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Oral Histories: U.S. Navy Nurse in Saigon, 1963, During Vietnam Conflict

Recollections of Lieutenant Commander Bobbi Hovis, Nurse Corps (Ret.), concerning the coup d'etat on 1 November 1963 that overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem of the Republic of [South] Vietnam

Source: Adapted from "Coup in Saigon: A Nurse Remembers."Navy Medicine 88, no. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 1977): 16-21.

It was November 1st, 1963, and the pot had been stirring. The feelings against the Diem government were running higher and higher by the day. There were the pro-Diem faction and the anti-Diem faction. It was the Catholics versus the Buddhists. Diem and his family were Catholic and the [Buddhist] monks were stirring up trouble. You could just sense the tension in Saigon as it was building. You knew something was about to happen.

My senior corpsman whose name was Paul Burns, went to lunch that day [1 November]. Most of my corpsmen lived in Cholon, which was the Chinese sister city to Vietnamese Saigon. There were a lot of small BEQs [Bachelor Enlisted Quarters] there where our enlisted people lived and they had to go back to their quarters to eat. We had no kitchens at all in the hospital.

Burnie came back and said, "There's all kinds of barbed wire strung across the street. There are gun emplacements set up with .50-caliber machine guns and they're all pointed right up the street at us."

I walked out in the middle of the street and couldn't believe what I saw. I was looking right into the barrels of two .50-caliber machine guns set up in sandbag gun emplacements. "Oh, my goodness." I thought. "What is happening here?" Well, it wasn't very long before the shooting started.

Fortunately, at that time, we had a minimum number of patients in my ICU [Intensive Care Unit] and it was quiet. I went up to the fifth floor in the hospital on the front side so I could see better what was going on. I knew that if somebody needed something, Burnie would come up and get me.

The next thing I knew, bullets were flying in every direction. Three [single-engine North American] T-28 [trainer] aircraft [sometimes modified to carry bombs, rockets, and machine guns] being flown by anti-Diem rebels were dive bombing Diem's palace. They were very close. As they released the bombs, anti-aircraft fire was being returned from the palace roof. An earlier coup attempt in which the palace had been bombed had prompted the installation of those antiaircraft guns. The next thing I knew, I saw an airplane hit. It went into a dive and disappeared behind some trees.

Meanwhile, the pro-Diem Chief of Naval Operations [Captain Ho Tan Quyen] had been shot at the Naval Station right there on the Saigon River. The fuel farm, also right there on the River at the Vietnamese naval base, blew up and was in flames. Bullets were flying in all directions, and civilians were trying to take cover in the streets. I saw one man shot. A bullet went through the back window of his car, through his chest, and out the windshield. Two men ran out from a store and dragged him out of the car. I don't know if this man lived or died.

The Civilian National Police were deserting like mad, taking off their uniforms, throwing them down, and running off.

A chief and I were standing on a fifth-floor balcony watching the bombing runs on the palace when suddenly a bullet hit right in front of us on the balcony wall, powdering the stucco. The bullet then ricocheted up from the balcony where it first hit, bounced off the overhead and fell to the deck. Three inches higher and I would have been hit in my lower chest or abdomen. We both jumped back into the room and took cover under a table. I still have that .30-caliber bullet. When we didn't hear any more bullets hit, we ventured back out to watch what was going on.

The fighting went on for hours. About 1700 [5 p.m.], there was a lull and we were transported back from the hospital to our quarters, probably about 3 miles away. We were not receiving casualties at that time.

We barely got back to the quarters when the firing began really in earnest. The quarters were in downtown Saigon and very, very close to Diem's palace. Somebody had set up a 105 mm howitzer out near the Gia Dinh Bridge on the road to Tan Son Nhut airfield. They were firing that howitzer right into the palace. Many of the shells were going astray and hitting all around our BOQ (Bachelor Officers Quarters) and the roofs right near us, showering us with shards of red roof tile or glass from the next-door building; it was that close. This went on for 18 hours. It got so hot and heavy that I said to the girls, "In case we have to evacuate these quarters. We'd better have a little overnight kit packed, another uniform, and some toilet articles." So we each packed a bag. No sooner had we done so when the firing became even heavier and we took cover.

We lived on the top deck and so I suggested that we go down to the fourth deck and sit in the stairwell which was in dead center of the building. Even though a 105 mm howitzer shell would have gone right through that lightly built stucco, it seemed the safest area in the building.

