Thursday, February 01, 2007

February 1

On 1 February 1968, several days into the Tet Offensive, Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the South Vietnamese police, shot a captured member of the National Liberation Front in the head at close range. Nguyen Van Lam, also known as Captain Bay Lop, had been captured by South Vietnamese forces after a battle at a Buddhist pagoda in the Chinese section of Saigon. Hands tied behind his back and his face visibly swollen, Lam was marched down the street.

American photographer Eddie Adams and Vietnamese cameraman Vo Su -- who was working for NBC -- had been photographing and filming the battle and watched as two South Vietnamese Marines brought the staggering captive toward them. Adams described the scene years later:
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 frightful still image of the summary execution quickly became emblematic of the American War in Vietnam, at least to its critics. For the remainder of both of their lives, however, Adams -- whose photo was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 -- defended Loan, whom he believed was destroyed by the image as well.

Several months after the shooting of Nguyen Van Lem, Loan was severely injured in a battle near a Saigon bridge; one of his legs had to be amputated. He fled to the United States after the fall of Saigon and opened a pizza restaurant in Burke, Virginia, which he operated until when his identity was publicized in 1991 and his business suffered. Loan died of cancer seven years later. Adams passed away in 2004 from ALS. As for Nguyen Van Lam, his body disappeared after the shooting thirty-nine years ago today and was never found.

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