Fifty years ago, a Saigon Special Action Team took the Viet Cong terrorism campaign to a new level by bombing the Capital–Kinh Do Theater.
On the evening of Feb. 16, 1964, during the Tet Lunar New Year holiday, about 500 Americans were attending a showing of the film The List of Adrian Messenger at the Capital–Kinh Do Theater on Le Van Duyet Street in central Saigon. The theater, reportedly owned by Republic of Vietnam Vice President Nguyen Ngoc Tho, was reserved exclusively for Americans, who at that time in Saigon numbered nearly 10,000 officials, servicemen and dependents. Instead of a relaxing evening at the movies for those in attendance, however, it would be a night of terror and confusion.
The National Liberation Front (NLF) Central Committee had ramped up its terrorism campaign in December 1962, and since then more than 10 attacks had been carried out, mainly against South Vietnamese targets. But now Americans were being targeted. The theater showing—attended by a large group of Americans, including many high-ranking officers—represented the ideal opportunity for the Communist Party’s Central Office for South Vietnam. “We sought to begin the year with a spectacular achievement that would have an intense political impact,” stated a captured Viet Cong report that detailed the theater reconnaissance.
Communist reconnaissance elements had carefully staked out the theater and learned its routines. They deemed it a “soft” target, relatively easy to infiltrate and attack, with at least a reasonable chance for the VC to escape. Most important, they did not want to repeat the mistakes of an earlier bungled attack, on Sept. 19, 1963, when a low-grade bomb placed in the back of the theater inflicted little damage and no serious injuries.
Two Vietnamese policemen were stationed in front of the theater, and two or three security agents circulated behind, in the alleys. Two U.S. military policemen and one security agent were in front, and two guards inside. At showtime, theatergoers would gather in front and then all go inside at once. As the last person entered the auditorium, the doors were closed. When the show let out, the audience came out in groups of 30, under the supervision of the two MPs.
Approximately 100 meters in front of the theater was the U.S. Dispensary, the U.S. Special Forces Headquarters and the house of an American general. Behind the theater was a network of alleys and houses of Vietnamese civil servants and the city bourgeoisie. “The people in this area are indifferent to politics, and during Tet they gather in groups in the alleys to gamble,” stated the VC report. The Communists had noted traffic patterns along surrounding streets, distances to nearby police stations, habits of moviegoers and even license plate numbers of vehicles regularly parked near the theater.
“Below the theater sign is an accordion gate, with an opening about two meters wide when half closed,” the report further explained. “Inside the gate is an open space of about four meters in width and five meters in length, with two booking offices. Two steel sheets are used to guard the staircases. Between the staircases is a velvet curtain about two meters wide. Inside the theater running along side the wall are two narrow aisles leading to the latrines separated from the auditorium. Behind the screen is a small room for storing movie equipment. The Americans sit both on the ground floor and the balcony.”
Vietnamese-language memoirs and declassified U.S. documents help shed light on the Saigon Special Action Teams that perpetrated attacks such as the Capital–Kinh Do bombing. Operations were typically carried out by three-man cells, with command, logistics and reconnaissance support provided by the team or overarching group. Though doctrinally considered part of the People’s Army of Vietnam sapper branch, the Special Action Teams were functionally quite different from sappers, which were mainline forces. The teams were highly compartmentalized, plain-clothed, lightly armed paramilitary units, operating among the city’s population. Their leaders were often trained sapper branch or intelligence officers, but the majority of their operatives were youths, usually in their late teens, who had proved themselves to be ideologically trustworthy.
The higher headquarters of the Saigon Special Action Teams, the Saigon–Gia Dinh Military Region Special Action Group (code-named “F100”), was roughly battalion size. Group commander Nguyen Duc Hung, also known as Tu Chu, was a veteran of the French war and a trained intelligence officer who returned to North Vietnam in 1954, then infiltrated back into the South. The individual Special Action Teams were platoon-size units; by February 1964 there were five in Saigon: Teams 65, 66, 67, 69 and 159.
Early acts of terrorism, in the 1957 to 1962 period, were mainly local and sporadic, largely consisting of assassinations and kidnappings designed to eliminate or nullify local South Vietnamese leaders who opposed the NLF guerrillas entering villages to collect “taxes” in the form of money or foodstuffs. “Terrorism has the important objective of disrupting the normal process of government and causing the villagers to lose faith in the ability of the central government to protect them,” stated a declassified 1967 U.S. report. “Thus, if the village chief, the symbol of the South Vietnamese Government, does not cooperate with the Viet Cong, he is likely to be shot or kidnapped.”
In November 1963, Hanoi ordered F100 to “deal a heavy blow to the enemy in the capital city.” The teams’ trademark tactics included bicycle bombs leaned against buildings and grenades rolled into open-air markets, as well as larger scale bombings of bars, restaurants, theaters and hotels. In 1964 NLF violence against Americans in Saigon escalated sharply beginning on February 9, when a bomb exploded at a softball game at the Pershing Athletic Field, killing two Americans and wounding 41.
