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The Viet Cong’s 1965 bombing of Saigon’s My Canh restaurant killed scores of people from many countries.

In its glory days, it was among the most prominent restaurants in Saigon and a popular attraction for visitors from around the world pouring into South Vietnam in 1965. Moored along the riverfront at the doorstep of Tu Do Street’s entertainment district, the My Canh was perhaps less famous for its food than for its ambiance; the floating restaurant’s name means “beautiful view.” And so, on a pleasant evening in June an international crowd had gathered on the Saigon River for a Friday get-together with friends, family and fellow soldiers. Maybe there would even be a CIA encounter. That serene setting on the river would soon be the scene of the most sensational terrorist incident of the Vietnam War.

Viet Cong terrorism was well-established across South Vietnam by then. Especially rampant in the countryside, the violence was moving into the capital as the American presence intensified. On the previous Christmas Eve, the VC had bombed the Brink Hotel (often referred to as the Brinks), a residence for American military officers. They struck the U.S. Embassy on March 30 and the Saigon air terminal just nine days before hitting the My Canh. The restaurant had been staked out by urban commandos, called sappers, including Huynh Phi Long of Saigon’s 67th Commando Unit, whose story was told in 2010 in People’s Army, a newspaper published by Vietnam’s Defense Ministry. In the days before the attack, Long—about 60 years old at the time of the interview, the article’s writer estimated—“had carefully studied the terrain and the enemy’s movement habits, his drinking habits and his playboy habits.”

Security surrounding the My Canh was extraordinary on June 25, 1965. According to the 2010 exposé, three armed policemen stood guard at the gangplank that diners used to cross from the riverbank to the on-deck, open-air dining room. Other uniformed and plainclothes officers were watching from an open area opposite the barge; armored vehicles and combat soldiers were manning nearby intersections, and naval vessels patrolled the river. Long was assisted in his plot by Le Van Ray, another member of the 67th Commando Unit.

The two VC sappers approached the restaurant on bicycles; one was motorized. Long led the way, carrying one time bomb, according to the People’s Army story. Ray, pretending to be a newspaper seller, transported a mine. The two men weaved through traffic, even passing through a checkpoint, using a crowd of Vietnamese as cover. As the pair approached the My Canh, several peddlers were walking in front of the restaurant, where there was a cigarette stand near the entrance.

Long parked his bicycle bomb, set to detonate in a few minutes, in such a way that the blast would spray shrapnel over two-thirds of the target. Then he took out some money to buy cigarettes and walked a short distance to a getaway motorcycle that another conspirator had left for him. In the meantime, Ray had set his Claymore-type mine, which would also spray its blast over a precise area, and joined Long on the motorcycle to make their departure. They had gone about 55 yards when the first explosion blew. Metal shards peppered the My Canh’s hull and tore through the dining room; customers panicked and ran for the walkway, desperate to escape.

When the bombers’ motorcycle reached the Nguyen Hue traffic circle, police stopped the two men but allowed them to proceed after they produced IDs. At that moment, the second mine exploded, ripping through the flesh and bone of fleeing customers, most of them civilians: peddlers on the shore, mothers and children. “Enemy [South Vietnamese] sirens echoed loudly and the streets turned into a scene of chaos,” according to the People’s Army article. “Only the two commandos were filled with a feeling of incredible joy.” Minutes after the twin blasts, the U.S. ambassador arrived on the scene. “The ambassador shook his head hopelessly and sadly got back into his car, seeming to be unable to believe what had just happened,” the article reported.

Waiters help a man injured after two Viet Cong commandos set off bombs at a floating restaurant along the Saigon River in June 1965. (AP Photos)

The horrific crime would go down as an example of an attack of maximum impact. It occurred at a trendy location during prime time: Friday evening just after 8, an international gathering place and only a few blocks from foreign news bureaus—a guarantee of extensive media coverage.

