When a truck bomb explodes at the Victoria Hotel officers quarters in Saigon, the bravery of three military policemen saves hundreds of lives.
Saigon in the spring of 1966 was fast losing its reputation as the “Pearl of the Orient.” Thousands of motor scooters and Peugeot taxis clogged the streets, and the ancient tamarind trees lining Rue Catinat were dying from exhaust fumes. The rapid buildup of American troops that began in 1965 would reach 385,000 by the end of 1966. In April Saigon was already bursting with an influx of Americans, military and civilian, who would operate the service and support facilities in this nerve center of the war. They would fill up every spare office and take over entire hotels for sleeping quarters. Twenty hotels were designated for officer billets and 25 for enlisted men. Their location in poorly constructed buildings with thin walls made them tempting targets for the Viet Cong, who had been perfecting terrorist bombings of civilian areas since the days of their conflict with the French colonialists.
One prime target was the officers quarters at the Victoria Hotel in downtown Saigon’s Cholon section, where many of the city’s Chinese residents lived. The 10-story hotel on Tran Hung Dao Street housed 200 American officers in April 1966. It was about a half a mile from the Metropole Hotel, which the Viet Cong had blown up in December 1965, leaving eight dead and 137 injured. A few blocks away was the U.S. Embassy, rocked by a car bomb that killed two Americans in March 1965.
Weeks earlier U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge had ordered that protective barriers around the embassy be removed because he believed they might lead the Vietnamese to think that the Americans were afraid of terrorists. A similar attitude was adopted by Navy Captain Archie Kunze, who commanded Headquarters Support Activity Saigon, which was responsible for all bachelor officer and enlisted quarters in Saigon. Kunze also was in charge of overall security in the city.
Barriers had been placed in front of the Victoria for security against car bombs, but the 55-gallon oil drums filled with concrete would become essentially useless. “When pedestrians complained the drums forced them to walk in the street, [the drums] were moved back several feet,” recalled Captain Michael Harvey, the 716th Military Police Battalion’s security officer for Saigon and Cholon. Vehicles could drive right up to the hotel.
A few minutes after 4 a.m. on Friday, April 1, 1966, a commando team of 12 Viet Cong from Bien Hoa, armed with AK-47 assault rifles, Chinese K-5 pistols and plastic explosives, climbed into two gray trucks in a small compound in Cholon and headed east on Tran Hung Dao Street. One truck stopped in front of the Victoria billet, and the explosives inside were detonated.
The blast shattered the first three floors of the Victoria, splintering furniture and splitting open the rooftop water tank, according to a Chicago Tribune article that day. “Water from the tank coursed down thru the building and prevented any major fire hazard,” the paper reported. “Survivors from upper floors told of saving themselves by taking refuge in bathrooms and under their bunks as they had been briefed to do so in the event of attack.”
Captain Paul B. Morgan, commander of B Company in the 200-man 716th Military Police Battalion, was one of the first to respond. Thanks to heroic actions of MPs, none of the Victoria’s 200 residents was killed, but three of Morgan’s comrades died that morning: Lieutenant Chester Lee, of El Dorado, Arkansas; Pfc. Patrick Brems of Mahwah, New Jersey; and Spc. 4 Michael Mulvaney of Manila, Philippines. The estimated final count of injured was nearly 100, including 10 Americans in serious condition, according to the Tribune’s report.
Some 20 years after the attack, Morgan, who usually patrolled with his beloved dog, Suzie, wrote the following vivid account of the attack in his 1999 book, K-9 Soldiers: Vietnam and After.
I was asleep in a small Navy officers’ billet three blocks from the Victoria Hotel, dead tired after a 12-hour shift on military police duty in Saigon. I had come off duty at midnight after briefing the next duty officer, Lieutenant Chester Lee.
I arrived exhausted and hit the sack in my dirty, stinking, soaking-wet fatigue uniform after quietly placing my boots under my cot. My roommate was a Navy patrol boat commander with a bad temper. He slept with a .45-caliber pistol under his pillow. I didn’t want to wake him. He had warned me more than once: “Don’t make any noise when you come into the room. I don’t trust anybody over here. If I ask you who you are, you had better tell me quick or I’ll draw down on you.”
I didn’t take a shower and didn’t want to make any noise at all with a roommate like that. I planned to shave and shower in the morning, after four hours of sleep. Since I had to be back on duty in five hours, I didn’t turn in my M14 rifle, ammunition, or .45-caliber automatic to the company arms room. I placed them under my cot and fell into a deep sleep with my pistol belt, holster, canteens, grenades and ammo pouches at my side.
