Saigon Tet offensive – General Nguyen Ngoc Loan
Here at namwartravel.com we focus mainly on the traveling and discovery of old war sites, how to get to them, their historical significance and the condition they are in today. However we do our best to stay true to history and where needed, we will try to describe the events as they took place even if that differ from what is commonly believed. That is the case with this page.
The Vietnam War produced a number of controversial, and often misunderstood, stories. What happened on the 1st of February 1968 during the Tet offensive is one of them. Photojournalist Eddie Adams took one of the most iconic pictures of the Vietnam War. A picture that in many ways became a symbol for the anti-war movement. The picture of when General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shoots a Viet Cong prisoner in the Cholon district of Saigon right in front of the cameras.
There have been many versions told about what happened that day. One of the most outrageous versions claiming that the person executed was an innocent civilian. Other that he, often mistakenly called Bay Lop or Nguyen Van Lem, was part of a murder patrol that had murdered the families of Colonel Loan’s colleagues. Where these stories come from is difficult to say and maybe it is not interesting, but the consequences of this picture spreading across the globe turned out to be devastating for Loan.
Loan was at the time chief of the South Vietnam National Police and was by accounts from amongst others, one of the least corrupt higher officials in South Vietnam. He was a true nationalist and a strong leader. Respected also among Buddhist leaders who had opposed the South Vietnamese government.
As the Tet-offensive started on the 31st of January the events that led to the execution started to unfold. The 6th Binh Tan Battalion attacked Saigon on 31 Jan 68 from the west. They first occupied the Phu Tho Racetrack in western Saigon to prevent the US forces from using it as a helicopter landing zone. From there they sent forces further east towards the center of Saigon to cover more ground as well as connecting with Saigon Party Committee agents.
One of the targets was the Chi Hoa prison where thousands of prisoners was supposed to be liberated, but this failed as the soldiers didn’t know where the prison was located.
The 6th BT was controlled by the VC Sub-Region 2 which also controlled the 5,6,and 8th Districts in Saigon. Nguyen Van Na was a political officer from the 5th District cell of the Saigon-Gia Dinh Party Committee, so he would have had the responsibility for coordinating with the attacking units of SR2 (such as the 6th BT) plus fomenting the popular uprising in his area.
This is the reason that Na and a company from the 6th went to the An Quan pagoda. The Buddhists and their leader Thich Tri Quang at the pagoda were politically powerful and had been behind uprisings and protests in the past.
As recently as October 1967, Tri Quang and his followers had staged sit-down protests in Saigon to demand greater political representation. General Loan had been a key figure in negotiating with Tri Quang, bringing a peaceful resolution to the protest. With that, President Thieu was able to broker a political truce with the An Quang faction in late 1967. So the An Quang Buddhists adhered to a neutralist political position in the war, but were certainly not pro-VC. When Tet-offensive started, VC agents put VC flags outside of the An Quang Pagoda to make it look like the Buddhists supported the Communists. Nguyen Van Na would have been active in that propaganda effort. So when General Loan surrounded the An Quang Pagoda and starting rooting out the VC he was of course not happy. The VC were trying to undo the political truce Thieu had forged with Tri Quang which Loan would not tolerate that.
So Nguyen Van Na was neither Bay Lop or Nguyen Van Lem. He was a political officer in District 5 and he was arrested by the ARVN Marines as he was trying to flee the area around the pagoda. From there, he was brought the short distance out to the Ngo Gia Tu street where General Loan performed a fully legal execution of him. The photo that Eddie Adams took that day would forever change General Loan’s life.