Uncle Frankie: Witness to History

Just came across this photo on FoundShit.com. Man, did it take me back to the day… Why? Because I once knew this guy.

If you are of a certain age you may remember the original Life Magazine photograph (shown farther down in this post along with the very disturbing NBC News video clip) from which this piece of street art is adapted. The fact that the image was used 40 years after the original incident as the inspiration for a random piece of street art, attests to its power and historical significance.

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Taken February 2, 1968, the second day of the Tet Offensive by Eddie Adams, who won a Pulitzer Prize for it, the photo shows South Vietnamese National Police Chief Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executing a Viet Cong prisoner on the street in Saigon. Some have dubbed the shot “The Instant of Death.”

Here are some historical tidbits related to the story:

Adams snapped his unforgettable shot on day two of the Tet Offensive. Tet was a coordinated assault by more than 80,000 North Vietnamese and VC troops on 36 (of 44) provincial capitals, 5 (of 6) autonomous cities, and 64 (of 242) district capitals in South Vietnam. It was a surprise attack during a holiday truce (for the Vietnamese New Year). The fighting lasted a few months in several different theaters. It ended with a resounding American victory. But media coverage in general, and Adams’s photograph in particular, transformed it into a Pyrrhic victory.

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So, what does all of this have to do with your friend Frank?

In the early 1980s a small, family-owned restaurant called Les Trois Continents opened in the Rolling Valley Mall near my home in Springfield, Virginia. Shortly thereafter, a very small, soft-spoken Vietnamese man came to our print shop to get some menus typeset and printed for the restaurant. I soon learned that he was none other than Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the man firing the pistol in the photo.

The restaurant’s name means The Three Continents in French and refers to Vietnam’s history as the French colony, French Indochina. Like many members of the wealthier class in Vietnam, General Loan was born in Vietnam, educated in France and immigrated to the United States after the fall of Saigon. Hence the name.

Our family went to his restaurant many times because of the great food and friendly service. I only asked General Loan about the incident once. He acknowledged his identity but said he would prefer not to speak about the event. His only comment was that the picture was taken out of context and that he had no regrets about his actions.

“There is no way you could understand what was going on that day,” he said and left it with that. Hard to disagree.

To this day, the contradiction of the man confounds me. He was about 5′ 2″, maybe 95 lbs., had a severe leg injury and walked very slowly and feebly with the aid of a cane. He was funny, worldly, polite and humble. And yet this same man was capable of calmly drawing a pistol from his hip, shooting an unarmed, bound man directly in the temple in front of scores of witnesses, returning his gun just as matter-of factly to his holster and quietly walking away, leaving the man in the street like a dog with his brains and blood running out.

If nothing else, this is testimony to the fact that you just never know a person’s back story when you meet them.

In spite of the great food and service, the restaurant did not do very well and closed a couple of years later. I never saw General Loan again.

That’s today’s entry from the Frankie File kids. Below is the short video clip from NBC News. BE ADVISED: you will probably never see such graphic, real violence anywhere else.

In doing my research for this posting, I came across this interview with Eddie Adams, the photographer. He says that the photo ruined Loan’s life. He was severely wounded in the leg and sent to the states for medical treatment and recovery. Watch this short interview, it’s a very interesting postscript to the whole story and also ties into my part.

This is about as heavy as it comes from me kids. More funny stuff later, I swear!

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4 responses to “Uncle Frankie: Witness to History

  1. More background on that story:

    – the guy getting offed was a member of an NVA infilration squad which had (before they were killed and/or apprehended) murdered several South Vietnamese politicians and their families;

    – simply being NVA in civilian clothes on the wrong side of the battle lines made him liable to immediate and summary execution under the Geneva Convention.

    In General Loan’s shoes I’d have pulled the trigger, too. Pulled it two or three times.

    Sometimes a picture DOESN’T say more than a thousand words. It’s a pity Life magazine’s correspondent didn’t see fit to ask Gen. Loan why he did what he did. Then again, this was the same outfit that published the lame “we had to destroy the town to save it” quote that no one remembers saying now.

    I’m reasonably sure that if Life had HAD the backstory on the Gen. Loan picture, they’d have spiked it.

  2. Very cool.

    I recently moved to Burke and have gone to the PetSmart and Staples at Rolling Valley Mall.

    I never realized this small bit of history. I wonder which store is located in the space of Mr. Loan’s restaurant . . .

    • Hello John –

      Rolling Valley Mall used to have an indoor section with about eight stores and a two-screen movie theater. One entrance by the Advance Auto Parts is still there. The location of the other entrance is now part of the Shoppers Food Warehouse – on the right as you walk towards the front of the store today.

      If you walked through that entrance back in the day and turned to your right, his restaurant was the first or second shop on your right. The space could either be part of Shoppers or whatever the store is to the right of it now.

  3. There doesn’t look to be much about this online – I look forward to any further information you can provide.

    Very interesting stuff . . .

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