My father’s booming voice filled the living room. “That wasn’t right,” he yelled at the TV. “You can’t do that to people!”
It was the early 1980s, and Dad was watching a news program that showed an infamous incident from the Vietnam War.
The video is chilling. A Viet Cong prisoner stands along a roadside, his hands tied behind his back. A South Vietnamese officer positions himself next to the prisoner, raises his pistol, and fires a point-blank shot into the man’s head. His lifeless body crumples to the ground.
Dad cursed again. “That wasn’t right,” he shouted. His hands were trembling.
This year marks the 45th anniversary of the awarding of a Pulitzer Prize for the photo of South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem. Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams and an NBC cameraman filmed the execution. Adams’ still picture appeared on the front pages of newspapers and evening news telecasts across the nation, outraging the public.
Adams came to regret the damage that the photograph did to Loan. The Viet Cong prisoner who was shot was reportedly part of a “death squad” that targeted the families of South Vietnamese policemen. According to witnesses, the prisoner was captured near a ditch where 34 bound and shot bodies of policemen and their families were found.
Adams later said, “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?’” Adams later apologized to Loan and his family.
Loan eventually escaped Vietnam, and opened a pizza restaurant in northern Virginia. Unfortunately, he couldn’t escape his past. Word got out about who he was, and he had to close the restaurant because of the negative publicity. He died of cancer in 1998, leaving a wife and five children. Adams sent flowers and a note saying, “I’m sorry. There are tears in my eyes.”
As for Dad’s reaction that day, I assumed that, as for so many Americans then, that execution in Saigon was the final straw. Seeing the video was a reminder of the bitterness and anger that the conflict generated.
Many years later, I found out there was more to Dad’s outburst.
We had a quiet moment alone in 2008 on the 55th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, and I asked him if he could tell me of his worst experience during that war. He said it would be too difficult to describe the worst, but there was one incident that continued to haunt him.
Shortly after his company had set up a defensive perimeter around their base in South Korea, two frightened and dirty Chinese prisoners were brought before a company sergeant. This sergeant was a World War II veteran, someone my father and the other young soldiers in his company looked up to. “We were very young, and often scared,” Dad told me. “But he helped us get through some of the toughest times during the war.”
The sergeant needed to understand how the two Chinese soldiers had gotten through the U.S. lines, so he could strengthen the perimeter. If they escaped and revealed the weakness to the enemy, the lives of his men could be at risk.
“Ask them how they got through!” he barked to the interpreter. The prisoners replied that they didn’t “get through,” but were separated from their outfit, and simply hid in covered foxholes when the Americans moved into the area. The American soldiers unknowingly piled the dirt and barbed wire right on top of them, and the prisoners simply climbed out later and surrendered.
“I don’t believe them. Ask them again!” the sergeant shouted as he raised his rifle and pointed it at one prisoner’s head. My father believed the prisoners and he was shaken by the scenario being played out in front of him and his fellow soldiers. Again, the frightened prisoners told the same story.
The sharp sounds of gunshots echoed across the Korean sky, and two lifeless bodies crumpled to the ground.
“It wasn’t right,” my Dad said softly, as he remembered the incident and vacantly stared ahead. I noticed that his hands were slightly trembling.
I first wrote this story down in 2008, and sent a copy to Dad to ensure that my facts were correct. After reading it, he immediately called me and told me that he didn’t want it published. One of the soldiers who witnessed the incident in Korea with him was severely traumatized by it. “He was never the same again, he had a lot of issues from it,” Dad said. He told me that even after they returned home, his friend continued to struggle and the remainder of his life was difficult. Dad worried that his friend would be upset if he saw the story in the newspaper.
Dad passed away earlier this year. Before he died, I asked him if I could ever publish the story. He didn’t mention his friend this time, possibly because the man had passed away. Dad simply said, “When I’m long gone.” That’s when it finally occurred to me that there were actually two soldiers who witnessed that execution in Korea who were never the same again.
©2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer