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Saturday, March 7, 1998 Published at 10:01 GMT


Heroes of My Lai honoured
image: [ Hugh Thompson Jr and Lawrence Colburn at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington ]
Hugh Thompson Jr and Lawrence Colburn at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington

Two soldiers who stopped their comrades from slaughtering innocent civilians during the Vietnam War 30 years ago have been awarded the Soldier's Medal.

The family of a third, who was later killed in the conflict, will also receive the honour, the highest the US Army can award for bravery not involving direct conflict with the enemy.

[ image: Around 500 civilians were slaughtered]
Around 500 civilians were slaughtered
Helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, door gunner Lawrence Colburn and crew chief Glenn Andreotta landed their helicopter between American troops rampaging through My Lai village and the local people.

Up to 500 innocent people, including many women, children and the elderly, were killed by the Americans, who were angry at the deaths of their comrades.

Almost 30 years to the day after the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968, Mr Thompson and Mr Colburn, both now civilians, received their medals in the shadow of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, Washington DC.

Presenting the medals, Army Major General Michael Ackerman described the My Lai carnage as "one of the most shameful chapters in the army's history".

"Protect the weak"

Speaking in front of other Vietnam veterans, Mr Colburn, of Woodstock, Georgia, quoted General Douglas MacArthur, commander of US forces in the Pacific during the Second World War.

[ image: The pair finally recieve their honours]
The pair finally recieve their honours
He said: "The soldier, be he friend or foe, is charged with the protection of the weak and the unarmed."

Mr Thompson, 54, of Lafayette, Louisiana, was close to tears as he accepted the award "for all the men who served their country with honour on the battlefields of Southeast Asia".

Mr Thompson has said that as he approached the apparently peaceful My Lai hamlet from the air in his scout helicopter he did not realise what was going on until he saw a US Army captain nudge a wounded Vietnamese girl with his boot, then kill her.

Child airlifted to hospital

According to the Army, the three men landed the helicopter "in the line of fire between American ground troops and fleeing Vietnamese civilians to prevent their murder".

Mr Colburn and Mr Andreotta provided cover for their pilot as he went to confront the American forces and subsequently coax civilians out of a bunker to enable their evacuation.

As the helicopter was lifting off, they spotted movement in a ditch filled with bodies south of My Lai. They landed again and retrieved a wounded child whom they flew to hospital.

An Army statement said pilot Thompson was being honoured "for heroism above and beyond the call of duty while saving the lives of at least 10 Vietnamese civilians during the unlawful massacre of non-combatants by American forces at My Lai".

The My Lai massacre led to the court martial of platoon leader Lieutenant William Calley. He was sentenced to life in jail but released three years later after intervention by President Richard Nixon.

The medals replace the Distinguished Flying Cross earlier awarded to Pilot Thompson and Bronze Star medals awarded to his crew.

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