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South Viet Nam: Target: Americans

3 minute read

U.S. combat advisers in South Viet Nam, slogging through paddyfields with government troops or hovering in helicopters under fire, have long been accustomed to the grueling realities of war against the Communist Viet Cong.

But until recently the U.S. colony in Saigon had gone largely unmolested by the Reds, and in the capital the war seemed strangely remote. The Americans even managed to create a Main Street flavor, complete with Brownie Scouts, a Rotary Club and a P.T.A.

Last week the war finally came home hard to Saigon’s 15,000 resident U.S. civilian and military personnel and their dependents. In a chilling new strategy, the Viet Cong had embarked on a campaign to kill Americans indiscriminately in the capital, evidently as part of the Communist effort to induce Washington to throw in the sponge.

“Hit the Deck!” In three weeks, the terrorists have killed six Americans and maimed 87, several of the latter women and children. The terror wave was believed the work of four-man Viet Cong suicide squads infiltrating the city, and the latest sabotage reflected fanatical planning. On a Sunday night, as 500 Americans watched the absorbing final ten minutes of the murder movie, The List of Adrian Messenger, in the U.S.

community theater, from across the street a Vietnamese suddenly rushed the entrance. Holding the butt of a rusty pistol tightly in both hands, he fired two bullets point-blank into the lone MP guard, Army Pfc. Peter Feirben, 18, of Milwaukee, killing him.

On the gunman’s heels came a second Vietnamese, who slid a large, square package under an iron grille protecting the theater, then ran. In the lobby, a Navy lieutenant and a Marine captain spotted the package, raced down the aisles yelling “Hit the deck!” Amid squeaking seats, patrons tried desperately to get down. Seconds later, the package exploded, slamming a steel door into the back rows and sending great chunks of ceiling crashing onto the audience. The Marine officer who helped sound the warning was killed instantly; an Army sergeant, his face crushed beyond recognition, died two hours later. Forty-nine other Americans were injured; one pretty teen-aged girl required seven stitches in her head.

Shotgun Semester. U.S. officials hastily huddled with Junta Boss General Nguyen Khanh, who had worries of his own; a flurry of rumors suggested that army rivals were plotting to overthrow his regime. Saigon police began a district-by-district sweep through the capital, rounded up more than 100 suspected Viet Cong collaborators. But it was doubtful that the Saigon government, its once efficient security police debilitated by endless reorganization, could guarantee the protection of Americans should the Viet Cong continue the terrorist attacks. As a result, U.S. forces for the first time had to take up direct police functions. The 650 youngsters who attend Saigon’s American school were transported in Navy buses with steel-mesh window guards, and with armed Navy enlisted men riding shotgun. MPs patrolled the school grounds and roof with Armalite and M-14 rifles held in raised position. Barbed-wire barricades went up in front of the U.S. embassy and other key U.S. installations.

There was no such protection, of course, for American private homes. Twenty-four hours after the movie blast, a U.S. Army captain noticed a package hanging from his fence. He telephoned for bomb experts, who discovered that it contained merely a grapefruit. But as investigators clustered in his yard, a terrorist buzzed up on a motorbike, threw a grenade that injured only one investigator. The incident had been an attempt to ambush an entire U.S. bomb squad.

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