The Digital Journalist
The Saigon Execution
October 2004

by Horst Faas

Horst Faas, photographer and photo editor now retired from The Associated Press, remembers the day he saw Eddie Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the execution of a Vietcong in 1968.

London, Sept. 19, 2004 - Editing film could be a dreary business, but on that day, 36 years ago - the second day of the communist attacks into the very centers of South Vietnam's cities - I felt as though I had won the jackpot of a lottery.

Running my Nikon eyeball quickly over a roll of black-and-white film from Eddie Adams, I saw what I had never seen before on the lightbox of my Saigon editing desk: The perfect newspicture - the perfectly framed and exposed "frozen moment" of an event which I felt instantly would become representative of the brutality of the Vietnam War.

The 12 or 14 negatives on that single roll of film, culminating in the moment of death for a Viet Cong, propelled Eddie Adams into lifelong fame. The photo of the execution at the hands of Vietnam's police chief, Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, at noon on Feb. 1, 1968 has reached beyond the history of the Indochina War - it stands today for the brutality of our last century.

Vietcong Execution, Saigon, 1968

Photo by Eddie Adams
Eddie had come back to Vietnam a few weeks before the Tet Offensive to take a third crack at this story. He had initially arrived in 1965, when the first U.S. Marines had landed. We knew Eddie as a former Marine photographer of some repute gained in the Korean War. He was a personal friend of General Lewis Walt, the erstwhile commander of the Marines in Danang.

Eddie was after more than just good day-to-day newsphoto coverage of the war. He was after the perfect, meaningful photograph expressing the frustrations, the bravery, the suffering of the war - all expressed in one image. He had tried for three years, on countless military operations - and would become very moody and depressed when it did not work out perfectly. New York headquarters was happy with his work - but Eddie wasn't. Until Feb. 1, 1968. "I got what I came to Vietnam for," he told somebody in the office.

I found myself in the role of editor and coordinator during the Tet Offensive. Six weeks earlier, shrapnel from a rocket- propelled grenade had ripped into my legs and I could not walk unaided beyond the fourth-floor office of The AP in Saigon. I had dodged evacuation to a hospital in Hong Kong or Honolulu - and I was delighted with my good luck in being able to edit the AP photo report of the Tet Offensive, which brought the Vietnam story back onto the front pages of the world press for many weeks.

The first 24 hours of the Tet Offensive were confusing. Vietcong had penetrated the city and were fighting inside the grounds of the U.S. embassy a few blocks away from the AP office. Eddie concentrated on that action on day one. Vietnamese photographers living across the city reported that Vietcong were fighting in their districts. It was not a time to venture out to find them. Most photos of this first day came from Vietnamese cruising the city on their motorbikes - including a 14-year-old boy photographer, Lo Hung, moving about on a bicycle and bringing back his films every few hours. Another youngster was Huynh Cong Ut, then 18, who was endearingly called Nick Ut by Eddie Adams.

But at the time, Eddie did not like the "kids'" competition.

On day two, news reports came in of fighting around a Buddhist pagoda (known for the monks' opposition to the government) in an area where Saigon becomes Cholon, the Chinese section of the capital. Eddie teamed up with one of NBC's most experienced cameramen - NBC was an office neighbor of AP and tips and transport were often shared. Eddie and Vo Su were driven slowly towards the area where fighting was reported, then walked when they found the streets had become abandoned and litter from a fight was visible.

The pagoda occupied by Viet Cong had been recaptured by Vietnamese marines. Hearing shots, they moved towards the action.

From a later interview Hal Buell, then Eddie's boss in New York, reconstructed what happened next.

He wrote: "Adams watched as two Vietnamese soldiers pulled a prisoner out of a doorway at the end of the street. The soldiers then pushed and pulled what appeared to be a Viet Cong in a plaid shirt, his arms tied behind his back. They escorted the man toward the spot where Adams and Vo Su were located.

"Eddie Adams said, 'I just followed the three of them as they walked towards us, making an occasional picture. When they were close - maybe five feet away - the soldiers stopped and backed away. I saw a man walk into my camera viewfinder from the left. He took a pistol out of his holster and raised it. I had no idea he would shoot. It was common to hold a pistol to the head of prisoners during questioning. So I prepared to make that picture - the threat, the interrogation. But it didn't happen. The man just pulled a pistol out of his holster, raised it to the VC's head and shot him in the temple. I made a picture at the same time.'

