Real Heroes Often Forgotten

Remembering a woman and two men for their physical and moral courage.

Posted Nov 05, 2020

You may well remember the story of Kitty Genovese, the women stabbed to death in the hallway of her apartment house in Queens as more than 30 neighbors did nothing. This 1964 story of a 28-year-old woman being repeatedly raped and robbed in two separate attacks shocked the country and summarized all that was wrong with urban America—the brutality and callousness of city living. The New York Times article, which ran on the front page of the paper two weeks after the murder, quoted a neighbor as saying, “I didn’t want to get involved.”

The original story was inaccurate. In fact, no one actually saw the attack; a few said they thought that what they heard was a drunken brawl or a lovers’ quarrel. And a few said that they did call the police.

While the revised narrative corrects the original news story, an important part of the story remains hidden. In fact, there was a hero. When Sophia Farrar received a call from a neighbor about a person bleeding in the vestibule, Ms. Farrar immediately went to the lobby, held the body of the dying woman, urged another neighbor to call the police, all while the killer was still in the area.

Sophia Farrar is featured in the documentary The Witness, which finally brought her actions to light. Bill Genovese, Kitty’s brother, said, “It would have made such a difference to my family knowing that Kitty died in the arms of a friend.”

The story of the My Lai massacre four years later also shocked the American public. The mass murder of innocent civilians in Vietnam deepened distrust of the military and caused many to oppose the war because of the tactics used. More than 300 elderly people, women and children were slaughtered in a search-and-destroy mission led by Lt. William Calley, who was later charged and sentenced to life in prison. In 1974, he was released upon appeal. A recent article in the New York Times provides a context for the massacre.

But even here a crucial piece of the story is hidden. Lt. Calley is infamous, but Hugh Thompson, a hero in every respect, is largely forgotten. Thompson, a helicopter pilot, was flying over My Lai to support the American troops when he noticed “people on the road dead, wounded ... They were not combatants. They were old women, old men, children, kids, babies.”

Thompson put his helicopter down between the Americans and the Vietnamese. He told his crew chief and gunner, Larry Colburn, to cover him as he got out of the aircraft and went to the American soldiers. He told them that if they opened fire on the civilians in the bunker, he and his crew would open fire on them.

Armed only with a pistol, Thompson watched as 10 civilians climbed out of the bunker and onto the helicopter where they were flown to safety.

Thompson and Colburn were condemned by many when they testified at Lt. Calley’s trial. They were branded as traitors. However, 30 years later, Thompson received the Soldier’s Medal “for heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.” Colburn received a Bronze Star.

Every time the story of Kitty Genovese is told, we need to remember that there was a person who acted compassionately in the face of danger; each time we read about the brutalities of the Vietnam War, we need to remember that there was a person who faced down murderers on his own. Sophia Farrar, Larry Colburn and Hugh Thompson need to be honored for their moral and physical courage. This is a major lesson to be learned from those tragic events.