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File Under “Fake News from Vietnam”

It was one of the most iconic photos of the Vietnam War.

At the height of the 1968 Tet Offensive, while prisoners were being rounded up in Saigon, General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan casually strolls over to a young man and shoots him in the temple.

The photo, taken with one-in-a-million perfect timing as the bullet entered the man’s head, won Eddie Adams the Pulitzer Prize and has been reproduced countless times as an example of the brutality of war, and especially of the American war effort in Vietnam.

However, what most people at the time, and even now, don’t know about the events leading up to the “Saigon Execution” photo paint a somewhat different picture from what the public got at first glance….

On the morning of the “Saigon Execution” photo, Nguyễn Văn Lém’s death squad had just killed 34 people – seven police officers, two or three Americans, and several police officers’ family members, all bound at the wrists and shot in the head over a pit – and they may have been looking for Loan himself.

Legally, this put Lém in a bad position. He wasn’t wearing a uniform, he wasn’t fighting a battle, and he had evidently committed a major war crime against General Loan’s own subordinates and their kids.

As a war criminal and terrorist, Lém had effectively no protection under the Geneva Conventions and was eligible for summary execution when caught.

RTWT AT Saigon Execution: The Powerful Story Behind Eddie Adams Grisly Photo

Nguyễn Ngọc Loan? He made it out of South Vietnam as the Communists moved in and opened a pizza parlor in the USA. He died in 1991.

{ 15 comments… add one }
  • OneGuy November 5, 2019, 9:18 AM

    My son’s high school (in 2003) had a display in the corridor showing a famous picture from Vietnam but misrepresented it blaming what you saw on the photo on the U.S. military. I complained to the principal explaining the truth about the photo. To their credit the school removed the display. It had been set up as a class project apparently a teacher, an anti-war, anti-U.S. teacher, had projected his biases to the students and convinced them that the military was bad and they needed to expose this terrible incident and blame the U.S.

  • Vanderleun November 5, 2019, 9:24 AM

    It’s a sign that your comment displays on my page just across from the Diane Arbus’
    Only Good Communist photo.

    I really think we need a society in which teachers like that have to sit in the corner of the school corridors wearing a dunce cap before they are fired.

  • captflee November 5, 2019, 9:50 AM

    Gerard,
    Salient info damned well presented there.
    From mere happenstance I long ago screened (at the Sydney Opera House!) some documentary featuring the Vietnam footage taken by Mr. Adams and heard from his own mouth the full story of that over-famous photo, and have in the decades since felt on several occasions honour bound to correct others’ misapprehensions regarding the event. With your megaphone, the dextrosphere now gets clued in,on the double quick!

    On a more somber note I see that Peter Collier is among the fallen…

  • Brock Townsend November 5, 2019, 9:51 AM

    Some additional info:
    Admiral Huan Nguyen’s Historical Day
    https://freenorthcarolina.blogspot.com/2019/10/admiral-huan-nguyens-historical-day.html

  • captflee November 5, 2019, 9:54 AM

    Also, was very glad indeed to hear that the general made it out!

  • H November 5, 2019, 5:22 PM

    That’s the kinda immigration we need more of.

    As for General Loan: It takes a massive pair of really gnarly ones to sally forth into that kind of major shit-storm armed with a 5-shot 38-revolver. We could sure enough use some more of that kind of immigration, too.

  • Snakepit Kansas November 5, 2019, 5:45 PM

    H,
    General Loan was wearing a what looks like a standard era flak vest, so he probably had additional equipment available not seen in the photos. Yeah, he had a .38, but probably had an M-16 close by too. Dudes next to him have a grease gun, AKs and PRC 25, so the .38 was for last ditch effort or putting down sick dogs. Loan wasn’t charging any L-shaped ambushes armed with only a hammerless wheel gun. He did look cool as ice shooting the VC dood. Why do I say? Look at the trigger finger discipline while putting the Smith back in his web gear. Yeah, he certainly had brass balls.

  • Big Ed November 5, 2019, 6:09 PM

    The photo wasn’t exactly “one-in-a-million perfect timing”. It was a single frame from a 16mm movie the photographer was shooting. The film includes the soldiers marching Nguyễn Văn Lém down the street, the shot, and the aftermath of him falling and bleeding out on the street.

  • Nori November 5, 2019, 7:20 PM

    We need more Admiral Huan Nguyen’s.
    Fewer politicos like Admiral McRaven,in our Navy.

    The life stories of General Loan and Admiral Nguyen clutch your soul.
    The truths of VietNam eke out,ever so slowly. Seems to be a pattern with politics and fake news.

  • MMinLamesa November 5, 2019, 10:05 PM

    The author continues(in 2017) to spout the BS about Tet. Fook him.

  • walt reed November 7, 2019, 3:50 AM

    I met General Loan in the late 70’s. Worked for a NY company as a store opener. Manassas, Va was my last opening of 7 around DC. He was unfailingly polite in a genuine way. Several over us were invited to have breakfast with the family. Covered a two week period. BTW, the wealth around DC, in bedroom communities, was stunning to a country boy from North Carolina.

  • Vanderleun November 7, 2019, 8:03 AM

    How amazing to me to have put up this item and a few days later to have a commenter come by and say, in effect, ‘Oh, by the way, I met the man who was the subject of the most famous war photographs of all time, shook his hand and had breakfast with him and his family in Virginia.’

  • JDR November 7, 2019, 7:20 PM

    An extra bit that made the story even more poignant for Loan. Back in the 80s, a friend and I were watching a tv documentary and saw Eddie Adams being interviewed. As I recall, he added one more item to the story: one of the children killed by Lem’s group was Loan’s godchild. As I recall, Loan asked where Lem was found. When he heard, “In the house.”, that’s when he stepped up and shot him.

    BTW, we were both shocked when we heard the true story of what happened, and were both shaking our heads: “Why hadn’t anybody told this story before?”

  • walt reed November 8, 2019, 4:26 AM

    CNN did a hit job on the General about 5 years after my time there. Cameras in the small mall and interviews with customers coming and going. So, how do you feel about eating in a place owned by a murderer? I have mentioned my meeting him very few times because of the obvious. Who is going to believe it? No one. Best regards.

  • BangkokAl November 8, 2019, 4:40 PM

    Big Ed is completely wrong about the photo. The photo was taken by Eddie Adams of AP and has nothing to do with the film shot by NBC. Eddie Adams’ “one in a million” photo is NOT from the film, is not a frame from the film. It is 100% by Adams, who was an AP photographer in Vietnam (one of the best ever, anywhere, in fact). Adams did not shoot 16mm film, ever.
    There is a news film of the killing but that’s the only convoluted, forgettable “fact” Big Ed either misremembers or never knew in the first place.

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