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Saigon Kids™ Stories: Saigon Coup d-Etat November 1, 1963

By Jim Cooper (ACS)

Reminiscences from Dalat and Saigon, during the fall of the House of Diem.

50 years ago, on November 1st, 1963, “young Turk” generals of the Army of Viet Nam (ARVN), launched a coup d’etat against the regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem. The Cooper family (my parents and me and my two brothers, Mike, and Tom)had been living in Saigon, South Vietnam since September 1962, as Dad was the civil aviation advisor for the US Embassy.

Cooper family in Land Rover in Dalat 1963

Cooper family in Dalat November 1963, on the trusty Land Rover: Jim and Tom on hood, Mike in front seat, Mom peeking out from the back seat (Dad taking the picture) villa caretaker’s son by rear wheel. Circa 1963. Jim Cooper Collection.

On this weekend we were vacationing in the mountain city of Dalat (200 miles northeast of Saigon), staying at a big old colonial house that Dad had rented out by the lake to the west of town – I think it was a popular rental among embassy folks.

During the day on Nov 1st, the rental agent came by to give my parents some vague news that there was “some fighting” going on in or near Saigon.

We went into town for dinner that night, and at the restaurant, the staff had the radio behind the bar cranked up – it was all talk and all in Vietnamese.

The atmosphere was very inscrutably colonial oriental, complete with the ceiling fans turning languidly far above our heads. The other restaurant patrons and staff (all Vietnamese) were intent on the radio and they kept shooting glances in our direction (probably due to some early reports that the coup was started, or strongly supported by, the USA).

Gia Long Palace, showing damage from fighting during the November 1963 coup.

Gia Long Palace, showing damage from fighting during the November 1963 coup. Circa 1963. Jim Cooper Collection.

We were pretty much clueless as to the coup and to the fact that authorities in Dalat were at that point still loyal to the Diem regime – indeed, the reporting on the restaurant radio station was probably giving loyalist-leaning reports.

On the way back to our house from dinner in the Land Rover that was provided with the house , driving along an unlit road in pitch-black darkness, we were stopped by a local ARVN/militia roadblock of 3 or 4 troops who just stepped out into the middle of the road from the darkness. The first soldiers we saw were dressed in the black calico “pajamas” which many Vietnamese (especially Viet Cong guerrillas) wore, which freaked Mom out – she was certain these guys were Viet Cong. The troops looked at our papers and allowed us to pass, and it wasn’t until the next day that the rental agent came by with “the rest of the story” – by the 2nd of November, the coup was pretty much all done, and Dalat, like the rest of the country, declared for the new regime.

Presidential Guard barracks Saigon after the Nov 1963 Coup.

Presidential Guard barracks Saigon after the Nov 1963 Coup. Battle damaged trucks in foreground. Great souvenir hunting grounds for American kids! Circa 1963. Jim Cooper Collection.

So we missed the excitement and fighting between rebel and loyalist forces which occurred in Saigon. But over the next week, me and some buddies did visit the Presidential Guard barracks and rooted around in the piles of discarded equipment (all expressly forbidden my Dad and Mom mind you) and came away with helmets, spats, shoulder boards, bandoliers of ammo casings, some live rounds, empty ammo magazines, etc (I still have a helmet and some other souvenirs from those raiding forays).

It took a while for the debris from the fighting to be cleared away, and the troops who were nonchalantly “guarding” the barracks area didn’t seem to really care about American kids scavenging among the piles of rubble. I shudder as I recall that me and one of my buddies spent an afternoon trying to separate live .45 rounds from their casings, ’cause all we wanted were the brass shells. Despite hitting the live rounds against the curb, hitting them with rocks, etc, they didn’t separate, and they didn’t go off – we eventually just threw ’em away.

We were EXTREMELY lucky, and stupid, young kids!

Yikes!

The things we lived through, and did, as young kids in Saigon!

Jim and Tom Cooper Saigon late 1963

Jim and Tom Cooper goofing around in Saigon in their cammies – lots of our peers had cammies made at one of the numerous tailor shops downtown. Circa 1963. Jim Cooper Collection.


Trung Sisters monument before the November 1963 Coup.

Trung Sisters monument before the November 1963 Coup. Circa 1963. Jim Cooper Collection.


Trung Sisters monument after the November 1963 Coup.

Trung Sisters monument after the November 1963 coup, showing how crowds pulled down and decapitated the figures they associated with Madame Nhu. Circa 1963. Jim Cooper Collection.

