The Story Behind the Man Who was Killed in the Famous “Saigon Execution” Photo

vietnam-war-memorialPerhaps one of the most iconic images to come out of the Vietnam War (see photo here), this photo depicts a uniformed South Vietnamese officer shooting a prisoner in the head. When you look into it, however, there is much more to this photograph than first meets the eye. There is an undeniable brutality to this photo, but even Eddie Adams – who won a Pulitzer Prize for capturing this shot – later admitted that it didn’t tell the whole story and he stated that he wished he hadn’t taken it at all.

Looking at this image out of context, it appears as though an officer is gunning down an innocent prisoner, perhaps even a civilian. You are apparently witnessing a savage war crime. That is the reason this image was adopted by anti-war protesters as an indictment against the Vietnam War. Without understanding the background, there is no reason to think that is not the case. It seems like yet another image showing someone acting horrifically and immorally during war time. But, when you learn the story behind the man who is being executed in this photo, the image and the reasoning behind the execution becomes a little bit clearer.

This man’s name was Nguyen Van Lem, but he was also known as Captain Bay Lop.  Lem was no civilian; he was a member of the Viet Cong. Not just any member, either, he was an assassin and the leader of a Viet Cong death squad who had been targeting and killing South Vietnamese National Police officers and their families.

Lem’s team was attempting to take down a number of South Vietnamese officials. They may have even been plotting to kill the shooter himself, Major General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. It is said that Lem had recently been responsible for the murder of one of Loan’s most senior officers, as well as the murder of the officer’s family.

According to accounts at the time, when South Vietnamese officers captured Lem, he was more or less caught in the act, at the site of a mass grave. This grave contained the bodies of no less than seven South Vietnamese police officers, as well as their families, around 34 bound and shot bodies in total. Eddie Adams, the photojournalist who took the shot, backs up this story. Lem’s widow also confirmed that her husband was a member of the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong), and that he disappeared before the beginning of the Tet Offensive.

After being captured with the bodies during the Tet Offensive, Nguyen Van Lem was taken to Major General Ngoc Loan. In a street in Saigon, Loan executed Lem with his .38 caliber Smith & Wesson.

The photographer, Eddie Adams, had this to say of capturing the photo:

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 General then walked up to Adams and said,  “They killed many of my people, and yours, too,” then walked away

Was this the right thing to do?  As with so many things connected to war, the answer to that question is murky at best. Military lawyers have not yet decided with complete certainty whether or not Loan’s actions violated the Geneva Conventions relating to the treatment of prisoners of war, so there is no official decision on the matter. From Loan’s perspective, the man before him was a cold blooded killer who not only killed some of his friends and colleagues, but their families and other innocent people. This was a dangerous man, who in the name of patriotism nonetheless believed his political stance justified his actions, as presumably did General Loan himself concerning the execution. The question is- how would you have reacted, on both sides of the coin?

This may have been the end of Lem’s life, but it was not the end of the story. The image of Lem’s execution, and public reaction to it, played a small role in bringing the Vietnam War to an end. Although that is no bad thing, it also demonized General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, which was something Eddie Adams was extremely sorry for. He was quoted as saying,

The General killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, “What would you do if you were the General at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?”

Adams felt that, by taking the photo, he had ruined Loan’s life. He felt Loan was a good man, in a bad situation, and he deeply regretted the negative impact that the photo had on him.  In fact, Major General Loan later moved to the United States. When he arrived, the Immigration and Nationalization Services wanted to deport him partially because of the photo taken by Adams. They approached Adams to testify against Loan, but Adams instead testified in his favor and Loan was allowed to stay.   When Loan died of cancer in 1998, Adams stated, “The guy was a hero. America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him.”

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Bonus Facts:

  • After emigrating to the U.S. in 1975, the former General, Nguyen Loan, opened a pizza parlor in Washington D.C., which he ran until 1991, when his identity was discovered and he was forced to retire after receiving many threats.
  • Nguyen Van Lem’s secret Viet Cong name, Captain Bay Lop, came from his wife, whose first name was Lop.
  • For many years, Lem’s widow and children lived in extreme poverty. A Japanese TV crew found them living in a field, and it was only then that the Vietnamese government offered them housing.
  • This photo won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1969, as well as the World Press Photo Award. Despite this, Adams thought he had taken much better and more important photographs, and was sorry that this was the one that had received all the recognition.
[Image via Shutterstock] Expand for References
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  • very interesting

  • Well, the thing is that the death squad story is not even close to be clear. The wife just said (if so) that her husban belongs to a unit or so she understood. But do the crimes be really commited by the guy? we´ll never know, because there was no trial, and this is what good guys do, take the criminal to court. Isn´t it the civilizated way?, or take it from the murdered point of view. Wasn´t he a real Stallone?.
    As for the artist, well, most of the times they don´t know what they created, the interpretation is in the eye of the beholder.

