Posts filed under 'Vietnam'

1968: My Lai Massacre

Add comment March 16th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1968, the U.S. Army meted out the signature single atrocity of the Vietnam War, the My Lai Massacre — wanton slaughter of 400 to 500 Vietnamese civilians over the span of four evil hours that would emerge as practically metonymous for twenty evil years in Indochina.


Combat photographer Ronald Haeberle shot a number of pictures on that day, although by his own admission he also failed to intervene against the slaughter and he destroyed some of the most incriminating shots. Nevertheless, his iconic photo of bodies heaped on a path became the iconic antiwar poster “And babies”.

The hero on that day was an American helicopter pilot who, seeing the slaughter unfolding, set his warship down in front of his wilding countrymen and trained guns upon them to still their rampage, then escorted several Vietnamese people next in line for murder to his choppers and whisked them to safety. The late Hugh Thompson revisited the site of the massacre for 30th anniversary commemorations and told a U.S. reporter,

“One of the ladies that we had helped out that day came up to me and asked, ‘Why didn’t the people who committed these acts come back with you?’ And I was just devastated. And then she finished her sentence: she said, ‘So we could forgive them.’ I’m not man enough to do that. I’m sorry. I wish I was, but I won’t lie to anybody. I’m not that much of a man.” (Source)

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1964: Nguyen Van Nhung, Diem executioner

Add comment January 31st, 2020 Headsman

Vietnamese General Nguyen Van Nhung was (apparently) executed on this date in 1964.

He was the victim of a South Vietnamese coup, after having been a key operative in the previous one. Back on 2 November 1963, he’d piled into the back of an armored personnel carrier with the fresh-deposed President Ngo Dinh Diem, and Diem’s brother Ngô Dình Nhu. When the APC arrived at its destination, Diem and Nhu were both dead.

According to the other putchist in the vehicle with him,

As we rode back to the Joint General Staff headquarters, Diem sat silently, but Nhu and the captain [Nhung] began to insult each other. I don’t know who started it. The name-calling grew passionate. The captain had hated Nhu before. Now he was charged with emotion … [and] lunged at Nhu with a bayonet and stabbed him again and again, maybe fifteen or twenty times. Still in a rage, he turned to Diem, took out his revolver and shot him in the head. Then he looked back at Nhu, who was lying on the floor, twitching. He put a bullet into his head too. Neither Diem nor Nhu ever defended themselves. Their hands were tied. (Source)

Nhung’s turn as executioner — no unfamiliar role; the guy was notorious for tallying his career kills in notches on his gun barrel — made his boss Duong Van Minh the new President … for all of three months. By all accounts he was a useless executive:

the ruling generals were paralyzed by ineptitude. They had formed a military revolutionary council, composed of twelve members who bickered endlessly. Their normal chairman, General Minh, boasted that the collegial arrangement would guarantee against the autocratic excesses of the old regime. In reality, Minh had contrived the committee in order to bolster his prestige without increasing his responsibility. He was a model of lethargy, lacking both the skill and the inclination to govern. As he confided to me one morning as we chatted in his headquarters, he preferred to play tennis and tend to his orchids and exotic birds than to preside over tedious meetings and unravel bureaucratic tangles … In a cable to Washington, [U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge] described Minh as a “good, well-intentioned man,” but added a prophetic note: “Will he be strong enough to get on top of things?”

On 30 January 1964, Minh was overthrown by another general, Nguyen Khánh, in a bloodless dawn coup. Well, virtually bloodless. The sole casualty was Nguyen Van Nhung, who paid for the assassination of Diem the next day via a pistol shot to the head at a Saigon villa. The official story promulgated by the new regime described him instead committing suicide in shame for the Diem murder.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,History,No Formal Charge,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Vietnam,Wartime Executions

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1952: Võ Thị Sáu

Add comment January 23rd, 2020 Headsman

Eighteen- or nineteen-year-old student and revolutionary Võ Thị Sáu was shot by the French on this date in 1952.

(cc) image from Michal Manas.

A Viet Minh activist from childhood, Sáu (English Wikipedia entry | the more extensive Vietnamese) got her start in revolutionary praxis chucking a grenade at a group of French soldiers when she was 14.

