Vietnamese call it the American War, the Americans, the Vietnam War. At the centre of that war was the Tet Offensive of 1968, called Tet Mau Than by the Vietnamese. The defining battle of Tet (the Lunar New Year), was the assault on the United States Embassy in Ho Chi Minh City, then Saigon, when sixteen Biet dong (Rangers/special assault forces), including a man named Ba Den, blew a three-foot hole in the purportedly impregnable embassy wall, entered the compound and engaged in a six-hour firefight that left thirteen attackers and five US soldiers dead. For Americans the cataclysmic shock of the country-wide Tet Offensive, and particularly the embassy attack, were a turning point in their support of the war, especially after the oft-repeated promise of “the light at the end of the tunnel” that would lead to victory.
In 1968 I was an “Analyst/ Interrogator-Linguist”, part of Company A, 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, 525th Military Intelligence Group. I worked out of a joint US-Vietnamese prisoner of war compound called the Combined Military Interrogation Centre (CMIC), located in Cho Lon, down the street called Plantation Road from Co A, near the Phu To Hoa Racetrack. While on night duty at CMIC in February, I was assigned to interrogate a wounded POW, Ba Den, who was one of three survivors, and one of the commanders of the embassy assault. It was because of that meeting, and of the significance of the Tet Offensive — especially of the Ho Chi Minh City attacks, and, in particular, the assault on the US Embassy — that I returned to Vietnam to see if Ba Den was still alive and meet again this now famous soldier.
After an absence of forty-five years, I made this return trip to Vietnam where a series of chance encounters led me to Michael Abadie, an American residing in the southern capital. We met in front of the old post office across the square from the Notre Dame Cathedral. After listening to me explain my project, he contacted his friend Hung, a former co-worker at the state oil company, who generously provided his time and knowledge to find Ba Den.
Through his in-law, a retired former military provincial commander, Hung found out that Ba Den, after surviving the embassy attack and years of imprisonment at the infamous prison at Con Dao, was killed in a traffic accident shortly after liberation in 1976. There is a relatively complete account of Ba Den and his life in the Vietnamese press.
Before leaving Vietnam, I bought a bat huong, an incense holder used for grave-side ceremonies, and asked Hung and Michael to take it to Ba Den’s grave. That gesture on my part opened some doors that otherwise might have been difficult to find. Hung explained my story and project to some of the Biet dong whom he now knew and set up an email address for me to correspond with these old soldiers.
I hoped to find out more information about the other Biet dong embassy attackers, to learn their stories without any filters. Finding these stories was complicated because of the self-imposed secrecy of the Biet dong organisations and the brutal facts of the war itself. Back in the US, my research led me to the National Archives, which had declassified CMIC and other reports after 2003, including my own reports on Ba Den and the other two survivors of the embassy attack. The records, however, were often cursory, mostly military in scope, with little personal information. This lack of personal narrative led me back to Vietnam, with the active encouragement of Michael, Hung and my new-found email Biet dong contacts.
On another visit to Vietnam in 2014 , Hung arranged a meeting with the Saigon/Gia Dinh Committee of Biet dong. I met this group of six men in a small office on a military base in Ho Chi Minh City. Their mission, as I understood it, was to keep track of past and living Biet Dong soldiers, provide a living historical record and to help with material support. After introductions, I explained that I wanted to find out more information on the embassy attackers, in addition to Ba Den. I confirmed details of the two other attackers who survived, through CMIC reports, which I gave to the committee. They were known as Nguyen Van Sau and Dang Van Son, and had disappeared into the South Vietnamese prison system. Other than aliases, the thirteen slain in the attack were unknown. If Ba Den had been killed, he would have probably been as anonymous as his comrades. The secrecy of the Biet dong was such that identities were known only to senior commanders, if at all, and only by aliases. Fellow soldiers in any given unit were strangers to each other, and were employed in specific one-time operations. These cell-like units, when paired with the South Vietnamese government’s deliberate and anonymous burials of North Vietnamese combatants, has left virtually no physical record of these soldiers.