A combined Associated Press and United Press International story on an American newspaper’s front page reported: “The restaurant was a ruin, both decks a smoking, smoldering mass of broken bulwarks and smashed tables. An American woman, mutilated in her torn clothing, responded weakly to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation administered by a U.S. military policeman. A Vietnamese man waved the body of a young child at photographers. He seemed insane with grief.

“The broken causeway leading to the restaurant was piled high with bodies. American medics were rushing from body to body shouting: ‘Is he an American? Is he? Find the Americans, find the Americans.’ Some of the wounded stacked along the pavements died as they waited. Thirty minutes after the blast, many were still pleading for help.

The unforgettable carnage resurfaces as intense flashbacks 50 years later, even for grizzled war reporters. “The street was full of sandals that people had run out of, or been blown out of,” remembers Joe Galloway, who reported on the war for UPI and was co-author of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young. “One vivid memory is the top of a Vietnamese woman’s head lying on the white tablecloth…with long, flowing, black hair cascading down the side. I never ate there again.”

A Vietnamese-written history of sapper forces credits the attack with “killing 51 CIA intelligence officers and wounding many other personnel.” Western reports put the death toll as high as 48. The Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office counted 123 total casualties, mostly Vietnamese. It listed 12 Americans among the dead. Adding the missing and injured, there were at least 28 American casualties. According to newspaper accounts, the U.S. deaths included civilian Air Force employees who repaired damaged aircraft, military advisers in from the field and three soldiers attached to the Phu Lam Signal Battalion. There were also French, German, Swiss and Filipino dead. The shock waves reverberated worldwide.

As for claims of 51 CIA deaths, “you can’t just take them at face value,” says Vietnam War historian Erik Villard. “Some of those people may have been informants, others not actually on the CIA payroll, or the VC suspected they might be, so it’s not like you’ve got 51 James Bonds.” Nonetheless, the People’s Army profile on Long alleges that the My Canh owner, identified as Phu Lam, “was a trusted intelligence lackey of the CIA….Superiors believed that by destroying the restaurant we would essentially have destroyed an American-puppet source.” Regardless of any proven connection, one can assume that CIA personnel frequented the My Canh, which was a short walk from the U.S. Embassy.

Perhaps a bigger reason for the bombing was straightforward payback. The People’s Army article on bomber Long called the My Canh attack “an act of revenge for the death of Comrade Tran Van Dang, a commando fighter who had just been executed by the U.S. and the puppets at Ben Thanh Market on June 20, 1965.” The 25-year-old terrorist was blindfolded, tied to a post and publicly killed by a South Vietnamese firing squad in central Saigon for trying to bomb an American billet.

The restaurant bombing wasn’t the only reprisal. Radio Hanoi announced the execution of Army Staff Sgt. Harold Bennett, a prisoner of war, on June 25 and suggested other Americans might face the same fate: “The punishment serves to warn the U.S. aggressors and their henchmen…that the murderers must pay for their blood debts. The crimes of the bloodthirsty devils are intolerable.” While many Viet Cong had already been executed by the Saigon government, Bennett was the first American POW put to death during the war. He served as an adviser with South Vietnamese Rangers and was captured at Binh Gia on Dec. 29, 1964, when the unit was overrun.

Within hours of the My Canh bloodbath, the North Vietnamese and American governments were exchanging terse rejoinders and propaganda. Radio Hanoi and Viet Cong radio both claimed that hundreds of U.S. aggressors had been killed or wounded, the restaurant seriously damaged and a nearby U.S. warship blown up. The following day the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office tried to set the record straight in a 16-page pamphlet. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor said, “This surely was the act of desperate men who have begun to realize that they cannot win. Last night’s outrage, like the wanton murder of an American prisoner…can only strengthen us in our resolve.”

Bystanders rush to people struck by the bomb blasts. (AP Photos)

Countering the inflated casualty toll of Americans, the embassy reported that most of the victims were Vietnamese, that no harm had come to any ships in the harbor and that damage to the restaurant was minor: “The bombs were designed to kill people.” The My Canh reopened in five days.

