Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing

Khalid Elhassan - August 28, 2023

Ingratitude has been the reward of many who saved the day and changed the world. Take the woman who played a key role in the discovery of DNA’s structure, only to be forgotten by history and die young in obscurity. Or take the doctor who revolutionized medicine with the discovery of the link between uncleanliness and the transmission of diseases. He was loathed by his profession, and died in a mental asylum. Below are twenty five things about those and other instances of ingratitude suffered by historic figures who deserved better.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Ignaz Semmelweis. PBS

A Doctor Who Revolutionized Medicine, and Was Hated for It

Until the mid-nineteenth century, countless women who had recently given birth or miscarried in hospitals died of childbed or puerperal fever, which targets the female reproductive organs. The mortality rates were as high as 30%. Then in 1846, Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis (1818 – 1865) revolutionized medicine when he discovered the cause. Doctors had routinely performed autopsies, then went straight to the maternity ward to deliver babies without washing their hands. Requiring doctors to wash their hands drastically cut down mortality rates from 30% to 2%.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Ignaz Semmelweis washing his hands in chlorinated lime water before operating. NPR

That made Semmelweis the father of modern antisepsis – the use of antimicrobial substances to reduce infections. Rather than praise for his discovery, Semmelweis was met with ingratitude. He was hated by his colleagues, who were offended by his implication that they were killing patients with their dirty hands. The result was an increasingly toxic workplace, and Semmelweis was fired. He eventually had a nervous breakdown in 1865, and his colleagues added salt to the injury of their ingratitude by promptly committing him to a mental asylum. There, he was beaten by guards, and suffered a wound that turned gangrenous and killed him.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
DNA double-helix. Pinterest

This Woman Played a Key Role in the Discovery of DNA’s Structure & Only Received Ingratitude

Nowadays, the double-helix is widely known as the representation of DNA, even by many who don’t grasp just how DNA works. Until 1953, however, DNA’s structure was a mystery. To the extent that most people associate DNA with any names, what comes to mind are usually James Watson and Francis Crick, the duo who first published a paper that modeled the DNA double-helix structure. Forgotten and ignored is a third name: Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958), a British scientist whose data was stolen by Watson and Crick.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Rosalind Franklin. Unicentro

In 1951, Franklin began to study DNA. She soon discovered not only its density, but also that it existed in a helical structure. She eventually made X-rays that showed that DNA was structured as a double helix. Ingratitude was all she got. A photo of her work was shown to Watson and Crick, without her knowledge. In 1953, they announced their discovery of DNA’s double-helix structure in a paper that gave rise to modern molecular biology. They eventually conceded that their discovery would have been impossible without Franklin’s data, but didn’t bother putting her name on their paper. She died of ovarian cancer at age 37, her contribution to one of science’s greatest discoveries largely forgotten.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Miltiades. Wikimedia

Ancient Athens Had a Track Record of Ingratitude Towards Her Heroes

Ancient Athens was notorious for ingratitude towards her heroes. The fate of Miltiades (550 – 489 BC) was an early example of such ingratitude. He was a general best known for his victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, a decade before the events of the movie 300. Marathon was an upset victory against a bigger force, which saved Athens from Persian conquest. Its victor was born into a wealthy family that owned a private kingdom in the Chersonese (today’s Gallipoli Peninsula), which Miltiades inherited in 516 BC.

When Darius I of Persia invaded the Chersonese in 513 BC, Miltiades surrendered and became a Persian vassal. In 499 BC, Asia Minor’s Ionian Greeks revolted against Persian rule. As a Persian vassal, Miltiades marched against the rebels. However, he secretly supported them and funneled them aid from Athens. Athens sent an expeditionary force that joined the rebels and put the Persian governor’s seat in Sardis to the torch. The Persians eventually crushed the revolt in 495 BC, and discovered Miltiades’ betrayal. That set in motion a chain of events that transformed Miltiades into a hero.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Battle of Marathon. Ancient History

From Collaborator to Resistance Hero

Once the Persians discovered Miltiades’s treachery, he was forced to flee to Athens. There, the Athenians elected him as one of their ten generals. It was in that role that he saved Athens. The Persians determined to punish Athens for aiding the Ionians, and sent a punitive expedition which landed on the plain of Marathon north of Athens, in 490 BC. The Athenians marched out with a force of about 10,000 hoplites – armored heavy infantry – with no cavalry or archers.

