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The forgotten story of a Saigon warrior

The forgotten story of a Saigon warrior

Espionage, betrayal, covert attacks and the woman who lived.

Tran Thi Minh Nguyet’s sugarcane juice tastes much sweeter without blocks of melting ice slowly diluting the flavors.

In much the same way, Nguyet’s memories seem to fade as Ho Chi Minh City’s cool morning blends into the afternoon. With her hair tied in a silver bun and her feet slipping in and out of rubber sandals, she seems to blend seamlessly into the bustling city of over 12 million.

Few in the noisy neighborhood outside Binh Thanh District’s Eastern Region Bus Station know the 75-year old woman served in the National Liberation Front’s elite Special Forces Unit.

Interviews with Nguyet, her relatives and the unit’s retired officers confirm she helped pull off the boldest urban guerilla bombings of the Vietnam War — a campaign that left holes in tawny hotels, embassy walls and police station compounds.

“I don’t like to talk about these things at all,” Nguyet said on a recent afternoon, her eyes rheumy, her voice bitter.

In many ways, the bombings cost Nguyet her life.

Born into chaos

When Nguyet came into the world, her city had become the object of a colonial tug-of-war.

The Japanese Imperial Army had jailed most of the Vichy French administrators that had helped them rule Saigon during most of World War II.

Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist army (the Viet Minh) declared Vietnam’s independence, only to watch well-provisioned British troops release and re-arm roughly 1,000 French colonial soldiers.

Taking heavy losses from fresh squads of Indian, Nepalese and British troops, the Viet Minh adopted a strategy that avoided direct engagement.

In 1946, Viet Minh Lieutenant-General Nguyen Binh created a commando unit to wage a long urban guerrilla campaign.

At the time, Nguyet was just a toddler, riding around in a motorized, front-loaded tricycle secretly packed with explosives.

From infancy, her parents’ home behind the Vinh Nghiem Pagoda in District 3 served as a safe house for select members the Saigon-Gia Dinh Special Force.

A still image of Tran Thi Minh Nguyet in her 20s from a VTV documentary about the Saigon-Gia Dinh Special Force.

The unit expanded considerably during the fight against the American-funded regime that was scrambling to snuff out communist rebels and their allies in the early 1960s.

Nguyet’s two older brothers spent their teenage years assembling bombs. One day, they brought home a young, skinny revolutionary named Nguyen Thanh Xuan.

Everyone in the force knew him only by the nickname Bay Be (Seven B).

By the time he came into their lives, Bay Be had already lived in Saigon for five years and spent three of them in a prison set aside for suspected communist insurgents. Bay Be never confessed his political allegiance and they released him due to lack of evidence.

“You must know that very few people knew our address, let alone stayed in our house,” Nguyet recalled. “It was a secret shelter in the center of Saigon for very important members of the force. Bay Be hid in our house and grew very close to us; I knew he had feelings for me the first time we met.”

In 1961, Bay Be recommended Nguyet to a special unit for training in rural Cu Chi District where revolutionary forces would dig a massive underground tunnel networks complete with classrooms, hospitals and weapons caches.

The system survived even as constant sorties of bombs and chemical defoliants stripped the earth above it to a moonscape.

Outside a “strategic hamlet” in Phuoc Long Province (now part of Binh Phuoc) in 1963. Villagers in rural areas like this were forced to move into these compounds surrounded by barbed wire and stockades, far away from their fields. Photo by Marv Godner/Via Manh Hai on Flickr

Joining Team Five

Once or twice a week, the unassuming, moon-faced girl mounted her bicycle and pedalled 35km to a secret rendezvous point.

Before arriving, she tied a balaclava around her face to protect her identity from low-ranking members of the force.

She always returned home before dusk and told neighbors she had been visiting friends.

“You couldn’t be away from your house for longer than a half day; otherwise they’d grow suspicious,” she said.

Nguyet’s growing fervor coincided with the failure of South Vietnam’s then President Ngo Dinh Diem’s disastrous hamlet strategy, which attempted to root out insurgents by essentially imprisoning whole rural communities.

“I was young and excited to be doing something for my country when it was in danger, and for my people who were stuck in those hamlets,” she said.

Following her training, Nguyet was assigned to Special Force Team Five, led by Bay Be.

The late Special Force Commander Nguyen Duc Hung, in his bilingual memoir published in 2016, described the unit as a select group of soldiers who “were smart, brave and experienced.”

