Thursday, March 31, 2016

Inside Story: The Floating Restaurant Bombing

Here is the original manuscript of my story, published in the June 2016 issue of Vietnam Magazine; unedited and without  the professional layout and photos contained in the finished product.
In its glory days, it was among the most prominent restaurants in Saigon and a popular attraction for global visitors who were pouring into South Vietnam in 1965. Moored along the riverfront at the door step of Tu Do Street’s entertainment district, the My Canh was, perhaps, less famous for its food than its ambiance; the floating restaurant’s name means ‘beautiful view.’ And so, on a pleasant evening in June an international crowd had gathered on the Saigon River for a Friday get together with friends, family members, fellow soldiers, or, perhaps a CIA encounter.

Viet Cong terrorism was well established across South Vietnam, especially rampant in the countryside, and it was moving into the capital city as the allied presence intensified. On the previous Christmas Eve, the Brink Hotel (often referred to as the Brinks), a residence for American military officers, was bombed by the Viet Cong. Three months later, the U.S. Embassy was hit, and the Saigon air terminal was targeted just nine days prior to the bloodbath at the My Canh, which would become the most sensational terrorist incident of the war.

Urban commandos had been staking out the target, including Huynh Phi Long, the Viet Cong sapper whose inside story was told in People’s Army, a publication of Vietnam’s Defense Ministry. Phi Long, the article speculates, appeared to be about 60 years old at the time of the interview in 2010, and “had carefully studied the terrain and the enemy’s movement habits, his drinking habits and his playboy habits.”

Security surrounding the My Canh was extraordinary on June 25, 1965. According to the expose, three armed policemen stood guard at the gangplank which diners would use to cross from the riverbank to the on-deck, open-air dining room. Other uniformed and plain-clothes officers were watching from an open area opposite the barge. Armored vehicles and combat soldiers were manning nearby intersections and naval vessels patrolled the river. Phi Long was assisted by Le Van Ray, another member of Saigon’s 67th Commando Unit.

The two VC sappers approached the floating restaurant on bicycles, one was motorized. “Phi Long led the way, and carrying one time bomb, while comrade Ray pedaled a bicycle, pretending to be a newspaper seller, as he transported a 22 pound, directional, claymore-type mine.” They weaved through traffic, even passing through a checkpoint, using a crowd of Vietnamese as cover. As they approached the My Canh, several peddlers were walking in front of the restaurant and there was a cigarette stand near to the entrance.

Set to detonate in a few minutes, Long parked his bicycle bomb so the blast would spray shrapnel over two-thirds of the barge, then took out some money to buy cigarettes and walked a short distance to a get-away motorcycle that another conspirator had pre-positioned. In the meantime, Ray had set a second directional mine and joined Long to make their departure. They had gone 50 meters when the first explosion blew. Metal shards peppered the hull and tore through the dining room; customers panicked and ran for the walkway desperate to escape.

As the bombers’ motor scooter reached the Nguyen Hue traffic circle, Phi Long was stopped by police, but the two were allowed to proceed after they produced IDs. At that very moment, the second mine exploded, ripping through the flesh and bone of fleeing customers, peddlers on the shore, mothers and children, mostly civilians. “Enemy sirens echoed loudly and the streets turned into a scene of chaos,” according to the military publication. The translation goes on, “Only the two commandos were filled with a feeling of incredible joy.” Minutes after the twin blasts, the People’s Army writes, the U.S. Ambassador arrived on the scene: “The ambassador shook his head hopelessly and sadly got back into his car seeming to be unable to believe what had just happened.”    

Removing the dead from the My Canh. Photo from the U.S. Public Affairs Office. Like so many other Americans, I had dined at the floating restaurant many times.
The horrific crime would go down as a successful example of maximum impact. It was a trendy location during prime time, Friday evening just after 8 o’clock, an international venue, and only a few blocks away from foreign news bureaus, guaranteeing extensive media coverage. This excerpt is from a combined Associated Press and United Press International wire story that ran on the front page of an American newspaper:

“The restaurant was a ruin, both decks a smoking, smoldering mass of broken bulwarks and smashed tables. An American woman, mutilated in her torn clothing, responded weakly to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation administered by a U.S. military policeman. A Vietnamese man waved the body of a young child at photographers. He seemed insane with grief. The broken causeway leading to the restaurant was piled high with bodies. American medics were rushing from body to body shouting: ‘Is he an American? Is he? Find the Americans, find the Americans.’ Some of the wounded stacked along the pavements died as they waited. Thirty minutes after the blast, many were still pleading for help.”

