Showdown between South Vietnam and the Gangsters

The showdown began at siesta time on a warm, summery day in April, 1955. Premier Ngo Dinh Diem was sitting down to a late lunch at Freedom Palace when nine 81-mm. mortar shells thumped down around the grounds, killing a civilian and wounding a couple of soldiers. The Premier rushed to the phone. “The palace is being shelled,” he told French Commissioner-General Paul Ely, his voice disrupted on the line by adjacent explosions.

“I can’t understand you,” said the Frenchman. “The palace is being shelled?”

The Battle for Saigon was a month-long battle between the Vietnamese National Army of the State of Vietnam (later to become the Army of the Republic of Vietnam of the Republic of Vietnam) and the private army of the Binh Xuyen organised crime syndicate. At the time, the Binh Xuyen was licensed with controlling the national police by Emperor Bảo Đại, and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem issued an ultimatum for them to surrender and come under state control. The battle started on April 27, 1955 and the VNA had largely crushed the Binh Xuyen within a week. Fighting was mostly concentrated in the inner city Chinese business district of Cholon. The densely crowded area saw some 500-1000 deaths and up to 20,000 civilians made homeless in the cross-fire. In the end, the Binh Xuyen were decisively defeated, their army disbanded and their vice operations collapsed.

South Vietnamese soldier takes cover

On the midnight of 29–30 March, explosions rocked Saigon as the Binh Xuyen responded to Diem’s removal of its police chief. 200 Binh Xuyen troops launched an attack on VNA headquarters. The clashes were inconclusive, with the VNA suffering six deaths to their opponents’ 10, but by sunrise, the bodies of civilians littered the sidewalk.

Soldiers congratulated by civilians

The final battle between Diem’s VNA and the Binh Xuyen began on April 27 at mid-day. After initial small arms fire and mortar exchanges, the VNA resorted to the heaviest artillery in its arsenal. This coincided with growing calls from within the Eisenhower administration to oust him, who believed that he was unable to subdue the Binh Xuyen and unify the country. By evening, a large part of the inner city was engulfed with street to street fighting. By the morning of April 28, multiple explosions and house to house combat had driven thousands of civilians onto the streets. A square mile of the city, around the densely populated inner city Chinese district of Cholon where the Binh Xuyen had a stronghold, became a free fire zone. Artillery and mortars levelled the poor districts of the city, killing five hundred civilians and leaving twenty thousand homeless. Observers described that fighting from both sides as lacking strategy and relying on brute force attrition tactics. One of the few manoeuvres that were considered tactical was an attempt by the VNA to cut off Binh Xuyen reinforcements by demolishing the bridge across the Saigon-Cholon canal. This was made moot when the Binh Xuyen threw pontoon bridges across the canal. It appeared that the conflict would be determined by the side which was able to absorb the greater number of losses. Approximately 300 combatants were killed in the first day of fighting.

On the morning of April 28, John Foster Dulles, the US Secretary of State phoned J. Lawton Collins to suspend moves aimed at replacing Diem. Eisenhower had determined that these were to be put on hold pending the outcome of the VNA operation. Collins and Dulles clashed in the National Security Council meeting, with Collins vehemently calling for Diem to be removed. Collins continued to argue that the attempt to destroy the Binh Xuyen by force would produce a civil war. The NSC endorsed Dulles’ position.

Victory Parade. The Gangsters are defeated.

After 48 hours of combat, the VNA began to gain the upper hand. Le Grande Monde, previously Bay Vien‘s largest gambling establishment, and temporarily serving as a Binh Xuyen citadel, was overrun by Diem’s paratroopers after a struggle which caused heavy losses on both sides. The VNA then stormed one of the Binh Xuyen’s most heavily fortified strongholds, the Petrus Ky High School in Cholon. By the time Collins had arrived back in South Vietnam on May 2, the battle was almost won. The Binh Xuyen forces were broken and in retreat and their command posts were levelled. Bay Vien’s headquarters was battered and his tigers, pythons and crocodiles inside had been killed by mortar attacks and shelling.

Bay Vien escaped to Paris to live out his life on the profits of his criminal ventures, and the VNA pursued the Binh Xuyen remnants into the Mekong Delta near the Cambodian border.

Jubilant crowds gathered outside Diem’s residence shouting “Da Dao Bao Dai” (meaning “Down with Bao Dai”).


Wikipedia & Time Magazine