February 1 in History

“Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera.”—Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams

An Associated Press photographer and an NBC News television team were in Saigon, Vietnam, covering street fighting during the second day of the Tet Offensive on this date in 1968 when a prisoner was brought before South Vietnam’s police chief, Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. Loan pulled out his .38 revolver and fired a single shot into the head of the prisoner, who died instantly. Loan continued his tour of the street after firing the pistol, was already steps away from the prisoner before the young man’s head hit the ground.

Loan had been told who the prisoner was, Nguyễn Văn Lém, and that he was charged with being the leader of a team of Viet Cong that had killed several police officers and their families. Lém may have killed several family members himself, slashed their throats, which would qualify as a war crime.

Eddie Adams did not know this. The NBC News team did not know about this. All they knew was that a young man in a plaid shirt had just been summarily executed—and in a way that made “summarily” appear as cruel as it does not sound—in front of their eyes and cameras.

The photo won Adams the 1969 Pulitzer Prize and it became one of the two or three most important news photos from America’s Vietnam engagement. It appeared to depict a viciousness, a cruelty from the side that we supported, South Vietnam, and it became a part of the anti-war movement’s argument against the war.

Lém had been captured at a mass grave that contained thirty-four civilian dead. He may have killed them himself. That is what Captain Loan was told. Lém may have been a war criminal as we understand the term and, as such, he probably deserved a trial instead of a street execution. He was in street clothes and probably deserved better. The streets of Saigon were a part of the battlefield that day, and Captain Loan probably considered his action (killing Lém without giving him so much as a chance to say goodbye to the world) to be action taken in the heat of battle.

Loan, who died in 1998 in Virginia, came to America as a refugee after the war. He tried to run a business, a pizzeria in Washington, DC, but every so often he would be recognized from behind from that famous photograph. His identity would be disclosed, and business would vanish as he, his family, his customers, would be harassed. Eddie Adams apologized to him in person for what the photograph did to his life.

* * * *
Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated at about 200,000 feet during its re-entry in Earth’s atmosphere fourteen years ago today. All seven astronauts on board were killed: Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon.

* * * *
A 26-year-old Canadian reporter was set down behind the nightly news anchor desk at ABC News on this date in 1965. Peter Jennings already had some reporting experience and some news anchor experience, but he did not have enough. He was the youngest anchor in American television, a record that is not likely to be broken.

Up against the legendary Walter Cronkite and beloved Huntley/Brinkley, Jennings stumbled his way through three years of gaffes. Finally, he requested and received a transfer, a demotion, to foreign correspondent so he could learn his trade. He returned to the anchor’s chair in 1983. When he died in 2005, he had won over a dozen Emmys in his subsequent years as anchor.

* * * *
Late Night with David Letterman debuted on NBC 35 years ago today. “One of the strangest tales ever told”:

* * * *
Piet Mondrian died on this date in 1944. Buster Keaton died on this date in 1966. Gian Carlo Menotti died ten years ago today. Wisława Szymborska died five years ago today.

* * * *
The founder of the Hudson River School of art, Thomas Cole, was born on this date in 1801. Clark Gable was born on this date in 1901. S. J. Perelman was born on this date in 1904. Dame Muriel Spark was born 99 years ago today. Reynolds Price was born in 1933 on this date.

* * * *
Don Everly is 80 today. Garrett Morris is 80 today. Terry Jones is 75 today. His most recent documentary is entitled Boom Bust Boom and is on Netflix:

Jones, the Monty Python star and director of many films, was diagnosed with dementia last year and can no longer speak.

Billy Mumy is 63 today. A child star in the 1950s, he has continued to work in entertainment up to the present date. If you are a regular viewer of Biography on A&E, you have heard his voice narrate celebrity life stories.

Sherilyn Fenn is 52. Lisa Marie Presley is 49. Big Boi is 42. Ronda Rousey is 30 today.

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  1. loisajay · February 1, 2017

    I remember that photo as if it was yesterday, but did not know the story behind it. Sad about Terry Jones. He spoke at my daughter’s college graduation many years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · February 1, 2017

      The only member of Monty Python I’ve seen is Terry Gilliam. Dementia is horrid … the documentary clip that I included is from 2015 and he performed in the Python reunion stage shows in 2015. And in October 2016, he was given a lifetime BAFTA award and he went on stage but his son spoke for him.


Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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