The unforgettable carnage resurfaces as intense flash backs 50 years later, even for grizzled war reporters. “The street was full of sandals that people had run out of, or been blown out of,” according to Joe Galloway, former UPI journalist. “One vivid memory is the top of a Vietnamese woman’s head laying on the white tablecloth…with long, flowing, black hair cascading down the side. I never ate there again.”

A history of sapper forces in Vietnam, written by the former enemy, claims the attack ended up “killing 51 CIA intelligence officers and wounding many other personnel.” Western reports put the final death toll as high as 48. The Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) listed 12 Americans among the dead and 123 total casualties, killed and injured. Most of the victims were Vietnamese. In addition to U.S. citizens, other nationalities included French, German, Swiss and Filipino. The shock waves went worldwide.

As for the CIA assertion, Vietnam War historian Erik Villard says, “You can’t just take them at face value. Some of those people may have been informants, others not actually on the CIA payroll, or, the VC suspected they might be, so it’s not like you’ve got 51 James Bonds.”  Nonetheless, the People’s Army profile on bomber Phi Long alleges that the My Canh owner, identified as Phu Lam, “was a trusted intelligence lackey of the CIA…superiors believed that by destroying the restaurant we would essentially have destroyed an American-puppet source…” Regardless of any proven connection, one can assume that CIA personnel would have frequented the My Canh, which was a short walk from the U.S. Embassy.

Perhaps a bigger factor in the communists’ motive was straightforward pay back. The People’s Army rendering of bomber Phi Long was blunt in calling the My Canh incident, “an act of revenge for the death of Comrade Tran Van Dang, a commando fighter who had just been executed by the U.S. and the puppets at Ben Thanh Market on June 20, 1965.” The 25 year old terrorist was blindfolded, tied to a post, and publicly killed by a South Vietnamese firing squad in central Saigon for trying to bomb an American billet.

The enemy reprisal went one step further. In a clear tit for tat, Radio Hanoi announced the execution of Army Sergeant Harold Bennett, from Arkansas, and suggested other Americans might face the same fate. “The punishment serves to warn the U.S. aggressors and their henchmen…that the murderers must pay for their blood debts. The crimes of the bloodthirsty devils are intolerable.” While numerous Viet Cong had already been executed by the Saigon government, Sgt. Bennett was the first American POW put to death during the war. He was an adviser with South Vietnamese Rangers and was captured on Dec. 29, 1964 at Binh Gia, when the unit was overrun.

Within hours of the My Canh mayhem, the communist Vietnamese and American governments were exchanging terse rejoinders and propaganda. Radio Hanoi and Viet Cong radio both claimed that hundreds of U.S. aggressors were killed or wounded, the restaurant was seriously damaged and that a U.S. warship nearby was blown up. The following day, the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office tried to set the record straight in an eight-page pamphlet. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor said, “This surely was the act of desperate men who have begun to realize that they cannot win. Last night’s outrage, like the wanton murder of an American prisoner…can only strengthen us in our resolve.” As for the inflated casualty toll of Americans, the embassy said most of the victims were Vietnamese, there was no harm to any ships in the harbor, and damage to the restaurant was minor; “the bombs were designed to kill people.” The My Canh reopened in five days.

Behind the public pronouncements, Ambassador Taylor was recommending severe punishment for the Saigon slaughter. In a cable from the U.S. Mission in Saigon, held at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Taylor laid out his suspicions: “Viet Cong execution of Sgt. Bennett, closely followed by My Canh Restaurant atrocity, brings into sharp focus blackmail potential VC and Hanoi possess in numbers of U.S. hostages in their hands and the usefulness of this blackmail to support a stepped-up terrorist campaign.”

