On February 1, 1968, Saigon, South Vietnam, was in the opening throes of the Tet Offensive. North Vietnamese commanders called it “The General Offensive and Uprising of Tet Mau Than 1968.” Two days prior more than 80,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army troops had attacked more than 100 towns including 36 of 44 provincial South Vietnamese capitals. This offensive was the largest military operation to date in the Vietnam War.
The operation’s goals were ambitious. North Vietnamese strategists saw Tet as an awakening wherein disaffected citizens throughout the south would rise up and join the communist cause. In this regard Tet was an unqualified failure.
The North lost more than 45,000 troops killed and some 61,000 wounded. They also ultimately lost all the territory they had initially gained in the attack. However, the ferocity and scope of the thing shocked Americans who had been told by their government that North Vietnamese forces lacked the resources to mount a major offensive. The ripples caused by Tet eventually grew into a tidal wave of anti-war sentiment. This movement ultimately led the United States to the bargaining table and then out of Vietnam. One particular event catalyzed this process.
Nguyen Van Lem was a 36-year-old Viet Cong Captain code-named Bay Lop. Bay referred to the fact he was the seventh son. He took Lop from his wife Nguyen Thi Lop’s name. In Vietnamese, the first name is the surname.
Lem was part of a VC assassination team that covertly infiltrated into Saigon during the opening rounds of the Tet Offensive. Their mission was to identify and execute critical personalities in the South Vietnamese leadership. Immediately prior to his capture, Lem was alleged to have personally cut the throats of a South Vietnamese Lieutenant Colonel named Nguyen Tran, his wife, their six children, and the ARVN officer’s 80-year-old mother.
Captured by South Vietnamese security troops, Lem was brought before Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. Loan was an experienced officer and former combat pilot with the Vietnamese Air Force. By early 1968 Loan was in command of the Military Security Service, the Central Intelligence Organization, and the Republic of Vietnam National Police, positions that gave him immense personal power.
Lem, the VC Captain, was in civilian clothes with his hands cuffed behind his back standing in the street. He had been captured in the Cho Lon quarter of Saigon near the An Quang Pagoda. Enraged by the bloodthirsty nature of Lem’s attack on a fellow officer and his family, Loan drew his Smith and Wesson snub-nosed Bodyguard .38 revolver and shot Lem once in the head.
Lem fell to the ground with blood spurting vigorously from his wound. An Associated Press photographer named Eddie Adams snapped a series of still images, and NBC News cameraman Vo Suru shot TV footage of the event. Immediately after the execution Loan told the American Adams, “They killed many of our people and many of yours. I think Buddha will forgive me.”
Nguyen Ngoc Loan was a committed South Vietnamese nationalist and career professional soldier. Born in 1930 to a middle-class family in the Vietnamese city of Hue, Loan was one of eleven children. He studied pharmacy at Hue University before joining the Vietnamese National Army in 1951. He soon assessed into Officer Candidate School and received pilot training in Morocco. Loan returned to Vietnam in 1955 and spent the next decade as a combat pilot.
Loan’s political connections were substantial. He rode the combination of his powerful friends and his natural skills to positions of ever-greater leadership and responsibility. Loan refused to give Americans preferential treatment in his jurisdiction, and his fiercely pro-Vietnamese professional stance earned him some enemies within the American command structure. Loan actually resigned at one point under American pressure only to have the South Vietnamese legislature refuse to recognize his resignation.
Loan was known informally as the Sheriff of Saigon. In the midst of such a sweeping attack, he had responsibility for order and security in the South Vietnamese capital. What is lost in the iconic photograph are the circumstances surrounding the killing.
Two days into the Tet offensive nobody in Vietnam knew where events might lead. With Viet Cong assassination squads roaming the South, chaos reigned. Under such conditions the traditional lines became blurred. By all accounts, Lem had infiltrated covertly in civilian clothes and then brutally murdered nine people, six of whom were children.
Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949 concerns irregular forces fighting in an unconventional war. To be entitled to prisoner of war status guerillas must be commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates, have a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance, carry weapons openly, and conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. If they fail to meet these stipulations they may be considered francs-tireurs (illegal combatants) and punished as criminals in military jurisdiction. Such punishment may legally include summary execution.
The Smith and Wesson Bodyguard .38 was an evolutionary development of their post-war five-shot Model 36 snub-nosed gun. The Model 36 pioneered the small J-frame wheelguns that became the industry pacesetters for concealable revolvers. Originally chambered for the ubiquitous .38 Special cartridge, the Model 36 was offered with both 2 and 3-inch barrels.
The Model 36 evolved into the Airweight Model 37 with an aluminum frame and cylinder. Problems with the aluminum cylinders eventually lead to the same gun equipped with an aluminum frame and more conventional steel cylinder.
Later versions included the S&W Centennial, a hammerless version of this same steel-framed pistol, and the Bodyguard.
The S&W Bodyguard was a standard short-barreled Model 36 with an external hammer and hammer shroud. This shroud allowed quick snag-free presentation yet still facilitated access to the hammer for single action operation if desired.
Versions of the Bodyguard were ultimately offered with either steel or aluminum frames in either .38 SPL or .357 Magnum chamberings, each carrying its own unique factory designation. In 2014 Smith and Wesson reintroduced an upgraded version of the Bodyguard that departed significantly from the previous guns. The new Bodyguard sports an aluminum frame, redesigned lockwork, a concealed hammer, and an integral laser sight. Unlike earlier Bodyguard pistols this new version does not allow the hammer to be manually cocked.
Clyde Tolson, the Special Assistant to J. Edgar Hoover, carried a personalized Bodyguard Airweight. Bernie Goetz used a Bodyguard revolver to shoot four young criminals on a New York subway train in 1984. The subsequent acrimonious legal fallout from this “Subway Vigilante” helped galvanize the concealed carry movement in America.
The Rest of the Story
That single still image of Loan shooting a restrained Lem circled the globe. Without context, Americans found themselves unable to support a regime that engaged in such barbaric actions. The anti-war movement gained momentum and eventually led to the end of direct American military involvement in 1973. Lem’s wife Lop learned of her husband’s death when she saw the image on the front page of an American newspaper.
Nguyen Ngoc Loan fled Saigon for the United States in 1975 and settled in Dale City, Virginia. There he opened a pizza restaurant called Le Trois Continents at the Rolling Valley Mall. At the same time, he worked as a secretary in a Washington DC business office.
Democratic US Representative Elizabeth Holtzman discovered Loan’s whereabouts and forwarded his name to the INS as part of a list of foreign nationals suspected of war crimes. In an effort at revoking his permanent resident status, the INS called the photographer Eddie Adams to testify against him. Adams, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph, instead testified in the General’s defense. As a result, the INS ruled in Loan’s favor. President Jimmy Carter then personally intervened and halted his deportation stating, “Such historical revisionism is folly.”
Adams later apologized in person to both the General and his family for the damage his photograph had done to Loan’s reputation. Nguyen Ngoc Loan died in 1998 at age 67 in Burke, Virginia, of cancer.
Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Eddie Adams penned Loan’s eulogy in the pages of Time magazine: “Two people died in that photograph…the general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still, photographs are the most powerful weapons 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?’ General Loan was what you would call a real warrior…this picture really messed up his life. He never blamed me…I’m sorry. There are tears in my eyes.”