To oppose the Athenians, the Persians fielded a force of at least 25,000 infantry, plus thousands of archers and 1000 cavalry. The Athenians, who had ten generals and a rotating command system by which each general held command for a day, wavered. For over a week, they simply watched the Persians from heights overlooking Marathon, until Miltiades’ turn to take command. He convinced a closely divided war council to give battle. As seen below, the resultant battle saved Athens from Persian conquest. His reward was a massive dose of ingratitude.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Battle of Marathon. Pinterest

The Ingratitude of Athens

Miltiades descended from the heights, assembled the army with reinforced flanks and a weakened center, and advanced. Once within Persian archery range, Miltiades ordered his men to charge at a full run. They rapidly closed the distance, and smashed into the more lightly armed Persians. The Athenians’ reinforced flanks pushed back their opposition, then wheeled inwards to attack the Persian center. It panicked, broke, and fled in a rout to the beached ships. It was a stunning victory: the Athenians and their allies lost about 200, the Persians 6400.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
‘Helmet of Miltiades’, given by him as an offering to the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. Touch of Modern

Miltiades returned to Athens in glory, but it did not last. He felt Athens’s ingratitude the following year, when he led a strong expedition against some Greek islands that had supported the Persians. He bungled it badly, and suffered a severe leg wound while at it. His defeat seemed so absurd, that the Athenians figured he must have lost on purpose. The people whom he had so recently saved tried him for treason. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to a heavy fine. He was sent to prison, where he died when his leg wound became infected. The Athenians’ ingratitude towards their savior shocked contemporaries.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Stanislav Petrov. K-Pics

The Unknown Stanislav Petrov

Few know of Stanislav Petrov is. It is unfortunate, because everybody alive today, anywhere in the world, owes him a huge debt of gratitude. In a highly stressful moment, he acted on a gut instinct, placed a huge responsibility upon his own shoulders, and saved the world from a full blown nuclear holocaust. In a nutshell, if not for Petrov, most of us would not be alive today. The few still alive would be struggling for survival in some radioactive Mad Max post-apocalyptic landscape. The ingratitude of his bosses was all he got.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Soviet nukes on parade. Russia Beyond

Early in the morning of September 26th, 1983, Soviet early warning systems detected an incoming missile strike. Computer readouts confirmed the warning, and advised that several American missiles had been launched. Soviet protocol called for an immediate response by launching their own missiles. Petrov was the duty officer in charge, and his job was to immediately alert the Soviet leadership to launch missiles. As he described it decades later: “I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it“. You are able to read this today because, as seen below, he chose a different course of action.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Stanislav Petrov in retirement. El Pais

Ingratitude Was This Officer’s Reward for Saving the World from Nuclear Armageddon

Cold War tensions were high in September, 1983. Soviet leaders feared US president Ronald Reagan, and they suspected that a major NATO exercise taking place at the time might be a ruse, intended as cover for a surprise attack. It was a bad time for nuclear attack warnings to go off in the USSR. By nuclear warfare logic, immediate missile launch upon receipt of warning that the enemy had launched their nukes made sense on “use it or lose it” grounds. It took less than half an hour from missile launch detection to impact, so failure to immediately launch upon receipt of warning risked having one’s missiles destroyed in their silos. Stanislav Petrov’s job was to send the alarm up the chain, which almost certainly would have led to a decision to launch Soviet missiles.

