57 years ago, August 1963, I was a PFC Demolition Specialist on Detachment A-6, Company A, 6th Special Forces Group (Airborne), at Fort Bragg NC. My A-team was one of four going through pre-deployment training for an assigned six-month mission to Ethiopia.
The first couple weeks of August brought about a rash of self-annihilation (by fire) by Buddhists, despite Buddhist leaders declaring the act to be prohibited. The perpetrators included Buddhist monks, a student priest, and a nun. That began a rash of demonstrations against the government of Vietnam. Even the U.S. State Department criticized the Diem government.
Hatred of the Diem regime increased. Buddhist opposition to the Diem policies had become violent demonstrations in May of 1963. The riots began when the Diem government forbade the Buddhists to display their religious flags during their celebration of Buddha’s birthday.
Diem countered the demonstrations with military force, including police and army troops shooting into the demonstrators in Hue, killing one woman and eight children. The demonstrations spread over time, several monks even lighting themselves on fire. Media video coverage of the immolations shocked the American public, and President Kennedy.
Diem constantly interfered with military matters, including appointing military leaders, not based on experience or competence, but on loyalty to Diem. Many of his appointees, especially those appointed as province and district chiefs, turned dishonest, putting their careers above national interest, and trying to make a fortune from their position. On 4 July, a South Vietnamese Buddhist General, Tran Van Don, questioned the CIA about the possibility of staging a coup against Diem.
On 22 August, newly appointed Ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, arrived in Vietnam. Two days later he received a message from the State Department, which he interpreted as encouraging the coup against Diem.
Two days later, Lodge met with South Vietnamese President Diem, for the first time. Lodge suggested that Diem fire his brother, but Diem wouldn’t even discuss the matter. That same day, back in Washington, D.C., President Kennedy met with his top aides. The meeting lasted three days, during which there were heated discussions about the possibility of supporting a coup against Diem.
On the 29th Lodge sent a message to Kennedy, stating that, in his opinion, there was no way the South Vietnamese could be victorious, under the leadership of Diem. After learning that, Kennedy gave Lodge free reign to manage the Vietnam debacle. As luck would have it, the coup was not attempted, mainly due to mistrust within the conspirators.
The last week of the month, our Ethiopia MTT group went out to the firing range, to fire for familiarization and for record. We fired Thompson submachine guns and .30-caliber machine guns for familiarization.
Miracle of miracles, I recorded high enough scores to be rated as a “Sharpshooter’ on my M-1 Garand rifle AND (even more of a miracle) military issue M1911A1 .45-caliber pistol. It permitted me to upgrade my weapon medal “rack” on my Class A uniform chest, to “Rifle” and “Pistol” Sharpshooter and “Mortar” and “Recoilless Rifle” 1st Class Gunner (Expert).
In Basic training, I had initially qualified as “Marksman” (the lowest rating) on the rifle and pistol. Normally, I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with the pistol. They weren’t the most accurate weapons around, but if that .45-caliber round hit somebody, it would do some damage, and stop them in their tracks.
During a Labor Day interview, President Kennedy said that President Diem was “out of touch with the people.” He added that the South Vietnamese government could probably regain the support of the population, if there were “changes in policy, and perhaps, in personnel.” During the same interview, President Kennedy reiterated the oft-repeated premise that “if we withdrew from Vietnam, the Communists would control Vietnam. Pretty soon, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaya, would go…”
From Book #2, of my four-book set of SLURP SENDS!, #1 (“SLURP SENDS! On Becoming a Green Beret Book 1”) & #2 (SLURP SENDS! Experiences of an A-Team Green Beret Book 2”) are already available on Amazon. Books #3, “SLURP SENDS! Experiences of a Green Beret In Vietnam Book 3,” and #4 “SLURP SENDS! A Green Beret’s Experiences In Vietnam Book 4,” will be available soon.
PHOTOS: Self-annihilation by a Buddhist monk (Internet photo) / Sharpshooter rack / Teammate SP5 Kelly with M-1 Garand rifle in Ethiopia (My photos)