Ambassador Taylor, a four star general and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged an immediate bombing attack in the Hanoi-Haiphong area, accompanied by major leaflet drops and maximum exploitation by Voice of America and other media. He also recommended a presidential statement announcing the reprisal to show the U.S. “would not stand for blatant violation of all standards of humanity and international conduct.” The ambassador’s advice was overruled by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy sent this response to the president at the LBJ Ranch: “Rusk, McNamara and I all disagree with this recommendation.” They favored a more restrained response, but to still “hold Hanoi responsible.”

The North Vietnamese continued to extract propaganda from the My Canh bombing, including this classic broadcast from Radio Hanoi: “You are a long way from Fort Riley now and there is no Jersey coffee in town on Washington Street where you can sit around the counter eating hamburgers and sipping coffee without having to be afraid a bomb might go off, like it did at that restaurant in Saigon a few weeks back. You can get killed here. Get out while you’re still alive and before it’s too late.”

Far more than 100 people were on board the vessel and along the boulevard when the commandos struck. Twenty-eight Americans were killed, missing, or injured. According to newspaper accounts of the incident, U.S. losses included government workers and military personnel: civilian Air Force employees who repaired damaged aircraft, military advisers in from the field, and three soldiers attached to the Phu Lam Signal Battalion, who were among the dead.

The cover shot on the U.S. military's pamphlet deploring the incident,
There is background on the Vietnamese casualties in the brochure issued by U.S. public affairs officers, illustrated with ghastly pictures. The front cover shows an American holding the bloody body of a young girl, visibly in shock. One of the photo captions reads: “Of the 123 people killed and injured, 89 were Vietnamese: cyclo drivers and government officials, sugarcane vendors and businessmen, young women clerks and a popular singer, and of course many children.” Ambassador Taylor is seen visiting patients in a hospital where survivors were interviewed. A 13 year old boy, who was selling peanuts was recovering from surgery to remove shrapnel from his back and a leg; a 22 year old dressmaker escaped the first bomb and was on the sidewalk when the second explosion inflicted multiple wounds; the sugarcane vendor passed out from loss of blood and was quoted as saying, “I feel hot all over.” Mrs. To Thi My, the mother of pretty Saigon singer Phuong Thao, who perished, is pictured weeping. She said her daughter was not performing at the time, “She was dining there with some of her friends. They were there just for a good time.”

A Vietnamese man who provided a crucial service for western news agencies barely lived and was taken to the U.S. Naval Hospital. Known as “Mr. Thach,” he was in charge of the all-important radio photo machine at the post office and would transmit news photos for the wire services. A false rumor was circulating that Mr. Thach would be thrown out of the hospital, and his boss at PTT (the Post, Telegraph and Telephone office) called former UPI reporter Mike Malloy for help. Malloy straightened it out, assuring the Director General that Mr. Thach would not be forced out of his hospital bed.

“Later, someone at PTT called and said they had a package for us; a sack of Piasters,” according to Malloy. “It was a lot of dough,” seemingly a refund to settle a long standing dispute with UPI. The wire agency was also granted an exclusive 24 hour outgoing circuit of its own. “Nobody ever told me why we got these favors,” recalls Malloy, “but it’s obvious to me that they were rewards for saving Mr. Thach’s life, even though the Navy never intended to throw him out in the first place.”

Another perspective worth pondering is the people who were almost casualties that night. One fortunate American was a newly-arrived Army officer who had landed at Ton San Nhut earlier that day. Norman Schwarzkopf and a West Point classmate arrived in Vietnam with a list of Saigon’s best restaurants and had planned to go out, but were jet lagged and chose to dine at the roof garden restaurant atop the Hotel Majestic where they had checked in.

“We had just placed our orders when wham,” recalled Schwarzkopf in his 1993 autobiography, “It Doesn’t Take Hero.” Since the Majestic was so near the beleaguered restaurant, he was able to peer down from the roof and saw wounded customers moving over the walkway to shore. “Suddenly another explosion blasted them from the gangplank into the water,” wrote Schwarzkopf. “That was my welcome to Vietnam.” It so happens that the My Canh was number one on his list of recommended restaurants. If it wasn’t for jet lag, the young officer might have crossed the street and been a casualty himself. Twenty-five years later, after two tours of duty in Vietnam, General Schwarzkopf led allied forces to victory in the Persian Gulf War.

