Colonel Lê Quang Tung
(1923 – November 1, 1963)
was the commander of the Army of the
Republic of Vietnam Special Forces
under the command of
Ngô Ðình Nhu
, the brother of South Vietnam
's president, Ngô Đình Diệm
. A former servant of the Ngô
family, Tung's military background was in security and
counterespionage. During the 1950s, Tung was a high-ranking
official in Nhu's Cần Lao Party
secret Roman Catholic
which maintained the Ngô family's grip on power, extorting money
from wealthy businessmen. In 1960, Tung was promoted directly to
the rank of colonel and became the commander of the special forces.
Tung's period at the helm of South Vietnam's elite troops was noted
mostly for his work in repressing dissidents, rather than fighting
the Việt Cộng
insurgents. His most
well-known attack was the raid on Xá
on August 21, 1963 in which hundreds were believed
to have died. Tung's main military program was a scheme in which
Army of the Republic of
personnel attempted to infiltrate North Vietnam
in order to engage in
intelligence gathering and sabotage. The program was ineffective,
with the vast majority of infiltrators being killed or captured.
Tung was also reported to be planning an assassination attempt on
Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.
Ambassador to South Vietnam
Following the pagoda raids, the US terminated funding to Tung's men
because they were used as a political tool rather than against the
communists. Along with Diệm and Nhu, Tung was assassinated during
the November 1963 coup
Nhu and Tung had been preparing a fake coup and counter-coup in
order to give a false demonstration of the regime's strength.
However, the pair were unaware that General Tôn Thất Đính
, who was planning the phony
operation, was involved in the coup plot. Đính tricked Tung into
sending his men into the countryside, leaving the regime in Saigon
without the protection of the special forces. This led to the easy
overthrow of the regime.
President Ngô Đình Diệm
Tung was born in 1923 in central Vietnam
, which was then
the protectorate of Annam
. The former
servant of the Ngô family was devoutly Roman Catholic
, short and bespectacled.
Serving a family dictatorship concerned purely with maintaining
unadulterated power, Tung had a military background almost entirely
in security and counterespionage, which was an unusual basis for
leading the special forces. Tung had first served the French as a
security officer in central Vietnam. He then worked for Diệm as a
lieutenant in the military security service in central Vietnam. As
a high-ranking official in Nhu's Cần Lao
– the secret Roman Catholic party that maintained the Ngô
family's grip on power – Tung raised party funds by extorting money
from wealthy businessmen. Tung was primarily known among colleagues
for his unstinting loyalty towards Diệm and was hated by generals
such as Nguyễn Khánh
and Tôn Thất Đính
. In 1960, he was promoted
straight to the rank of colonel and put in charge of the special
forces. The Central
(CIA) regarded Tung as the third most
powerful man in South Vietnam behind Diệm and Nhu, thereby ranking
him as South Vietnam's most powerful military officer.
Head of special forces
Tung had been trained by the CIA in the US. A Diệm loyalist, he led
a force of 1,840 men, which operated under the direction of
Nhu rather than the army command. He did not conduct operations
against the communist Việt Cộng
but instead used his forces mainly in Saigon for repressing
opponents of the Diệm regime. Tung's most notable attacks occurred
during the Buddhist crisis
During this period, the Buddhist majority engaged in mass protests
against the pro-Catholic policies of the Diệm regime. On August 21, 1963,
Tung's men, acting on Nhu's orders, raided Xá Lợi, Saigon's
main Buddhist temple.
The attacks were replicated across the
nation, leaving a death toll estimated to be in the hundreds. The
pagodas suffered extensive damage and a further 1,400 monks
arrested. The attacks occurred after Nhu had tricked a group of
Army of the Republic of
(ARVN) generals into agreeing to declare martial law
. Nhu knew that the generals were
plotting and hoped to exploit martial law to overthrow his brother,
but outmanoeuvred them by sending Tung's special forces into the
pagodas disguised as regular ARVN soldiers. As a result, South
Vietnam's Buddhist majority initially thought that the regular army
had attacked the monks, damaging its generals' credibility among
the populace as potential leaders of the country. Following the
attacks, US officials threatened to withhold aid to the special
forces unless they were used in fighting communists, rather than
Another notable religious attack was perpetrated by Tung's men in
hugely oversized carp was found swimming in a
small pond near the central city of Đà Nẵng.