As I listened to the committee explain this, it became clear that writing about these “ghosts” was not realistic. The committee explained there were other living Biet dong who were involved with the Tet assaults on the Presidential Palace, the police headquarters, the government radio station, and the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Headquarters at Tan Son Nhat airbase, among other targets.
The committee offered me access to these former rangers. I agreed, with the provisions that any written material would be approved by the interviewees prior to publication. For me, as a former enemy, the generous and comradely reception I received from these NLF/Biet dong soldiers was overwhelming and brought me very close to tears a couple of times.
We conducted eight interviews, including three women and two senior commanders, one of whom was the commander of Pham Xuan Anh, a former Time magazine Saigon Bureau chief and double agent. Five of the soldiers were Biet dong, the other three were National Liberation Front called Mat Tran (Front) by the Vietnamese resistance.
Once I convinced the soldiers of my sincerity, they openly related their stories. The narratives of these people are compelling because these recordings represent the first time personal stories of Biet dong history have been recorded in both languages.
The general outlines of these stories were not unfamiliar to me as a former combat soldier and interrogator, but for my translator collaborators, listening to certain details was traumatic. The narratives were all different, but common threads tied them together. One was their personal identification with the long history of Vietnamese resistance to foreign aggression; in some families this went back a hundred or more years, to when the French ruled Vietnam. Another was the sense of moral outrage over often brutal repression and reprisals meted out to peasant and student resistance by the government; another was the careless and indifferent destruction of villages and their inhabitants by the Americans, along with the disrespect and ignorance shown to their culture. Several interviewees quoted Ho Chi Minh’s remark: “Nothing is more precious than independence and liberty”.
Since my previous trip, Nguyen Huu Loi, one of the Biet dong, had died. Although I only talked with him for a few hours, we had become friends immediately, partly because of our mutual respect, but perhaps more because of his outgoing and generous nature. He had given me a framed iconic mug-shot photo of himself and Nguyen Van Troi taken when they were captured, with their stack of TNT explosives on a table in front of them.
Though not the oldest or youngest at seventy, Loi had by association been one of the most famous. He was captured, along with his partner Nguyen Van Troi, while attempting to blow up the bridge the then US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara was using on in May 1964. Troi took the blame for the attempted attack, and the government in a tactical and strategic blunder executed him a few months later.
Loi had been locked up in Con Dao prison, spending ten years there, enduring beatings and torture in tiger cages until freed by the Paris Peace Accords in 1974.
The oldest interviewees were Bay Son, ninety-one, and Tu Cang, ninety-two, both lucid as they corrected the narratives. Tu Cang, the more vigorous of the two, was particularly warm and welcoming; after the editing session he gave me some more autographed books and when we eased out to the courtyard for goodbyes, held my hand in a gesture of friendship. Our visit to Bay Son found him in a wheelchair, but alert as he listened to the narrative and offered a few corrections. He repeated his desire, as had several of the other Biet dongs, to know where their comrades killed in the Tet Offensive were buried. I contacted members of the US Military Police unit that eventually took charge of the embassy after the attack, the mortuary unit at Tan Son Nhat air base and a former South Vietnamese Colonel present at the embassy in the aftermath of the attack. My inquiries stirred up tough memories for some of the military police who were the first units to respond to the attacks. No one provided definitive information.
My trip concluded with a visit to a safe house used by the Biet dong, including the embassy attackers. I was warmly welcomed. Among the Vietnamese there to greet me was one of the sons of Ba Den, whose likeness to his father was astonishing, a virtual twin. I closed out the day with a visit to the top deck of the Majestic Hotel, made famous by Graham Greene as his last stop on his daily constitutional down the Rue Catanat, now called Dong Khoi. As a soldier occupied by the war and my duties, I did not have the time or money in 1968 to mingle with the journalists and generals that gathered nightly to watch the sunset fifty years ago. But on this trip, one year removed from the fifteith anniversary of the Tet Offensive, I enjoyed the terrace of the Majestic, as Greene’s protagonist Fowler did in The Quiet American, with “the cool wind from the Saigon river” in my face.