The next thing we knew, some of the male officers who lived there joined us and we just sat there in the stairwell. I had my little Zenith Transoceanic radio with me. All we kept hearing on Armed Forces Radio Saigon was normal music while we were in the midst of all this. However, the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] was relaying what was going on through Manila. That's how we learned of the coup d'etat that was going on in Saigon. The one thing we did know was that we were under attack, even though we didn't know who was fighting whom.

It was about then that I decided to keep a journal. I went back up to my room to get a writing pad and a pen. As the coup proceeded and shells were hitting all around, I wrote minute-for-minute.

Eventually, the heavy firing died down and we heard the clank, clank, clank of tank treads. I then went back out onto the seventh floor balcony. I crawled on my stomach so as not to present a target. And I could just peer over the railing and look down. There in the street below I counted 27 tanks mustering right below our quarters. Several hundred fully armed troops accompanied the tanks. We didn't know who these troops were or what faction they belonged to. We certainly didn't know whether they were hostile to Americans.

Then everything appeared to come to a halt as they set up the command post below us. I could look right down and hear and see what they were doing. It appeared that they were mustering the troops and the tanks for the final assault on the Diem palace.

Suddenly the tanks began to fire right down the middle of the street. When those cannons fired within the confines of the city, you can't imagine the sound that reverberated off asphalt and brick streets and cement and stucco buildings. It was absolutely deafening. Between the thick cordite and smoke and the deafening blasts and concussion, we all had headaches.

By then we were really fatigued; we hadn't had much to eat and were quite hungry. By now it was November 2nd. About 0400 [4 a.m.] the tanks and troops started to move out toward the palace. Just at sunrise white flags appeared over the palace even though we couldn't see them. We heard about this on the radio and that the Diem government had surrendered.

I have a remarkable picture of an [single-engine Cessna] L-19 [observation aircraft] and a [twin-engine Douglas] DC-3 [transport aircraft] that flew over town dropping thousands and thousands of colored leaflets to inform the civilian population what was going on, and explain there had been a coup and that the Diem government no longer existed.

There was jubilation in the streets. The people were destroying anything that had to do with Diem. Then they really went crazy. The pro-Diem newspaper office was just within shouting distance of our quarters. The mob went in, got huge rolls of newsprint, set them on fire, and rolled them out in the streets. The fire became very severe and it suddenly seemed ironic that we had lived through this coup only to have our building burn down around us. Then they set fire to a Diem-owned theater, and the pro-Diem police station across the street from us was grenaded.

The Diem brothers had made their way through a tunnel out to Cholon, where they took refuge at a Catholic friend's house. But they were hunted down and put into an armored personal carrier, where they were shot and killed.

The fires eventually died down and people started to disperse. They seemed so jubilant as they rode on tanks and APCs [armored personnel carriers]. There was a nice relationship between the soldiers and the civilians, and celebrations broke out throughout Saigon. Jukeboxes were turned on and people began to dance. Dancing hadn't been allowed under the Diems, even though American GIs [soldiers] had taught the young Vietnamese to jitterbug and do the twist.

Finally, about 1000 or 1100 in the morning we went out and walked to the palace. Just walking the five or so blocks, we really saw the. destruction. I remember a black Volkswagen that had been parked on the street. It had been hit with so many bullets that it looked like a black piece of lacework. The heavy shelling had knocked down trees and power lines, and the destruction at the Diem palace was incredible.

The palace guards, the elite of the South Vietnamese Army, had been killed or wounded in the coup. What had been their barracks were just holes in building walls--105 mm howitzer-sized holes. There were burned out tanks with bodies still in them, and bloody boots lying around within the palace grounds. The rebels were looting anything valuable.

Life never returned to normal while I was in Vietnam. There was always an undercurrent of unrest from one faction or another. Dissident generals continued to work behind the scenes, planning to stage another coup to overthrow the newly installed [Duong Van] Minh government.

For further information on the coup against Diem and its context within the Vietnam (Second Indochina) War:

Blair, Anne. Lodge in Vietnam: A Patriot Abroad. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1995. [Biography of Henry Cabot Lodge, US Ambassador to Vietnam from 26 Aug. 1963.].

Bouscaren, Anthony T. The Last of the Mandarins: Diem of Vietnam. Pittsburgh PA: Duquesne University Press, 1965.

