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American Immolation June 1963

UPDATE Feb. 18, 2010

Click Here to learn what really happened

I came across a piece on the Internet concerning Quang Duc’s immolation on June 11, 1963. We had just arrived in Saigon about two weeks before and lived approximately two blocks from Xa Loi Pagoda.


Anyway, the writer stated, “In Saigon the teen-age son of an American official tried to imitate the old monk, survived with serious burns, and said afterward he just wanted to see what it felt like.”

CLICK HERE to read the complete article.

This is the first I’ve heard about this.

Does anyone else remember this?

Did anyone know him or what he did to himself?

Hope you have a great new year both on January 1 and beginning January 26th. Gotta love Tet!

Kathy

13 comments to American Immolation June 1963

  • frank

    I never heard about an American kid who burned himself in Saigon. Interesting article. I have always liked the book “The Best And The Brightest”. I think it gives the best explanations about the Vietnam War. Many of the ideas in the book could be applied to American involvements/politics of today.
    The automobile in the photo with the Monk is now at the Thien Mu Pagoda outside of Hue. My son Silas and I went and saw in last year.
    Very interesting read. Thanks Bob

    • Admin

      Frank – I recall reading about this some place, some time … memory is foggy as to where and when tho .. LOL … after Kathy sent me this article I did some searching around the Internet. Only thing I’ve found so far is referrences back to this same article. I find it interesting the media didn’t pick up on this event and blast it all over the world. But, maybe since the kid’s dad was assigned to the U.S. Embassy, it could have been ‘shushed up’ for various reasons.

      By the way, Frank, since learning of Silas’ planned move to China Town in Honolulu I’ve been looking for old pictures of the area from back in the 1950’s before the Aala Park, Hotel Street, River Street (known as China Town) area of Honolulu was for the most part torn down and re-built to what it is today. It reminds me of “Old Saigon” as we knew it verses “New Saigon” as it is today. The China Town area of Honolulu has a very interesting history. It was the business/commerce center during the day time … then at night turned into “sin city” to the max, with every ‘vice’ known to mankind taking place. I’ll post some pictures, etc. on the Blog once I locate them. I think you’ll find them very, very interesting – and a radical change from what you see there today.

      Rock onnnnn … Saigon Kids – 🙂

      Bob

  • Sarah J Rogers

    My dad has some great pictures of these times. wish I had thought to ask him more of his thoughts on the political situation at this time. Also saw the car in Hue-very interesting.
    Frank, didn’t know Silas was moving to Chinatown. My book club is now reading Hawaii again (since we all live here). The stories of Chinatown are as Bob says and it has quite a history in HNL.
    Interesteing to read the story again of the burnings. a very vivid memory.
    Sarah

  • Alice Ahlgren

    We were in Saigon when this happened (that infamous picture is posted in my photo gallery) and I have no recollection of any American kid burning himself. I can’t help but believe this is myth. That kind of information would have been all over the high school instantly no matter who tried to keep it quiet.

  • Kathy (Connor) Dobronyi

    I tried to contact the author of the article, but no luck. Wanted to ask him for more details.

    Perhaps the guy went to the French high school? I would imagine something like this would definitely be hushed up.

    • Admin

      Kathy – thanks for your comment about trying to contact the author. I’ve been attempting to also – same thing no luck. Given the polictical situation at the time and American/Vietnamese relations, if this did actually happen, it certainly would have been surpressed by the U.S. Embassy just as many, many events that I’m personally aware of were surpressed. Hind sight always being 20/20, it has become very clear over time that what was actually going on in Southeast Asia and what the world was told are like night and day, in many respects.

      I would agree, it is possible, he did not attend ACS or for that matter any school in Viet-nam. Many parents (including mine) didn’t want their kids exposed to the ‘risk’ in Saigon so sent their children to boarding schools outside of Viet-nam. The kids would only come to Viet-nam to visit during school holidays/vacations, etc.

      But, on the other hand, given the closeness of the American Community in Saigon, I also find it difficult to believe that such an event wouldn’t have spread like wild fire through the American Community. Prehaps not in great detail, but certainly behind closed doors.

      It should prove interesting to unravel this mystery of ‘truth’ or ‘myth’.

      Bob

  • Admin

    Kathy (and others who may be interested) – the incident of an American youth’s self-immolation is also shown in an article on Wikipedia. It states, “The Americans in Saigon often found the self-immolations to be surreal and made puns about “bonze fires” and “hot cross bonzes”, as an escape mechanism from the bewilderment. In one instance, the young son of an American officer based at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. He was seriously burned before the fire was extinguished and later could only offer the explanation that “I wanted to see what it was like.””