Petrov declined to alert his superiors. “The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it … A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike’“. He trusted his instincts – and the advise of radar operators who told him they registered no missiles – and dismissed the alert as a false alarm. Instead, he called the duty officer at Red Army headquarters, and reported a systems malfunction. If he was wrong, mushroom clouds would have erupted all around the USSR within minutes. They did not. Rather than praise, Petrov was met with ingratitude: he received an official reprimand. Not for what he did that night, but for mistakes in the logbook.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Chiune Sugihara. Pinterest

A Japanese Diplomat in the Baltics

In November, 1939, Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara was assigned as vice consul to the consulate in Kovno, Lithuania’s capital. In 1940, the USSR Union occupied Lithuania, along with Estonia and Latvia. The locals were brutally repressed by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Sugihara began to make creative use of his consular authority to help those at risk. He recognized that, with most of Europe engulfed by war, the best escape route for refugees in Lithuania was not westwards, but eastwards through the Soviet Union, and thence to Japan. So he started granting visas to those seeking to flee impending doom. Members of the Polish underground approached Sugihara with bogus visas to Curacao and other Dutch possessions in the Americas. To facilitate their escape, he granted them 10 day transit visas through Japan to their destinations.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Chiune Sugihara’s former consulate in Kovno. Wikimedia

That entitled the visa bearers to cross the Soviet Union, en route to Japan or Japanese-controlled territory. Sugihara started discreetly at first. He issued transit visas, and eventually visas to Japan as a final destination, to those who fed him intelligence. He then expanded that to members of the underground in general. Eventually, he abandoned any pretense, and set aside the fiction that he was granting transit visas to facilitate the travel of those already in possession of final destination visas. Sugihara stamped visas for all and sundry, even those who lacked any travel papers whatsoever. By the time it was over, he had stamped thousands of visas that were most likely the difference between life and death for those who got them.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Chiune Sugihara and one of the visas he issued. Coisas do Japao

The Lifesaver Visas

Most visas issued by Chiune Sugihara went to Jewish refugees who queued outside the Japanese consulate in Kovno, desperate to flee the Nazi menace. The Nazis, who had conquered Poland and divided it with the Soviets in 1939, had already started to rid their part of Poland of its Jewish inhabitants, and taken the first steps towards outright genocide. Within months, most professions were closed to Jews. They were expelled from the parts of Poland annexed to Germany, herded into ghettos in what was left of the country, and tens of thousands were murdered. Life in Poland became literally unlivable for Jews. Against that backdrop, Sugihara’s consulate in neighboring Lithuania became a lifesaver for those fortunate enough to get there. After he had granted about 1800 visas, Tokyo noticed the unusually large number of visas being issued from their consulate in Kovno.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Jewish refugees waiting outside Chiune Sugihara’s consulate in Kovno, circa 1940. Times of Israel

Until then, Kovno had been a backwater diplomatic outpost that saw little consular activity. So the Japanese Foreign Ministry sent Sugihara a cable, reminding him: “You must make sure that they [refugees] have finished their procedure for their entry visas and also they must possess the travel money or the money that they need during their stay in Japan. Otherwise, you should not give them the transit visa“. Japan’s Foreign Ministry insisted that visas be granted only to those who had gone through the appropriate immigration procedures, and had adequate funds. Most people granted visas by Sugihara did not meet those criterion. In response to Tokyo’s cable, he acknowledged that had issued visas to people who had not satisfied all the requirements for transit or destination visas, and justified his actions.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Chiune Sugihara. The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation

Ingratitude from Japan’s Foreign Ministry

Chiune Sugihara explained to his bosses that Japan was the only practical destination country for those headed towards the Americas. Visas from his consulate were needed for departure from the USSR. Then, ignoring the Foreign Ministry’s demands that he stick to the rules, Sugihara continued to issue visas to and through Japan on his own. It finally ended on September 4th, 1940, when Sugihara had to leave because the consulate was about to close. He wrote visas en route from his hotel to Kovno’s train station, and kept at it on the train, throwing visas out the window into the crowd of desperate refugees. As the train pulled away, he threw blank sheets out the window. They contained only his signature and the consulate’s seal, so they could be written over and turned into visas.

