A life taken out of context in a split second


NGUYEN NGOC Loan died on Tuesday. In many ways his life was unremarkable. He was a Vietnamese refugee, failed restaurateur, husband and father. But one instant, captured on film 30 years ago, catapulted him into the spotlight and made him a symbol of the brutality and moral bankruptcy of the Vietnam War.

At the height of the Tet offensive, Mr. Loan executed a Viet Cong prisoner by firing point-blank into the bound man's brain. As he explained in later years, the prisoner was not a nameless civilian, as had been stated in the press, but the commander of a Viet Cong guerrilla unit. According to a former CIA station chief, the prisoner had just finished slaughtering a number of South Vietnamese soldiers and policemen.

Capturing history

If not for the photographer, this death would have been just one of the thousands in that war, and Mr. Loan would most likely have gone on to live a life of quiet anonymity. But in the split-second that Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams captured this street execution on film, Mr. Loan's life was forever altered. He became a symbol of casual brutality, of all that was corrupt and immoral about the war. He never escaped the notoriety of the photograph.

After suffering serious injuries while charging a pocket of Viet Cong snipers, Mr. Loan sought medical treatment in the United States. His presence in this country incensed many Americans. He was called a "brutal murderer" on the floor of the Senate by Sen. Stephen Young of Ohio. Mr. Loan returned to South Vietnam, where eventually his right leg was amputated as a result of war wounds.

When Saigon fell in 1975, he went to the U.S. embassy expecting officials there to fulfill their promise to transport him and his family out of the country. No one at the embassy would talk to him. The family was forced to escape the crumbling city in the cargo compartment of a South Vietnamese air force C-130. They were given five minutes notice of departure and were forced to leave all personal belongings behind.

Settling in Northern Virginia, Mr. Loan opened a restaurant in a mall. He and his family put in long hours to make the restaurant succeed, though standing for long periods on the prosthetic device that had replaced Mr. Loan's amputated leg caused him great pain.

Life in this country was not easy for Mr. Loan, but it soon became much harder. In 1976, journalists discovered that the restaurant owner was the infamous gunman in the famous photograph. Newspaper stories and television reports followed. Once his identity was known, Mr. Loan said his business fell by half.

In the early '90s, Mr. Adams, the photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph of Mr. Loan executing the Viet Cong prisoner, visited Loan at the restaurant. Mr. Adams told the New York Daily News he found written on the bathroom wall of the restaurant, "we know who you are, you f-----." He considered it a message directed to Loan, but never talked to him about it.

But shortly after Mr. Adams' visit, Mr. Loan closed the failing restaurant.

In Congress, Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman of New York called for Loan's deportation after learning he was in this country. Later, the Immigration and Naturalization Service told Mr. Loan that he should be tried in Vietnam for the war crime of shooting a bound prisoner and that his residency permit would be revoked on the grounds of "moral turpitude." Deportation to Vietnam was tantamount to a death sentence.

Fortunately, President Jimmy Carter intervened, permitting Loan to stay in this country.

In 1983, Mr. Adams talked to Parade magazine about Mr. Loan. "In taking that picture, I had destroyed his life," he said. "For General Loan had become a man condemned both in his country and in America because he had killed an enemy in war.

A war casualty

"People do this all the time in war, but rarely is a photographer there to record the act."

By the time of his death this week at 67 after a battle with cancer, Mr. Loan had not received any measure of forgiveness from the public. But this was possibly of no consequence because Loan felt that absolution had been granted him at a higher level.

After he shot the Viet Cong prisoner, Mr. Loan walked over to an NBC reporter and explained that the dead man had killed many of his people. "I think Buddha will forgive me," he said.

Linda White, a photo editor at The Sun, has done extensive research on Eddie Adams' photo as part of her master's thesis at Ohio University.

Pub Date: 7/17/98

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