U.S. Embassy attackers reemerge from the fog.
The 1968 Tet attack on the U.S. Embassy was one Vietnam War news story that the international press didn’t have to commute to aboard C-130s or be ferried in on helicopters to cover; it erupted a mere three blocks from the Caravelle Hotel and most of the major press and media offices in central Saigon.
The U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and General William Westmoreland arrived on the scene just moments after the attack ended to brief the large number of newsmen, many of whom had witnessed much of the fighting. “It’s a relatively small incident,” Westmoreland told us. “A group of sappers blew a hole in the wall and crawled in, and they were all killed. Nineteen bodies have been found on the premises—enemy bodies.” He thoughtfully cautioned reporters, “Don’t be deceived by this incident.”
Moments after the general’s briefing, about 50 journalists who had assembled on the embassy grounds were escorted to the gates, and a virtual iron curtain of official silence descended on perhaps the most dramatic military action of the war. None of the Army MPs or Marine guards who stood off the attack were permitted to be interviewed. Journalists were told that comment on the embassy battle would come only from the State Department and the White House, and that a State Department investigation was underway and would be released in due course. The report is yet to be declassified.
The symbolic significance of the U.S. Embassy, completed just three months earlier with state-of-the art security, could not be overestimated. Its six-story chancery loomed over Saigon like an impregnable fortress, a constant reminder of the American presence. Never mind that Nha Trang, Ban Me Thout or Bien Hoa had also been hit that morning. Most Americans couldn’t pronounce them, let alone understand their importance. But the U.S. Embassy in Saigon? For many it was the first Vietnam battle they understood, and for some it turned them against continuing the war.
Because of the chaos and confusion accompanying the surprise attack, Westmoreland’s spin and the subsequent efforts to downplay the assault’s effectiveness—and the fact that Saigon and much of the country would soon be engulfed by the Communist Tet Offensive—some of the basic facts of the embassy attack were long lost in the fog, even for those of us who were on the scene.
At odds with Westmoreland’s claims, Army photographers Don Hirst and Edgar Price, and Life’s Dick Swanson took dramatic photos of wounded sappers who were in the custody of the 716th Military Police Battalion before being turned over to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam—and never heard of again during the war. In spite of the photos, General Westmoreland’s body count was never corrected to reflect the actual numbers: Of the Viet Cong sappers, 12 were killed, and three were wounded and captured. Two armed Vietnamese employees of the embassy, believed to be VC agents, were found shot to death. Two unarmed employees were also killed, as well as five U.S. soldiers. To this day most accounts of the embassy attack repeat the original report of 19 attackers, all killed, or just one sapper survivor. The old adage that says “when the government is incoherent, the press is twice as incoherent,” was never more true than on January 31, 1968.
As a correspondent for ABC News that day, I was sprawled in the gutter in front of the embassy, and found myself laying next to a wounded Viet Cong, as MPs and VC exchanged fire. He had on black pajamas and a red armband, and was unconscious and bleeding from multiple bullet wounds. Later, as MPs carried him away, I was surprised to see he was wearing what looked like a large ruby ring on his right hand.
It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that the three wounded sappers being led away by the MPs were actually imprisoned during the war and had been interrogated by U.S. Army personnel at the Combined Military Interrogation Center in Saigon. Intrigued, I looked for confirmation and found it at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, where I reviewed the interrogation reports that had been declassified in 2002.And, if the three who were captured and interrogated are any indication of the rest of the sappers, it would seem that they were not highly trained, crack fighters, but rather, they were older soldiers of low rank, some holding down clerical and cooking duties in their units.
I discovered that the man who lay unconscious beside me during the embassy attack was 43-year-old Viet Cong Captain Ngo Van Giang, who was the senior-most survivor of the attack, and among the first through the hole blown in the embassy wall with a satchel charge of C-4. Captain Giang, whose nom de guerre was Ba Den, told his interrogators that he had little formal military training beyond a six-month course at a VC cadre school in Tay Ninh province. Born in North Vietnam, he migrated south and joined a Viet Cong unit in Cu Chi in 1960.