Sugihara’s final words to the refugees were: “Please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best“. Many made it to Kobe, Japan, where there was a Jewish community. From there, most of them got asylum visas to other countries. Needless to say, Sugihara’s good deeds were met with ingratitude in Tokyo. His visas saved the lives of roughly 6000 Jews. About 40,000 of their descendants are alive today because of his actions. In 1985, Chiune Sugihara was named by the Israeli government as one of the “Righteous Among Nations”, an honorific for non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination. He is the only Japanese national to be so honored. He died a year later, in a hospital in Kamakura.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale. Atlanta Black Star

Before Florence Nightingale, There Was Mary Seacole

Many have heard of Florence Nightingale, the British nurse who saved many lives in the Crimean War. Relatively few have heard of Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881), a pioneering nurse and Crimean War heroine. As a woman, and a black one at that, Seacole had to overcome the double prejudices of sexism and racism. She established what came to be known as the “British Hotel” for convalescent officers behind the Crimean War’s front lines, and cared for wounded soldiers on the battlefield.

Mary Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica, then a British colony, to a Scottish soldier and a black mother. Her mother used traditional African and Caribbean herbal remedies, and she passed that knowledge on to her daughter. Mother and daughter ran a boarding house for invalid soldiers. It was widely viewed as one of the best hotels in Kingston. The precarious health of many guests meant that Mary grew up with firsthand knowledge of dealing with ailments and physical crises.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Mary Seacole in the convalescent home she established near Balaclava, as depicted in a May 30th, 1857, Punch cartoon. Encyclopedia Britannica

The British Government Was Ungrateful for a Heroine Who Saved Hundreds

An inveterate traveler, Mary Seacole visited much of the Caribbean and Central America, as well as Britain. She complemented her knowledge of traditional medicines with European medical ideas. That came in handy in the Crimean War, which broke out while Seacole was in Britain. She approached the War Office and asked to be sent as a nurse to Crimea, where medical care facilities were scandalously abysmal. Her request was rejected. Undaunted, she funded her own way to Crimea. There, she established the “British Hotel” near Balaclava to provide “A mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers“.

Seacole also trekked to the battlefields, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded. Her courage earned her the affectionate nickname “Mother Seacole”. History records Florence Nightingale as the Crimean War’s foremost nurse. However, throughout the conflict, and especially among soldiers on the ground, Seacole’s fame rivaled that of Nightingale. Ingratitude from the authorities was the reward for her efforts and sacrifices. She returned to Britain after the war, destitute and in poor health. It took a benefit festival held for her in 1857, attended by thousands, including many grateful Crimean War veterans, to put her back on her feet.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Balloons of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion flying Normandy beaches on D-Day. New York Times

D-Day’s Black Balloon Operators

In the run up to WWII, many American military leaders doubted African Americans’ ability to fight. That, despite the fact that black soldiers had fought, and fought well, in just about all of America’s wars until then. In the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and even WWI, fought within the lifetime of America’s uniformed WWII higher ups, black soldiers had proven themselves in combat. However, racism is impervious to facts. Thus, with relatively few exceptions such as the Tuskegee Airmen and the 761st Tank Battalion, most African Americans were relegated to non-combat roles in WWII. The exceptions included the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion – a US Army segregated specialty unit created to protect GIs from low level strafing and dive bombing by enemy planes. On June 6th, 1944, they stormed the beaches of Normandy – the only black combat unit on D-Day – carrying silvery balloons.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
The black barrage balloon operators’ training camp near Paris, Tennessee. National Archives

Their story began in September, 1942, when black soldiers stepped off a train in Paris, Tennessee, en route to nearby Camp Tyson. It was the furthest south many blacks from the north had ever been, and they feared the treatment to expect in the land of Jim Crow. They discovered it was just as bad as they had imagined, and often worse. The premonitions began when their locomotive crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, and all black soldiers were ordered to the “Negro car” – the filthiest and most decrepit one at the end of the train. Upon arrival, their orientation included tips to avoid infuriating the locals into homicidal rage: never look a white person in the eye, and step off the sidewalk if one came towards you.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
320th Barrage Balloon Battalion training. Spectrum News

