The U.S. diplomatic presence in Saigon was established on December 9, 1907 as a consulate. It acted as a representative to French Indochina succeeding an American commercial agent that had been established in Saigon in 1889. The United States granted recognition to the State of Vietnam led by the Bảo Đại government in 1950, and on February 17, the Consulate-General in Saigon was elevated to Legation status with Edmund A. Gullion as Chargé d'Affaires ad interim. Following the Geneva Accords of 1954 and the subsequent partitioning into North Vietnam and South Vietnam, the United States did not extend diplomatic recognition to North Vietnam. On June 24, 1952, after the U.S. Senate confirmed Donald R. Heath as the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, the Legation in Saigon's status was raised and the embassy was formally established. The first embassy was located at 39 Hàm Nghi Boulevard and the original building remains there today.
On March 30, 1965, the Viet Cong detonated a car-bomb outside the embassy. The attack occurred when a Vietnamese policeman began arguing with the driver of a car parked in front of the embassy but the driver refused to leave and then another Viet Cong member drove up alongside the car and fired on the policeman. Quickly following the brief exchange of fire, the car, which contained 300 pounds of plastic explosives, detonated in front of the embassy killing two Americans, one female CIA employee, Barbara Robbins and another American, as well as 19 Vietnamese and one Filipino serving in the U.S. Navy along with injuring 183 others. <Theodore R. Little, Jr. was the lone Embassy Marine (MSG) on duty. At about 11:00 A.M., the driver of the Marine Detachment vehicle informed the receptionist he would wait outside until Theodore R. Little, Jr. was ready to return to the Marine House. At about 11:30, Little became aware of the disturbance outside as the car approached the entrance to the Embassy. Moments later the 5 story Embassy building was in shambles. Little continued maintain his post until other marines arrived from the Marine House. He sustained minor injuries and was cited by Ambassador Maxwell Taylor for his heroic efforts. Little recalls a civilian approaching him saying he was an American official. He was denied entrance since Little's training informed him not to trust anyone in a situation like this other than other members of the 15-man Marine Detachment. Prior to the bombing, numerous bomb threats has been received. All proved negative.> The U.S. Congress appropriated $1 million to reconstruct the embassy in a new location following the attack and although retaliatory raids on North Vietnam were suggested, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson refused. Following the attack, South Vietnamese Foreign Minister Tran Van Do posthumously decorated Barbara Robbins and the Filipino navy serviceman with the Medal of Honor First Class.
Due to security concerns following the 1965 bombing, it was decided that a new embassy with greater protection would be constructed. The site selected was a 3.18-acre (12,900 m2) site known as the Norodom Compound at No 4 Thong Nhut (now Le Duan) Boulevard at the corner of Thong Nhut and Mac Dinh Chi Street. The embassy was next to the French embassy, opposite the British embassy, and located near the Presidential Palace.
It was originally designed in early 1965 by the firm Curtis and Davis but their design had only called for three stories and due to increased U.S. commitment in Vietnam, a larger building would be needed and the firm Adrian Wilson and Associates were selected to redesign the building in November 1965. The new design called for four and then six stories and was built between 1965 and 1967 by RMK-BRJ, who employed 500 workers to construct the building using primarily materials from the U.S. due to the scarcity of resources in South Vietnam at the time. The embassy was opened on September 29, 1967, after more than two years of construction and cost a total of 2.6 million dollars.
The embassy comprised two separate compounds, a consular compound sealed off by a separate wall and steel gate and the embassy compound with the Embassy Chancery building, behind it was a parking lot, a two-story villa used as a residence by the Mission Coordinator (a civilian assistant to the United States Ambassador to South Vietnam), a motor pool and other facilities. There were two entry gates, a pedestrian entrance on Thong Nhut Boulevard and a vehicle entrance on Mac Dinh Chi Street.
The new Chancery was a distinctive six-story white concrete building, with a concrete lattice facade that served to both cool the building and deflect rockets and other projectiles. A small helipad was located on the roof. A concrete awning extended from the Chancery out over the pedestrian entrance on Thong Nhut Boulevard.
The old embassy on Hàm Nghi Boulevard remained in use as an embassy annex.
