Early morning, March 16, 1968. US Army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr. from Stone Mountain, Georgia, a former Boy Scout and the son of a WWII veteran, was flying recon support for a US Army infantry assault on a hamlet known as My Lai in South Vietnam. Encountering no enemy fire, Thompson’s crew captured two possible Vietcong, flew them back to base and refueled. Returning to My Lai, Thompson and his men, crew chief Glenn Andreotta from St. Louis and door-gunner Larry Colburn from Washington state wereflying 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.” Hovering closer over an irrigation ditch, they watched Capt. Ernest Medina kick a woman lying on the ground, then shoot her. Seeing what looked to be many more women and children lined up dead in the ditch, Thompson radioed his accompanying gunships, knowing his transmission would be monitored: “It looks to me like there’s an awful lot of unnecessary killing going on down there. Something ain’t right about this. There’s bodies everywhere. There’s a ditch full of bodies that we saw. There’s something wrong here.”
As Thompson landed his helicopter and dismounted, he was approached by Lt. Wiliam Calley who told Thompson that this wasn’t his concern and they are just following orders. Lt. Calley told Thompson to get back in his chopper and clear out. Taking off, Thompson’s crew could see more civilians being lined up and shot; then they saw some villagers running while being pursued by US soldiers. Thompson maneuvered over and landed his chopper between soldiers and the villagers. Getting out, Thompson turned to Colburn and Andreotta saying “Y’all cover me! If these bastards open up on me or these people, you open up on them. Promise me!” Colburn replied, “You got it boss, consider it done.”Colburn and Andreotta turned their M60 machine guns to face the American soldiers while Thompson dismounted to confront 2nd Platoon’s leader, Lt. Stephen Brooks. After words were exchanged, Brooks backed off and Thompson radioed in two additional Huey gunships who evacuated the civilians from the killing field. While still on the ground, Andreotta waded into the irrigation ditch to search for survivors and carried out a young boy which they evacuated on their chopper. Returning to base by 11am, Thompson prevailed upon ground commander Col. Frank Barker who radioed Medina to “knock off the killing” thereby saving many more lives.
At the time, Thompson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, while Colburn and Andreotta were awarded Bronze Stars for their support in the My Lai operation. The men believed the grounds for the awards were falsified and Thompson threw his medal away. All three continued to serve in Vietnam, with Thompson being wounded and receiving a Purple Heart. Andreotta was killed in action several months later when his chopper went down.
In part due to Thompson’s efforts, the My Lai incident and coverup came to light 18 months later, but only Lt. Calley was convicted, and he only served 3.5 years under house arrest.
In 1998, Thompson, Colburn, and Andreotta posthumously, were awarded the Soldiers Medal, one of the military’s highest awards for their true heroics that day in 1968.
In 2001, Colburn traveled to Vietnam and was reunited with Do Ba, the young child Andreotta had carried out from the ditch. Speaking to cadets at the US Naval Academy in 2003, Colburn said:
Combat is chaotic. Combat is primal. And something surfaces in you, especially when you see people close to you fall. And it’s very difficult to control. Your job as young officers is to monitor those men who are pulling the trigger to make sure that that primal instinct, you have to keep it in check somehow.
Colburn passed away in 2016.
Despite harassment and death threats, Thompson stayed in the military, working mostly as a flight instructor, retiring as a Major in 1983. Thompson spoke at all four US military academies, West Point, Annapolis, Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and the Marine Corp officers school at Quantico. When Thompson died in the VA hospital in 2006 from cancer, Colburn was there. To this day, the actions of Thompson, Colburn and Andreotta are analyzed in military schools around the world.