It’s the morning of March 16th, 1968.
A small American scout helicopter races over the dense forest and countless rice paddies of South Vietnam. On board, 24-year-old pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, peers out through the canopy at the countryside streaking below. Crammed into the helicopter beside Hugh are two other men – his crew chief Glenn and his gunner Larry. Today, their job is to act as bait, to draw the fire of Viet Cong hiding in the jungle so as to reveal their position to other American forces. There’s no sign of the Viet Cong this morning. But ahead, Hugh can see thick smoke rising above the forest where a village appears to be on fire.
Dipping his chopper’s nose… Hugh accelerates toward the smoke. He knows that his fellow American soldiers from Charlie Company are conducting operations in the region. Clearly, it looks like things took a violent turn. Hovering over the burning village, Hugh can see dead bodies on the ground – dozens of Vietnamese civilians scattered between the houses and surrounding fields.
There’s a crackle in Hugh’s headset. Hugh turns and sees Larry pointing to a field just south of the village. There, a Vietnamese woman is lying on the ground, clearly wounded, but still alive. Hugh wishes he could help her, but his helicopter is too small to airlift her to safety. So, instead, he hovers low over the field… as Larry opens a smoke canister and drops it to the ground.
A plume of green vapor bursts out - a signal to American troops nearby that there’s a civilian in need of medical assistance. Hugh then radios their position to the men on the ground. And to the pilot’s relief, a few minutes later, a small squad of American soldiers trots out of the village into the field. The wounded woman raises her hands, begging for help. But instead of aiding her, one of the American soldiers kicks the woman before stepping back, leveling his rifle…
From the helicopter, Hugh yells at the soldiers that “she wasn’t a threat!” But the men on the ground just turn away and head back to the burning village. It's at this moment that Hugh realizes what’s happening on the ground. All the bodies he spotted from the air - they weren’t killed in the middle of a firefight with the Viet Cong. They’ve been executed by American soldiers.
The massacre at the village of My Lai comes almost four years after U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson escalated America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. President Johnson’s aim is to stop Vietnam from falling to the forces of Communism. So he deployed thousands of additional troops to the country. But despite America’s military might, victory over the Viet Cong remains elusive. In January 1968, just a few months before the My Lai massacre, the Viet Cong went on the attack, striking American soldiers in cities and towns once thought safely in South Vietnamese control. This Tet Offensive stunned the American public back home. And with casualties growing, support for the war in Vietnam is flagging. So, even though hundreds of innocent civilians were murdered at My Lai, the truth is suppressed by the American military and government.
But not everyone will remain silent. Among the few willing to speak out is Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson. The young pilot will go public, risking his reputation and career to reveal the truth about the terrible events of March 16th, 1968.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 16th, 1968: The My Lai Massacre.
Act One: Distinguished Flying
It’s early summer 1968, at a U.S. Army base in South Vietnam, a few months after the My Lai massacre.
Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson sits on a bunk in his quarters. In his hands is a citation for the Distinguished Flying Cross, a medal awarded to pilots for heroism.
Again and again, Hugh reads the words embossed on the award. They praise him for his bravery on March 16th, during the raid on the village of My Lai. There, the citation claims, civilians were unfortunately caught ‘ in the crossfire’ between U.S. and Viet Cong troops. But Hugh knows the truth about what really happened: there was no crossfire. The only shooting was done by American soldiers.
After witnessing the murder of the wounded woman in the paddy, Hugh continued his mission to patrol the skies and draw fire. As he circled overhead, he and his crew came across another horrifying sight. In a clearing just beyond the village, there was a large ditch filled with dozens of twisted bodies. There were too many for Hugh to count. But even from the sky, Hugh could see that they were mostly women, elderly, and young children. There was only one possible explanation – the civilians had been marched to the ditch, then executed by American soldiers.
And yet, the slaughter wasn’t over. From the sky, Hugh could see more terrified Vietnamese fleeing for their lives through the smoke and flames of their burning village. Hunting them relentlessly were squads of American GIs. Seeing this, Hugh was determined to stop them. He radioed in a report about what was happening and then landed his helicopter touching down between the civilians and the soldiers pursuing them. He told his crew to fire on their fellow Americans if necessary to stop the killings. The bravery of Hugh and the other men on helicopter managed to stop the massacre, but more than five hundred Vietnamese civilians were already dead.