On 15 December 1967, as a sign of their confidence in the Vietnamese military, U.S. forces turned over responsibility for the defence of Saigon to the ARVN; henceforth, U.S. forces would only be responsible for defending themselves and their facilities in the city. On the night of 30 January 1968, four Vietnamese police posts provided an outer line of defence for the embassy. Two military policemen from the 716th MP Battalion part of the 18th Military Police Brigade guarded the vehicle entrance on Mac Dinh Chi Street, inside the Chancery building two U.S. Marines of the Marine Security Guard occupied a guard post and, due to the heightened security situation following the cancellation of the Tet Truce, another Marine was stationed on the roof of the Chancery building.
Shortly after midnight on 31 January 1968, 19 Viet Cong sappers from the elite C-10 Sapper Battalion gathered at a Viet Cong safe house in a car repair shop at 59 Phan Thanh Gian Street to distribute weapons and conduct final preparations for the attack. The unit set off in a small truck and a taxi towards central Saigon. As the vehicles came down Mac Dinh Chi Street with their lights off after curfew, they were spotted by a Vietnamese police guard post north of the embassy, but rather than trying to stop the vehicles, the police instead took cover.
As the taxi turned from Mac Dinh Chi Street onto Thong Nhut Boulevard, the occupants opened fired on the two MPs guarding the night gate. The MPs, SP4 Charles L Daniel and PFC William E Sebast, returned fire, closed and locked the steel gate and radioed that they were under attack.
Hearing the firing on the side gate, Marine Sergeant Ronald W. Harper, who was in the rear of the embassy compound, ran back into the rear door of the Chancery across the lobby past Marine Corporal George B Zahuranic, who was calling for help. Harper pulled a Vietnamese night watchman into the building and closed and bolted the heavy teak doors to the Chancery.
Minutes later at 02:47 hours, the Viet Cong blew a small hole in the perimeter wall on Thong Nhut Boulevard and gained access to the embassy compound. The first two Viet Cong that crawled through the hole and into the grounds were shot and killed by SP4 Daniel and PFC Sebast in their guard post at the Mac Dinh Chi Street entrance. Daniel radioed "They're coming in! They're coming in! Help me! Help me!" before the radio went silent. Daniel and Sebast were themselves shot and killed by the Viet Cong.
On the Chancery roof, Marine Sergeant Rudy A. Soto Jr saw the Viet Cong sappers coming through the wall and tried to fire on them with his 12-gauge shotgun which jammed after a few rounds. He then emptied his .38 caliber revolver at the hole, but such fire was unlikely to be effective at that height and range. Inside the embassy, the Viet Cong opened fire on the Chancery building with Type 56 assault rifles and B-40 rocket-propelled grenades. Several RPGs penetrated the walls of the Chancery, wounding Corporal Zahuranic and destroying the two radio sets in the guard post. Sergeant Soto tried unsuccessfully to contact the lobby guard post and, assuming that Harper and Zahuranic were dead, he called for assistance and waited for the Viet Cong to reach him.
In the villa at the rear of the embassy compound, Colonel George Jacobson, the Mission Coordinator, was awakened by the firing; searching for a weapon, he found a single M26 grenade.
An MP jeep patrol responded to the calls for help from Daniel and Sebast but as they approached the embassy they were met by automatic weapons fire from the Viet Cong that were outside the wall, killing Sergeant Johnie B Thomas and SFC Owen E Mebust.
In addition to the three Marines, there were two Vietnamese and six American civilians inside the Chancery building at the time of the attack. The Americans armed themselves with .38 revolvers, Beretta M12 submachine guns and a shotgun and waited for the Viet Cong to come inside.
Outside in the embassy grounds, the Viet Cong were unsure of their next move as both of the sapper team's leaders, Bay Tuyen and Ut Nho, had both been killed early in the attack by Daniel and Sebast after they entered the embassy grounds. The Viet Cong were armed with more than 40 pounds of C-4 explosive and could easily have blasted their way into the Chancery had they been ordered to do so. Instead they took positions in or near the circular planters around the Chancery and returned fire at the growing numbers of Americans shooting at them.
At the Marine Guards' living quarters five blocks from the embassy, Captain Robert J. O'Brien organised the remaining Marines of the Marine Security Guard detachment into quick reaction teams and headed to the embassy. As they approached the side gate on Mac Dinh Chi Street, they found it locked and could see Viet Cong inside the grounds, calling out to the MPs they were answered with fire from the Viet Cong and withdrew to firing positions further down the street and laid fire on the embassy gardens.
At around 04:00, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, through an aide, contacted the head of Saigon police, Lieutenant Nguyen Van Luan to ask for police reinforcements for the embassy. The First Precinct police commanding officer refused to move his men in the dark and instead asked the Americans to escort his men to the embassy. The Vietnamese police proved to have been worthless in defending the embassy with all policemen abandoning their posts when the firing began.