She did three different turns in French custody over the very few years remaining her, the last of which was at Côn Đảo Prison* awaiting execution for murdering a French officer and a number of Vietnamese collaborators — “crimes” committed before she had attained majority. She poured invective upon the court that condemned her, correctly prophesying that Vietnamese resistance would defeat it.

Today Sáu is well-represented in monuments around Vietnam where she is of course honored as a patriotic hero; her tomb in Côn Đảo receives a steady tribute of offerings from admirers. She’s valorized in the 1994 film Daughter of the Red Earth:

* Later infamous as the location where the next imperial power kept its political prisoners in tiny “tiger cages”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Terrorists,Vietnam,Wartime Executions,Women

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1916: Phan Xich Long, mystic insurgent

Add comment February 22nd, 2019 Headsman

Vietnamese mystic Phan Xich Long was executed on this date in 1916 by the French, after attempting to expel their occupation and situate himself as Emperor of Vietnam.

In his youth a peripatetic fortune-teller and geomancer, Phan Phát Sanh (as he was then known) formed a secret society by 1911 centered around enforcing his rights as the purported long-lost descendant of Ham Nghi — an 1880s emperor whose short reign ended in French captivity.

By 1912 he was barnstorming the Mekong Delta in saffron robes, buttressing his pretense to the throne with all the aspirations and disappointments of an occupied people. It was now that he took the name by which history recalls him, meaning “Red Dragon”, orchestrated a coronation ceremony, and set himself at the head of a movement equal parts messianic and patriotic, gradually cementing the credibility of his royal bona fides through various rumors and forgeries. The would-be emperor and his adherents made no bones at all about their rebellious intent; Long wielded a ceremonial sword inscribed with the words “First strike the debauched king, next the traitorous officials”.

Debauched kings and traitorous officials had other plans as they usually do, and the French managed to arrest the Red Dragon on the eve of his planned rising on March 1913. It went off anyway; few followers yet realized that their emperor was in manacles, though they soon realized that the invisibility potions that the mystic had prepared for them were nothing of the sort. The rebellion was crushed within days.

Parked in Saigon Central Prison serving a sentence of life at hard labor, Long perceived his moment to strike again when a national mood deteriorating under the privations of World War I birthed another royalist revolt in early 1916. Long evidently maintained secret contacts with these rebels, and his liberation was the objective of their attack upon his prison — and whose failure resulted in Long’s speedy execution under the auspices of a military court that also condemned 57 other insurgents.*

They hadn’t seen the last of him: years later another rabble-rouser would claim to be Phan Xich Long’s reincarnation. Today, there’s a street named for Phan Xich Long in Saigon.

* These appear to me to have been executed by musketry (military court, mind) rather than guillotine but few sources I’ve seen are prepared to take an explicit stand on this detail.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Shot,Vietnam,Wartime Executions

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1442: Nguyen Trai

Add comment September 19th, 2018 Headsman

On this date* in 1442, Vietnamese writer, commander, and politician Nguyen Trai died for regicide.

The Confucian scholar (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Vietnamese) was already a patriotic hero for taking to the hills in the successful rebellion that had expelled the occupation of the Chinese Ming dynasty some years before.

This philosopher of irregular war was famed for the very contemporary-sounding aphorism “better to conquer hearts than citadels”;** five centuries on, the great general of another era’s Vietnamese liberation struggle would credit Nguyen Trai’s “attacks on the minds, i.e. propaganda work among the enemy, persuading the enemy to surrender in many cities.”

A literal warrior-poet, Trai bequeathed the ages a corpus of beautiful musings to go with his martial axioms.

To A Friend

My fate naturally has many twists and sharp turns,
So in everything I trust in the wisdom of God.
I still have my tongue — believe me, I am able to talk,
Even though I’m still poor and, as we know, pathetic.
Never to return, the past flies too quickly and the time is short,
But, wandering in this cold room, the night is far too long.
I’ve been reading books for ten years, but I’m poor from clothes to bone
From eating only vegetables and sitting without a cushion.