The Black Soldiers of D-Day

The soldiers of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion were taught how to make flammable hydrogen gas, gauge wind speed, predict weather patterns, and other skills necessary to keep their balloons in the air. They lived and ate in segregated barracks and mess halls. Off base, things were hazardous: they were routinely harassed by white civilian police, white MPs, and white soldiers – including one who shot a 320th trainee in the back, killed him, and escaped punishment. One black soldier recalled years later that he stopped going off base because “every time you go to town, somebody gets beat up“. What galled them the most, however, was seeing German and Italian POWs in restaurants where black American soldiers were not welcome. Despite the racism and daily indignities, the black soldiers were still ready to die for their country, and so that others, thousands of miles away, could live free.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Members of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. Voice of America

The 320th was shipped to Britain, where it underwent further training in amphibious operations in preparation for D-Day. On the morning of June 6th, 1944, the 691-man battalion had its baptism of fire when it landed alongside the infantry on Utah and Omaha beaches. Its members plunged off landing craft into waist-deep water and waded ashore as bullets whizzed by. Attached to the belts of many were car-sized or larger balloons, filled with highly flammable hydrogen. The 320th became the only black combat unit to see action on D-Day. In the face of enemy fire, they flew and maintained their flammable balloons at an altitude of roughly 200 feet, tethered to cables that created a hazardous thicket to discourage the Luftwaffe from strafing the beaches.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Waverly B. Woodson Jr. Wikimedia

Ingratitude Was All These Black Soldiers Got for Their Service on D-Day

A 320th medic, Waverly B. Woodson, Jr., performed prodigies of selfless courage on D-Day. Although seriously injured and burned when his landing craft was hit by an artillery shell, he ignored his wounds to help others. Repeatedly and often recklessly exposing himself to enemy fire for over 30 hours, he saved the lives of dozens of GIs that day. Waverly was nominated for the Medal of Honor, but did not get it. For that matter, no African American soldier received the Medal of Honor during WWII. It would be another half century before an African American received a Medal of Honor for his service during WWII. As to Waverly’s unit, the 320th received a commendation from General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
The black barrage balloon operators on Omaha Beach. National Archives

In late July, 1944, part of the 320th moved to the recently-liberated port of Cherbourg in the Cotentin peninsula. The rest remained in Omaha and Utah beaches. The battalion spent 140 days in France before returning to Britain, and thence to America and Camp Stewart, Georgia. There, they trained for service in the Pacific and the expected invasion of Japan. They made it as far as Hawaii, before the war suddenly ended in a pair of mushroom clouds. Back home, ingratitude for their service was all they got, and their story all but vanished from the record in subsequent years. Few books about D-Day mention the men of the 320th. No movie about that day, including iconic ones such as The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan, show black soldiers. Saving Private Ryan at least showed the barrage balloons, even if it did not depict their operators.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Scipio Africanus. Wikimedia

The Man Who Saved Rome From Hannibal

Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (236 – 183 BC), so named because of his victories in Africa, was one of Rome’s greatest generals and strategists. He conquered Carthage’s Iberian territories in the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC), and defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC to close out the conflict with a decisive victory. Despite his valuable services, ingratitude was his reward. His rise began in 218 BC, when a young Scipio led a cavalry charge that saved his father, one of that year’s consuls, from encirclement by Carthaginians. Two years later, he survived disaster at the Battle of Cannae, when Hannibal nearly wiped out a Roman army 87,000 strong.

Scipio was one of the few Roman officers to keep their wits about them, and cut their way to safety with 10,000 men. They formed the nucleus of a reconstituted Roman army. In 211 BC, Scipio’s father and uncle were defeated and killed fighting Hannibal’s brother in Hispania. In elections for a new proconsul to lead an army to avenge the defeat, Scipio was the only Roman to seek the position, which others saw as a death sentence. Only twenty five at the time, he was underage to be elected a magistrate. So a special law was enacted to give him command.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Scipio Africanus. Ancient Rome

Ingratitude for Saving His Country

Scipio opened the campaign with a surprise attack in 209 BC that captured New Carthage (modern Cartagena), the Carthaginian seat of power in Hispania. At a stroke, he secured ample supplies, as well as a great harbor and base for further operations. He then campaigned across Hispania, where he won more victories. By 206 BC, Scipio had seized all of Hispania from the Carthaginians. He returned to Rome as its most successful general to date, and was elected consul in 205 BC. By then, Hannibal was isolated in southern Italy, cutoff from supplies and reinforcements. Scipio ignored him, boldly took the war directly to Carthage, and invaded North Africa in 204 BC.

