Hugh Thompson Jr., a former Army helicopter pilot honored for rescuing Vietnamese civilians from his fellow GIs during the My Lai massacre, died Friday. He was 62.
Thompson, whose role in the 1968 massacre did not become widely known until decades later, died at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Alexandria, La., said hospital spokesman Jay DeWorth.
Trent Angers, Thompson's biographer and family friend, said Thompson died of cancer.
"These people were looking at me for help, and there was no way I could turn my back on them," Thompson recalled in a 1998 Associated Press interview.
Early on the morning of March 16, 1968, Thompson, door-gunner Lawrence Colburn and crew chief Glenn Andreotta came upon U.S. ground troops killing Vietnamese civilians in and around the village of My Lai.
They landed the helicopter in the line of fire between American troops and fleeing Vietnamese civilians and pointed their guns at U.S. soldiers.
Colburn and Andreotta provided cover for Thompson as he confronted the leader of the U.S. forces. Thompson later coaxed civilians out of a bunker so they could be evacuated, then landed his helicopter again to pick up a wounded child. Their efforts led to the cease-fire order at My Lai.
In 1998, the Army honored the three men with the prestigious Soldier's Medal, the highest award for bravery not involving conflict with an enemy. It was a posthumous award for Andreotta, who had been killed in battle three weeks after My Lai.
"It was the ability to do the right thing even at the risk of their personal safety that guided these soldiers to do what they did," Army Maj. Gen. Michael Ackerman said at the ceremony. The three "set the standard for all soldiers to follow."
Lt. William L. Calley, a platoon leader, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killings, but President Nixon reduced his sentence.
Seymour Hersh, now on the staff of the New Yorker, won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for his expose of the massacre in 1969 while working as a freelance journalist. The slaughter at My Lai became one of the pivotal events in the growing opposition of Americans to the war.
Hersh called Thompson "one of the good guys."
"You can't imagine what courage it took to do what he did," the journalist said.
Although Thompson's story was a significant part of Hersh's reports and Thompson testified before Congress, his role wasn't widely known until the late 1980s, when David Egan, a professor emeritus at Clemson University, saw an interview in a documentary and launched a letter-writing campaign that led to the awarding of the medals in 1998.
For years Thompson suffered snubs and worse from those who considered him unpatriotic. He recalled a congressman angrily saying Thompson was the only serviceman who should be punished because of My Lai.
As the years passed, Thompson became an example for future generations of soldiers, said Col. Tom Kolditz, head of the U.S. Military Academy's behavioral sciences and leadership department.
"There are so many people today walking around alive because of him, not only in Vietnam, but people who kept their units under control under other circumstances because they had heard his story," Kolditz said. "We may never know just how many lives he saved."
Thompson, who was born in Atlanta and raised in Stone Mountain, Ga., joined the U.S. Navy in 1961 and the U.S. Army in 1966. He was shot down several times during his tours in Vietnam and suffered severe back injuries. He was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After leaving the service, he flew helicopters for an oil company in Louisiana. He later worked as a counselor for veterans in Lafayette, La.
He is survived by his wife, Mona, and three sons.