Months later, Hugh cannot forget what he witnessed that day. And now he’s received a medal for taking part in the raid. He feels disgusted – the official version of events bears no relationship to what really happened. And Hugh can’t shake the feeling that this Distinguished Flying Cross is an attempt to buy his silence. It's a cover-up, and he wants no part of it. If his superiors are trying to purchase his loyalty with a medal, then they don’t know Hugh Thompson at all. So getting up off his bunk, he crumples the citation in his fist and then throws it away in a trash can.
Over the next weeks, Hugh was assigned increasingly dangerous missions. He survives every one, but Hugh can’t help wondering if his superiors are now trying to shut his mouth in a more permanent way: by getting him killed in action.
Seven months later, in early 1969, Hugh Thompson waits in a classroom at Fort Rucker, Alabama.
He’s now an instructor for the U.S. Army, teaching new recruits how to fly helicopters. A fresh batch of young men is about to start their lessons for the day. And as Hugh waits for his pupils to arrive, he walks around the classroom, gently stretching his stiff back. He knows he’s lucky to be alive.
The previous August, back in Vietnam, Hugh was approaching a U.S. base in his helicopter when he was ambushed by the Viet Cong. Machine-gun fire tore into his cockpit and sent his helicopter spiraling six hundred feet to the ground. Hugh was able to crawl from the wreckage, barely escaping with his life. But his back was broken, and he was sent home to recuperate. After months of rehabilitation, Hugh was released from his hospital bed and given orders to report to a base in Alabama for his new duties as an instructor.
Hugh’s time in Vietnam may be over, but he’s still haunted by what he saw there and it's having an effect. His marriage is falling apart. He finds it difficult to talk about the massacre with his wife and when he looks at his own young children, he can’t help but remember the tiny bodies he saw in My Lai. Hugh now spends more and more time at the officers’ club on base, trying to obliterate these memories and his guilt with alcohol.
Still, every day, he scours the newspapers for any report about the massacre and any news about punishments for the soldiers involved. But there’s nothing. It seems the U.S. Army has successfully swept the killings under the rug.
Hugh Thompson thought he had done his duty. He stopped the massacre and he reported what happened to his superiors. But he’s beginning to realize that he hasn’t done enough, and he wonders what he can or should do about it now. What Hugh doesn’t know, however, is that somebody else in America is asking the same questions - another Vietnam veteran who recently returned home and who will enable Hugh to finally reveal to the world the horrible truth.
Act Two: On Trial
It’s June 11th, 1969, in Washington DC. More than a year has passed since hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were massacred by U.S. troops in the village of My Lai. Now, one of the key witnesses to the horrific event has been summoned to the American capital.
At the office of the Inspector General of the Army, helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson sits stiffly in a chair opposite Colonel William Wilson. Hugh doesn’t know why he’s been ordered to report to Washington or what the 45-year-old Colonel wants with him. But as the gruff World War II veteran begins to bark questions at Hugh, it soon becomes clear: he’s been called to answer questions about My Lai.
Two months earlier, a bombshell dropped on the U.S. Capital. A letter was sent to dozens of lawmakers in Congress and officials in government, including the President himself. The letter was written by a 22-year-old infantryman named Ron Ridenhour. It contained a detailed account of the rumors circulating in Vietnam about a massacre committed by American troops. Although Ron wasn’t in My Lai on the fateful day, he later served with men who were. And he couldn’t stop thinking about the stories they told him. He became convinced a cover-up had taken place.
So when he returned to America after his tour of duty, he was determined to expose the truth. Some dismissed his letter as a hoax, a brazen attempt to discredit the U.S. Army. After all, official records made no mention of any such atrocity. But Ron sent the letter to enough people that his claims couldn’t be ignored. So, the government began an investigation and tasked Colonel William Wilson with leading it. Wilson began by interviewing witnesses and his investigation ultimately led him to reach out to Hugh Thompson.
Hugh’s interview with the Colonel lasts almost five hours. A stenographer takes down everything Hugh says as the pilot recounts the tragic events of March 16th in harrowing detail. Hugh tells the Colonel everything, from the murders he witnessed, to the civilians he saved, from the confrontations he had with the American troops on the ground, to the reports he made to his superiors afterward. At the end of the interview, Colonel Wilson thanks Hugh for his time and his candor. Finally, exhausted, Hugh returns to the Holiday Inn where he’s staying relieved that at last, the truth is coming out.