Local Buddhists began to believe that the fish was a reincarnation
of one of Gautama Buddha
's disciples. As more people
made pilgrimages to the pond, so disquiet grew among the district
chief and his subordinates, who answered to Ngô Đình Cẩn
, another younger brother of Diệm.
The officials mined
the pond, but the fish
survived. They raked the pond with machine gun fire, but the carp
again escaped death. To deal with the tenacious fish, they called
in Tung's special forces. Tung's men grenaded
the pond, finally killing the carp.
The killing backfired, because it generated more publicity – many
newspapers across the world ran stories about the miraculous fish.
Army of the Republic of
(ARVN) helicopters began landing at the site, with
paratroopers filling their bottles with water that they believed to
Tung also headed a group run by the CIA, in which ARVN personnel of
northern origin infiltrated North
, posing as locals. The objective was to gather
intelligence and sabotage communist infrastructure and
communications facilities. The recruits were trained in bases at
Trang, Đà Nẵng and sometimes offshore in Taiwan, Guam and Okinawa.
Around eighty groups of operatives, each numbering six or seven
men, were deployed in 1963. They entered the north via parachute
drops or sampan
journeys at night, but nearly
all were captured or killed. The captives were frequently used in
communist propaganda broadcasts. Tung was heavily criticised for
his management of the operations.
At Nhu's request, Tung was reported to have been planning an
operation under the cover of a government-organised student
demonstration outside the US
. In this plan, Tung's men would assassinate ambassador
Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.
other key officials among the confusion. Another target was the
Buddhist leader Thích Trí Quang
had been given asylum in the embassy after being targeted in the
pagoda raids. According to the plan, Tung's men would then burn
down the embassy.
Following the pagoda raids, the US began to explore the possibility
of replacing Diệm. Cable 243
US embassy to look for alternative leadership if Diệm did not
remove Nhu. In September, the Krulak Mendenhall mission
despatched to South Vietnam to analyse the domestic situation and
the war against the communists. One of the resulting suggestions
was to terminate funding of the special forces as an expression of
disapproval of Tung and Nhu's actions. Another proposal was to run
covert campaigns to discredit Tung. The Krulak Mendenhall mission
ended in a stalemate, so the Kennedy administration
with the McNamara Taylor
. The second expedition resulted in the suspension of
funding for the special forces until they were placed under the
command of the army's Joint General Staff (JGS) and sent into
battle. The McNamara Taylor mission's report noted that one of the
reasons for sending Tung's men into the field was because they "are
a continuing support for Diệm". The Americans were also aware that
removing the special forces from Saigon would increase the chances
that a coup attempt would succeed, thereby encouraging the army to
overthrow the president. Diệm and Nhu were undeterred by suspension
of aid, keeping Tung and his men in the capital. In private talks
with US officials, Diệm insisted that the army was responsible for
the pagoda attacks and that Tung's men were already under the
control of the JGS.
Coup and assassination
By September, Diệm and Nhu knew that a group of generals were
planning a coup. Nhu ordered Tung and Tôn Thất Đính—a loyalist general who commanded
the ARVN III Corps that
encompassed the Saigon region—to
plan a fake coup against the government.
One objective was
to trick anti-government dissidents into joining the false uprising
so that they could be identified and eliminated. Another aim was to
provide a public relations stunt that would give a false impression
of the strength of the regime.