Nguyet’s first major assignment involved smuggling hundreds of kilograms of explosives with her mother from Cu Chi to the city center in the family’s motorized trike.

They concealed it all in clay pots that sat on the floor of their home right next to where they slept.

Checking into the Caravelle

Photo: Caravelle Hotel in 1961. Photo by Wilbur E. Garrett/via Manh Hai on Flickr

On a steamy August morning in 1964, Nguyet donned a blue ao dai and met Bay Be at Tan Son Nhat airport.

A borrowed blue suit hung loosely on his frame as the couple stood in the sticky heat at the arrivals gate. When international passengers began pouring out, they mingled into the crowd and hailed a cab.

The driver helped them load three heavy suitcases into the trunk and took them to the Caravelle Hotel.

International journalists filed reports from their offices on the hotel’s upper floors and foreign embassy staffers smoked and drank coffee in the lobby.

Both of them were a bit taken aback when they stepped into the lobby.

Since opening four years before, the hotel had become known for its laid-back, secure atmosphere.

Bay Be presented a false identification card and introduced himself as the bodyguard of an American colonel named Brown.

He claimed to want a room for Brown and his girlfriend, the young lady in the blue ao dai he called Kim Chi.

“Take care of the luggage,” Nguyet barked, puffing on a cigarette. “I’m going shopping.” She hailed a cab to Ben Thanh Market, walked around the clothing booths for an hour and, eventually, slipped away into the crowd.

Meanwhile, Bay Be had packed the room with 514 explosives.

Buddhist monks and women pull at a barbed-wire barricade that was set up in front of Saigon’s Giac Minh Pagoda to halt a demonstration on 17 July 1963. Police wielding clubs injured at least 50 people during the protest, one of many during this period by Buddhists opposed to the Diem regime. The following month, secret police raided temples throughout the country, an act that only heightened anger against the government. Photo by Horst Faas/AP/Via Manh Hai on Flickr

Winding the watch

The undercover agent would later recall how hard it was for him to leave the luxury of the room.

“I was instructed to leave a can of Coca-Cola half full in the room. Months of eating rice and salt and suddenly room service brings you a sweet, delicious Coca-cola. But you were not allowed to finish it; you had to act like a rich man. I still feel bad about not finishing it.”

Bay Be walked out of the Caravelle at 4 p.m. and having set a timer for the bomb to explode two hours later.

The mission almost failed when morning brought no news.

Bay Be returned to discover he’d forgotten to wind the watch.

At 11 a.m. on August 25 the windows of nine rooms exploded, littering cars parked on the street below with debris. U.S. newspapers reported nine injured, including four Americans.

“The blast was centered in a room rented Monday night by a Vietnamese man now being sought by police, a hotel source said,” reported AP.

Bay Be walked into the street just before the blast and got away clean.

This was the first and major mission of the force, choreographed right at the heart of Saigon and in the middle of a very tumultuous and volatile chapter of history.

After Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, set himself on fire and sent shock waves around the world in 1963, police stepped up their efforts to crush anti-war movements.

Just a month before the Caravelle bombing, a demonstration in front of a pagoda had ended in a violent way, with at least 50 people wounded. Then police continued to raid temples across the South in an aggressive crackdown attempt, which the Special Force leaders said gave them an urgent cause to act and make a statement.

Caravelle Hotel with a bombed-out 5th floor in 1964–1965. Author unknown/via Manh Hai on Flickr

Blowing up the Brinks

In the aftermath of the blast, the force’s deputy commander obtained a picture post card of the Brinks, also known as the Brink Bachelor Officers Quarters, a six story housing unit for U.S. Army brass located just behind the city’s colonial-era opera house.

Spotting a streak of light emanating from beneath the six-story residence, the officer composed an encrypted message directing Team Five to sneak 200kg of explosives into what he believed was an underground garage.

Assassins bullets had felled President John F. Kennedy and Saigon’s fierce dictator Ngo Dinh Diem by then, leaving behind a shaky military junta. American ground troops hadn’t yet landed in the Republic of Vietnam, but tensions were high.

Just four months after the attack on the Caravelle, Nguyet sat down at a café not far from the building they hoped to reduce to rubble and ordered a coffee.

When asked whether she’d been nervous, she scoffed.

“For what? So I could get caught?”

Waiting for Major Mems

In the late afternoon of December 24, 1964, an hour before a Christmas ceasefire would take effect, Bay Be drove a shiny new car into the six-story building, just a few steps away from the Caravelle.