Saigon was a scary place to work. Military police duty was a lot tougher than I thought it would be after coming in from the field and six months’ combat duty with the 30th Ranger Battalion, Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Out there I had my patrol dog, Suzie. She went with me everywhere, my constant companion. In the field, Suzie slept with me every night, tied to my wrist by 12 feet of parachute cord. I could rest in the field. With a lunatic for a roommate and terrorists on the streets of Saigon, I had to sleep with one eye open.
The squad of Viet Cong commandos in Cholon, who didn’t know the Saigon streets well, were joined by four so-called Saigon cowboys, local terrorists on Honda motorbikes, who guided them up Tran Hung Dao Street toward three possible targets: the Victoria Hotel, the military police station and the headquarters compound for U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, which oversaw U.S. combat forces in the country. At the Victoria, some 200 junior staff officers and advisers lay sleeping in a hundred small, cramped rooms.
I had been in Vietnam for 10 months and was due to go home on June 1. I was worried about my survival. We had received an intelligence summary stating that a major target for terrorists with a car bomb was the Victoria, a pie-shaped hotel with nine stories. Few officers really believed all the warnings, but I was certain the Victoria was going to get blasted.
At 4:15 a.m., the two terrorist trucks split up, merging into farmers market traffic on Tran Hung Dao. The first truck was a getaway vehicle. The second carried a quarter-ton bomb intended for the Victoria Hotel. Besides being guides, the Saigon cowboys acted as security teams, sealing off the target and preventing police reinforcements from entering the area.
At 4:25 the terrorists in the lead vehicle opened fire on the MP station and on guards at the MACV headquarters across from the Victoria. Nearby in a jeep was the officer who had just taken over for me, Lieutenant Lee, who immediately ordered his driver, Specialist Michael T. Mulvaney, to step on the gas and head for MP headquarters to report.
Patrick J. Brems, a private first class on duty at the Victoria, returned the enemy fire. Armed with only a shotgun, he was overwhelmed by AK-47 fire and hand grenades. Brems quickly warned others in the hotel of the terrorist attack. The bomb vehicle was driven into the hotel lobby, while the Viet Cong on board opened fire on Brems and his Vietnamese police partner, Pham Van Ngoc, who was killed instantly.
Disregarding his personal safety, Brems pushed the truck away from the hotel lobby out into the street. It exploded into thousands of pieces of shrapnel, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of Tran Hung Dao. The facade of the Victoria crumbled into a pile of dust on the street below. Most of the hotel’s occupants, dazed and bleeding, began to evacuate the burning building, fearing it could collapse in minutes.
Some officers in their underwear, some naked, fired their weapons onto Tran Hung Dao, scattering the terrorists in front of the hotel. Two Saigon cowboys, hiding behind the Moulin Rouge nightclub next to the Victoria, hit Lee and Mulvaney with AK-47 fire as the two MPs responded to the attack.
Three blocks away, asleep in the Navy billet, I was thrown out of my bed by the enormous blast. My roommate landed on the floor next to me. He scrambled for his automatic, cursing and screaming, “Let’s get the hell out of here before this whole place goes up in smoke.”
My boots were on in a flash. I picked up my M14 and jammed my automatic into its holster. Helmet and flak jacket in hand, I bounded down the steps four floors to the street, tripping over my bootlaces twice, crashing onto the sidewalk in front of the billet. I felt naked without my patrol dog. If she were with me, I could stop to tie my bootlaces while she watched for terrorists. Sweat poured down into my eyes. My roommate joined me on the street dressed in khaki shorts and sneakers, stripped to the waist. He was unarmed.
“Where’s your weapon, man?” I asked him.
“God damn it, I lost the son of a bitch on the stairs,” he cursed.
“Go back and get it and get your flak jacket too,” I shouted.
Twenty Army and Navy officers armed with submachine guns, automatic pistols and rifles were on the street searching for terrorists. Machine gun fire, bursts from other automatic weapons and pistol shots could be heard in the next block.
The streets were black. Power had gone out with the blast from the truck bomb. Since nobody was shooting at me, I tied my bootlaces, squatting next to a crumbling concrete wall, and waited for something to happen. I was in a complete daze. Exhausted from long hours on duty, lack of sleep and 10 months in the combat zone, my thinking was slow and uncoordinated. My executive officer, 1st Lt. Robert Zins, a cop from Youngstown, Ohio, came out of the shadows. “Ready to go, sir,” he shouted.
We jumped into a jeep and with lights out rolled cautiously toward Tran Hung Dao. I kept looking in the back seat for Suzie. I vowed never to be without a patrol dog again.
We didn’t talk. With our eyes accustomed to the darkness, we scanned left and right looking for movement on the streets. There was none. Not a soul could be seen, but we knew we were being watched. We were sitting ducks, rolling down the street on the way to the crime scene knowing full well that terrorists would be escaping from the area, most probably running directly at us.
