The Very Next Day

(Continued from last week)

Introduction

The Tet Offensive of 1968 was a general uprising and major escalation of the Vietnam War.  It was one of the largest campaigns launched by the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) targeting the Republic of Vietnam Army (ARVN) and the United States military forces.

Communist forces launched the Tet Offensive prematurely in the early morning hours of 31 January.  It was a well-coordinated, country-wide assault involving more than 80,000 communist troops.  They attacked more than 100 towns and cities, 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of six autonomous cities, 72 of 245 district headquarters, and the capital in Saigon.

Communist leaders in the North Vietnam capital of Hanoi decided to launch the offensive in the belief that it would trigger a popular uprising leading to the collapse of the South Vietnamese government.  Although the initial attacks stunned the allies, causing them a temporary loss of control over several cities, American and South Vietnamese forces quickly regrouped beat back the attacks, and inflicted heavy casualties on NVA/VC forces.  A popular uprising never occurred — but there were plenty of pissed-off people in Saigon, and they weren’t all Americans.

Background

Vietnamese culture is one of the oldest in the world.  Some argue, the oldest.  Beyond keeping academics out of local bars, it may not matter.  China and Vietnam have clashed for thousands of years — and in some matters, do so now.  China hosts 26 dialects of the Chinese language; there are more than 100 languages spoken in Vietnam, involving five linguistic families.  It is an interesting history — if one has an interest in anthropology.  Most Americans who went to Vietnam had no interest at all in Vietnamese history however one labels it.

As bad as this sounds, most Americans returned to their homes thinking that if you’ve seen one Vietnamese, you’ve seen them all.  To the American soldier or Marine, they all looked alike.  To the American ear, they all spoke the same incomprehensible gibberish and lordy — their music!

There was also an issue involving trust.  The Vietnamese people wouldn’t look an American full in the face.  They always looked off to the side; it made the Americans think they were up to something.  As God knows, some of them were up to something — and sometimes, it didn’t work out well for either the Americans or the Vietnamese.

Equally, the average Vietnamese wanted nothing at all to do with the disrespectful and lecherous barbarians from across the sea.  Not the white boys, or those others — they were all rude and insensitive to Vietnamese traditions.  The Vietnamese people would just as soon all the foreigners went home … and take their loud music and life-ending weapons with them.  In time, the Americans would return to their homes; the Vietnamese were already home — and most had no interest in being saved.

Enemies

Nguyễn Văn Lém had two names.  One was his real name, according to the social registry of South Vietnam; his other name was Bảy Lốp.  He was a captain in the Viet Cong working covertly inside the capital city of Saigon, Republic of Vietnam.  Sometime during the early morning hours of 31 January 1968, the start of the Tet Offensive of 1968, Captain Lém and his assassination team entered the home of Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Tuan of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and murdered him, his wife, his 80-year old mother, and six of his seven children.  While shot twice, nine-year-old Nguyen Tu Huan survived the attack.

The circumstances of Captain Lém’s capture, and his arrest, is unknown to me.  What is known is that Lém was delivered under guard with his hands bound behind him, to South Vietnamese brigadier general Nguyen Ngoc Loan.

Loan was born in 1930 to a middle-class family in the old Imperial City of Huế — one of eleven children.  He studied to become a pharmacist before joining the Vietnamese National Army in 1951.  He became a friend and confidante of a classmate named Nguyễn Cao Kỳ.[1]  After pilot training, Loan transferred to the Vietnamese National Air Force (VNAF), serving as an attack pilot until 1965.  At that time, then Prime Minister Kỳ appointed Loan to direct the Military Security Service and the Central Intelligence Organization — and, as an additional duty, Commanding General of the Republic of Vietnam National Police.  General Loan was particularly useful to Vice President Kỳ in that capacity.

Nguyen Van Loan

Loan (pictured right) was a staunch patriot and a South Vietnamese nationalist.  He refused to grant American servicemen extraterritorial privileges, denied the U.S. high command the right to arrest Vietnamese civilians, and insisted that American civilians (journalists, contractors, etc.) were subject to South Vietnamese jurisprudence.  It was this uncompromising position that caused U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to opine that Loan should be gotten rid of — which is not how Vice President Ky saw it.  Loan also publicly criticized the CIA’s Phoenix Program.  History now shows that General Loan was right, and the American CIA was wrong.