But the very sharpest turn in his fate was the last one, when the Vietnamese sovereign, healthy and young and passing through the area, paid a courtesy call on the 60-something statesman — and shockingly turned up dead in the morning, thrusting the kingdom into turmoil since his heir was an infant. We have seen in these pages that inhabiting the mere vicinity of an unexpected royal death can be an extremely dangerous situation; so it was for Trai, no matter his former heroism or his poignant verse.

Perhaps his situation as the favored royal advisor had cultivated the envy of rival courtiers who suddenly found themselves in a position to vent their pique; or, maybe it was nothing but tunnel vision where the situation of being the most proximate initial suspect would transmute into an irresistibly self-reinforcing certainty. Or could this celestial household really have been involved in regicide? It’s one of the most famous mysteries in Vietnam’s history.

The man’s contemporaries came to their conclusion almost instantly. Barely six weeks after the emperor’s unexpected death, Nguyen Trai was put to death — and not only he but his wife, Nguyen Thi Lo and all their kin. It’s one of history’s most notorious incidents of the execution of nine relations — the most severe collective punishment to be found in China and Vietnam, wherein anyone closely related to an arch-traitor could be destroyed in a family extermination.

Twenty years later, Emperor Le Thanh Tong formally exonerated the man of the charge, a verdict that has been endorsed by a posterity that honors Nguyen Trai as a national hero.

* We’re translating the date from the Vietnamese lunisolar calendar, a perilous venture. I’m well outside my expertise here but sources I can find are unanimous on this date and Vietnamese calendar converters such as this one appear to agree.

** Another great Nguyen Trai-ism for guerrilla war: “Like the ocean which supports a ship but can also overturn it, so the people can support the throne or sink it.”

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2013: Nguyen Anh Tuan, Vietnam’s first lethal injection

Add comment August 6th, 2016 Headsman

Vietnam on this date in 2013 made its first-ever use of lethal injection for the execution of Nguyen Anh Tuan. Anh Tuan robbed and murdered a woman in 2009.

The new execution method was scheduled to take effect July 1, 2011, fully replacing the firing squad, but had a delayed rollout.

As in its country of birth, America, the needle-and-gurney contraption was afflicted by by shortages of the killing drugs. The European Union’s unwillingness to permit import for use in capital punishment eventually led Vietnam to arrange for local production instead.

Vietnam’s annual execution toll unofficially runs into the dozens.

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1884: Field executions during the Bac Le ambush

Add comment June 24th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1884, a French expeditionary force’s summary battlefield executions marked its retreat from an ambush — and the approach of the Sino-French War.

Having established a foothood in south Vietnam (Cochinchina), France was pushing into north Vietnam (Tonkin) — a campaign that could open a potentially lucrative route straight into China.

For the same reason, China viewed Tonkin as its own security zone. The ensuing skirmishes had as we lay our scene been recently abated by the Tientsin Accord* — an accord on France’s terms, since she had lately enjoyed the run of play in the field.

One of those terms was Chinese withdrawal from Tonkin, and as one might expect the Chinese had little appetite to speedily effect such a submission. In June 1884, when a small French column commanded by a Lt. Col. Alphone Dugenne pushed into what was supposed to be France’s new satrapy, it expected to occupy undefended towns.

Instead, on June 23, having forded the rain-swollen Song Thuong River, Dugenne’s force encountered Chinese regulars manning a chain of clifftop forts.

Outnumbered and on unfamiliar ground, the French surely felt their vulnerability. “High rocks, deep canyons, dense woods and somber defiles, where a handful of resolute men could easily have stopped a whole army, were the principal features of the country,” according to a French-derived account published later that year in the U.S.** “The heat was intense, and fatigue overcame the soldiers, already tired by the thousands of ostacles of the road. The fiery atmosphere did not allow any rest, even during the night, and terrible showers of rain, accompanied with thunder and lightning, converted the rivulets into torrents which swept everything before them, soaked the poor soldiers and destroyed provisions.”

A delegation under flag of truce informed Dugenne that China’s commander was aware of the Tientsin Accord, but had received no superior orders to withdraw. This obviously put both forces in an uncomfortable position. The Chinese wanted time: was this a good faith sorting-out (the Tientsin arrangements were barely six weeks old), or a double game? When the eventual winners wrote the history of events, they called what ensued June 23-24 the Bac Le ambush.