On January 28, 1968, while in Long An province commanding the J-9 Special Action Unit, subordinate to the T-700 Unit, formerly known as the C-10 Sapper Battalion, he was told that in a few days he would be sent to attack a special target with Senior Captain Bay Tuyen in charge, and with Captain Ut Nho and himself as the commander’s assistants. He then helped Nho pack a pair of B-40 rocket launchers, eight AK-47s, and 20 kilos of explosives and ammunition in bamboo mats and wicker baskets, concealed by tomatoes. Nho told Giang that he and four other men would be picked up early the next morning by Nguyen Van Ba, a U.S. Embassy driver who would take them to a Saigon safe house.
The next day, Ba drove Giang to Thong Nhat Boulevard, where Giang got his first look at their target. He walked around the embassy for a while, growing increasingly apprehensive, then took a taxi to the Saigon market in late afternoon. As it was the eve of Tet, Giang drank a few Ba Muoi Bau beers and bought some firecrackers to set off that night, as he had done on this evening since childhood. He was beginning to think that this would be his last celebration of Tet. Overwhelmed with nostalgia, he wandered down Tran Qui Cap street looking for the house where he had lived with his wife and children six years earlier.
The 15 sappers gathered at midnight in a garage at 59 Phan Thanh Gian Street and were armed and briefed on their mission by the team commander, Tuyen. Giang recognized the weapons as the ones he had helped pack in baskets with the tomatoes. Giang was put in charge of a group of four men: Sau, Vinh, Mang and Teo, whose mission was to enter the side gate and hold it. No instructions about what was to be done once inside the embassy were given, nor were they told how long to hold the embassy nor how to escape. Giang told his interrogators that he assumed Tuyen knew this information and would give further directions at the embassy.
At 2:50 a.m., January 31, all 15 men piled into two small trucks. Arriving at the embassy in 10 minutes, they immediately began the assault. Giang said his group found the side gate secured, but got new orders from Nho to lead his men through a hole that had been blown in the eight-foot-high wall. As he entered the embassy grounds, he saw two dead sappers and one dead MP. Within minutes he was wounded and taken by his comrades to shelter at the far side of the compound. The embassy driver Ba was also wounded and moved next to Giang, where he died. In a semi-conscious state, Giang said he saw commander Tuyen and Nho hit by gunfire, but did not know if they survived. Giang saw Sau, who was wounded, taken prisoner, but believed the rest of the team were killed.
Giang spent the remainder of the war with the other two sappers at the infamous French-built prison on Con Dau Island in the Delta.
A second VC sapper, Nguyen Van Sau, alias Chuck, was the third man through the embassy wall. Shot in the face and buttocks, the 31-year-old Buddhist was captured by MPs at first light. During his interrogation, he said he was born on a small farm near Cu Chi and was forced to join the Viet Cong when a recruiting raid entered his village in 1964 and seized 20 young men. His brief military training consisted of basic infantry and three months’ advanced sapper training, where he learned to use mines and explosives and how to penetrate barbed wire defenses. He was made a squad leader and part of the administration section of C-10 Battalion, responsible for a squad of messengers.
Sau’s major complaint about the Viet Cong was that he did not get enough to eat. Sau said he remained with them because most of the other young men from his village were also VC members and all endured the same hardships. The night before the embassy attack, he stayed at the garage owned by a Vietnamese woman in Saigon. Their objective, he was told, was to hold the embassy for 36 hours until they were relieved. They were instructed to take prisoners of those they encountered who were unarmed or who surrendered, but were to kill all who resisted.
Sau said he did not believe the sappers could overrun the embassy and did not expect to survive. He explained that the 15-man attack force wore red armbands and white and yellow checked handkerchiefs around their necks. He said they were unable to enter the embassy building because their B-40 rockets would have gone through the door without knocking it down, and they worried that firing rockets through the door would have created a fire and possibly burned down the embassy. He had no idea why his senior commander, Ngo Van Giang, was reluctant to burn it.