At 04:20, General William Westmoreland ordered the 716th MP Battalion to clear the embassy as their first priority. Lacking armored vehicles and helicopters, the MPs moved in more troops to cordon off the Embassy. The tactical situation was confused by darkness and the poor communications within the Chancery and between the Chancery and the MPs and Marines outside the Embassy compound. Sergeant Harper and the other Americans inside the Chancery could communicate with the outside by telephone, while Sergeant Soto on the roof only had a radio.
Marine Corporal James C. Marshall climbed the roof of a small building in the Consular compound and was firing on Viet Cong in the Embassy compound, when he was hit by a rocket fragment he remained in place firing on the Viet Cong until he was shot and killed, he would be the last American killed at the Embassy that day.
At 05:00, a helicopter carrying troops from the 101st Airborne Division attempted to land on the rooftop helipad but was driven off by fire from the surviving Viet Cong in the Embassy grounds. At 06:15, a medevac helicopter landed on the roof picked up Corporal Zahuranic and dropped off three cases of M16 rifle ammunition, however none of the Americans in the Chancery had an M16 and so this resupply was useless.
As dawn broke on the morning of 31 January, the hole that the Viet Cong had blown in the wall to gain access to the Embassy compound was located. At the same time, MPs had finally managed to shoot off the locks of the front gate on Thong Nhut Boulevard and rammed the gates open with a jeep. The MPs and Marines charged through the open gate into the Embassy grounds and within a few minutes, they easily killed all of the few surviving Viet Cong for most of them by then were already dead or dying in the Embassy garden from the prolonged firefight. At the same time, a helicopter carrying troops from the 101st Airborne Division landed on the roof and proceeded to sweep the Chancery building, finding no Viet Cong inside.
In his villa, Colonel Jacobson heard movement downstairs; he threw down his grenade and called out to the MPs in the grounds to throw him up a weapon. The MPs threw up an M1911 Colt pistol and a gas mask to Jacobson, CS gas grenades were then thrown by the MPs through the ground floor windows and Jacobson proceeded to shoot a wounded Viet Cong as he came upstairs.
By 09:00, the Embassy was declared secure. Of the 19 Viet Cong fighters that attacked the building, 18 had been killed and one wounded fighter was captured.
The first news reports of the Embassy attack were sent by the Associated Press at 03:15 based on fragmentary information, a later report stated that 3 Viet Cong had entered the Embassy ground. The news reports from the Embassy reflected the confused tactical situation. At 07:25 the associated press carried a story stating that the Viet Cong had seized part of the first floor of the Embassy building and that U.S. forces were being held back by fire from the Embassy building. This report was picked up by NBC news who, on the 6:30pm EST Huntley-Brinkley Report, broadcast that the Viet Cong occupied the first floor of the Embassy building and that U.S. forces were in the Embassy grounds exchanging fire with them. Later news reports corrected the facts of the attack, but the initial reports had shocked the American public.
While the Embassy attack (like much of the Tet Offensive) was tactically insignificant, it had a profound political and psychological impact. The United States had been fighting in Vietnam for over two-and-a-half years, 20,000 Americans had been killed and despite the presence of nearly 500,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam, the Viet Cong had managed to penetrate the U.S. Embassy, sovereign U.S. territory and the symbol of American power.Post-Tet offensive
On 4 November 1968 Ambassador Bunker presented a scroll of appreciation to LTC Tyler H. Fletcher, Commanding Officer of the 716th Military Police Battalion for their role in defending the Embassy. Ambassador Bunker also dedicated a plaque in the Chancery lobby commemorating the 4 MPs and 1 Marine who died defending the Embassy.
A fire-bomb attack on the Embassy took place on 18 February 1971.
On 12 April 1975, the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (MAB), which was to supply helicopters and a security force for the evacuation, sent a delegation to consult with Ambassador Graham Martin on current plans. Ambassador Martin told them that he would not tolerate any outward signs that the United States intended to abandon South Vietnam. All planning would have to be conducted with the utmost discretion. Brigadier General Richard E. Carey, commander of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (9th MAB), flew to Saigon the next day to see Ambassador Martin, he later said that ‘The visit was cold, non-productive and appeared to be an irritant to the Ambassador’.
