New York Times 7/16/98 Nguyen Ngoc Loan, 67, Dies; Executed Viet Cong Prisoner By ROBERT McG. THOMAS Jr. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the quick-tempered South Vietnamese national police commander whose impromptu execution of a Viet Cong prisoner on a Saigon street in the Tet offensive of 1968 helped galvanize American public opinion against the war, died on Tuesday at his home in Burke, Va. He was 67 and had operated a pizza parlor in nearby Dale City. A son, Larry Nguyen, said the cause was cancer.
In a long war that claimed two million lives, the death of a single Viet Cong official would hardly have seemed noteworthy, especially in a week when thousands of insurgents were killed mounting an offensive that included the beheading of women and children in Saigon.
But when Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan raised his pistol on Feb. 1, 1968, extended his arm and fired a bullet through the head of the prisoner, who stood with his hands tied behind his back, the general did so in full view of an NBC cameraman and an Associated Press photographer.
And when the film was shown on television and the picture appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world, the images created an immediate revulsion at a seemingly gratuitous act of savagery that was widely seen as emblematic of a seemingly gratuitous war.
The photograph, by Eddie Adams, was especially vivid, a frozen moment that put a wincing face of horror on the war. Taken almost at once with the squeeze of the trigger, the photo showed the prisoner, unidentified and wearing black shorts and a plaid shirt, in a final grimace as the bullet passed through his brain. Close examination of the photo, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969, showed the slug leaving his head.
For all the emotional impact, the episode had little immediate influence on on the tide of American involvement in the war, which continued seven years longer, until the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. Indeed, it was a full four years after the execution that another indelible image of the war created a new round of revulsion, the sight of a screaming 9-year-old girl as she ran naked along a road after having been burned in a South Vietnamese napalm attack.
The execution changed General Loan's life.
One of 11 children of a prosperous mechanical engineer, Loan, a native of Hue, had graduated near the top of his class at the University of Hue and begun a career as a jet pilot in the South Vietnamese Air Force.
As a close friend of Nguyen Cao Ky, the swashbuckling pilot who became South Vietnam's premier in 1965, Loan, then a colonel, was put in charge of the national police and gained an immediate reputation among western reporters for his flashpoint temper and towering rages at the scenes of Viet Cong attacks against civilian targets.
Some of those who knew him said that Loan would not have carried out the execution of the prisoner if there had not been reporters and photographers on the scene. But Loan insisted his action was justified because the prisoner had been the captain of a terrorist squad that had killed the family of one of his deputy commanders.
Even so, the killing and other summary executions by the South's military during the Tet offensive drew immediate rebukes from American officials, and a few days after the incident, Ky, the former premier who had become Vice President, said the prisoner had not been a part of the Vietcong military but was "a very high-ranking" political official.
Loan later suggested that the execution had not been the rash act it appeared to be but had been carried out because a deputy commander he had ordered to shoot had hesitated.
"I think, 'Then I must do it,' " he said. "If you hesitate, if you didn't do your duty, the men won't follow you."
Vo Suu, an NBC cameraman at the scene, recalled that immediately after the shooting the general walked over to a reporter and said, "These guys kill a lot of our people, and I think Buddha will forgive me."
When he was severely wounded while charging a Viet Cong hideout three months later and taken to Australia for medical treatment, there was such a local outcry against him that he was taken to Walter Reade Hospital in Washington, where he was repeatedly denounced on the floor of Congress.
Back in Saigon, Loan, who had been relieved of his command after his wounding, seemed a changed man, one who devoted his time to showering presents on orphans.
At the fall of Saigon his pleas for American help in fleeing the country were ignored but he and his family escaped in a South Vietnamese plane.
Once his presence in the United States became known there was a move to deport him as a war criminal, but the efforts fizzled and Loan, whose right leg had been amputated, settled in northern Virginia, where he eventually opened his pizza parlor, which he operated until 1991 when publicity about the proprietor's past led to a sharp decline in business.
As a message scrawled on a restroom wall put it, "We know who you are."
In addition to his son, of Burke, Loan is survived by his wife, Chinh Mai, a daughter, Nguyen Anh of Fairfield, Va., three other children, a number of brothers and sisters and nine grandchildren.
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