Believing that he had an arrangement with his opposite number, Dugenne’s column moved ahead on the afternoon of the 23rd, in a defile ominously commanded by the Chinese positions. Suddenly — and accounts from the two sides each accuse the other of provoking the first shots — the French came under Chinese fire. “Every tree, every overhanging rock, concealed an invisible enemy, who, being perfectly under cover himself, safely inflicted death all around him,” our correspondent’s account runs.


Illustration of the Bac Le ambush from Le guet-apens de Bac-Le by a French officer who survived it, Jean-Francois-Alphonse Lecomte.

But the ambush did not become a massacre; the French were able to regroup, stabilize their position, and camp that night — the Chinese “so near that they could hear them talk.”

The next day, the French would find themselves hopelessly outgunned but not (yet) encircled, and by mid-morning would be effecting an orderly retreat. In the course of it, Dugenne ordered at least two sets of executions to maintain discipline: early in the morning, it was “the hanging of two Chinese spies who had just been caught … with great solemnity and a great apparat, which caused a hail of bullets to whiz from all sides, where the Chinese friends of the hanged men were concealed.”

Hours later, as his column formed up to withdraw, Dugenne harshly punished his own native Tonkinese auxiliaries, green recruits who had all but routed in the first moments of the ambush when they came under fire and whose ill discipline could not be brooked on retreat: Dugenne “gave an order before [retreating] to shoot down ten Tonquinese of the native troops.”

Dugenne reached friendly forces safely, and with him accounts of a “massacre” that would incense public opinion in Paris. China’s refusal to meet the ensuing French demands for satisfaction in this affair would by August trigger open war in Tonkin.

* Not to be confused with 1885’s Treaty of Tientsin, which actually ended the Sino-French War.

** San Francisco Evening Bulletin, Sep. 11, 1884

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,Summary Executions,Vietnam,Wartime Executions

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1971: Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, Vietnam War photojournalists

2 comments June 6th, 2016 Headsman

On an unknown date thought to be approximately June of 1971, American photojournalists Sean Flynn and Dana Stone were executed by Communist captors in Southeast Asia.

Flynn is the big name of the pair,* literally: a former actor, he wasn’t in like his superstar father Errol Flynn. After trading on his prestigious name for a few silver screen credits, Sean grew bored of Hollywood and pivoted into a career in wanderlust — trying his hand as a safari guide and a singer before washing up in Vietnam where the action was in January 1966.

He made his name there as a man who would find a way to snatch an indelible image out of war’s hurricane, even at the risk of his own life.


One of Flynn’s photos: A captured Viet Cong being tortured. (1966)

On April 6, 1970, Flynn and fellow risk-seeking photojournalist Dana Stone hopped on rented motorbikes bound for the front lines in Cambodia. It was a last mission born of their characteristic bravado — all but bursting out of the frame astride their crotch rockets in the last photo that would become their epitaph. They were never seen again; having apparently been detained at a Viet Cong checkpoint, it’s thought that they ended up in the hands of Cambodian Khmer Rouge guerrillas and were held for over a year before they were slain by their jailers.


Flynn (left) and Stone mount the bikes for their lethal assignment. This is the last picture ever taken of them.

Sean’s mother, actress Lili Damita, spent years seeking definitive information about his fate, without success. Dana’s brother, John Thomas Stone, joined the army in 1971 reportedly with a similar end in mind; he was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2006. The prevailing conclusion about their fate arrives via the investigation of their colleague and friend, Australian journalist Tim Page — a man for whom memorializing the journalists who lost their lives during the Vietnam War has been a lifelong mission.

Though Flynn’s and Stone’s guts are undeniable, not everyone appreciated their methods. “Dana Stone and Sean Flynn [son of the Hollywood actor, Errol Flynn] were straight out of Easy Rider, riding around on motorcycles carrying pearl-handled pistols. Cowboys, really,” said fellow photog Don McCullin. “I think they did more harm than good to our profession.”