"The prisoner fell to the pavement, blood gushing," Buell wrote, quoting Eddie. "After a few more pictures of the dead man, Adams left."

The shooter was later identified as Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, police chief of South Vietnam. Adams said he walked up to him and said, "They killed many of my people, and yours, too" and then just walked away.

Typewriters stopped clattering for a few moments when the first transmission prints emerged from the darkroom. Peter Arnett, who had just come back from "the town that had to be destroyed to save it," got ready to interview Eddie.

Eddie had made a stop at his hotel, then meandered slowly into the office, as was his habit. He hid his excitement under a cloak of slight, feigned boredom - but headed straight to the editing lightdesk. Yes, I had selected the right first four pictures - but Eddie wasn't happy. Of course, like all of us, he wanted the whole sequence radioed out to the world to tell the full story. He had to wait for another day - in those days it took 20 minutes to transmit a single photo, which often had to be repeated - and the single radiotelephone circuit to Paris, shared with UPI, was closing down after three hours. AP's radiophoto operator, Tran von Hung, already had gone to sleep beneath his transmitter because of the curfew and continued fighting.

But all of Eddie's pictures, the full sequence of the incident, were finally sent to the world by radiophoto. "They made it for the PMs," we said in those days.

The days after Adams' execution photo, Vietnamese photographers competed with a whole horror scenario of similar events. AP's Le Ngoc Cung came up with a heartbreaking sequence showing a South Vietnamese soldier sharing a sandwich and water from a canteen with a Vietcong prisoner. The last pictures show how he shot him.

Dang Van Phuoc, also roaming the city for AP, had photos of diehard Vietcong dragged from the ruins and then summarily shot.

No pardons were given, and the photos showed that for days.

The stories surrounding the victim in Eddie Adams' execution photo differed. Lt. Colonel Loan had said that the man had killed many South Vietnamese and even Americans. Vietnamese photographers said that he was a traitor, working for both sides - the Vietcong and the South Vietnamese police. Others said he was a small-time Vietcong who had put on a fresh shirt hoping to slip away.

Thirty-two years later, I met his widow, who still lived in their home in a southern Saigon suburb and mourned him. In a corner of the living room, behind plastic flowers, was a heavily retouched photograph of Nguyen Van Lam, who, as a Viet Cong, had the "secret name" (alias) Bay Lap. Yes, he had been a member of the National Liberation Front, the Vietcong. He just disappeared shortly before the Tet Offensive, and never came back.

Eddie Adams' photograph made him a martyr, but, no, she does not have and does not want to see the photograph of her husband's death. She will mourn Nguyen Van Lam until his body is found, she said in 2000, when the Vietnam government celebrated the 25th anniversary of the end of the war.

General Nguyen Ngoc Loan continued to take the fight to the Vietcong and, despite his notoriety after the execution, U.S. commanders and newsmen who knew him respected him for his bravery and determination. Eddie Adams felt that his famous photo unfairly maligned Loan, who lived in Virginia after the war and died in 1998.

The next time I saw a photograph of Nguyen Ngoc Loan, then promoted to Brigadier General, was during the "Mini-Tet" Offensive in May 1968. Vietcong had again reached the inner ring of the city and were fighting at the bridge that connects the district of Gia Dinh with Saigon. Brig. Gen. Loan had led a charge of South Vietnamese troops across the bridge when a machine gun ripped his leg off. The photograph showed the burly, rugby-sized Australian war correspondent, Pat Burgess, carrying the bleeding general back to his lines. Pat Burgess died a few years after the war of a painful sclerosis of the nervous system, similar to the type which ended Eddie Adams' life.

I am certain that even back in Vietnam, Eddie was already dreaming of his workshops for young photographers, which have now become his legacy.

He loved young Nick Ut, whose brother, Huynh Cong La (Thanh My), had died photographing for the AP in 1965. And he admired the art and sensitivity of Henri Huet, whom he helped to bring over to The AP from UPI in 1965.

It was these two great photographers and close friends who made me feel like a lottery winner twice over again when I edited their film: Henri Huet with his moving sequence of a wounded medic aiding others wounded in battle (1967) and, of course, Nick Ut and his "napalm girl," Kim Phuc, in 1972.

Henri died in 1971 in the flames of a helicopter. Nick Ut mourns Eddie in Los Angeles.

Eddie Adams, Henri Huet and Nick Ut wrote our history with perfect, singular newsphotos.

© Horst Faas