    • Armin Yes, we do know. The story given is correct.
      My father was there, and is just off screen in the video and the photo. This VC had just killed the generals friend, and his friend’s family. Not “collateral damage”, when trying to kill the other police officer.
      Cold blooded murder of bound and gagged civilian women and children.
      We do take criminals to court, when a civil law has been broken. But what he did was not breaking a civil law.
      He was using terror in the prosecution of war. He broke the Geneva Convention in just about every manner you can. His killing might not have been strictly legal, if it had happened in New York or Antwerp, but it was certainly the right thing to do.

  • He wasn’t wearing uniform while in combat therefor the execution is completely legal.

  • He was not a “Prisoner of War”. He was an enemy combatant in civilian clothes caught in the act of murder. The South Viet Namese officer was giving the captive a summary execution, which is covered in the Genieva Convention. Gray area? Maybe, but the captive made his choice.

  • The article doesn’t cite any references for the information included. What were your sources?

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Sam: References are always at the bottom. Click the “Expand for References” 🙂

  • Are you a fucking retarded trying to justify a cold blood murder or is it just my mpression?

    • You have a naïve concept of warfare. Any army that has ever existed would have behaved the same way or worse. They would have tortured him for a while and then killed him. The Vietcong carried out thousands of executions without trial and this man himself had just finished executing a number of people without trial. Thanks to the American news media one execution without trial by our side outweighs thousands by our enemy. The media are controlled by people who hate America.

      • I appreciate this article. I wasn’t in the Armed Forces, but my ex-husband’s brother was killed in Vietnam. My current husband was there for 39 months. He suffers flash-backs. Vietnam played a huge role in my generation. I seen the guy being killed, on television during news reports and then read about it in countless articles. I feel “all is fair in war”. Certainly this guy who was shot, deserved it. He was a cold blooded killer. He destroyed many lives. He is responsible for several American lives. My sympathy for the photographer for his picture presenting the wrong concept. As for your father, I thank him for his service to our Nation.

    • Aren’t you justifying the cold blooded mass murder by this commie rat? Did you read the part about 34 people he killed lying in the trench where they caught him and him bragging he was proud to kill them?

    • Are you ignorant of the Geneva Convention which states that combatants who do not identify themselves with a distinctive insignia are considered spies who can be shot on the spot?

    • Had you served in vietnam as i did as a mud marine, you would have understood. Mike Blum kenmore ny. 1968/69 vietnam ,republic of.

  • If some just cut the throats of your neighbors children and then the parents .. You find someone who is known to be in charge of the death squad also found with the bodies red handed…. You have a gun in your hand …..What would you do?

  • this reminds me WWII when germans were capturing french or polish resistent witch were civiliants they execute them on the spot no fooling around

    • Don’t forget what the resistance did to the collaborators at the end of the war, nor what US soldiers did to the concentration camp guards at the death camps when they captured them.

  • He actually opened his pizza shop in Rolling Valley West Mall in Springfield, VA. Good pizza by the way. Communism and National Socialism resulted in two world wars and 120 million dead. The lefties are all a bunch of kill crazy nut jobs. Just saying! 🙂

  • yeah, that was the right thing to do, damn it !

    • How? Te guy was unarmed and in handcuffs, so at the moment he was no threat to anyone and more of a fountain of information. If this is right, you are seriusly loco in the head.

  • Andrew Mackechnie

    It is so sad that someone with so much more cause than most could be so harshly judged. The harsh truth is that he was a soldier doing his duty and no matter what his action, it was going to cost sacrifices. he was a true person of responsibility who took upon his own shoulders the repercussions of his actions instead of asking one of his soldiers to do the dirty work for him.

