One morning, very early on my third purchase trip to Saigon [from Hawaii], the phone rang and Xuan answered it. After a long conversation, she put the phone down and came quickly to my room to waken me, though I was already up and starting to dress.
"Uncle Huong called. Hieu is dead!" Before I could respond, she sat down on my bed and started to cry.
"General Hieu! You mean General Hieu !"
Hieu's father, whom we affectionately called Uncle Hai (Bac Hai), an old, dear friend of our father, had told Xuan that, twenty four hours before, his son had been summoned to a meeting at the presidential palace. Now, just a few hours ago, they had called Hieu's wife to inform her of his death. Someone from the palace had then escorted her to Hieu's office where they had found his body slumped over his desk, a single bullet hole under his chin. Except for a little dried red spot by the bullet hole, there was no sign of blood anywhere. "He shot himself cleaning his gun," they had told her.
"That's absurd!" I shrieked. "Hieu was an expert marksman. He could clean his gun blindfolded. He would never have been so careless!"
"I know. Uncle Huong had called to tell us of his son's death and to inform us that he was now going over to view the body. "Just in case something happens to me, too," he had said.
When the United States government was withdrawing its soldiers, it had planned to replace them with South Vietnamese troops - the so-called "Vietnamization" of the war. Compelled by domestic and international criticism of its support for a Saigon government that was both inept and graft-ridden, Washington had in turn pressed President Nguyen Van Thieu to clean up the mess within the military: by this time, corruption there was not only widespread but, thanks to the American and South Vietnamese media, well publicized. Thieu's vice-president had formed an investigative commission to placate the Americans, hoping that this token measure would enable them to ask for more military aid and more money. The Vietnamese newspapers, deeply interested in the matter, had put forward the names of five "clean" men; foremost among them had been General Hieu.
I, myself, had become sickened by Vietnamese politics long before this. I had seen what it had done to my parents, my brothers and sisters, and my cousin Long, and to the thousands of others who really care about our country. They were not the ones in power and they were not the ones the United States government supported. No matter who ran the show, they all seemed to be crooks feigning love for our country but in actuality only concerned with their own power and profit. Whenever I met with my women friends, one would report General So-and-So had sent his private helicopter to pick up his girlfriend for a ball in Dalat, another would boast that he had used it to take her husband, a wealthy contractor, on a hunting trip. They also gossiped about a woman who got rich because her husband, a naval commander, had used his ship to bring in drugs and black-market articles like cigarettes, radios, tape recorders, and cosmetics.
These were not isolated cases. Apparently, the only officers left to fight the Communists were the honest and, therefore, poor ones like our cousin, Colonel Long, and General Hieu and a few others who really loved their country and wanted to protect it from communism, together with the foot soldiers who barely made enough money to support their families, their wives usually forced to live with in-laws or maybe to work in bars that catered to the American GIs, bars now closed due to the massive American pullouts. And now these wives and families could not even rely on the small income of their soldier husbands: paying troops who lost one battle after another was not considered a priority among government and military officials.
Those five honest officers, who fought to defend South Vietnam even though they, too, hated the corruption and graft that occurred, came to be regarded as heroes by the South Vietnamese people during the final months of the war. They represented the last chance for South Vietnam, and we not only hung our hopes on them but staked on them our honor and dignity as a people. The whole world was watching.
General Hieu meant something even more to our family. Not only was he the son of Father's dear friend, but he had been Anh-Dao's secret admirer. He had taught her English before she left for Chicago. He had also been in love with her, but had been too shy to tell her. For her part, my sister had also admired him, but she had held him in such awe that she never dared believe that he cared for her. One day after she had already gone to the United States, Hieu had left his diary open on his desk and his father had found it and read it. His father told my parents of Hieu's love for Anh-Dao, but by that time it was too late. She was in Chicago and my parents did not want her studies interrupted, not even for such a fine man as Hieu.
Born in [Tientsin] and raised in [Shanghai], Hieu had attended English schools there; he spoke fluent English, French and Chinese besides Vietnamese. Back in Vietnam in the fifties before the 1954 partition, he had attended the best military school in Dalat and graduated first in his class. He then joined the South Vietnamese army and rose quickly through the ranks-one, due to his education and background (his father had been head of the Hanoi police force in the early fifties but had left the North at the same time as our family did), and, two, due to his judiciousness and knack for unfailingly carrying out the most delicate assignments. He eventually made general and became one of President Thieu's most precious showpieces, in particular during the troubled final days of the regime: honest, competent, and thoroughly dedicated to the idea of an independent South Vietnam. Besides tutoring Anh-Dao, he had visited our family often and taken us on picnics and to the movies.
We did not know of his love for Anh-Dao until years later after she had married. Then, our parents had kept it a secret. On that same day, Hieu had wedded [Thu-Huong]. Only then did our parents reveal the truth, sorry they had waited so long.
In the seventies, the positive image of military men like Hieu served as a shield for the Thieu administration, but Hieu himself was a thorn in its side. One of his responsibilities had been to police high-ranking officers's involvement in black-marketeering and their pilfering of soldiers' salaries. Whenever he reported a theft or wrongdoing of one of Thieu's close associates, Hieu place himself in jeopardy. Uncle Huong had told Xuan that morning that Hieu had recently refused to cover up the indiscretion of some of 'Thieu's cronies. He had also openly opposed Thieu's policy of retreating troops from strategic areas, "giving up and leaving more territory to the Communists".
"I saw his body," Hieu's father told us later that day. "Not only am I convinced that Hieu did not shoot himself, I am sure they shot him somewhere else and brought the body back. Like my daughter-in-law said, "there was no blood anywhere-just a speck of it under his chin."
"I will never quit fighting," Hieu had told his father two days before his death. "And I will never let Thieu silence me. I will die fighting, out there on the battlefield or right here in my office. I won't quit until I give my last drop of blood. You can stake our honor on that."
Nguyen Thi Thu-Lam
(from "Fallen Leaves, Memoirs of a Vietnamese Woman from 1940 to 1975", published by Yale Southeast Asia Studies)