For the Capital–Kinh Do operation, F100 considered a number of plans. One option involved driving a truck carrying a bomb to the front of the theater and faking a vehicle breakdown. While the driver pretended to repair the vehicle, other operatives would breach the theater’s fence and place the bomb in a predetermined location. Another option called for an operative to pose as a repairman and affix a bomb to the theater’s wall. Neither of these plans, however, met with the group’s approval.
At that point the commander of Team 159, Ngo Thanh Van, also known as Ba Den (who four years later would command a Special Action Team in the Tet Offensive assault on the U.S. Embassy), proposed another plan. Team 159’s typical three-man cell, consisting of one officer and two operatives, would place a tall stool in the alley against the rear wall of the theater, position the bomb on the stool and then make its escape. The plan was approved and originally scheduled for the night of February 15, but because of a timing mix-up was delayed until the 16th.
The leader of the cell, Nguyen Van Linh, also known as Tam Ben, was a longtime special action cadre who was a pistol marksman and knew judo. He had worked as a “plant” in the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group before being compromised during an unsuccessful bombing attempt on the American facility and forced into hiding.
Tam Ben’s nephew Muoi Bong, who had been recruited into Team 159 by his uncle, was chosen to deliver the explosives to the theater. Though young and inexperienced, he reportedly had a bold personality and was also good with a pistol.
Bui Van Chieu, a taxi driver living in the city with his family, would serve as the team’s getaway driver. He knew the least about the operation in advance, both to protect his vulnerable overt status and to minimize the chances of compromising the operation. He hid the explosives and weapons in his house before the attack. To disguise the 10 kilograms of explosives, they were inserted into the empty shell of a “strategic hamlet radio,” issued to villages to call for support from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
On the morning of February 16, Muoi Bong rendezvoused with Tam Ben and passed him a message from headquarters: “Destroy the theater at all costs.” Team 159 knew that the key to the operation’s success lay in careful planning, timing and coordination. Higher echelons had authorized the cell to exercise its own initiative in deciding the means of attack in case the situation at the target unexpectedly changed.
In the evening, prior to the show, Tam Ben and Muoi Bong went to observe the scene in the alley behind the theater, where they were to place the bomb. They noticed three or four people they thought could be part of the security detail, as well as a number of gamblers playing dice. Afraid of being trapped in the alley by the security personnel and possibly killing Vietnamese bystanders with the blast, Tam Ben quickly decided on an alternate plan —an attack on the front of the theater during the evening show.
At this point in the narrative, some of the details provided in Vietnamese documents show signs of being distorted for propaganda or other purposes. Nonetheless, combined with witness accounts, contemporary U.S. news stories and military records, a likely scenario emerges.
Chieu, who had only just been informed by headquarters that the Capital–Kinh Do Theater was the bombing target, picked up the other two agents in his taxi. Muoi Bong carried two grenades and the bomb in the radio case on his lap, and Tam Ben carried a Colt pistol and a smoke grenade. Chieu, armed with two explosive grenades, drove to the front of the theater, where the movie was just beginning.
The taxi stopped in front of the theater, and Tam Ben jumped out. He fired two rounds from the Colt, mortally wounding the on-duty U.S. Army military policeman, Pfc Peter Feierabend. Feierabend’s Silver Star citation noted he exchanged fire with Tam Ben before succumbing to his wounds. A Vietnamese security guard then tackled Tam Ben, whose pistol had jammed, and they traded blows, causing the gun to fall and skid across the pavement. Chieu, who had been watching, attempted to run over the guard with the car, but almost ran over Tam Ben in the process. Using a judo move, Tam Ben finally overcame the security guard and recovered the gun. He quickly opened fire on the dazed guard, wounding him.
Meanwhile, Muoi Bong ran through the accordion gate at the front of the theater into the lobby, carrying the explosives-filled radio. He intended to enter the main auditorium through a door covered by a velvet curtain and place the bomb inside, but an American coming down the stairs from the balcony intercepted him and began choking him, forcing him to drop the bomb in the lobby. Muoi Bong broke away, pulled the 15-second detonation cord and called to Tam Ben, “Uncle, get out now!”
Standing in the lobby waiting to enter the auditorium, U.S. Marine Corps Captain Donald Koelper watched these events unfold. Realizing the bomb was about to explode, Captain Koelper ran into the theater and shouted, “Bomb! Hit the deck!” Patrons dove under their seats.
After hearing Muoi Bong’s call to retreat, Tam Ben, who was still on the street in front of the theater, threw a smoke grenade to cover their escape and turned to run. Just then, the bomb exploded.
The blast sent Tam Ben sprawling. Momentarily stunned, he leaned against a light post before staggering to the alley where Muoi Bong was waiting. They walked to the waiting vehicle, with Muoi Bong holding a grenade in each hand in case they encountered resistance. When bystanders asked them what had happened, Tam Ben replied, “We attacked the Americans,” then the three sped away in the taxi. The attack had taken less than three minutes.
