by Andrew P. O’Meara, Jr., Colonel, United States Army, Retired
In the summer of 1963, a time of riots and demonstrations in Vietnam, the Buddhists were up in arms and rumors of treason were daily fare in the foreign media. As I emerged from a barber shop in Saigon, clusters of illiterate dock workers marched through the streets carrying signs written in English denouncing the Government. Shoppers and merchants ignored the gaggle of demonstrators blocking traffic in the middle of Freedom Boulevard, which once bisected Saigon. American journalists ran along the cluster of ill clad workers attempting to get enough bodies in their camera lenses to provide photographic evidence for stories that would appear in the New York Times proclaiming a demonstration of tens of thousands that had turned out to denounce the “corrupt” Diem Regime.
While drinking my morning coffee over the next few days, I read the newspaper accounts of the massive demonstration realizing that I had witnessed the demonstration that in actuality numbered no more than fifty workers obviously paid to carry signs they could not read. They could have been Viet Cong peasants, but their clothing suggested otherwise. Their absence from the docks was evidently rewarded in cash by enemies of the Diem Regime, encouraged by the attention of the foreign journalists. The result was a fabricated news event manufactured by coup plotters intent upon bringing down the Government of President Diem.
At the time I was an American advisor who had spent the past year with South Vietnamese mechanized infantry units garrisoned near the City. Rumors of an imminent coup had circulated in the American press for some time. The reports of coup plotters served as a damper on our military operations as troops loyal to the President were recalled to their garrisons to ward off nebulous threats circulated by the Americans. As a result my infantry comrades were restricted to their barracks, where they occupied themselves cleaning weapons they had cleaned the day before leaving me out of a job.
My morning coffee was cut short by a call from my boss informing me that I had been reassigned as the advisor to the Tank Company, commanded by Captain Ngai. A pro who needed no advisor, Ngai had commanded the Company for five years. His primary duty was to furnish platoons of M24 light tanks to the Presidential Guard that protected the Palace.
Shortly after I reported to Captain Ngai, we received a mission as a rapid reaction force to provide assistance to a strategic hamlet that had been overrun in LongKhanProvince. Prior to our departure, my American boss told me to get the radio frequencies of the Tank Company. I suggested he get the information from the Communications Officer. He curtly replied that “we” don’t want them to know we are monitoring their radio frequencies. Instantly I realized that I had become a plant in the ranks of the Presidential Guard – a spy posing as a battle tested comrade and friend. The realization that I was being used to betray my comrades turned my stomach. I was being asked to betray soldiers I had lived with and fought beside over the previous year.
It was a long dusty ride before the belated reaction force made its appearance at the site of the strategic hamlet, whose residents were still cleaning up and burying the dead. We inspected the damage and spoke to the survivors. That evening Ngai and I took our meal together on a grass mat in a clearing that served as the Tank Company night defensive position. Our meal consisted of rice and chicken, a luxury prepared by Ngai’s driver, who was a fine cook. We drank tea together after the meal and watched the sun set over the jungle canopy. As we shared our meal I knew my personal honor and sense of duty as a trusted advisor and comrade in arms would not permit me to betray my friends as a spy in their ranks.
Asked for the radio frequencies upon my return to the Headquarters of the Cavalry Regiment, I replied that I did not have them. I observed that it was not possible for me to record the radio frequencies, a response that made clear that I would not cooperate with coup planners in the CIA or whoever was behind the efforts to bring down the Regime of President Diem.
My tour of duty in Vietnam nearly over, there was no work for me as an infantry advisor on combat as operation that had come to a halt. Not working out in my newly assigned role as a spy, in a few days I received orders assigning me to States side duty.
Within a few days of my arrival at my new duty station, FortKnox, I read of the coup that took the life of President Diem. Scanning the news stand to find information on the fate of my friends my eye fell upon the cover of Life Magazine. There on the cover was an armored personnel carrier of the Cavalry Regiment carrying the coffin of the leader of the coup attack. And prominently displayed on the front of the coffin was a picture of Captain Ngai. My eyes filled with tears as I struggled to control my emotions. A Vietnamese friend, Captain Tom, a member of the Regiment attending the ArmorSchool, told me the story of the coup.
Deceived into playing a leading role in the coup, Captain Ngai had been told that coup forces were approaching the Palace and ordered to take his tank company to reinforce the Presidential Guard. He took his company down the center of Freedom Boulevard, riding in the lead vehicle, as was his custom. As the tank company approached the Place, his vehicle was taken under fire by an M-8 armored car of the Palace Guard. The 37 mm armor piercing round hit the turret of Ngai’s light tank, penetrating the armor plate, striking Ngai in the hips, and removing his legs at the waist. Using his arms to support his weight in the turret, he made his final radio transmission: “This is Six. Take all your commands from Five. Out.” Then he fell down onto the turret floor and bled to death.
What price leadership under fire? Though already knowing he was a dead man, Ngai did his duty. With all the strength that remained in his mortally wounded body he passed his command to his executive officer. It was a brave act of a brave man, who’s only thought was for his men and their difficult mission despite wounds that had literally torn him apart. Faithful to the last, Ngai did his duty. After the capture of the Palace, Ngai’s soldiers wept when they learned of the fate of their brave commander. I am proud to this day to have served with that courageous soldier, whose example inspired his men and those of us fortunate to count him as our friend.