The Carthaginians recalled Hannibal from Italy to lead their armies at home, setting the stage for a climactic showdown between Rome’s and Carthage’s greatest generals. It came at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, which Scipio decisively won. He returned to a hero’s welcome by the general public, and ingratitude and hate from his fellow patricians. They persecuted him with trumped up charges of treason, bribery, and corruption in order to sully his reputation. The ingratitude left Scipio disillusioned and bitter. He withdrew from public life and retired to his estates in Campania, where he remained until his death.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Hugh Thompson Jr. in Vietnam, 1968. National Archives

A Good Man at a Massacre

US Army soldiers went on a bloody rampage near the Vietnamese village of Son My on March 16th, 1968. Over several hours, they massacred about 500 unarmed civilians. Most victims were women, quite a few of whom were violated and mutilated before they were murdered, children, even infants. Terrible as the massacre was, it would have been worse if not for the heroic intervention of one man: then-Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., a helicopter pilot who arrived on the scene halfway through the atrocity. All he got for his heroics to stop the atrocity was ingratitude from the US Army.

As he described what he witnessed: “We kept flying back and forth, reconning in front and in the rear, and it didn’t take very long until we started noticing the large number of bodies everywhere. Everywhere we’d look, we’d see bodies. These were infants, two-, three-, four-, five-year-olds, women, very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever“. At first, Thompson and his crew thought the casualties were accidental collateral damage from an American artillery barrage. The truth hit when they saw the soldiers’ commanding officer, Captain Ernest Medina, execute an unarmed, wounded woman. Thompson immediately swung into action.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
An OH-23 Raven, similar to that flown by Hugh Thompson Jr. Wikimedia

Attempts to Stop an Atrocity

Hugh Clowers Thompson, Jr. (1943 – 2006) was part Cherokee, descended from survivors of the Trail of Tears. Raised in Georgia, he was a Boy Scout from a religious family whose children were taught discipline and integrity. In the segregated South, the Thompsons stood out for their opposition to racism, and for standing up for and helping people of color. As a teenager, Thompson, Jr. plowed fields and worked in a funeral home to help his family make ends meet, before he joined the US Navy in 1961. He was honorably discharged in 1964, returned to Georgia, studied to become a licensed funeral home director, and settled in to raise a family.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Women and children at My Lai, seconds before they were murdered. The woman to the right rear is adjusting her clothes after she was violated. Library of Congress

Thompson felt obligated to serve his country when the Vietnam War heated up, and enlisted in the US Army in 1966. He was trained as a helicopter pilot, and sent to Vietnam. On March 16th, 1968, Thompson flew an OH-23 Raven observation helicopter in support of a search-and-destroy operation near Son My when he realized that a massacre was taking place below. He landed and tried to get some soldiers to help wounded civilians, but they offered to finish them off, instead. Their commanding officer, Lieutenant William Calley, brushed Thompson off. So he took off in his helicopter, frantically radioed the chain of command about the ongoing massacre, and tried to save as many people as he could.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Hugh Thompson Jr. Los Angeles Times

This Hero Was Met With Ingratitude for Doing the Right Thing

Hugh Thompson saw American soldiers chasing a group of civilians. He landed his helicopter between them, directed the civilians to safety, and ordered his crewmen to shoot any soldiers who tried to harm the civilians. Thompson flew around My Son for an hour, intervening to save civilians, until his helicopter ran low on fuel. He returned to base and heatedly demanded that his superiors act, until they finally radioed Captain Medina to halt operations. Higher ups tried a cover up, but word of what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre eventually got out. The brass tried to bribe Thompson with a medal for rescuing a child from what they described as “an intense crossfire“. Thompson threw it away in disgust.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Hugh Thompson Jr. Zinn Education Project