* He’s not to be confused with present-day actor Sean Flynn — that’s our Sean Flynn’s nephew. (Sean the nephew was named for Sean the uncle.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Uncertain Dates,USA,Vietnam,Wartime Executions

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1965: Kenneth Roraback and Rocky Versace, Vietnam War POWs

5 comments September 26th, 2015 Headsman

According to a UPI wire story from Saigon which ran in American newspapers beginning Monday, September 27,

The Viet Cong said they executed two American prisoners Sunday … Although the broadcast did not say so, the executions apparently were in retaliation for the deaths Thursday of three anti-American demonstrators. The demonstrators were convicted by a military tribunal of engaging in terrorist activities and put before a firing squad in a soccer stadium at Da Nang.

An earlier execution of a Viet Cong terrorist by the government June 24 brought an announcement from the Communists that they had executed Sgt. Harold G. Bennet[t], a captive from Arkansas.

The two men shot on September 26 — whose names are garbled in the initial news report, since “the names were received phonetically” — were Sgt. Kenneth Mills Roraback and Capt. Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace.

In 2002, Versace would be posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor — the first Vietnam War soldier so decorated on grounds of unwavering defiance as a POW.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Cycle of Violence,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,U.S. Military,USA,Vietnam,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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1930: 13 Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang cadres, for the Yen Bai mutiny

1 comment June 17th, 2013 Headsman

June 17 is an honored day in Vietnam for the sacrifice under the French guillotine this date of 13 early martyrs for national independence.

These were members of the nationalist Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD, or Viet Quoc). Not averse to the propaganda of the deed, these revolutionaries labored secretly under onerous French pressure following the previous year’s assassination of a labor recruiter.*

A year later (almost to the hour), with the movement crippled by arrests, the VNQDD tried an audacious gambit to revive its fortunes and trigger a general rising against the French.

The Yen Bai mutiny — named for the Tonkin city where it transpired** — saw 40 or 50 Vietnamese riflemen of the Fourth Régiment de Tirailleurs Tonkinois† and a like number of civilian sympathizers attacked the regiment’s officers in concert.

Alas, most of the other Vietnamese tirailleurs declined to join the rising, and it was suppressed within a few hours.

Over 1,000 accused revolutionaries stood trial for the Yen Bai mutiny, and the top leadership paid the top penalty this date — but as quietly as the French could manage. They were whisked out of their cells on the preceding evening and taken by secret convoy on a four-hour ride to the Yen Bai execution grounds, where a guillotine had been covertly erected.

We are going to go to pay our debt for the country. The flag of independence must be dyed with blood. The flower of freedom must be sown with blood. The country needs more and more sacrifices of its people. The revolution would meet success finally. We want to say goodbye to all of you with our respects.

-Nguyen Thai Hoc, taking his final leave of imprisoned VNQDD comrades

From 4:55 a.m. at Yen Bai, the thirteen men one by one were each lashed to the plank. One by one, each of their necks were fixed by the lunette under the blade. One by one, each cried out “Vietnam!” as the blade fell.

  • Bui Tu Toan
  • Bui Van Chuan
  • Nguyen An
  • Ha Van Lao
  • Dao Van Nhit
  • Ngo Van Du
  • Nguyen Duc Thinh
  • Nguyen Van Tiem
  • Do Van Su
  • Bui Van Cuu
  • Nguyen Nhu Lien
  • Pho Duc Chinh, who allegedly asked (it’s unclear to me whether it was granted) to be guillotined face-up — perhaps a show of bravado
  • The founder of the VNQDD Nguyen Thai Hoc, whose name now graces a major street in the heart of Hanoi

The VNQDD at this point was organizationally shattered, and many of its un-arrested cadres fled to China — whose sponsorship would revive it and return it to Vietnam in the 1940s.

By then, the communists were in the saddle in Vietnam. In 1946, Ho Chi Minh purged the VNQDD from the national independence coalition. Its remnants would wind up in South Vietnam; today the Viet Quoc persists mostly in exile.

* The labor recruiter is only tangential to the Yen Bai story, but their function, to dragoon Vietnamese peasants into brutal plantation work on terms next door to slavery, made them particularly hated characters. More about that racket in this 1930 text (pdf) by an outraged Frenchman.

** A few other minor secondary incidents occurred elsewhere in the area, but the epicenter of the rising was always Yen Bai.

† After the mutiny, the French army tried to reduce its dependence on Vietnamese recruits.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,France,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Vietnam

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