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LETTERS HOME: COUP IN SAIGON NOVEMBER 3, 1963

Submitted by Karen Klingenhagen (ACS)

Letters HomeWe were in Vietnam from summer 1963 until February 15, 1965 when the dependents were evacuated. My dad was a Colonel in the U.S. Army and my mom, I (KK), my sister Jani and my brother Jay joined him. My sister was in 2/3 grade and I in 4/5 grade. Our brother Jay attended the Les Oiseaux Catholic school (kindergarten-1st).

I found a letter my mother sent to my grandmother immediately after we had gone through the coup that overthrew the Diem regime. I retyped it to save as it’s on thin paper and looks like she used a sharpie pen on both sides, so it took some time to decipher.

Jay and Isobel Klingenhagen

Lunching in upstairs family room Saigon, Vietnam. Jay (left) and Isobel (right) Klingenhagen mother and brother of Karen Klingenhagen. Circa 1963-65. Karen Klingenhagen collection. CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE.

Letter from Isobel Klingenhagen dated Monday, November 3, 1963 to Mr. & Mrs. J.J. Klingenhagen at 5024 Queens Avenue, St. Louis, MO. Postmark November 5, 1963. 16 cents in stamps

Dear Grandpa & Grandma,

I guess if I were going to pick the most interesting and exciting part of the globe in the last few days – it’d be Saigon. I know you are most anxious to hear we are okay & never in any great danger altho all precautions were taken.

It started about 1:30 Friday (wee hours of that morning your time). I was out for my French lesson not too far from home when the tutor said – “Is that firecrackers?” And we casually said “yes” but thought they were banned, except for new years. It was the starting of the coup (pronounced “coo”). Her husband [the tutor’s] called & said there was heavy artillery fire on the river. I called home & Mike, our driver, said there was also small firing about a block away from the house & maybe for a while I should stay where I was. There were 3 of us American wives at the tutor. We turned on the radio – & the American station told all Americans to go home immediately or stay at the office. So – we girls climbed in the car & proceeded home. Jack had already landed a helicopter in the field near us & brought in a squad of soldiers & stationed the children in the maid’s quarters out back. Shortly after I got home General Stilwell walked into the back to check on our welfare. Jack had already headed back to the office. Pretty soon the mortar firing became so heavy down town that Mrs. Stilwell & most of her neighbors living in villas near the palace where most of the firing was concentrated were evacuated out to our house to stay until it was over. Everyone brought staff of servants. We had a Vietnamese couple whose brother was a General leading the coup, a daughter whose uncle (another family) was a General, servants with a child picked up that no one knew to whom she belonged (about a year & half old) and several American families. We have about 7 villas in our compound & we placed everyone. The only other wife that’s here with the Army Support Group is a warrant officer who works in Jack’s office. Any Army jeep picked her & her child up & brought to our house. Each had grabbed a bag of necessities & maybe a few personal papers in case Americans were evacuated. I cleared my shelf of all food & set about preparing dinner for what I knew would be a mammoth crowd. I guess that Friday nite at dinner I served 50 people – I had lots of servants to help – mine & those brought in with families. There were soldiers (3 platoons) that the General sent in to guard the compound. We were well protected. Then the Army sent to my house from the mess hall food to help me feed my “guests”! Then I was really in business. There was no more firing near us except stray shots, but we could hear the heavy artillery down town & plans of anti-Diem actually being fired on from where we were located. The children’s eyes got big but not once did either of them cry or get hysterical. I was as calm too – after all I was feeding a crowd & having to find places for the influx of refugees to sleep that nite. My house was central contact between Jack’s outfit & our compound – it became grand central station & we kept an open line to Jack & the General’s office if at any time we must be evacuated. I gathered up the kids & my raincoats – extra ones in case – took all my money & personal papers & put in an overnite bag ready to leave if we had to, even extra underpants for [the] kids. As nite approached the commander in charge of troops here had everyone turn off their lights (a few shots nearby) & told me not to put anyone in the front bedrooms. So I decided I would put no kids to bed upstairs either. I had Jay & Janie in a guest room downstairs & we put Jay & Joey (warrant officers 5 year old) in 1 bed & K-K & Janie in another. The wives (including Mrs. Stilwell & I) sat on the floor in the hall. Coffee & cookies (I happened to have plenty of both) were being passed to anyone coming in to the phone. It was a real jam session & all the time heavy mortar fire in the distance. About 1 o’clock AM Mrs. Stilwell & I each took a sofa in the living room & Mrs. Cook had a cot set up (warrant officer’s wife). At 4:00 AM I awoke to hear even the worst part of the battle – they were getting Diem & Nhu out of the palace. This lasted to about 6:30 & most of the coupe [sic] ended, except for small riot shelling. We hear that Nhu & Diem were shot by a Vietnamese Captain & did not commit suicide as you probably heard. General Stilwell decided at 5 o’clock [PM] Saturday they all could go home, which everyone did. Heard later there was still hand to hand battle in front of his house.

I won’t write more. Kids are in school this morning, everything back to normal.

Incidentally, Gen Bob Wienecke is here for a week’s visit. We fed him and his Doctor (nuclear physicist) Thursday nite. They remained in a hotel downtown. He was out again yesterday to spend the day with us. As far as we know no Americans hurt.

Love to all, Isobel

Remember Capt. Woodard, friend of Dr. Twohey. We had both wives for dinner in St. Louis. He sat by telephone at our house all nite. He headed for our house as soon as coupe [sic] started wanting to help out the Klingenhagen kids & Mrs. K. I was touched.

P.S. Save this letter for me!

3 comments to LETTERS HOME: COUP IN SAIGON NOVEMBER 3, 1963

  • Sarah Rogers

    great story and great memory of life in Saigon and how your family helped the ‘war effort’

  • i remeber the coup as the first time I realized things were not normal in Saigon. My friend Carolyn and I were on the bus coming home from the swimming pool at the air base. When we got close to her house the bus driver said we would all have to get off of the bus. There were rolls of barbed wire across the road. We were about four blocks from the president’s palace. We could see soldiers and tanks up ahead. We could also hear alot of shooting and explosions. I told the driver I had to get home as my mother would be worried. He said he was very dorry but he could not go any further. I insisted thinking somehow that would make a difference. It didn’t. I was 15 years old and really never had a problem like this before. Carolyn said I should come to her house and we could try to figure things out there. As it happened, I spent 3 days at her house. I was unable to speak with my family. However. Sgt. Kendrick (Carolyn’s dad) was able to finally relay a message to the compound chief who lived where I did. Noone had a phone in the 8 home blosk except him. My mother and my Vietnamese housekeeper finally came in a taxi and took me home. When I got home there were soldiers and artilary in my yard. My house was across the street from the police station. The police were supporting President Diem. I did not see anyone dead or injured but I had the distinct feeling that folks were not getting along. In a few days the soldiers left and things were back to normnal—for a while.

  • Tom Jacobs

    I remember it well, troops showing up posted at the playground.. My Dad hopped in a cycalo-mi, came out to ACS to check on the status of his kids. I was in the 4th grade.

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