Hugh (Buck) Thompson, Jr. died of cancer yesterday in a veteran’s hospital in Alexandria, Louisana.
I first met Buck when I visited his home on Rockbridge Road in Stone Mountain, GA, when I was about 10 years old and in the Cub Scouts. His older brother, Tommy, was the assistant leader of the Den and was probably a teenager at the time.
Subsequently Buck and I attended Stone Mountain High School together and played on the same football team. I visited his home a number of times during our high school years, and we became close friends, though he was a behind me in school by a year. When I graduated from Stone Mountain High, I lost track of Buck and the two of us never saw each other again.
Buck was an ordinary kid, lanky and a bit uncoordinated like many of the rest of us, and he was left-handed. He played halfback on the football team and would occasionally throw a left-handed pass while running a sweep around left end. He was reasonably fast but not an especially gifted athelete. In fact, little about him in those years would suggest there was anything particularly extraordinary about him at all.
However, when the opportunity arose, he proved to be an exceptional man indeed, even one some have called (and rightly so in my mind) a hero.
The year was 1968 and Buck was flying a helicoptor in Vietnam. I’ll let the Wikipedia entry tell the story from there …
After coming across the dead bodies of Vietnamese civilians outside My Lai on March 16, 1968, Thompson set down their OH-23 and the three men began setting green gas markers by the prone bodies of the Vietnamese civilians who appeared to still be alive. Returning to the helicopter however, they saw Captain Ernest Medina run forward and begin shooting the wounded who had been marked – and the three men moved their ship back over the village where Thompson confronted Lt. Stephen Brooks who was preparing to blow up a hut full of cowering and wounded Vietnamese; he left Andreotta and Colburn to cover the company with their heavy machine guns and orders to fire on any American who refused the orders to halt the massacre. (Needless to say, none of the officers dared to disobey him, although as a mere warrant officer, Thompson was outranked by the commissioned lieutenants.)
Thompson: Let’s get these people out of this bunker and get ’em out of here.
Brooks: We’ll get ’em out with hand grenades.
Thompson: I can do better than that. Keep your people in place. My guns are on you.
Thompson then ordered two other helicopters (one piloted by Dan Millians) flying nearby to serve as a medevac for the 11 wounded Vietnamese. While flying away from the village, Andreotta spotted movement in an irrigation ditch, and the helicopter was again landed and a child was extracted from the bodies, and brought with the rest of the Vietnamese to the hospital at Quang Ngai.
Thompson subsequently reported the massacre, whilst it was still occuring, to his superiors. The cease-fire order was then given.
In keeping with the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished,” Buck’s heroism was not immediately rewarded nor even recognized. Indeed according to the Wikipedia entry, he was …
Kept in the dangerous OH-23 Raven Helicopter missions, which some considered punishment for his intervention and the subsequent media coverage, Thompson was shot down a total of five times, breaking his backbone on the last attack. He suffered psychological scars from his service in Vietnam through out the rest of his life.
In reporting his death yesterday, the BBC added …
Although the My Lai massacre became one of the best-known atrocities of the war – with journalist Seymour Hersh winning a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on it – little was known about Mr Thompson’s actions for decades.
In the 1980s, Clemson University Professor David Egan saw him interviewed in a documentary and began to campaign on his behalf.
He persuaded people including Vietnam-era Secretary of State Dean Rusk to lobby the government to honour the helicopter crew.
Mr Thompson and his colleagues Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta were finally awarded the Soldier’s Medal, the highest US miltiary award for bravery when not confronting an enemy.
Mr Thompson was close to tears as he accepted the award in 1998 “for all the men who served their country with honour on the battlefields of South-East Asia”.
Heros, it seems, are just ordinary people who behave in extraordinary ways when life presents them the opportunity. I am honored to have known you, Buck. May you rest in peace.