It was an even closer call for armed forces radio announcer Adrian Cronauer, who had finished dinner with friends and was still in the area when the terrorists hit. Cronauer dodged the horror and lived to create the story concept that comedian Robin Williams turned into the hit movie, “Good Morning, Vietnam.”

Others were walking towards the My Canh when the neighborhood was shaken. Don North had just arrived in-country the month before as a freelance journalist and had left his gear in his room when he set off for a seafood dinner. His most lasting memory? “Watching firemen with strong water hoses washing blood off the street in crimson waves. “After that,” North insisted, “I never left my apartment without cameras and a tape recorder.”

Army Spc. 5 Ron Hesketh had two brushes with terrorism. He was heading for the My Canh to celebrate his 25th birthday when he heard the thunderous explosions. “It was the worst thing I saw in the war.” Six months earlier he was scheduled to work at the Brink Hotel on the night VC planted a car bomb there, but Hesketh had suddenly been sent away on temporary duty.

Urban terrorism was escalating alongside the burgeoning U.S. troop presence, but it was not a new phenomenon. In 1957, the U.S. Information Agency Library, a military bus and a hostel were bombed during an international meeting in Saigon, wounding 13 Americans and five Vietnamese. By 1965, the terror campaign in Saigon was dwarfed by omnipresent Viet Cong intimidation in the countryside. While VC commandos were hitting hotels, bars, theaters and other strategic targets in the capital, civilians had it much worse in rural Vietnam.

A 1967 study titled “Viet Cong Use of Terror,” compiled by the U.S. Mission, lists page after page of terrorism against non-combatants. In the same year of the My Canh bombing, the report amassed 1,800 assassinations and 8,500 kidnappings countrywide. Erik Villard, with the U.S. Army Center of Military History, says “they (Viet Cong) are very deliberate in what they do. Rather than just say, ‘let’s go kill a bunch of civilians,’ they had thought it through to achieve a certain affect.” One strategy, says Villard, was to drive a wedge between the allies, exemplified in the restaurant massacre. “In other words, whenever they could, try to do things that would put the Americans and South Vietnamese at each others throat, point fingers; ‘You brought this on.’ ‘No, you brought this on.’ ‘You should have prevented it.’ That sort of thing.”

As for the Viet Cong commandos who pulled off the attack, their careers as terrorist agents were celebrated and decorated: Huynh Phi Long was awarded the Combat Achievement Medal, First Class. The entire 67th Commando Unit won the Military Achievement Medal. Correspondent Bang Phuong, who prepared Phi Long’s profile for People’s Army, wrote “This legendary person fills everyone who sees him with awe and respect for the intelligence and courage he displayed when he scored a resounding victory in the attack on the My Canh Restaurant.”

Phi Long, the principal bomber, went on to raise three children, but he and his wife were both captured and jailed for revolutionary activities. Phi Long even spent time on Con Son Island where, according to the publication, he was locked up in so-called “tiger cages,” notorious French-built cells with barred ceilings where guards could look down on the inmates below. In 1973, he was released in a prisoner exchange after the Paris Peace Talks.

In the years immediately following the raid, the floating restaurant remained trendy for its “beautiful view,” despite having an ugly past, and it continued to dish up Vietnamese, Chinese and sea food to a forgiving clientele. Fresh faced young servicemen, like myself, enjoyed fried rice and tasted the delectable tropical fruit lychee for the first time, even though it was out of a can. The My Canh also continued to be of keen interest to the Viet Cong. In October, 1969, the VC lobbed several mortars at the floating restaurant only to land harmlessly nearby in the Saigon River.


  1. My grandfather, Leo D. Nelson was one of the soldiers killed on the restaurant. He was scheduled to come home the very next day to his wife and 4 small children. It was very devastating to the whole family. I never got to meet him.

    1. I'm sorry you never got to meet your grandfather Erica. Such a tragic loss. It is true what they say, war is hell. I'm glad you were able to honor your grandfather by mentioning his name on my blog. Thanks

  2. This is the first time that I looked up this in years. Of all the articles I read, the only one that was correct was Schwartchoff (about how it happened).I had just gone aboard and was looking for another exit. I was taught by a buddy never to go into a building that had a bicycle parked in front (he had been in a bar with a bicycle parked in front with the frame packed w explosives. It exploded and knocked every one off their bar stools) and always to look for a 2nd exit. While looking for another exit n the first blast went off, I had body parts flying past me. Everything was red w all of the blood. Then while leaving, the 2nd blast went off hitting people in front of me and knocked me into the water where I swam as far as I could under water. I still wake up at night, kicking, as I did when I was under water.