One block from the Victoria we stopped, dismounted and went forward on foot. I crept toward a series of fires, smoke billowing up from a thousand holes in the street. The devastation resembled the London blitz in World War II. An entire city block had been reduced to a pile of smoking rubble.
Suddenly, a Honda motorbike came at us from the alley behind the Moulin Rouge before we could scatter for cover. It crashed into our jeep in the middle of the road. Two terrorists in black shirts carrying K-5 pistols were pinned under the vehicle. They aimed their weapons at us. I fired off a full magazine of M14 tracer ammo, 20 rounds, cutting both men in half in less than five seconds. I wasn’t going to check to see if they were dead.
Zins and Captain Bill Hollenbeck, my former boss from the 30th Rangers, were standing next to an MP jeep. The driver, Mulvaney, was dead. Lieutenant Lee, the duty officer I had briefed at midnight, lay dying next to him, hit three times in the chest by an AK-47. He wasn’t wearing his flak jacket. The .45-caliber automatic in his right hand was empty. Lee and Mulvaney had been ambushed by the two terrorists I had just killed. The two dead Saigon cowboys had discarded their AK-47s on Tran Hung Dao as they escaped the area.
I had been trained in mass casualty first aid before Vietnam but never really knew what it was all about. I had always thought mass casualties would occur after a plane crash or a train wreck. I was not prepared for a bombing in a city. This April Fools’ Day, 1966, I had 165 casualties to handle as the senior officer on this crime scene. There were no ambulances, no medics; just the moans and groans of wounded and dying soldiers and civilians. In the deep darkness before dawn, Vietnamese dead and wounded lay everywhere I turned. Walking wounded, half naked survivors from the Victoria, stumbled about in the street heading for cover at MACV headquarters or the MP station.
I ordered every MP who reported to me to secure the crime scene. “Don’t let anybody in or out. Kill any civilian with a weapon or anybody who runs from this area.” Next we had to look for a second bomb. The terrorists always planted a second bomb to kill the rescue workers arriving on the scene. We had to wait until daylight, about 6:30 a.m., to conduct a proper search.
Meanwhile, Hollenbeck stripped to the waist and covered Mulvaney’s face with his shirt. The MP had been hit in the face and died instantly. Lee’s jeep, hit by AK-47 fire, wouldn’t start. We tenderly carried the lieutenant to our jeep to transport him to the U.S. Navy hospital half a mile away. His eyes were open as he gasped for breath. I held him in my arms as best I could.
“Chet, why weren’t you wearing your flak jacket?” I shouted, angry that he had been ambushed. Then I told him, “You’ll make it!” But I knew he would die soon. I asked him a thousand questions about the bombing. There was no answer, just a gasp of air. His eyes closed. I carried Lee into the emergency room. The Navy staff was waiting and well prepared after their mass casualties experience on December 4 after the Metropole bombing.
Chief Medical Corpsman Ed Wilson took Lee from me, placed him on the floor next to a door and covered him with a sheet. I saw an Army sergeant with a 4-inch slash on his right forearm being sewn up by other corpsmen. I told Wilson: “Lee has been hit pretty bad, a lot worse than that guy. Can’t you do something?” I insisted Lee be treated for his chest wounds. “He’s dead, sir. Go back to your unit,” the chief ordered, pushing me toward the door. I just couldn’t believe it. I had been talking to him all the way to the hospital. He had died in my arms.
As daylight broke I could see the contents of almost every room in the Victoria Hotel because the front of the building had been blasted away. Littering the street was furniture, blood-stained bedding, wall lockers, bathroom fixtures and small refrigerators.
When briefing my company about the April Fools’ Day terrorist act, I lost emotional control for the first time in my nine-year military career. I simply could not handle the stress. I had to stop talking when I was explaining what happened on Tran Hung Dao Street that morning. I got so choked up in front of the 200 military policemen of B Company that the first sergeant took over. Lieutenant Zins walked me back to my office and said: “Get some sleep, sir. It’s been a long day.” I looked at my watch. It was just 8 a.m. The Viet Cong had discovered bombing U.S. facilities in crowded Saigon could be effective terrorism with minimal consequences for the bombers.
Lieutenant Chester Lee, Pfc. Patrick Brems and Spc. 4 Mulvaney were hailed as heroes for saving the lives of officers at the Victoria. Lee and Brems were awarded Silver Stars posthumously. Mulvaney received a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross. Paul Morgan died on April 20, 2013. His story is published here with the permission of his widow, Eileen Morgan.
Don North was a freelance photographer and later staff war correspondent for ABC and NBC in Vietnam for more than four years.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.