When Colonel Wilson submits his final report to the government, he recommends a full criminal investigation. Two months later, in September 1969, dozens of American soldiers are charged in connection with the massacre and the coverup that followed. Hugh thinks that finally, the American public will learn the truth and that justice will be done. But not everyone believes it’s in the national interest for American soldiers to be accused of war crimes. As the murder trials begin, in Congress, a House subcommittee begins its own inquiry into the allegations. And when Hugh is called to give evidence again in Washington, he soon realizes that he is on trial as well.
The Chairman of the subcommittee, Democrat Mendel Rivers from South Carolina, is a staunch defender of the U.S. Armed Forces. Rivers doesn’t believe that the accusations of a massacre will help the war effort in Vietnam. And he doesn’t think the soldiers in My Lai did anything wrong. They were just following orders. In Rivers’ mind, the only person who did not follow orders was Hugh Thompson who is also a key witness against the soldiers accused of murder. So if Congressman Rivers can discredit Hugh, then the prosecutions may collapse.
So at the committee hearings in April 1970, Rivers accuses Hugh of interfering with a ground operation, disobeying orders, and commanding his men to raise their weapons at fellow Americans; all offenses that warrant a court martial. Under the Chairman’s aggressive questioning, Hugh falters. He’s hesitant, uncertain, desperate to tell the truth but unwilling to say anything that might incriminate himself.
The hostile questioning has the desired effect. The American public is deeply divided between those who support the war and those who do not. In the minds of many pro-war Americans, Hugh Thompson is nothing more than a traitor. He receives hate mail and threatening phone calls in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, the men facing trial over the massacre are hailed as heroes and martyrs being victimized simply for doing their duty.
Hugh goes on to tell his story again and again, in dozens of hearings and trials. Still, justice is not done. Of the 26 men initially charged, only one is found guilty: Lieutenant William Calley.
On March 29th, 1971, platoon leader Calley is convicted by court-martial and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor. But with the American public overwhelmingly opposed to Calley’s imprisonment, President Nixon and his administration quietly cuts his sentence to just ten years. Calley is released after serving less than four.
Disgusted and disillusioned, Hugh Thompson will retreat from public life almost entirely, until decades later, when the story of the massacre will be retold and Hugh will finally be recognized, not as a traitor, but as a hero.
Act Three: Back to My Lai
It’s March 16th, 1998, thirty years to the day after the massacre and Hugh Thompson is back in My Lai.
A large crowd of locals, government dignitaries, and reporters from all over the world have gathered in the tiny hamlet. And all eyes are on Hugh and his old helicopter crewmate, Larry, as they solemnly make their way toward a large concrete sculpture. It depicts a woman holding a lifeless child in one arm and raising her other arm aloft in a gesture of anger and defiance. A podium has been set up in front of the monument. And as cameras flash, Hugh and Larry take their seats. They’re the honored guests at this ceremony to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the My Lai massacre.
But being back here is an overwhelming experience for Hugh. As soon as the ceremony is over, the former U.S. Army helicopter pilot hurries away from the others, finds a quiet space beyond the crowds, and breaks down into tears.
For decades, he’s carried a burden of guilt and anger with him. And it seems only now, thirty years on, that the truth about what happened that day in 1968 is finally being recognized.
A week before he flew to Vietnam, Hugh was in Washington DC. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, he and his former crewmate Larry were presented with the Soldier’s Medal, one of the U.S. Military’s highest honors. The recognition of their bravery in stopping the My Lai massacre was long overdue. In the 1970s, Hugh had been condemned as a traitor but now he’s being praised as a hero, with one U.S. Senator describing him as “an example of American patriotism at its finest”.
The My Lai massacre has been called one of the most shameful chapters of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Over the course of just a few hours, American soldiers brutally murdered as many as 504 unarmed civilians. But if it was a moment when soldiers surrendered to their most barbaric urges, then it was also the moment when a few brave young men, amid all that cruelty and bloodshed, remembered their humanity and stood up for what was right, in the midst of a tragedy that happened on this day, March 16th, 1968.
Next on History Daily.March 17th, 1955. After the beloved Hockey player, Maurice Richard, is suspended for the remainder of the season, riots break out in Montreal that leave dozens injured and over 100 behind bars.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.