According to Sau, neither Bay Tuyen nor Ut Ngo were killed or wounded immediately. The two dead VC by the hole blown in the wall were lower ranking people. Therefore the group was not leaderless and consequently confused, as some reports have said. Bay Tuyen and Ut Nho were shot and killed later during the firefight.
In notes written by the interrogator, Sau was described as being in poor physical condition and of average intelligence, and his cooperation was described as “below average.” However, with the information divulged by Sau about the garage from where the Viet Cong mounted their attack, the police raided 59 Phan Than Gian street, where the owner, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Phe, and 10 others were arrested after evidence was found linking them to the sappers.
The third captured VC, 44-year-old Sergeant Dang Van Son, alias Tot, told his interrogators that he joined the Viet Minh in North Vietnam in 1947 and was sent down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1965. He was assigned to be the company cook of the C-40 Infantry Company in Tay Ninh. With a companion named Sang, he volunteered for an unknown operation in Saigon because they were tired of the hardship of living in the jungle. He said they began walking to a rendezvous house on January 27. During the attack, Dang was wounded in the head and left leg, captured by ARVN troops, and did not regain consciousness until several days later in a Saigon hospital.
Recently in Ho Chi Minh City, Stan Karber, a friend of mine who was a member of the 5th Special Forces in Vietnam and now runs a small lumber export company, told me of a meeting he had with a former enemy. Ho Duy Hung had been an ARVN helicopter pilot who was trained in the United States, but was in reality a Viet Cong agent. Hung was a friend of Captain Ngo Van Giang. He said Giang was released from prison in 1973 and returned to his village north of Saigon, where he died in the early 1980s in a motorbike accident.
Hung was adamant that the men who attacked the embassy were not “suicide warriors” in the style of Japanese Kamikaze or Islamic jihadist bombers. He insisted the Viet Cong, although taking part in operations that often had little chance of success, always held out hope they would survive to fight another day. In the case of the embassy attackers, he told Karber that they were indeed the vanguard for a secondary force that never materialized.
I visited the scene of this unique military encounter recently in a Ho Chi Minh City ablaze with neon signs for the world’s luxury merchandise. I tried to imagine the men who fought and died here—Marines, MPs and Viet Cong—returning and marveling at what has happened to this city over decades. Would they be able to guess who had won the war in which they gave their lives? What would they think about the close relationship that now exists between the former enemies? And how would they feel about the meaning of the war that pitted them on opposite sides of the embassy wall so long ago?
The imposing U.S. Embassy that withstood the attack four decades ago was demolished in 1998, replaced with a modest one-story U.S. Consulate. On the sidewalk outside is a gray and red marble monument engraved with the names of the Viet Cong soldiers and agents who died there on January 31, 1968. Steps away, in a garden closed to the public in the Consulate, is a small plaque in honor of the Americans who died defending the embassy that day.
Military analysts are fond of observing, “One way to achieve decisive surprise in warfare is to do something truly stupid.” Even top North Vietnamese Army field commanders had little praise for the embassy attackers. Major General Tra Do, in communications with the Saigon tactical command a few days after Tet, asked, “Why did those who planned the assault on the Embassy fail to consider the ease with which helicopters and troops could be landed on the roof?”Yet this “truly stupid” attack changed the course of the war.
With all of the VC sappers now gone, perhaps the chance to get the complete story of their mission is gone as well. But what seems evident from the facts we do know, the assault on the embassy, while perhaps poorly executed by poorly trained sappers, was no suicide mission. As a military operation, it may have well been as General Westmoreland claimed, “a small incident,” but seen through the political and psychological prism of insurgency warfare, it may have indeed been “the biggest incident” of the entire war.
Don North was a reporter for ABC and NBC in Vietnam and was a producer of the television series The Ten Thousand Day War. Dr. Erik Villard at the U.S. Center of Military History contributed to this article and is writing the official Army history of the Tet Offensive.
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.