Bui Diem with David Chanoff. In the Jaws of History. Boston MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. [Coup plotters consulted with this Dai Viet Party oppositionist to Diem who later became the Vietnamese Ambassador to the US.].

Colby, William with James McCargar. Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America's Sixteen-Year Involvement in Vietnam. New York: Contemporary Books, 1989. [During the Diem coup he was Director of the Far East Division, Operations Directorate, Central Intelligence Agency.].

Cooper, Chester L. The Lost Crusade: America in Vietnam. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1970. [Assistant Deputy Director for Policy Support, Central Intelligence Agency.].

Dommen, Arthur J. The Indochinese Experience of the French and the Americans: Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Gibbon, William Conrad. The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships, Part II: 1961-1964. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986. [Originally prepared by the Congressional Research Service and published by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1985.].

Gravel, Michael ed. The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of the United States Decisionmaking in Vietnam. vol.2. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971. [Includes a useful chronology from May through November 1963 concerning the overthrow of Diem.].

Halberstam, David. The Making of a Quagmire. New York: Random House, 1964. [New York Times correspondent who was an astute critic of Diem.].

Hammer, Ellen J. A Death in November: America in Vietnam, 1963. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1987. [Highly recommended account of Diem's last year with useful bibliographic notes.].

Hovis, Bobbi. Station Hospital Saigon: A Navy Nurse in Vietnam, 1963-1964. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991.

Kaiser, David. American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Kiem Do and Julie Kane. Counterpart: A South Vietnamese Naval Officer's War. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998. [Kiem Do was the commander of the Vietnamese Navy submarine chaser Van Don (HQ-06), formerly the USS Anacortes (PC-1569), which was docked near the Vietnamese naval headquarters when the coup began. His crew initially resisted the armed forces under the control of the coup plotters.].

Lodge, Henry Cabot. The Storm Has Many Eyes: A Personal Narrative. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1973. [Lodge was US Ambassador to Vietnam from 26 Aug. 1963.].

McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1995. [Secretary of Defense McNamara was in a meeting with President Kennedy when Diem's death was announced.].

Marolda, Edward J. and Oscar P. Fitzgerald. From Military Assistance to Combat, 1959-1965. vol.2 of The United States Navy and the Vietnam Conflict. Washington DC: Naval Historical Center, 1986.

Mecklin, John. Mission in Torment: An Intimate Account of the U.S. Role in Vietnam. Garden City NY: Doubleday & Company, 1965. [Counselor for Public Affairs at the US Embassy and an eyewitness of the coup.].

Neese, Harvey and John O'Donnell eds. Prelude to Tragedy: Vietnam, 1960-1965. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001. [ See Hoang Van Lac's chapter "Blind Design." He was a Vietnamese Army Colonel, and Special Commissioner for Strategic Hamlet Program, and aware of coup planning. Also see Rufe Phillips' "Before We Lost South Vietnam." Phillips was Assistant Director for Rural Affairs, US Operations Mission in Vietnam, and also aware of coup planning.].

Newman, John M. JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power. New York: Warner Books, 1992.

Nguyen Kao Ky with Marvin J. Wolf. Buddha's Child: My Fight to Save Vietnam. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002. [Ky was a Vietnamese Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and Transport Squadron Commander, as well as a participant in the coup. On 17 Dec. 1963 he became commander of the Vietnamese Air Force, and later, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Vietnam.].

Schwab, Orrin. Defending the Free World: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and the Vietnam War, 1961-1965. Westport CT: Praeger, 1998.

Tran Van Don. Our Endless War: Inside Vietnam. Novato CA: Presidio Press, 1978. [The Acting Chief of the Vietnamese Joint General Staff and a participant in the coup. He became the First Deputy Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Military Revolutionary Council after 1 Nov. 1963, and Minister of National Defense after 4 Nov. 1963.].

US Congress. Senate. Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders. 94th Congress, 1st sess. Report No. 94-465. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1975.

US Congress. Senate. Committee on Foreign Relations. U.S. Involvement in the Overthrow of Diem, 1963: A Staff Study Based on the Pentagon Papers. 92d Congress., 2d sess. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1972.

US Dept. of State. Vietnam August-December 1963. vol. 4 of Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1991. [Contains a useful collection of US Government documents concerning the coup.].

Published: Fri Oct 30 14:57:13 EDT 2020