12 comments to Saigon Kids™ Stories: Saigon Coup d-Etat November 1, 1963

  • George Baggett

    Excellent report. It should get wider publication.

  • Jim Lou

    I remember that period vividly.

    My sister was at a boarding school run by nuns. Unknown to most people at the time, there was a tunnel under the school grounds that exited just outside the school.

    The Ngo brothers were caught just outside the school. They were summarily executed on the spot.

  • Kevin L. Wells

    Jim,

    If it is any comfort, separating the bullet from the casing using your method is not particularly dangerous. Even if you could get the primer to fire, without the support of the a chamber, the brass case would split and release a short duration jet of gas. The major risk would be getting sand or grit in your eye.

    Small arms ammunition is not particularly dangerous unless loaded into a firearm.

    Go here to see a video depicting ammunition abused in various ways without exploding. The video was prepared for firefighter education:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SlOXowwC4c

    Kevin

    • Well DANG! Kevin … you mean all those things the Lone Ranger, Hop Along Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Lash LaRue and the other TV and movie cowboy hero’s of our youth did with there *six shoot bullets* to over power the bad guys *couldn’t* have been possible. What a bubble buster! All these years I thought you could blow up the bad guys, blow doors off there hings, blow up mines, blow up trees by the roots to create a road block, etc. … just like my cowboy heroes did…. I’m speechless 🙂

      • Kevin L. Wells

        The Lone Ranger, Cassidy (both Hopalong and Butch) Roy Rogers and Lash LaRue all practiced their daring exploits in the black powder era. Black powder is an explosive, contained in a cartridge or not. They could blow holes in jail cells and such with enough black powder!

        Besides Hollywood never let facts get in the way of a story, right?

        KLW

  • frank femiano

    Nov 1 1963 was the first full day in Saigon. Watched from JDP the planes take off and fire on the palace. Heard shots from the Joint Chiefs Compound across the fence from us. I always thought History may have been politically correct to say Diem and Nhu were killed trying to escape.

  • Laurie Methven

    I remember the coup so well and also have photos which I will share with the admin. if he wants to post.
    We lived outside Saigon in GaiDinh province – not to far from where Gen. Minh was headquartered. I remember the shooting and how we had to stay under the beds or under the stairs off and on for 2 days because of the shooting. I remember when the shooting stopped, my brothers ran out to their sandbag fort to see if any bullets had hit [they hadn’t]. What a time!

    • Laurie — Thank you for offering to share your photos. Please send them to me via the Contact Form, email or DropBox. I’m sure everyone would love to see them.

      Bob

  • Leila Tvedt

    I remember being at the PX when the coup started. The word went out, “Americans stay inside” so, of course, my friends and I ran outside to find out more. As machine gun fire came down the street, my friends ran back inside and slammed the door. I crouched behind the low concrete wall at the entrance until the firing stopped, then stood up and beat on the door to get inside. Luckily, there was a small glass window in the door, and they could see my panicked face and let me in. From the roof, we watched the “white mice” guarding the ambassador’s residence tear off their uniforms and run away. I still flinch at the sound of gunfire, do you?

  • carol cini

    I am writing a memoir “My Life as a CIA Brat” and just came across this website in the course of my research. Ricky Buchanan and I were playing golf when the coup d’état started. We had an amusing incident while playing as I hit one of trucks carrying the Vietnamese troops (I did yell fore). After playing, we were at the club house when my Dad advised me of the situation and to come home immediately and to bring Ricky with me. Shortly after we got home, all hell broke out and I tape recorded the coup from our dining room as we hid under the stairwell. I did a lot of crazy adventures while in Saigon including visiting, unattended, the palace (after the coup)where I went through the President’s room and others collecting war souvenirs before being caught by a Vietnamese major who kicked me out! This is a great website and I hope to use some of the info in my book. The hardest part is Dad was always very secretive about his work and anyone having any info on what he did would be most appreciated.

  • Tony Doggett

    I was one of the American kids “scavenging among the piles of rubble,” a formative moment in my life. I remember clearly that the blades of the ceiling fans in the palace were all droopy, evidently softened by heat of the firefight.

  • George Gottlieb

    I got in big trouble for bringing home a hand grenade. I had wrapped the pin with wire and taped the handle down with duct tape. I knew a spook that would turn it into a lighter for me, so a traded a .45 clip for it.

    My brother squealed on me and my Mom called the Marine guards from the embassy to take it away. They laughed when they saw my tape job.

    But it was my third coup…

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