Behind him sat Map, a young chubby but scrappy revolutionary packed into the uniform of a South Vietnamese major. 

When the car reached the guard station, Map rolled down his window and asked in broken English to see Major William Mems who’d just returned from Da Lat.

“Not yet, sir,” the clerk replied.

“You wait for him here,” Map barked to his slender driver, before stepping out onto the sidewalk and wandering off.

The guards waved Bay Be into the garage.

Stepping out for coffee

In an after-action report submitted to his superiors, Bay Be described standing around, awkwardly, with the guards.

“After waiting a while, I asked the guards: ‘Why do these big guys always want the driver to wait? I’ve been driving all morning and now I’ve gotta wait again? I’m so hungry.”

The guards took pity on him and allowed him to leave the grounds and join Nguyet.

“Police were everywhere and a man sitting alone in the crowd would be suspicious,” she said, recalling how they both watched coffee trickling though tin filters while they waited for the ear-shattering explosion.

Six minutes before 6 p.m., the bomb went off, shattering every window in a 100 meter radius.

The couple rose from their seats and, again, disappeared into the crowd.

Two American officers were killed, and some 107 guests expecting a holiday celebration hosted by Bob Hope instead spent Christmas in the hospital.

Hope presumed he was the intended target, but to this day, Nguyet doesn’t know who the famous comedian was. Hope died in the U.S. in 2003.

The embassy attack

The Brinks attack surprised the Americans and shattered their confidence in the junta’s control over Saigon.

The blowback resulted in a public spat between the American ambassador and the regime’s president, who he called on to resign.

Although the National Liberation Front hoped the bombing would frighten the U.S. away from full-scale engagement in Vietnam, it resulted in the arrival of U.S. ground troops and the escalation of the largest aerial bombing campaign in human history.

Unexploded ordnance and chemical defoliants dropped by U.S. airplanes continue to plague the country.

In March 1965, Team Five received orders to strike the biggest target imaginable: the U.S. Embassy compound on Ham Nghi Street.

I was young and excited to be doing something for my country when it was in danger, and for my people who were stuck in those hamlets.

Losing a brother

Nguyet and her mother concealed a cache of guns and 150kg of explosives in a rubber truck and drove it into the city center.

On a bright, dry morning, Nguyet mounted a motorized bicycle supplied by the force and headed toward the tawny riverside neighborhood occupied by the embassy.

Her eyes scanned the road looking for undercover cops and obstacles, before she signaled to a man that the coast was clear.

It was Tu Viet, the best shooter of the team respected for his street smart. Viet also took part in the Brinks mission a few months earlier.

“He was a rogue when they recruited him from the streets,” Nguyet recalled. “I don’t know how the force found him,”

That morning, Viet pulled onto a zebra crossing in front of the embassy entrance, drew a pistol from his coat and shot both of the embassy guards dead.

Seconds later, Bay Be pulled up driving a Shubert Frigate and set a quick timer on a bomb weighing 150kg that shattered the building.

Nguyet zipped off into the panic and Bay Be jumped into a taxi bound for Ben Thanh Market where he disappeared into the crowd, leaving behind twenty dead and scores injured.

However, Tu Viet was unable to get away, and was shot and arrested by police.

He spent a year on Con Dao Island and died trying to escape.

Nguyet recalled that Tu Viet often stayed with her family. He was more than just a comrade. She always treated him like a younger brother and there was a special bond between them that she rarely had with anyone else.

“I don’t know whether his family received any support after the war,” Nguyet said. “I have no information about his personal life due to the anonymity of the force.”

“He always helped around the house,” she said. “It’s painful to think that he never had a wife or a family of his own.”

Wreckage from the car bomb of the US Embassy in Saigon on March 30 1965. Photo by United States Department of Defense Public Domain/via Wikipedia.

Laying low

Following the embassy bombing, Nguyet returned to her family’s home.

Plainclothes secret police stalked her neighborhood and her parents tried to buy the neighbors’ silence by helping them with free deliveries on the family’s motorized trike.

“None of them knew, but they wouldn’t report us if they did,” she explained.

She thought it had worked until she was captured on the road to Cu Chi with a cache of encrypted letters describing a planned attack on South Vietnam’s National Police Headquarters.

“Someone snitched,” she said adding that she endured months of torture in a Saigon prison.

“The trick was to admit nothing,” Nguyet recalled. “They couldn’t understand what was written in the letters, nor could they tie me to any of the bombings.”

Following her release, a policeman residing in her alley kept a close eye on her.

