By Clement V. Kelly
The inscription in the presentation box simply
reads, VIET-NAM CONG-HOA” (“Republic of
Vietnam”). A small ribbon in the colors of the
Republic decorated the upper left corner
of the lid. Photo by Ron Leverenz Doughboy
Military, Springfield, Missouri
At 0830 on 2 November 1963, two armored personnel carriers (APCs) pulled up before the headquarters building of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam in Saigon. Inside one of them were the bloody corpses of two recently murdered men.
“Why are they dead?” asked General Tran Van Don.
“Who cares if they are dead?” answered General Duong Van Minh.
Thus ended the nine year rule of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of the Republic of Vietnam, as the bodies were those of the president and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu.
A few weeks earlier, U.S. President John Kennedy said that President Diem had lost touch with the people, and that changes in policy and personnel in the Vietnamese government were needed. Kennedy was not mistaken, as disgruntled peasants who were unable to obtain any redress to their grievances from the authoritarian government in Saigon were increasingly turning toward the Communist Viet-Cong. Army officers were feeling frustrated as Diem continued to favor officers who were Catholic co-religionists or others who were obvious sycophants, most of whom were incompetent, corrupt, or both.
Diem’s nepotism was resented as well, and peaked when he appointed his brother Nhu as the “Political Consular” to the President, an office which gave him command of the National Police, the Vietnamese Special Forces, all official political organizations, and made him director of the strategic hamlet program. Another brother, Ngo Dinh Can, controlled central Vietnam from Hue, where the Diem-appointed governor acted only upon the orders or advice from him. He was known to have secreted over seven million dollars, in foreign banks, most misappropriated from U.S. aid funds. Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Thuc, was archbishop of Hue, and ignoring his vow of poverty, became a rich man because of his political connections.
The parochial Catholic Diem eventually alienated the Buddhists, a grievous error as eighty percent of the Vietnamese people and a great number of the army generals were Buddhists. On 20 August 1963, Nhu sent the National Combat Police (CSDC) and the Vietnamese Special Forces to raid the Buddhist temples. More than 1,400 Buddhist officials were arrested and many religious sites were ransacked and damaged. This brought forth a cable from the U.S. State Department to the American Ambassador, insisting that Diem depose his brother Nhu, release the Buddhists, and end martial law. If these instructions were not obeyed, the Embassy was to contact the dissident Vietnamese generals, and tell them that the United States would no longer stand in the way of a revolt.
A punitive cut in aid by the United States, gave an unmistakable message to the generals. General Tran Thien Khiem, Army Chief of Staff, admitted that the revolt was staged to please the United States. Led by General Duong Van Minh (known as “Big Minh” because he was unusually large for a Vietnamese), he and eleven other generals formed the Military Revolutionary Council (MRC) to depose Diem.
On 1 November 1963, the Gia-Long palace where Diem and Nhu resided was assailed by the 5th ARVN Division, commanded by Colonel Nguyen Van Thieu (he eventually became President of the Republic of Vietnam), 4th Marine Battalion, an airborne battalion, troops from the Quang-Trung Training Center, the Armor School, and a regiment from the ARVN 7th Infantry Division. Despite the overwhelming odds against their escape, Diem and Nhu were able to slip away to Cholon. After securing a promise of safe-conduct and only banishment from Vietnam, the brothers decided to give themselves up to the junta generals.
A card from Phuoc-Hung’s shop shows that he
was a supplier of “flags, medals, signes [sic],
and plates”. Photo by Ron Leverenz Doughboy
Military, Springfield, Missouri
Two APCs were sent to pick them up at the Cha Tam Catholic Church in Cholon. Following the orders of “Big Minh” (despite the assurance of safe-conduct), Colonel Nghia sprayed the two brothers with his submachine gun. Captain Nhung also added to the slaughter by shooting and knifing the brothers. Neither the American Embassy nor anyone in the Kennedy Administration expressed remorse at the brutal murder of an American ally of nine year’s standing.
The MRC ruled the Republic of Vietnam for three months until 29 January 1964, when General Nguyen Khanh staged a coup and arrested most of the other generals in the MRC. In the nineteen months following Diem’s murder, thirteen successive governments ruled the Republic of Vietnam, much to the displeasure of the United States.
STAR OF THE NOVEMBER REVOLUTION
To recognize prominent participants in the November revolution, the junta generals commissioned Phuoc-Hung to produce a decoration. Phuoc-Hung had been the primary supplier of medals, badges, insignia and flags to the Government of Vietnam for many years.
One evening as the author was having dinner with Phuoc-Hung and his family in their residence above his shop, Phuoc-Hung presented a dragon-decorated box. Inside was his prototype of the decoration he designed for the MRC generals. As the coalition of generals fell apart after only three months, Phuoc’s gift to the author represented the only example ever made. For the lack of any “official” name, the author christened the decoration “The Star of the November Revolution.”
The decoration is a six-pointed star with balls at the end of each point, all in gilt. Between the points are widening and cleft triple rays, with the center ray being the longest. The space between the two shorter rays and the star points is filled in with a silver, pebbled background. In the center of the star is a gilded circular medallion, within a red painted ribband, with the inscription “CATCH MANG 1-11-1963 (Revolution 1 November 1963) and DAN QUAN NHUT TRI” (“The people and soldiers together”). Inside the ribband is a scene of a Vietnamese soldier in full battle gear and steel helmet, holding a Vietnamese flag. Behind the soldier are several Vietnamese civilians, wearing conical straw hats, waving their arms and holding swords and rifles. The reverse has a long pin and two hooks for attaching the decoration to the uniform.
The presentation box is square, covered in blue silk with oriental characters and Vietnamese “Legendary Dragons” in red. The inside of the box, lined in red, has a center circular pedestal to hold the decoration. The box top is lined with white silk and reads, “VIET-NAM CONG-HOA” (“Republic of Vietnam”). In the upper left corner is a small ribbon in the colors of the RVN flag.
There is little doubt about this being the rarest decoration to emerge from the Vietnam War—as this example was the only one ever made!
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