Eventually, 14 officers were court-martialed. Many lionized them as unjustly harassed victims, rather than criminals. Thompson testified, but only Lieutenant Calley was convicted. He served three years under house arrest. As to Thompson, instead of accolades, he was met with ingratitude and was condemned. As he put it: “After it broke, I was not a good guy […] I was a traitor. I was a communist. I was a sympathizer … Congress came after me real hard. A very senior congressman made a public statement that if anybody goes to jail in this My Lai stuff, it will be the helicopter pilot“. The heroic actions of Thompson and his crewmen were not recognized until the 1990s, after the release of the award-winning documentary Four Hours in My Lai.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Tariq ibn Ziyad. K-Pics

A Master’s Ingratitude Towards a Slave Who Led an Army on His Behalf

Tariq ibn Ziyad (died circa 720) was a Berber general who led the Muslim conquest of Visigothic Hispania, or the Iberian Peninsula. His reward was a massive dose of ingratitude. Tariq was a slave of the Muslim governor of North Africa, Musa bin Nusayr, who appointed Tariq governor of Tangier in 710. There, he was approached by a Visigoth nobleman from nearby Ceuta, out for revenge because the Visigoth King Roderic had raped his daughter. He allied with Tariq, and in 711 arranged to ship him and a small army of about 7000 men to Spain.

There, Tariq secured a beachhead in today’s Gibraltar – a Spanish derivation of “Jabal Tariq“, or “the Mountain of Tariq” – which is named after him. Tariq reportedly burned his fleet to drive home to his men that there was no possibility of retreat, and it was either victory or death. From Gibraltar as a base of operations, Traiq proceeded to subjugate the territory of today’s Spain and Portugal, which he sought to conquer on behalf of the Umayyad Caliphate.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Tariq ibn Ziyad on a 5 pounds Gibraltar banknote. World Banknotes and Coins

Ingratitude Was the Reward of This Man Who Conquered Spain, and Died a Beggar

Tariq ibn Ziyad eventually fought a Visigoth army about three times bigger than his own, at the Battle of Guadalete in 712. He won a complete victory, in which the Visigoth king and much of the Visigoth nobility perished. Tariq then proceeded to capture the Visigoth capital city of Toledo. He then split his small army into smaller divisions, and conducted a lightning campaign against the demoralized Visigoths. It captured many of their major cities, such as Granada, Cordoba, and Guadalajara. Tariq then governed Hispania until the arrival of his master, Musa, a year later. Ingratitude was all he got. Musa was envious of his slave’s accomplishments, and rather than reward him, placed him in chains and had him tortured.

In 714, the Umayyad Caliph summoned Musa and Tariq to his capital, Damascus, to report on the conquest and address accusations of corruption. At the Caliph’s court, Musa sought to claim the lion’s share of the credit for the conquest. Tariq, however, refuted his master’s claims with evidence that Musa was in North Africa while Tariq was defeating and conquering the Visigoths. Discredited, Musa was convicted of corruption and imprisoned. Tariq avoided prison, but was stripped of all titles and ranks. Despite the immense riches his conquest had gained for the Umayyad Caliphate, Tariq died in dire poverty – reportedly reduced to begging for alms outside mosques.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Martin Luther King in a civil rights march. CNN

The Armed Civil Rights Defenders

The Civil Rights Movement is known for nonviolent civil disobedience. Less known is that it also had guys with guns, ready to use them against violent racists. By the time the movement began in the 1950s, the KKK had long preyed upon African Americans with impunity. Close cooperation between the Klan and law enforcement was pervasive. Southern cops frequently denied civil rights activists police protection, and sometimes cooperated with the KKK to murder them. In 1964, for example, police in Philadelphia, Mississippi, detained three civil workers, then coordinated with the Klan to lynch them. Such violence prompted many activists to arm themselves. Dr. Martin Luther King’s home had so many firearms, that visitors compared it to an arsenal. Police demonstrated that black lives did not matter, so armed self-defense black groups emerged. Most notable among them were the Deacons for Defense and Justice.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Armed Deacons. Gat Daily