Codenamed Operation Bravo
, the first
stage of the scheme involved some of Tung's loyalist soldiers,
disguised as insurgents, faking a coup. Tung would then announce
the formation of a "revolutionary government" consisting of
opposition activists, while Diệm and Nhu pretended to be on the
run. During the orchestrated chaos of the first coup, the disguised
loyalists would riot and in the ensuing mayhem, kill the leading
coup plotters, such as Generals Dương Văn
, Trần Văn Đôn
, Lê Văn Kim
and junior officers that were helping
them. Tung's men and some of Nhu's underworld connections were also
to kill some figures who were assisting the conspirators, such as
the titular but relatively powerless Vice President Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ
agent Lucien Conein
, who was on
assignment in Vietnam as a military adviser, and Ambassador Lodge.
These would then be blamed on "neutralist and pro-communist
elements". This was to be followed by a fake "counter-coup",
whereupon Tung's special forces, having left Saigon on the pretext
of fighting communists, as well as Đính's forces would triumphantly
re-enter Saigon to reaffirm the Diệm regime. Nhu would then exploit
the scare to round up dissidents.
However, Nhu and Tung were unaware that Đính was part of the real
coup plot. The III Corps commander told Tung that the counter-coup
needed to employ an overwhelming amount of force. He said that
tanks were required "because armour is dangerous". In an attempt to
outwit Tung, Đính said that fresh troops were needed,
The loyalists were unaware that Đính's real intention was to engulf
Saigon with his rebel divisions and lock Tung's loyalists in the
countryside where they could not defend the president. Tung and the
palace agreed to send all four Saigon-based special forces
companies out of the capital of Saigon on October 29.
The body of Diệm in the back of an
armoured personnel carrier.
November 1, Tung was summoned by the coup organisers to the Joint
General Staff headquarters at Tân Sơn Nhứt Air Base, on the pretext of a routine officers' lunch
The president had been executed on the way to military
At 13:30, General Trần Văn
announced that a coup was taking place. Most of the
officers rose to applaud, but Tung did not. He was taken away by
Nguyễn Văn Nhung
, the bodyguard of
General Dương Văn Minh
, another of
the coup plotters. As he was led away, Tung shouted "Remember who
gave you your stars!"
During the early stages of the coup, the rebels forced Tung to
order his men to surrender. This meant that only the Presidential
Guard was left to defend Gia
. At 16:45, Tung was forced at gunpoint to talk to
Diệm on the phone, telling the president that he had told his men
to surrender. Minh then ordered Nhung to execute the Diệm loyalist.
Tung had failed to convince the president to surrender and still
commanded the loyalty of his men. The other generals had little
sympathy, since the special forces commander had disguised his men
in army uniforms and framed the generals for the pagoda raids. The
generals were well aware of the threat that Tung posed; they had
discussed his elimination during their planning, having
contemplated waging an offensive against his special forces.
At nightfall he was taken with Major Lê
, his brother and deputy, hands tied, into a jeep
and driven to edge of the air base. Forced to kneel over two
freshly dug holes, the brothers were shot into their graves and
buried. The coup was successful, and on the following morning, Diệm
and Nhu were captured and executed.
- Karnow, p. 123.
- Jones, p. 301.
- Prochnau, p. 368.
- Karnow, p. 307.
- Jones, p. 390.
- Karnow, p. 309.
- Jacobs, pp. 143–150.
- Jacobs, pp. 152–153.
- Hammer, pp. 166–167.
- Jones, pp. 299–309.
- Prochnau, p. 411.
- Karnow, p. 378.
- Jones, p. 393.
- Jacobs, pp. 163–164.
- Jones, pp. 356–357.
- Jones, p. 359.
- Jones, p. 390.
- Hammer, pp. 246–247.
- Hammer, pp. 235–236.
- Hammer, pp. 272–273.
- Hammer, p. 282.
- Karnow, p. 318.
- Karnow, p. 317.
- Jones, pp. 398–399.
- Sheehan, p. 368.
- Karnow, p. 319.
- Jones, p. 399.
- Jones, p. 408.
- Jones, p. 410.
- Hammer, p. 287.
- Hammer, p. 290.
- Karnow, p. 310.
- Jones, p. 325.
- Jones, p. 388.
- Karnow, p. 321.
- Jones, p. 414.
- Karnow, pp. 324–326.