Captain Koelper was killed, crushed by falling debris from the collapsed balcony—the first Marine to die by hostile action in the Vietnam War. Specialist 5 William Reid, sitting in the back row, was also killed.
Alice Blackburn, then a high school student at the American Community School in Saigon, recalled her parents were in the theater on the night of the bombing. She was studying that night and not able to attend, but a letter written by her mother provides an eyewitness account: “We heard the shot that killed the MP guard in front of the theater, but most people thought it to be a firecracker, since fireworks were being used so freely all over the city during the Tet season. Suddenly the building rocked with a deafening explosion and everything was plunged into darkness. Things were crashing around us and [my husband] pushed me down between the rows of seats and leaned over me to protect me from whatever was falling. Dust, smoke and the smell of explosives [were] pervading the air.”
For his actions, Koelper was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and promoted to the rank of major. “After all these years my heart still feels tremendous gratitude for Captain Koelper, Peter Feierabend and William Reid, all of whom died that night,” Blackburn said. “I believe it was the captain who shouted the warning that may have saved many of the people inside. We all attended a very emotional memorial service for him later.”
Aside from the three Americans killed in the attack, at least 34 more were wounded. According to Republic of Vietnam records, the blast also killed three Vietnamese and wounded nine. The Viet Cong perpetrators all escaped.
Though fraught with mistakes, this early terrorist attack was deemed a success by F100, and its strengths and weaknesses were studied for future operations. The Special Action Group concluded the attack had met a number of its objectives: It was reported to have killed hundreds of Americans (a propagandistic inflation), fomented fear and doubt among the populace, seriously affected U.S. and ARVN troop morale and caused a marked increase in security. According to a Stars and Stripes article written after the bombing, U.S. chargé d’affaires David G. Nes met with Republic of Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Khanh days after the incident to discuss improving security for the American community in Saigon. The story quoted a U.S. Embassy spokesman as saying, “Military policemen [will] begin riding with shotguns on all American school buses, for one thing.”
Alice Blackburn recalled: “The school thereafter had military police patrols on the roof and grounds during school hours and armed Navy personnel rode the school buses. Those guys were so young. I remember our guard would dismount from the bus and train his gun on traffic until we crossed the road to our house! Very ‘John Wayne.’”
Recreation facilities for American dependents were closed, and security for dependent family activities increased. A year after the attack, in February 1965, all dependents of U.S. government personnel were evacuated from Vietnam.
Special Action Teams continued to carry out bombings in the city, attacking increasingly difficult targets and using more complicated tactics. Attacks occurred at the escort carrier USS Card (1964), the Caravelle Hotel (1964), the Brinks Hotel (1964), the My Canh restaurant (1965) and the original American embassy (1965). The Special Action Teams also participated in the 1968 Tet Offensive, attacking the ARVN Joint General Staff Headquarters, the Saigon radio station and Independence Palace. According to memoirs of former team members, up to 80 percent of their forces were decimated in a single day.
Though the Capital–Kinh Do bombing is not as well known as the Christmas Eve bombing of the Brinks Hotel or the bombing of the original American embassy, the theater bombing was an important early step for the Viet Cong in developing its “strategy of terror” against the Americans and the Republic of Vietnam. As Vietnam War expert Douglas Pike noted in his 1970 book, The Viet-Cong Strategy of Terror, the Communists considered the use of such tactics, which they often simply termed “armed reconnaissance,” to be an essential part of the revolutionary struggle to win the war. That civilians and dependents were sometimes among the victims was to them an unavoidable part of the struggle.
“The terrorist cell must have known, of course, from their surveillance, that the theater was frequented by dependents — not just uniformed military,” Blackburn said. “I suppose that was part of the attraction as a target. It was just senseless.”
Of the Special Action Team cell, Bui Van Chieu and Tam Ben survived the war. In 1966 Chieu was captured by ARVN forces and spent the rest of the war in the infamous Con Dao Island Prison. Perhaps he was fortunate, given the huge number of Saigon Special Action Team members killed during the 1968 Tet Offensive. In 1978 the government forced him to move from the city to a “new economic zone” in Dong Nai province (formerly Bien Hoa). Despite their key role in the war, some of the Viet Cong were later disenfranchised by the Communists. Tam Ben took part in the assault on the ARVN Joint General Staff Headquarters during the Tet Offensive; he died in 1999. The exact fate of Muoi Bong, the bomber, is unknown, but fellow team members said he did not survive the war.
Ba Den, the commander of Team 159, was captured during the Tet Offensive attack on the U.S. Embassy and released after the Paris Peace Accords. Nguyen Duc Hung, F100’s commander, fought in Vietnam’s war against Pol Pot in Cambodia, subsequently helped write an official history of the war, then became head of an industrial rubber company until his retirement in 1988. He died in 2012, after writing his memoirs, which were used in part to write this article.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.