Nguyễn Văn Lém
The Vietnam Execution slideshow
Nguyễn Văn Lém (referred to as Captain Bảy Lốp) (1931 or 1932 – 1 February 1968) was a member of the National Liberation Front who was summarily executed in Saigon by General Nguyen Ngoc Loan during the Tet Offensive. The execution was captured on film by photojournalist Eddie Adams. The execution was explained at the time as being the consequence of Lém’s suspected guerrilla activity and war crimes, and otherwise due to a general “wartime mentality”.
On the second day of the Tet Offensive, amid fierce street fighting, Lém was captured and brought to Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, Chief of the Republic of Vietnam National Police. Using his personal .38 revolver, General Loan summarily executed Lém in front of AP photographer Eddie Adams and NBC television cameraman Vo Suu.[
The photograph and footage were broadcast worldwide, galvanizing the anti-war movement; Adams won a 1969 Pulitzer Prize for his photograph.
South Vietnamese sources said that Lém commanded a Vietcong death squad, which on that day had targeted South Vietnamese National Police officers, or in their stead, the police officers’ families. Corroborating this, Lém was captured at the site of a mass grave that included the bodies of at least seven police family members. Photographer Adams confirmed the South Vietnamese account, although he was only present for the execution. Lém’s widow confirmed that her husband was a member of the National Liberation Front and she did not see him after the Tet Offensive began. Shortly after the execution, a South Vietnamese official who had not been present said that Lém was only a political operative.
Military lawyers have not agreed whether Loan’s action violated the Geneva Conventions for treatment of prisoners of war (Lém had not been wearing a proper uniform; nor was he, it is alleged, fighting enemy soldiers at the time), where POW status was granted independently of the laws of war; it was limited to National Liberation Front seized during military operations.
Nguyễn Ngọc Loan
Nguyễn Ngọc Loan (11 December 1930 – 14 July 1998) was South Vietnam‘s chief of National Police. Loan gained international attention when he executed handcuffed prisoner Nguyễn Văn Lém, a suspected Việt Cộng member. The photograph was taken on 1 February 1968 in front of Võ Sửu, a cameraman for NBC, and Eddie Adams, an Associated Press photographer. The photo (captioned “General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon”) and film would become two famous images in contemporary American journalism.
The Story Behind the Famous Saigon Execution Photo
General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon is a photograph taken by Eddie Adams on 1 February 1968. It shows South Vietnamese National Police Chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a Việt Cộng captain of a death squad Nguyễn Văn Lém alias Bay Lop in Saigon during the Tet Offensive.
Around 4:30 A.M., Nguyen Van Lem led a sabotage unit along with Viet Cong tanks to attack the Armor Camp in Go Vap. After communist troops took control of the base, Bay Lop arrested Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Tuan with his family and forced him to show them how to drive tanks. When Lieutenant Colonel Tuan refused to cooperate, Bay Lop killed all members of his family including his 80-year-old mother. There was only one survivor, a seriously injured 10-year-old boy.
Nguyen Van Lem was captured near a mass grave with 34 innocent civilian bodies. Lem admitted that he was proud to carry out his unit leader’s order to kill these people. Having personally witnessed the murder of one of his officers along with that man’s wife and three small children in cold blood, when Lém was captured and brought to him, General Loan summarily executed him using his sidearm, a .38 Special Smith & Wesson Model 38 “Airweight” revolver, in front of AP photographer Eddie Adams and NBC News television cameraman Vo Suu. The photograph and footage were broadcast worldwide, galvanizing the anti-war movement.
The photo won Adams the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography, though he was later said to have regretted its impact. The image became an anti-war icon. Concerning Loan and his famous photograph, Adams wrote in Time:
- The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, “What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?”
Adams later apologized in person to General Nguyễn and his family for the damage it did to his reputation. When Loan died of cancer in Virginia, Adams praised him:
“The guy was a hero. America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him.”
Life after world infamy
A few months after the execution picture was taken, Loan was seriously wounded by machine gun fire that led to the amputation of his leg. Again his picture hit the world press, this time as Australian war correspondent Pat Burgess carried him back to his lines. In addition to his military service, Loan was an advocate for hospital construction.
In 1975, during the fall of Saigon, Loan fled South Vietnam. He moved to the United States, and opened a pizza restaurant in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Burke, Virginia at Rolling Valley Mall called “Les Trois Continents.” In 1991, he was forced into retirement when he was recognized and his identity publicly disclosed. Photographer Eddie Adams recalled that on his last visit to the pizza parlor, he had seen written on a toilet wall,
“We know who you are, fucker”.
Nguyễn was married to Chinh Mai, with whom he raised five children. Nguyễn Ngọc Loan died of cancer on 14 July 1998, aged 67, in Burke, Virginia.
Sympathetic treatment of Loan
The 2010 book, This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, offers a detailed, sympathetic picture of Loan, portraying him as a relatively honest and uncorrupted officer, who cleaned up and stabilized a difficult Saigon security situation. He was also a staunch South Vietnamese nationalist, refusing to give Americans special treatment in his jurisdiction.
For example, he rejected the arrest of a Vietnamese mayor by American military police and insisted that only South Vietnamese authorities could arrest and detain South Vietnamese citizens. He also insisted that U.S. civilians, including journalists, fell under South Vietnamese jurisdiction while in Saigon. Loan’s uncompromising stand caused him to be regarded as a troublemaker by the Johnson administration. Loan was also skeptical of the U.S. CIA-backed Phoenix Program to attack and neutralize the clandestine Vietcong infrastructure.
Loan’s men were also involved in the arrest of two NLF operatives, who had been engaged in peace feelers with U.S. officials, behind the back of the South Vietnamese. His stand against such “backdoor” dealing, and his opposition to releasing one of the communist negotiators, reportedly angered the Americans, and forced them to keep both him and the South Vietnamese better informed of diplomatic dealings involving their country. Loan was also an accomplished pilot, leading an airstrike on Việt Cộng forces at Bo Duc in 1967, shortly before he was promoted to permanent brigadier general rank. The Americans were displeased at his promotion, and Loan submitted his resignation shortly thereafter. According to the 2010 book:
“It was widely believed that Loan was being forced out by the Americans for exposing their dealings with the VC or that he was taking a stand on principle because the U.S. was trying to compel the government to release [communist envoy] Sau Ha.”
The South Vietnamese cabinet subsequently rejected Loan’s resignation. The United States under the Nixon administration was to later negotiate a separate deal with the North that left communist troops in good tactical position within South Vietnam, and forced acquiescence by the South Vietnamese. Later action by the U.S. Congress was to cut off aid to South Vietnam during the final northern conquest in 1975.
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See: The Terror of War
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