  3. These are terrifying memories. Yes, you survived both blasts, but the images are still vivid for you. I hope my story, in some way, might be cathartic so many years later. All the best to you.

  4. The Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office, which published the photo of the American carrying the bloodied child to safety on the cover of their brochure about the My Canh Bombing, made various claims about the event, but not all of them were true.The child on the front cover is also the same child on the inside of the publication's front cover, this time being visited by Ambassador Maxwell Taylor while in the hospital.However, the child was not a small boy as the Public Affairs Office claimed and as is mistakened by many sources, but was a girl (see I know this to be a fact because that child was me. My Vietnamese mother was killed and my American Army Officer stepfather was also killed that night. I was adopted by an American Army Officer (the buddy of my stepdad) who saved a Vietnamese copy and an English copy of the My Canh Bombing brochure for me and told me of my heritage. Again, that child was me. And I never was a small boy--always a girl!

    1. Dear Unknown. I am grateful that you reached out to me and cannot imagine how painful the incident must still be for you. I am so sorry that you lost your mother and stepdad in such a terrible way. You survived, and may be scarred for life, but I wonder if we might talk and it might help in some way. I am a Vietnam veteran and a retired journalist living in the U.S. You prefer to remain anonymous and I respect that. But if you would be willing to contact me directly, please use this email address. I will respect your privacy. In the event you would allow me to interview you, it would be a tribute to your parents and a story of strength on how you dealt with such a tragedy in your own life. Please reach me at Wishing you the very best.

  5. My father, John Francis Buckley, was also on the My Canh when the bombs went off. He was a foreign service officer with USIS (now part of the State Department). He and his dining companions were lucky enough not to be injured in the original blast, and knowledgeable enough about terrorist tactics to know to hide under the table in anticipation of a second blast targeting those who ran to the exit. My mother, younger sister and I had gone to Saigon with him in December of 1964 but were evacuated in February if 1965 along with the rest of the diplomatic and military dependents. As a result of my family's experiences overseas, to this day I cannot comfortably eat at a restaurant without my back to a wall and able to view the exits.

  6. Mary Ann, thank you for your heartfelt comments. How fortunate that your father knew to keep his head down. You were ever so close to losing him, but he could not have avoided the terrifying aftermath which seems to still be impacting you to this day. This is perhaps the most important story in my journalism career and I have written about it for years. Watch my blog for a very emotional follow up in about 3 months. I'm grateful for your post. Is there a way to contact you if the need arises later?

  7. I was the UPI photo bureau chief in Saigon when the My Canh bombimg occurred, and was very nearly one of the victims.
    I was having dinner with my wife Betsy when the first bomb went off. The bureau was about three blocks from the restaurant, but had a clear view down the river.
    I first thought it had been another bombing at the embassy, which at the time was just about a block away. But as I looked toward the floating restaurant I saw the lights were off, and the smell of cordite wafted through the air.
    I ran towards the restaurant raced across the foot Bridge is my camera at the ready.
    As I walked onto the deck, the first thing I saw were two women sprawled across their food,already dead.
    I thought I heard someone call my name.
    Entering the boat cabin,I found our UPI radio photo operator, Thom Tach,lying on the floor,bleading heavily.
    I crouched down to see what I could do for him,and that action undoubtedly saved my life, for at the moment a 2nd blast detonated behind me.
    It was probably the closest I ever came to being a casualty of that war,in over five tours over the next decade.
    In March of this year I will be traveling back to Vietnam for a reunion of the photographers and reporters who covered the war.
    One of the first things I will do is to head for the My Canh!

    1. Thanks for adding your experience here as the former UPI photo chief. Watch for a stunning follow up the end of this month, in Vietnam magazine, featuring two other survivors of the My Canh. Glad you made it out alive and I hope your radio photo operator survived. The My Canh is Saigon's most famous restaurant---unfortunately, not for the food.