Forty years ago Friday, photojournalist Eddie Adams captured one of history's most memorable images. The 1968 photo of a South Vietnamese officer executing a Viet Cong guerrilla on a Saigon street helped change American opinion of the Vietnam War.
Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph, showing Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Viet Cong lieutenant at point-blank range. Adams, who died in 2004, was covering the war for the Associated Press.
The North Vietnamese had just begun their Tet Offensive, their massive military push southward. Loan's troops were trying to rid Saigon of the growing number of Viet Cong guerrillas. When Adams saw several South Vietnamese soldiers lead a prisoner down the street, he decided to follow them with an NBC television crew.
The journalists followed the soldiers, and Adams thought the soldiers would load the prisoner into a wagon. Suddenly, Loan reached for a pistol, Adams said in an interview. "He pulled it up and shot him in the head and walked away," the photographer said.
"I thought he was just going to threaten him, and I took a picture," Adams said. "But I didn't know he was going to shoot him. And when he walked toward myself and the NBC crew, he said, 'They killed many of your people and many of my men,' and walked away."
After the incident, Adams was assigned to spend more time with Loan. Adams said Loan was a hero to the South Vietnamese.
"Photographs, you know, they're half-truths ... that's only one side...." Adams said. "He was fighting our war, not their war, our war, and ... all the blame is on this guy."
Loan moved to the United States after fleeing South Vietnam in 1975. Shortly before Loan's death in 1998, Adams said he spoke with the former officer.
"He was very sick, you know, he had cancer for a while," Adams said. "And I talked to him on the phone and I wanted to try to do something, explaining everything and how the photograph destroyed his life and he just wanted to try to forget it. He said, 'Let it go.' And I just didn't want him to go out this way."