  • This was not “cold blooded murder”. In case you missed it, there is more to the story that you might wanna read. First of all, this was in a time of war and both were soldiers. The difference in this case is that we were not there when the picture was taken or when the guy was caught with the bodies of dead civilians that he is said to have executed. It’s similar to what some may think about how American forces killed bin laden after he was responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.
    As for myself, I feel bad that for the photographer who felt guilty about taking the picture that was viewed negatively by the public and possibly ruined the “executioner’s” life. I for one, would have stopped in that pizza parlor and thanked the guy for what he did. The guy that he killed in the photo, very well may have killed American forces as well for whatever reason ranging from We were his nation’s enemy to simply for the cash bounty. Yes there were cash rewards for the killing of American forces in the Vietnam War that the VC leaders paid to their soldiers. Between 2 thousand and 8 thousand dollars depending on their rank.
    Either way, the guy that was killed in the photo was an enemy of America at the time and war is war. Not sure on what your nationality is (Rafael Duarte), but I assume American, and if so, do you feel that it was wrong that we (America) dropped not one but two atomic bombs on Japan in World War Two? And the second one was BIGGER.
    Those bombs made ground zero there instantly reach 55 hundred degrees fahrenheit and people were vaporized instantly. The flash of the explosion was so bright that the shadows of people on the streets of ground zero there stained the concrete like a bad tan line with the shadows of Japanese people, both civilian and military alike. And children were no exception. War is war.
    This was not murder but the duty of a Soldier.

    • A cook with stamina

      I agree with your view on the “Saigon Execution” photo and war in general. There is no such thing as a “civilized war”. You either kill them or they kill you, with the exception of non-combatants, and it is difficult to sort that out at times. Your examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a case in point. It would have cost hundreds of thousands of lives to invade the Japanese mainland. to end the war. Dropping two bombs saved lives. The Hiroshima fireball was 1,200 feet in diameter and reached over 10,000 degrees F, and as you said, people were simply vaporized. Today’s rules of engagement make our soldiers operate with one hand tied behind their back. You either go to war and let the soldiers win, or do not prosecute the war in the first place.

  • It may hot have been a War Crime per the Legal definition, since he was not in uniform, but it was an illicit and savage crime non the less, the guy was detained and in handcuffs, no need to execute him, that is inexcusable, no matter what, and anyone that makes excuses is extremely biased or a psychopath. Adams was both and he loved the money, you seem to do so to.

    • LOL! do not use peacetime arguments on wartime arguments like that. if you said that you never know about Vietnam War and Vietcong, go study Vietnam war again. Vietcong never wear uniform on the battle and they are like rats, civilian uniform, attack and withdraw.

      • And this justifies the execution of an unarmed subdued person.

        • The Geneva Convention justifies his execution. It was written expressly to prohibit the kind of war on civilians Bay Lop perpetrated. On the other hand, you support Bay Lop and his mass murder of civilians, of children, of families. How do you possibly defend such an immoral depraved position?

      • So no uniforms, medals or standardised weaponry? I guess the Vietcong did not have anti air defences either, since they were just rats or Artillery.

  • Bob of Bonsall

    One of the ironies of the post war period in Viet Nam was the way the Viet Cong and their dependents were shunned and victimised by the new government and it was not long before former VC combatants joined the throng of “Boat People” excaping from the country.

  • The many people who have attempted to justify this war crime (and that’s what it was) are completely missing the point. The laws of war do NOT say that you can execute illegal combatants “on the spot”. They say that an alleged illegal combatant must be proven to be such through the application of due process. If found guilty THEN they can be executed. Summary execution can only be justified if some kind of court/military tribunal is not available. Clearly that exeption does not apply in this case. The police commander circumvented the rule of law. He acted out of need for revenge, nothing more. Understandable yes,legal no. It has been repeatedly said that the prisoner did this murder,that atrocity. How do you know? He is dead and cannot talk. The only testimony is from the side who killed him and therefore biased. All we know is that he was an insurgent. What he actually did or didn’t do we don’t know. Why don’t we know? Because he was shot dead when he should have been brought before military authorities for processing which was readily available in this case. The POW aspect is repeatedly (very frustratingly) misunderstood by most commentators. That this man was an illegal combatant and not entitled to treatment as a POW DOES NOT mean that you can just do whatever you like to him. All human beings remain subject to law no matter what the circumstances. Saying that an illegal combatant/spy/saboteur/franc tireur has no right to his day in court and can be arbitrarily killed is like saying that someone suspected of being a serial killer should be killed on the spot by the arresting police officers. Even Ted Bundy had to have a trial.

  • “The image of Lem’s execution, and public reaction to it, played a small role in bringing the Vietnam War to an end. Although that is no bad thing …”
    A better way to put it would be: “The image of Lem’s execution, and public reaction to it, played a small role in the ultimate Communist conquest of South Vietnam. Not only was this a very bad thing in its own right …”