    The entire article can be viewed by Clicking Here.

    The documentation source for this article is: Page 310, Prochnau, William (1995), Once upon a Distant War, New York: Times Books, ISBN 0-812-92633-1

    Now to locate the book and the author’s source of the information … hmmm??

    Bob

  • Jim Cooper

    I agree with Alice’s comment – if any American dependent had done this the info would’ve almost immediately ‘torched’ through the ACS kids’ “bamboo telegraph” like wildfire (sorry, too many puns). Among all the rumors rampant in ’63 and ’64, I heard nothing of any sort. I suspect this is either a misinterpretation of a bona fide injury to some kid or a made-up story to titillate readers. The sensational manner in which the story is worded suggest the latter. It will be interesting to see what Prochnau has to say as to his sources.

  • I’ve been looking for the source of the statement that Kathy has questioned, about an American dependent trying to emulate the immolation of a Buddhist monk, since no Saigon Kid writing on this blog has any recollection of such an event involving a Saigon Kid. (I myself was not in Saigon in the summer of 1963; my family departed the scene two years before that time.)

    In June 1963, a Buddhist monk in Saigon, Thich Quang Duc, immolated himself in protest of the policies of the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem. As Kathy has indicated, the story about the supposed copycat immolation is recorded in an Internet document (“America’s Little War Becomes a Nightmare,” http://www.aliciapatterson.org/APF1202/Prochnau/Prochnau.html, copyright 1989) written William Prochnau, former national correspondent for The Washington Post: “In Saigon the teen-age son of an American official tried to imitate the old monk, survived with serious burns, and said afterward he just wanted to see what it felt like.” (Prochnau is the author of a very recent book, “Miracle on the Hudson.”) Bob’s research shows other Internet instances of the tale track back to this Prochnau story, as well as Prochnau’s book “Once Upon a Distant War.”

    Using the interlibrary loan service of the university where I teach, I obtained the book that William Prochnau published six years later. In that book he quotes (page 310) someone named John Mecklin as having said, “One day the young son of an officer of the American Embassy poured gasoline on his clothes and struck a match. He was seriously burned before the fire was extinguished. His only explanation: ‘I wanted to see what it was like.’”

    In Prochnau’s book, John Mecklin is introduced (on page 55) as “in May 1962, the new government press attaché.” On a leave of absence from working as a veteran correspondent for Time magazine, Mecklin’s position is further identified as “the new Saigon head of the United States Information Agency, a job that also made him the chief civilian press officer for the American Mission.” In a footnote on page 57, the phrase ‘American Mission’ is defined as an umbrella term for “the upper levels of the embassy and the military … combined into one management group … [with] the ambassador in charge.”

    In the bibliography at the back of Prochnau’s book, I found this entry: Mecklin, John. Mission in Torment: An Intimate Account of the U.S. Role in Vietnam, New York: Doubleday, 1965. I submitted another request to the interlibrary loan service, and today received a copy of Mecklin’s book.

    John Mecklin writes that he arrived in Saigon on May 1, 1962, to be the Public Affairs Officer in Saigon. A quick scan of the book indicates that he was not accompanied by his wife and two sons during his 21 months on the scene. (Available on the Internet, an inventory of his papers now found at Dartmouth College gives the names and birthdates of his sons.) At one point, he mentions corresponding with his 14 year-old son back in the U.S.

    In early 1963, after months of trying to calm contentious relations between reporters like David Halberstram and the American officials in Vietnam, Mecklin flew to Clark AFB in the Philippines for some minor surgery, but cancer was discovered. As a result, he traveled to Bethesda Naval Hospital outside Washington for major chest surgery to remove a tumor. Originally, worn down by the fighting between the correspondents and American officialdom, as well as his health, he had resolved to quit his government post. But on the trip back to America, he changed his mind. After his surgery, and recuperation, he was invited to meet in the Oval Office with President Kennedy and gave JFK his thoughts about how media relations in Vietnam could be improved. This meeting, and a later presidential directive containing the substance of those thoughts, renewed his confidence that better relations could be reached between the correspondents and the American Mission. Recovered from his surgery, he returned to Saigon in May 1963, a month before the immolation of Thich Quang Duc. His severe criticism later that year of his own government’s denial of complicity in the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem resulted in his departure from Vietnam, and resignation from government service, in March 1964. Prochnau writes that Mecklin’s “book, Mission in Torment, published two years later, would be banned in the USIA library in Saigon.”

