompson to the woman.

She said she wanted to know why there were so many villagers killed that day - and why Thompson was different from the rest of the Americans?

"I saved the people because I wasn't taught to murder and kill. I can't answer for the people who took part in it," says Thompson. "I apologize for the ones that did. I just wished we could have helped more people that day."

In fact, they did help more people. Thompson and Colburn found nine or 10 villagers cowering in a bunker. They radioed for a couple of choppers, which airlifted all of them to safety.

60 Minutes managed to find two of the women they'd saved. Mrs. Nhung, who was 73 at the time, was 43 when she was rescued. Mrs. Nhang was only 6.

"Didn't you take your life in your hands, Hugh, when you got out and told the American soldiers who had been killing that they'd better quit and let these people get out of the bunker," Wallace asked Thompson, who wouldn't answer.

"Yes sir, he did," says Colburn. "And he didn't even take a weapon with him. He had a side arm. He didn't even have it drawn. He just placed himself … And I was thinking that, at that point, anything could have happened. And we watched Mr. Thompson go to the bunker and bring the people out."

"There was just no value whatsoever on life," says Thompson.

Wallace reminded the two men about another woman they tried to warn as they hovered just above her in their chopper. An Army photographer had taken her picture.

"We saw her in the tall grass and … I motioned for her to stay," says Colburn. "I was hoping she wouldn't be detected. When we came back, she was in this condition. … There's a big difference between killing in war and murder. Cold-blooded murder."

"What do you call it when you march 100 or 200 people down in a ditch and line up on the side with machines and start firing into it," asks Thompson. "Reminds me of another story that happened in World War II, like the Nazis."

Stunned by what he had seen that day, Thompson reported back to his superiors.

But from the very beginning, the military tried to cover up the massacre. And that wasn't all. Thompson is uncomfortable talking about it, but before the Hall of Fame ceremony in Nashville, he and Colburn told 60 Minutes that the U.S. military had stopped providing him with adequate back-up on his chopper missions after My Lai.

"He was placed in a very precarious position as far as the missions that he was carrying out," says Colburn. "He didn't have any adequate cover in my opinion. Instead of being followed by two armed gun ships, he had another scout helicopter."

Scout helicopters are not equipped with the machine guns and rockets carried by the larger Huey gun ships.

"It seemed like he was really going out on a limb when he was going out without adequate cover," says Colburn.

How many choppers did he lose? "I think three or four, something like that," says Thompson.

Actually, Thompson crashed a total of five times. And the last time, he broke his back.

Why has none of this ever been told before? "I don't know," says Thompson. "I just sorta like went underground. I didn't mention it to anybody."

Thompson may have clammed up, but word of what he had done followed him when he returned from Vietnam to the United States. And he kept paying a price for turning on his fellow soldiers at My Lai.

"I'd received death threats over the phone," says Thompson. "We didn't have caller ID. But it was scary. Dead animals on your porch, mutilated animals on your porch some mornings when you get up. So I was not a good guy."

He said that when he went to the Officer's Club, there would be "100 people in there after work, and five minutes after I was there, you know, it seemed like it was me and the bartender left."

"This was because the truth, I don't think, was out there. This was, I was somebody that was crying and whining about a few people getting accidentally killed," says Thompson. "There was no accidental killing that day. It was murder."

But when Thompson testified about those murders to Congress in 1970, his testimony was kept secret. He says they didn't want the story out: "Well, not when one of the senior Congressmen here in the secret testimony say if anybody goes to jail that day, it'll be that helicopter pilot."

With the truth hidden away, Thompson admits he felt very much alone. For years, he remained silent about My Lai. The military, meanwhile, continued to give him the cold shoulder.

But that began to change shortly after our story aired on 60 Minutes. To begin with, the military service academies started inviting him to visit and give lectures on military ethics to young soldiers.

And Thompson began to open up as he told those soldiers unforgettable stories about My Lai: "A lot of the girls didn't scream too much because they had already cut their tongues out. A bayonet can kill two real quick if they're pregnant. It got nasty that day. I personally, I mean, I wish I was a big enough man to say I forgive them, but I swear to God, I can't."

He says he continues to lecture at West Point and the Naval Academy, trying to tell today's troops "to be a soldier and act like a soldier."

The tide turned some more when the Pentagon finally recognized Thompson, Colburn and Glenn Andreotta, their crewmate who died in Vietnam after My Lai. All three were awarded the prestigious Soldier's Medal.

But 30 years had passed since the massacre, and Thompson says it was strangely unsatisfying. Too late, he says, from a reluctant military leadership.

But he felt far different on the stage in Nashville, as he was inducted on the first ballot into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame.

He says it's a big honor. "This is my peers electing me to put me in there," says Thompson. "This is my fellow aviators. And that makes me feel good."