“The Freedom Summer” of 1964 saw widespread volunteer efforts to register black voters in the South. One organization, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) set up a Freedom House as a base for volunteers in Jonesboro, Louisiana. In response, the KKK went on a terror spree, attacked volunteers and blacks, burned five black churches, a Baptist center, and a Masonic lodge. Local black WWII and Korean War veterans founded a self-defense group to protect civil rights workers and their families, and the black community in general. It was led by Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) activist and an ordained minister, and Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas. Because of the members’ religiosity – most were practicing Christians who sought to serve their community in a Christian manner – the group was named the Deacons for Defense and Justice.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Robert Hicks, vice president of the Bogalusa Voters League, inspects a vehicle belonging to civil rights workers that had been shot up in front of his house. The attackers fled when Hicks returned fire. Associated Press

The Forgotten Deacons

In Bogalusa, Louisiana, the Deacons challenged the Klan directly. A Klansman was killed, and another was injured in a confrontation. In another, a Klan car caravan drove through a black neighborhood shouting epithets and firing into homes at random. To their shock, this time they received a fusillade of return fire. The caravan burned rubber as it fled. In another instance, white high school students had routinely beat up black classmates, until the black kids fought back. Armed Klansmen showed up at the school, only to encounter armed Deacons. The Klansmen withdrew. The authorities eventually gave in, and abandoned the town’s segregationist practices. Bogalusa even hired its first black sheriff’s deputy, but the Klan murdered him just a few days after his appointment. The tensions forced a federal intervention, and the US government used a Reconstruction-era law to force the local police to protect civil rights workers.

Ingratitude Was All These People Got For Doing the Right Thing
Black demonstrators arrive in Franklinton, Louisiana, after a two-day march. Face 2 Face Africa

Wherever the Deacons established themselves, white racists lost the ability to openly terrorize blacks. The group’s branches afforded civil rights workers a degree of security to register blacks to vote. Even those committed to nonviolence appreciated the protection. As one CORE activist put it: “CORE is nonviolent, but we have no right to tell Negroes … that they do not have the right to defend their homes” By the late 1960s, the environment had changed so much that the Deacons were no longer necessary. Between the long-overdue prosecution of violent Klansmen, the gains secured by the Civil Rights Movement, and the spirit of armed self-defense fostered by the Deacons, white racists’ ability to attack blacks with impunity was sharply curtailed. By 1968, the Deacons were in decline, and by the end of the decade, they had all but exited the scene.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Americans Who Tell the Truth – Hugh Thompson Jr.

Angers, Trent – The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story, Revised Edition (2014)

Arms Control Association – The Man Who Saved the World Dies at 77

Art of Manliness – Lessons in Manliness: Chiune Sugihara

BBC, September 26th, 2013 – Stanislav Petrov: The Man Who May Have Saved the World

BBC History – Mary Seacole

Black Past – Deacons For Defense and Justice

Carter, K. Codell, and Carter, Barbara R. – Childbed Fever: A Scientific Biography of Ignaz Semmelweis (2005)

Cobb, Charles E. – This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (2015)

Daily Beast – D-Day’s Forgotten African American Heroes

Encyclopedia Britannica – My Lai Massacre

Encyclopedia Britannica – Tariq ibn Ziyad

Face 2 Face Africa – The Deacons; the Black Armed Christians Who Protected MLK, Civil Rights Supporters Before Black Panthers

Herodotus – The Histories, VI & VIII

Hervieux, Linda – Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, At Home and At War (2015)

History Collection – These World War II Heroines Should be Household Names

Jewish Virtual Library – Chiune Sugihara (1900 – 1986)

Livy – History of Rome, Books XXVI, XXVIII, XXIX

National Geographic – Mary Seacole

National Library of Medicine – The Discovery of the Double Helix, 1951-1953

Nature, April 25th, 2023 – What Rosalind Franklin Truly Contributed to the Discovery of DNA’s Structure

NPR – The Doctor Who Championed Hand-Washing and Briefly Saved Lives

PBS – In 1850, Ignaz Semmelweis Saved Lives With Three Words: Wash Your Hands

Sertima, Ivan Van – The Golden Age of the Moor (1992)

Times of Israel, January 4th, 2018 – Japan’s Schindler: A Genuine Hero Tangled in a Web of Myth

United States Holocaust Museum – Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara

World History Encyclopedia – Miltiades