In a cable from the U.S. Mission in Saigon, the ambassador laid out his suspicions: “Viet Cong execution of Sgt. Bennett, closely followed by My Canh Restaurant atrocity, brings into sharp focus blackmail potential VC and Hanoi possess in numbers of U.S. hostages in their hands and the usefulness of this blackmail to support a stepped-up terrorist campaign.”

Taylor, a retired four-star general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from October 1962 to July 1964, urged an immediate bombing attack in the Hanoi-Haiphong area, accompanied by major leaflet drops and a strong push by Voice of America and other media to counter VC propaganda. He also recommended a presidential statement announcing the American response to show that the United States “would not stand for blatant violation of all standards of humanity and international conduct.”

Taylor’s advice was overruled by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy sent this response to the president at his Texas ranch: “Rusk, McNamara and I all disagree with this recommendation.” They wanted to “hold Hanoi responsible” but favored a more restrained response.

The North Vietnamese continued to extract propaganda from the My Canh bombing, including this classic broadcast from Radio Hanoi: “You are a long way from Fort Riley now and there is no Jersey coffee in town on Washington Street where you can sit around the counter eating hamburgers and sipping coffee without having to be afraid a bomb might go off, like it did at that restaurant in Saigon a few weeks back. You can get killed here. Get out while you’re still alive and before it’s too late.”

On the American side of the propaganda war, the pamphlet issued by U.S. public affairs officers includes background on the Vietnamese casualties illustrated with ghastly pictures. The front cover shows an American holding the bloody body of a young boy, visibly in shock. One of the photo captions reads: “Of the 123 people killed and injured, 89 were Vietnamese—cyclo drivers and government officials, sugarcane vendors and businessmen, young women clerks and a popular singer, and of course many children.” Taylor is seen visiting patients in a hospital where survivors were interviewed. A 13-year-old boy who had been selling peanuts was recovering from surgery to remove shrapnel from his back and leg. To Thi My, the mother of Saigon singer Phuong Thao, who perished, is pictured weeping. She said her daughter was not performing at the time: “She was dining there with some of her friends. They were there just for a good time.”

A Vietnamese man who provided a crucial service for Western news agencies barely survived and was taken to the U.S. Naval Hospital. “Mr. Thach,” as he was known, handled the all-important radio photo machine at the post, telegraph and telephone office, PTT for short, and transmitted news photos for the wire services. A false rumor was circulating that Thach would be thrown out of the hospital, and his boss at the PTT called Mike Malloy, a UPI reporter in Saigon, for help. Malloy assured the post office’s director general that Mr. Thach would not be forced out of his hospital bed.

“Later, someone at PTT called and said they had a package for us; a sack of piasters [Vietnamese currency],” Malloy remembers. “It was a lot of dough.” The money appeared to be a refund to settle a longstanding dispute with the news agency, which was also granted an exclusive 24-hour outgoing circuit of its own. “Nobody ever told me why we got these favors,” Malloy said, “but it’s obvious to me that they were rewards for saving Mr. Thach’s life, even though the Navy never intended to throw him out in the first place.”

There are others who likely would have been casualties that night but for sheer luck or happenstance. One was a young Army officer who had landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base earlier that day—Norman Schwarzkopf. He and a West Point classmate arrived in Vietnam with a list of Saigon’s best restaurants and had planned to go out, but they were jet lagged and chose to dine at the roof garden restaurant atop the Hotel Majestic, where they were staying.

“We had just placed our orders when wham,” recalled Schwarzkopf in his 1992 autobiography, It Doesn’t Take a Hero, which recounts his two tours in Vietnam during a military career capped with his leadership of the multinational force in the 1991 Gulf War.  The Majestic was so near the bombed restaurant that he could peer down from the roof and see wounded customers moving over the walkway to shore. “Suddenly another explosion blasted them from the gangplank into the water,” Schwarzkopf wrote. “That was my welcome to Vietnam.” More chilling, the My Canh had been first on his list of recommended restaurants.

