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Old Saigon Echo website
from 2008 - 2012
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Director: Bai An Tran, Ph.D.

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South Vietnam Durable Diem

At 7 a.m, in the second-floor study of Saigon's yellow stucco Freedom Palace, South Viet Nam's President Ngo Dinh Diem was absorbed in a biography of George Washington

TTDiem-Time 

, the gift of a recent U.S. visitor. At the sudden roar of an airplane engine, he looked up, hurried out to the balcony in time to see a fighter plane swooping toward him through the early morning overcast.

Scarcely 16 months ago, autocratic, anti-Communist President Diem had narrowly missed being overthrown by mutinous paratroopers, and this time he was taking no chances. With the agility born of experience, short, stocky Diem dashed down the stairs of the palace's east wing to a cellar fortified against such emergencies, flashed word by telephone to his military commanders just as a napalm bomb turned the west wing into a smoky shambles. In a west wing apartment, meanwhile, Diem's brother and sister-in-law, Braintruster Nhu (still clad in pajamas) and Presidential Hostess Mme. Nhu, snatched three of their children (a fourth was away from home) and bolted for the basement. In the scramble, Mme. Nhu fell down the steps, bruising her arms, legs and forehead. Also to the bunker rushed another brother. Archbishop Thuc, in Saigon for medical treatment.

Tanks & Pistols. Roused by the sound of aircraft engines, residents of the city climbed to their rooftops to see what was happening. Two AD6 Skyraider fighter-bombers of the South Vietnamese air force were lazily circling the spacious palace grounds, gracefully power- gliding below the 500-ft. ceiling to drop bombs, fire rockets, strafe the building. Then they pulled up sharply into the heavy clouds before zooming down for another pass. "With that weather," said a U.S. Air Force officer, "they did a hell of a job."

For about 30 minutes the planes were unmolested as they attacked the palace with four bombs, eight rockets and cannon fire. Meanwhile, loyal ground troops, anticipating a full-scale revolution, hastily ringed the palace grounds with tanks. Minesweepers patrolled the Saigon River. Then two loyal pilots from the Bienhoa air base, twelve miles north of Saigon, gave chase, but on the ground in Saigon no one knew if the new arrivals were friends or foes. Antiaircraft fire from tanks, minesweepers, and even policemen's pistols was indiscriminate. Despite the confusion, most of the people went about their business with conventional apathy. Pretty girls in billowing silk gracefully pedaled their bicycles, and motorists stopped for red lights. Finally, a shot from a minesweeper downed one of the rebel planes, and as the pilot crash-landed in the Saigon River, the other plane fled toward the Cambodian border about 40 miles away.

The downed pilot was picked up by naval craft, quickly asked: "Did I kill that filthy character?" His identity proved surprising: Lieut. Pham Phu Quoc, a French-trained flying ace in the South Vietnamese air force who recently was congratulated by President Diem for flying hundreds of sorties against the Communist Viet Cong. In fact, he and the second aerial rebel were due to fly an anti-Red mission that morning, headed for the Saigon palace instead. Lieut. Quoc's fellow attacker was 2nd Lieut. Nguyen Van Cu, a less experienced fighter pilot with more obvious reasons for discontent: his father, an ex-member of an outlawed political party opposed to Diem, as well as the Communists, had been briefly jailed a few years ago for "antigovernment activities." Cu, who was granted political asylum in Cambodia, said his assassination mission was aimed less at President Diem than at his family and supporters, "who are hated by the army and the population."

Just in Case. Whatever the intention, the mission failed. Known fatalities in the assault were a servant inside the palace, two other Vietnamese, and U.S. Contractor Sydney Ambrose, 59, of Portland, Ore., who climbed to a shaky, asbestos-covered apartment-house roof to watch the fireworks, fell through and died in a hospital. Also hospitalized with abrasions was Mme. Nhu, who, reported one visitor, "cried like a baby."

Diem's regime seemed unruffled by the surprise attack, wrote it off as the "isolated act" it appeared to be. But just to make sure, the National Assembly leaders laid the groundwork for a possible wholesale roundup of dissidents by urging Diem to "take drastic measures against irresponsible elements."

The President himself came through the assassination attempt with courage and coolness. Within two hours, he was on the radio with a brief recorded speech to thank "divine protection" for his escape. Then he paid a hospital visit to soldiers wounded in the battle, reassured the mutinous pilots' fellow officers that they would bear no share of the blame. President Kennedy immediately sent a message that denounced the attack as a "destructive and vicious act," expressed relief that Diem was "safe and unharmed." The quick U.S. reaction was intended to show that any hidden sympathizers of the mutinous pilots could expect no backing from Washington.

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