On 25 April, 40 Marines from the 9th MAB on the USS Hancock (CV-19) were flown in by Air America helicopters in civilian clothes to the DAO Compound to augment the 18 Marine Security Guards assigned to defend the Embassy, an additional 6 Marines were assigned to protect Ambassador Martin.
Ambassador Martin remained optimistic that a negotiated settlement could be reached whereby the United States would not have to pull out of South Vietnam and, in an effort to avert defeatism and panic he specifically instructed Major James Kean, Commanding Officer of the Marine Security Guard Battalion and Ground Support Force Commander United States Embassy Compound, that he could not begin to remove trees and shrubbery which prevented the use of the Embassy parking lot as a helicopter Landing Zone.
On 28 April at 18:00 Tan Son Nhut Airport was bombed by 3 A-37 Dragonflys piloted by former VNAF pilots who had defected to the Vietnamese People's Air Force at the fall of Da Nang. Sporadic PAVN rocket and artillery attacks also started to hit the airport, increasing to 40 rounds per hour by 04:00 on 29 April.
At 07:00, Major General Homer D Smith Jr, the senior Defence Attache advised Ambassador Martin that fixed wing evacuations should cease and that Operation Frequent Wind, the helicopter evacuation of U.S. personnel and at-risk Vietnamese should commence. Ambassador Martin refused to accept General Smith's recommendation and instead insisted on visiting Tan Son Nhut to survey the situation for himself. Finally at 10:51 the order was given to commence Operation Frequent Wind, however due to confusion in the chain of command General Carey did not receive the execute order until 12:15.
The two major evacuation points chosen for Operation Frequent Wind were the DAO Compound adjacent to Tan Son Nhut Airport for American civilian and Vietnamese evacuees and the Embassy for Embassy staff.
By the morning of 29 April it was estimated that approximately 10,000 people had gathered around the Embassy, while some 2500 evacuees were in the embassy and consular compounds. From 10:00 to 12:00 Major Kean and his Marines cut down trees and moved vehicles to create an LZ in the embassy parking lot behind the Chancery building. Two LZs were now available in the embassy compound, the rooftop for UH-1s and CH-46 Sea Knights and the new parking lot LZ for the heavier CH-53s.
Air America UH-1s began ferrying evacuees from other smaller assembly points throughout the city (including the Pittman Building, famously photographed by Hubert van Es) and dropping them on the embassy's rooftop LZ.
At 15:00 the first CH-53s were sighted heading towards the DAO Compound at Tan Son Nhut. Major Kean contacted the Seventh Fleet to advise them of his airlift requirements, until that time the fleet believed that all evacuees had been bussed from the embassy to the DAO Compound and that only 2 helicopters would be required to evacuate the Ambassador and the Marines from the embassy.
At 17:00 the first CH-46 landed at the embassy.
Between 19:00 and 21:00 on 29 April approximately 130 additional Marines from 2nd Battalion 4th Marines were lifted from the DAO Compound to reinforce perimeter security at the embassy, bringing the total number of Marines at the Embassy to 175.
The evacuation from the DAO Compound was completed by about 19:00 after which all helicopters would be routed to the embassy, however Major Kean was informed that operations would cease at dark. Major Kean advised that the LZ would be well lit and had vehicles moved around the parking lot LZ with their engines running and headlights on to illuminate the LZ.
At 21:30 a CH-53 pilot informed Major Kean that the Admiral Whitmire, Commander of Task Force 76 had ordered that operations cease at 23:00. Major Kean saw Ambassador Martin to request that he contact the Oval Office to ensure that the airlift continued. Ambassador Martin soon sent word back to Major Kean that sorties would continue to be flown. At the same time, General Carey met with Admiral Whitmire to convince him to resume flights to the embassy despite pilot weariness and poor visibility caused by darkness, fires and bad weather.
By 02:15 one CH-46 and one CH-53 were landing at the embassy every 10 minutes at this time the embassy indicated that another 19 lifts would complete the evacuation. At that time Major Kean estimated that there were still some 850 non-American evacuees and 225 Americans (including the Marines), Ambassador Martin told Major Kean to do the best he could.
At 03:00 on 30 April, Ambassador Martin ordered Major Kean to move all the remaining evacuees into the parking lot LZ which was the Marines' final perimeter.
At 03:27 President Gerald Ford ordered that no more than 19 additional lifts be allowed to complete the evacuation.