The floating eatery was also a hangout for the media. Author and journalist Marvin Wolf and a Time magazine freelancer had lunch on the vessel the day of the disaster. They were joined by the owner, “an enormously rotund Chinese in a white linen suit, a guy with 6-inch fingernails,” as Wolf describes him. “The food was gratis. Six hours later, boom!”

Freelance journalist Don North, who had arrived in-country a month earlier, had left his gear in his room before he set off for a seafood dinner. He was walking toward the My Canh when the whole neighborhood was shaken. North’s most lasting memory? Watching firemen with strong water hoses washing blood off the street in crimson waves. “After that,” North insisted, “I never left my apartment without cameras and a tape recorder.”

It was an even closer call for armed forces radio announcer Adrian Cronauer, who had finished dinner with friends and was still in the area when the terrorists hit. He dodged the horror and lived to create the story concept that comedian Robin Williams turned into the hit movie Good Morning, Vietnam. 

Army Spc. 5 Ron Hesketh had two brushes with terrorism. He was heading for the My Canh to celebrate his 25th birthday when he heard the thunderous explosions. “It was the worst thing I saw in the war.” Six months earlier, he had been scheduled to work at the Brink Hotel on the night Viet Cong planted a car bomb there, but Hesketh had suddenly been sent away on temporary duty.

Urban terrorism was escalating alongside the U.S. troop presence in the mid-1960s, but it was not a new phenomenon. In 1957 the U.S. Information Agency Library, a military bus and a hostel were bombed during an international meeting in Saigon, wounding 13 Americans and five Vietnamese. By 1965 the terror campaign in Saigon—attacks on hotels, bars, theaters and other strategic targets in the capital—was dwarfed by Viet Cong intimidation in the countryside where civilians had it much worse.

A 1967 study, “Viet Cong Use of Terror,” compiled by the U.S. Embassy, lists page after page of terrorism against noncombatants. In the same year of the My Canh bombing, the report tallied 1,800 assassinations and 8,500 kidnappings countrywide, most of them targeting rural officials.

The Viet Cong “are very deliberate in what they do,” said historian Villard. “Rather than just say, ‘Let’s go kill a bunch of civilians,’ they had thought it through to achieve a certain effect.” One strategy, he said, was to drive a wedge between the allies, “to do things that would put the Americans and South Vietnamese at each other’s throat, point fingers: ‘You brought this on.’ ‘No, you brought this on.’ ‘You should have prevented it.’ That sort of thing.”

The actions of the Viet Cong commandos who pulled off the My Canh attack were celebrated. Long was awarded the Combat Achievement Medal, First Class. The entire 67th Commando Unit won the Military Achievement Medal. Correspondent Bang Phuong, who prepared Long’s profile for People’s Army, wrote, “This legendary person fills everyone who sees him with awe and respect for the intelligence and courage he displayed when he scored a resounding victory in the attack on the My Canh Restaurant.”

Eventually, Long and his wife, who raised three children, were jailed for revolutionary activities. Long even spent time on Con Son Island, the site of a South Vietnamese prison where, according to the profile, he was locked up in so-called tiger cages, notorious French-built torture cells with barred ceilings allowing guards to look down on the inmates. He was released in 1973 in a prisoner exchange after the Paris Peace Talks.

In the years immediately after the raid, the floating restaurant remained trendy for its “beautiful view,” despite having an ugly past, and it continued to serve Vietnamese, Chinese and seafood dishes to a forgiving clientele. Fresh-faced young servicemen, like me, enjoyed fried rice and tasted the delectable tropical fruit lychee for the first time, even though it was out of a can.

The My Canh also continued to be of keen interest to the Viet Cong, who in October 1969 lobbed several mortar shells at the restaurant, only to see them land harmlessly in the Saigon River. 

Rick Fredericksen, a Marine veteran, was an editor and newscaster for American Forces Vietnam network in Saigon in 1969-70 and a civilian reporter in Asia and the Pacific for 13 years.

First published in Vietnam Magazine’s June 2016 issue.