    The quote in Prochnau’s book attributed to Mecklin is word-for-word what Mecklin records in his own book. I had hoped that more detail would be found there that could lead to an identification of the American boy. On page 168 of his book, Mecklin writes of the mood of Americans in Saigon after the Buddhist monk’s immolation: “Saigon was like a mental institution. Neither the Vietnamese nor the Americans understood what was happening, nor what to do about it, nor even what to say. There were Americans who made jokes about ‘bonze fires’ or ‘hot cross bonzes’ or ‘Buddhist cookouts,’ almost as an escape mechanism. There was also something hypnotic about the mood. One day the young son of an officer of the American Embassy poured gasoline on his clothes and struck a match. He was seriously burned before the fire was put out. His only explanation: ‘I wanted to see what it was like.’” The anecdote ends there.

    Mecklin acknowledges (in the introduction, pages xi-xii) that in writing his book, it was his intention “to omit names of individuals as much as possible, especially in a derogatory context. My idea was to stimulate thinking about Vietnam, not to stir up new bitterness.” He writes of his sources that, “I kept no personal records, except for an incomplete collection of newspaper and magazine clippings, and there were many gaps in my memory of those hectic months. Such research as was possible in the time available had to be limited to unclassified sources which were often skimpy. There is no information in the book which has not been published elsewhere, or would not have been available to a determined reporter.”

    John Martin Mecklin died of cancer on October 29, 1971 at the age of 53. It would be interesting to peruse the Mecklin papers at Dartmouth College (http://ead.dartmouth.edu/html/ml28.html) to see if there is anything there that might give further clues about the story of “the young son of an officer of the American Embassy.” Perhaps some enterprising Saigon Kid who lives nearby can take up the challenge to dig deeper there.

    Bruce

    • Admin

      Bruce – great research – Thank You!

      From what I’ve been able to determine, this *statement* stems from Prochnau’s book “Once Upon a Distant War”. And is found on Page 310. His *source* documentation for the *statement* on page 310 is in the back of the book somewhere between pages 500 to 526. I’ve to date only been able to locate ‘previews’ of the book that limit the pages which can be viewed.

      Coupling this with your findings, I suspect Prochnau’s documentation source would go back to John Mecklin’s book “Mission in Torment: An Intimate Account of the U.S. Role in Vietnam”. As from what I’ve been able to gather, it appears that Prochnau’s book (Once Upon a Distant War) is basically a ‘compilation’ of information from numerous reference sources and very little first hand knowledge.

      From what Mecklin says on his ‘introduction pages’ you’ve posted above it *sorta* *kinda* sounds like he wrote Mission in Torment … off the top of his head as best he would remember at the time of the writing – LOL – 🙂

      It will be interesting to see if his papers at Dartmouth reveal the – mystery – or not …

      Bob

  • Bob:

    The notes for Chapter 12 (where he quotes Mecklin’s telling of the purported American boy’s imitation immolation) in the back of Porchnau’s book are a single long paragraph on page 513. Nothing is mentioned there concerning the incident of the mysterious unnamed boy. Who knows: maybe it actually occurred in another one of Mecklin’s nightmares (see page 335 of Neil Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie” where he mentions a nightmare that Mecklin is supposed to have had — Sheehan knew Mecklin in Saigon, slept at his house, and probably heard lots of stories from Mecklin over a drink or two). Or maybe there’s something written down in the Mecklin papers at Dartmouth.

    Bruce

    • Admin

      Bruce – maybe, just maybe, it was the Ba Muoi Ba talking that started this story in the first place … LOL 🙂

      The only way I can see this having actually happened is if the kid didn’t live in Saigon and was just ‘visiting’ his parents therefore was not known or had not gotten plugged into the American community yet. But, I’m not ruling out any thing yet. Because as we know from the event with Joe C. … it got shushed up pretty tight and the only thing any of us ever knew at the time (or where told) is that he was involved in an accident that a Vietamese man died in … It was years later before any of us learned what actully happened and any of the details, etc.

      I scanned through the inventory list of the boxes of Mecklin papers at Dartmouth … it is possible that some of his notes and drafts might contain something about the ‘mysterious kids’. But, we’ll need a Saigon Kid to go physically look through the boxes, etc.

      It’ll be interesting to see what materializes …

      Bob

  • Bruce Thomas

    I’ve posted what I feel is the final word on this matter as a comment to a later posting, here.

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