General Loan’s operatives arrested two Viet Cong operatives in August 1967.  The two men had been engaged in sending peace initiatives to the U.S. government behind the back of the South Vietnam government.  Loan, having discovered and publicized these double-dealings angered American diplomats but in the eyes of the South Vietnamese government, Nguyen Ngoc Loan was a hero.  When Loan was promoted to Brigadier General, American officials complained, publicly — prompting Loan to submit his resignation to the South Vietnamese President.  President Thieu refused to accept Loan’s resignation.[2] 

It was 1 February 1968 and General Loan was not having a good day.  Teams of Viet Cong assassins and sappers roamed the streets of Saigon.  No one inside this sprawling city was safe.  Worse, Loan’s policemen seemed unenthusiastic about doing their duty.  Forty-five days before, Saigon, the capital city, had been placed under the exclusive control of the South Vietnamese Army.  There was much confusion between civil and military authority and competing interests made the entire city a shamble.  The ARVN reaction to the Tet Offensive was at best haphazard and if the truth were known, not even ARVN commanders knew whether they could trust their troops.  It was a very confusing day for everyone, even the Viet Cong.  And, as I indicated a moment ago, General Loan was not in a very good mood.  So, when Captain Lém was delivered to General Loan, General Loan unholstered his .38 revolver and shot Lém in the head.

Photo by Eddie Adams, 1968

This event ended the scurrilous life of Lém the assassin, but it might have been better had General Loan realized that Lém’s execution was being recorded on film by American news photographer Eddie Adams.  Adams was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Spot News in 1969 — and General Loan’s reputation was sullied for the balance of his life.  The American press, you see, had only reported the most sensational part of the story — Lém’s execution.  No one paid any attention to the fact that Lém had murdered an entire family in cold blood.  The American press has never cared about “getting it right.”  Rolling the presses is the only important thing.

The rest of the story

Captain Lém tried to murder Colonel Tuan’s entire family, but he left one member of the family alive.  Wounded twice by gunshot, but still alive.  The 9-year-old boy was Nguyen Tu Huan, who although seriously wounded, stayed by his mother’s side to comfort her as she bled to death.  After dark, Huan escaped the house and was taken in and raised by his uncle, a colonel in the Vietnamese Air Force.

In 1975, Huan was 16 years of age and the Republic of Vietnam collapsed under the weight of its own ineptitude and the incompetence of the United States government.  His aunt and uncle sought refuge in the United States (along with thousands of others) to escape communism.  Transported through Guam, Navy and Marine Corps personnel took care of Nguyen and his adopted family — and it was this devotion of American sailors and Marines that inspired Huan to join the U.S. Navy.

In 1981, Nguyen Tu Huan graduated from Oklahoma State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering; in 1993, he received a commission in the Navy as a Reserve Engineering Duty Officer.  He also holds advanced degrees in electrical engineering from Southern Methodist University, Engineering from Perdue University, and Information Technology from Carnegie Mellon University.

Rear Admiral Huan T. Nguyen, USN

Huan’s naval service has included a wide range of assignments from testing officer and Officer-in-Charge, Navy Ship Repair Facility Detachment 113 at Yokosuka, Japan, Executive Officer, and Chief Engineer for Radio Controlled Improvised Explosive Device Warfare, Composite Squadron One, Director, Military Programs, Naval Sea Systems Command, Enlisted Personnel Engineering Duty Manager.

In 2019, the young boy who watched his mother die because of a murdering assassin in Saigon, in 1968, became the highest-ranking Vietnamese-American officer in the American Armed Forces.  He is now Rear Admiral Huan T. Nguyen, United States Navy — but of course, you didn’t hear about this by the American press corps.  You only heard about how General Loan violated the civil rights of a murdering scumbag.  In reality, General Loan was a hero, and so too is Admiral Nguyen.

Endnotes:

[1] Vice President of South Vietnam, 1967-1971.

[2] Loan was later promoted to major general.  At the fall of South Vietnam, Loan made his way to the United States and settled in the Washington suburb of Burke, Virginia.  When Democratic Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman demanded that Loan be deported from the United States as a war criminal, President Jimmy Carter intervened, and Loan was allowed to remain in the United States.  General Loan passed away from cancer in 1998.


Published by

Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.

4 thoughts on “The Very Next Day”

  1. There ways were not our ways. I think the majority of the Vietnamese just wanted all of us white foreigners to go home so they could continue to fight among themselves.
    The Vietnamese I knew were upper class, Catholic. I know there was a lot of tension between the Catholic, Buddhists, Chinese-Vietnamese (Taoist) and Montagnards (which were several different tribes of Anatomists).
    Second Tet, was indeed a tactical win for the US but portrayed as a loss in the media.
    Whatever… That’s what happens when you fight a “Police Action” instead of a war.

    Like

  2. Good. This answers the question I raised in my last comments. Obviously, heard wrong about who the VC in the picture was – worse than the version I heard. Lem’s wiki entry is full of “allegedly” killed the family. Not likely. Interesting to see how people can bloom in a new garden. That young boy – can you imagine how traumatized. Think of all that human capital that evaporated … always evaporates in war and impoverished traditions.

    Liked by 1 person

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