At 04:30 with the 19 lift limit already exceeded, Major Kean went to the rooftop LZ and spoke over a helicopter radio with General Carey who advised that President Ford had ordered that the airlift be limited to U.S. personnel and General Carey, Commanding General, 9th MAB, ordered Major Kean to withdraw his men into the Chancery building and withdraw to the rooftop LZ for evacuation.
Major Kean returned the ground floor of the Chancery and ordered his men to withdraw into a large semicircle at the main entrance to the Chancery. Most of the Marines were inside the Chancery when the crowds outside the embassy broke through the gates into the compound. The Marines closed and bolted the Chancery door, the elevators were locked by Seabees on the 6th floor and the Marines withdrew up the stairwells locking grill gates behind them. On the ground floor a water tanker was driven through the Chancery door and the crowd began to surge up through the building toward the rooftop. The Marines on the rooftop had sealed the doors to the rooftop and were using mace to discourage the crowd from trying to break through. Sporadic gunfire from around the Embassy passed over the rooftop.
At 04:58 Ambassador Graham Martin boarded a USMC CH-46 Sea Knight, call-sign "Lady Ace 09" of HMM-165 and was flown to the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19). When Lady Ace 09 transmitted "Tiger is out", those helicopters still flying, thought the mission was complete, thereby delaying the evacuation to the Marines from the embassy rooftop.
CH-46s evacuated the Battalion Landing Team by 07:00 and after an anxious wait a lone CH-46 "Swift 2-2" of HMM-164 arrived to evacuate Major Kean and the 10 remaining men of the Marine Security Guards, this last helicopter took off at 07:53 on 30 April and landed on USS Okinawa (LPH-3) at 09:30. At 11:30 PAVN tanks smashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace (now the Reunification Palace) and raised the National Liberation Front for South Vietnam (NLF) flag over the building; the Vietnam War was over.
Marine pilots accumulated 1,054 flight hours and flew 682 sorties throughout Operation Frequent Wind, evacuating 5,000 from Tan Son Nhut and 978 U.S. and 1,120 Vietnamese and third-country nationals from the Embassy. Some 400 evacuees were left behind at the Embassy including over 100 South Korean citizens.
Lady Ace 09, CH-46 serial number 154803 is now on display at the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum in San Diego, California.
Shortly after taking Saigon on April 30, North Vietnamese intelligence officers went to the embassy where they found numerous classified documents. Very few of the documents were not shredded but those that were shredded and not burnt were put together and used these to track down South Vietnamese employees of the U.S. government including of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The embassy building as well as the UK embassy located across the street were used as the offices of the Vietnamese national oil company, PetroVietnam, throughout the 1980s.
Following the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a new U.S. embassy was opened in Hanoi in 1995 and the site of the former U.S. Embassy in Saigon was handed back to the U.S. government. It was decided that the former embassy building was unusable after more than 20 years of neglect in Vietnam's tropical climate, but also that because the history of the building itself carried such negative connotations that it did not fit with the new U.S.–Vietnam relationship. The former embassy building was demolished between the period of May and July 1998 during which two Vietnamese demolition workers died after falling several stories down an elevator shaft. The new Consulate-General was built on the old consular compound adjacent to the old Embassy site. During the demolition of the embassy the ladder leading from the embassy rooftop to the helipad was removed and sent back to the United States, where it is now on display at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.
In early 1998, the Vietnamese government erected a red-stone memorial to the Viet Cong who fought in the embassy during the Tet offensive on the sidewalk outside the main gate of the former embassy compound which still remains there today. Before the demolition the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam at the time, Pete Peterson, suggested that the former embassy site be used to earn money as the compound was in the middle of an expensive business district and although there were discussions of building an office tower at the site to lease to private tenants, nothing was ever built.
Some visible remnants of the old embassy remain, most notably the large round concrete planters which sat in front of the embassy and were used as firing positions by the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive attack. Other remnants of the old embassy include a large banyan tree in the parking lot that dates back to the nineteenth century as well as a flagpole near the Le Duan entrance that was a gift from the Standard Oil Company in 1929 and has been used at all U.S. diplomatic missions in Saigon since then. The base of that flagpole is made of black granite salvaged from the old Embassy building. The current site of the embassy building is now used for large receptions and soccer practice by the Consulate staff.
On November 14, 2002, a dedication ceremony was held for the replacement plaque commemorating the U.S. Marine security guard and the four military policemen who were killed defending the embassy. The original plaque was left at the embassy during the Fall of Saigon and was subsequently on display at the War Remnants Museum before disappearing.