“I was isolated, watched 24/24 as if I were a treasure they were trying to keep.”

Nguyet lost all contact with her team, but their work continued.

Taking it to the cops

At 9 a.m. on August 17, 1965, two pretty members of Team Five approached a pair of guards at the national police station and began to chat them up.

“While the women flirted with the guards, a military jeep and a civilian sedan drove through the open gate,” United Press International reported.

“The two cars were loaded with explosives. Their drivers jumped out and escaped on foot before the vehicles exploded with an impact that destroyed one building and three police cars, set off fires in the compound and knocked out windows in buildings more than 100 yards away.”

Six Americans meeting with the southern police were injured in the attack, but every member of the special force team escaped.

That was the last attack Bay Be carried out with his team.

In June 1966, an informant passed information to Saigon police that led to Bay Be’s capture. He spent the remainder of the war in the southern regime’s most notorious prisons.

In a way, he was lucky. Most of the unit died in missions orchestrated during the Tet Offensive.

The trick was to admit nothing.

Bittersweet reunions

In 1968, the year that most of the Special Force operatives perished in missions orchestrated for the Tet Offensive, Nguyet was at home giving birth to her son.

A few years earlier, Nguyet had met her husband, an instructor for Saigon’s propaganda and training board, during political theory lessons in Cu Chi District.

In 1970, they had another daughter, not long before he was caught.

“He was tortured so many times his body couldn’t recover,” Nguyet said, as if to explain her inability to recall his name.

Following the end of the war, Bay Be returned from his confinement on Con Dao Island and turned up at Nguyet’s front door.

For years, newspapers would print glowing romantic stories about their reunion. But it didn’t end happily for Nguyet, who then had two daughters with Bay Be. She said she had to leave him after learning he was having affairs with two former members of their squad.

Tran Thi Minh Nguyet, now 75, sits next to her cart in the neighborhood outside Binh Thanh District’s Eastern Region Bus Station. Photo by VnExpress/Nhung Nguyen

Life after the war

The discovery prompted Nguyet to abruptly leave her family home and build a place of her own out of corrugated tin on Dinh Bo Linh Street.

“My brother wanted me to move out as well,” said Nguyet. “Married women traditionally weren’t allowed to stay with their parents.”

Bay Be, who reached the rank of captain, received most of the official credit for Team Five’s legacy. Nguyet’s contribution was largely lost in history.

During a recent interview, Tran Minh Son, the force’s deputy chief of staff described Nguyet as marginal.

“She quit,” he said in his spacious three bedroom home in District 7. “Her mind wasn’t really stable.”

The retired official seemed largely unaware of Nguyet’s capture and torture.

The Brinks Hotel building was demolished to make way for the now world-class Park Hyatt Saigon Hotel. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

Like most units of Saigon-Gia Dinh Special Force, Team Five was largely forgotten by historians.

Those who didn’t die or achieve the rank of officer were unceremoniously disbanded in 1976.

A single stele perched in front of the Park Hyatt recalls the bombing of the Brinks without any mention of the unit.

Another stele that mentions the Special Force and their losses during the Tet Offensive sits in front of the U.S. Consulate on Le Duan Street.

In 2007, Special Force Commander Nguyen Duc Hung claimed an effort to gather surviving veterans for the 30th anniversary of the Tet Offensive failed due to American security concerns.

“Surprisingly, as we approached the monument to burn incense, offer flowers and meditate, we were stopped by security guards employed by the American Consulate General,” he told television reporters. “The monument stands lonely on Le Duan Street in the sovereign of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam!”

Nguyet feels less sentimental about her dimming role in the history of the republic.

She raised her children largely by selling soymilk and bottles of Coca-Cola from a cart parked on the pavement. She now lives with her son, and the daughters are all in the same neighborhood.

“You can go and ask the ward police; they know nothing about my story,” Nguyet giggled. “Sometimes they come by to confiscate my cart as part of a campaign to clear the sidewalks.”

In front of the now world-class Park Hyatt Saigon Hotel is a memorial stone for the 1964 car bombing. “Feat of Arms Stele,” it says. “The Battle of Brink Apartment. On December 24, 1964. The Saigon Special Force.” Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.
Attempts to find “Tu Map” (Nguyen Quang Hoa), the “major” who joined Bay Be in the mission, proved fruitless. The last information about him was that he had returned to his hometown in Vinh Long. 

Story by Nhung Nguyen

Top banner designed by Hieu Nguyen

Photos in the top banner via Manh Hai on Flickr

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