The Unique Combat Style Of General Hieu

Commanding General Hieu differed from other Commanding Generals in that he did not come from Artillery, Armor, Airborne, Marine Corps or Ranger, but from "general staff". He did not climb up the ladder in the usual way like the other Generals - starting from company commander, to battalion commander, then regiment commander, and finally division commander - but ascended otherwise: officer of G3 Joint General Staff, Head of G3 Corps, Chief of Staff Corps, then hopped into direct combat with the position of Commander of the 22nd Infantry Division and then the 5th Infantry Division. Consequently, his combat style was unique: one that was solid and compact because it was molded by a profound general staff type of brain. Colonel John Hayes, the American Division Senior Advisor, acknowledged that General Hieu "is methodical but decisive".

General Hieu did not need to impress his soldiers by appearing at the first front-line to urge the gunner "shoot! shoot!", or by climbing on top of a tank turret to pressure the driver "forward! forward!". His combat leadership skills were demonstrated in a deeper way. Prior to launching his units into a battle, General Hieu, with his strong background in general staff, always personally planned the operation together with his general staff to the minute details.

General Hieu always carried a notepad in his shirt pocket. While inspecting the battlefields, whenever he gave out an order to his Regiment or Task Force Commanders, be it from the helicopter or face to face, he always jotted down his orders. Upon returning to the headquarters, he immediately called his Chief of Staff and dictated from his notepad the orders he just gave out and instructed his Chief of Staff to dispatch a written operational order to the Regiment or Task Force Commanders. In so doing, the Regiment or Task Force Commanders were never confused when the orders originated from the Commanding General differed from the operational orders originated from the G3 General Staff, which oftentimes happened with other Commanding Generals.

Therefore, those soldiers who participated in battles planned and executed by General Hieu soon discovered that the tactical mechanism run smoothly, unfolded rhythmically and surely from the time the Commanding General turned on the green light to the time the last unit returned to the base. General Hieu succeeded in implanting total confidence and fighting determination in his combatants because they experienced that they would never be used as a disposable pawn, when they experienced that all that were happening around them - in the midst of heavy contacts - had been planned ahead, from the minute details to the big movements, just to remain calm and all dangers would pass-by: because air and artillery supports were on their way, because reserved units were about to show up, as planned. General Hieu knew nothing was scarier to a combatant than the feeling of being abandoned by his commander, nothing was more discouraging than the feeling of being pushed forward as a disposable pawn. He knew that his combatants were willing to sacrifice their lives when they experienced that their commanders valued their lives. And he had succeeded in the mission of creating that confidence in the heart of his comrade in arms. As a result, when committed into combat, these combatants did not need the petty encouragements of their Commander. On the contrary, they fought with all their might because they experienced the close presence of their Commander right at their innermost self.

In the planning and execution of his battles, General Hieu focused into 3 factors, which conferred to his combat style its uniqueness: (1) gathering intelligence; (2) employing Recon units; and (3) applying the tandem Infantry-Armor formula.

Gathering Intelligence

Each morning, General Hieu reviewed first of all things the daily report presented by his G2 Intelligence staff. He used a red pencil to scribble his comments, his inputs, his annotations, his question marks, his underlines, his check marks, his arrows, all over the report pages. In so doing, he detected and followed all enemy movements and actions in order to assess enemy units presence, to evaluate enemy strength, as well as to diagnose and uncover enemy intention.

Because he was able to assess accurately enemy strength prior to the launching of an attack, General Hieu achieved victory in all his battles. Because he committed an appropriate combat units strength to counter enemy forces present in the operational area, General Hieu always came out victorious. In his 7 October 1970's meeting with his commanders at the divisional headquarters, General Hieu set clearly the objective for all units of the 5th Division: "The concept of action for our Division is to search and destroy the enemy. Each unit will be assigned a target and must make efforts day and night to destroy that target. Sectors can also apply this concept to RF and PF units. If all of us implement this concept, we will annihilate all enemy forces in a short period of time." And General Hieu succeeded in doing so with his soldiers of the 5th Division.

General Hieu centralized all intelligence information in his hands and did not allow intelligence information to be passed on to other units without his expressed permission. The American Advisors had criticized this intelligence monopoly which, in their opinion, resulted in slowing down the decision making process at the regiment and battalion levels. They did not know that General Hieu, in so doing, was counteracting enemy infiltration presence amidst his own staff.

General Hieu was constantly eager to keep abreast with military technology and encouraged his commanders "to make full use of technology means in intelligence, such as sensor devices". As a typical example, he had employed an Electronic Combat Unit to implant sensors in preparation of an operation which intended to lure the enemy out of its sanctuary.

He also urged his combat units in operation to use starlight scopes to detect and follow enemy movements. (Operation Orders number 1135 addressed to Task Force 8).

Since American units were better equipped in intelligence apparatus, he ordered Regiment Commanders "to coordinate closely with the US 1st Cavalry unit, by having a liaison officer accompany helicopters of the US 1st Cavalry in Recon mission to report all information related to enemy movements detected by this unit."

Employing the Recon Unit

In parallel with the maximum use of intelligence technology, General Hieu employed to the maximum Recon Units (Long Range Patrol, Combat Tracker, Scout Ranger) in all of his operations.

He always ordered "his Regiments to improve Recon units, to make full use of these units in the mission of search and destroy the enemy. Combat units must first of all penetrate deep into enemy territory to detect enemy bases or relay-stations, and use the element of surprise to attack at the heart of its hideouts."

General Hieu cultivated a special bond with his Recon units. He realized the high risk assumed by his commandos, and as a result, he demonstrated understanding and magnanimity (but not tolerance) toward their arrogant penchant and cavalier behavior. He more than once had to intervene in person with the Military Police, when the M.P.s had to detain a few hooligans who, after returning from dangerous military missions, sometimes felt the need to indulge themselves in drinking binge to deflate their stress and threw minor havoc into the neighborhoods. Tran Hoai Thu, one of General Hieu's commando, 405 Recon unit of the 22nd Division, wrote (e-mail dated 28 October 1998):

I reported to the 405 Recon unit when General Hieu was the Division Commander (8/1967). He dearly loved my unit. Because we were very close to him, and because we succeeded in accomplishing dangerous missions that he confidently entrusted us. Each time our unit conquered a target, his helicopter immediately came down to congratulate and comfort us. On 9 May 1968, my company was ambushed on Ky Son hill. We suffered heavy casualties: 4 deaths, including an American Advisor; I myself and the company commander were wounded. That late afternoon, General Hieu had his helicopter land down on the hilltop and he sat still with his head bowed for a good half hour. He ordered the flag hung half pole the entire following week. I carry with me this image, as well images of General Nguyen Khoa Nam in my books that I have published here in the United States, such as Ra Bien Goi Tham (Calling Out In The Ocean), Ban Me Thuot Ngay Dau Ngay Cuoi (1st and Last Days of Ban Me Thuot), and recently Ve Huong Mat Troi Lan (Facing Sunset). I carry his image, his love toward his soldiers, his magnanimity so that I can be proud for having the privilege to serve under his command. He gave each one of us a beautiful knife, because he dearly loved us.

General Hieu was saddened by the heavy lost and assumed full responsibility for allowing his G2 intelligence staff into miscalculating the enemy strength committed on Ky Son hill. Instead of assessing a battalion level, the intelligence report indicated a company level. As a result, his Recon company ran into an ambush with an enemy force four time stronger.

Applying the tandem Infantry-Armor Formula

Colonel Trinh Tieu has narrated picturesquely how General Hieu employed the tandem Infantry-Armor formula to vanquish one Regiment of the famous NVA Yellow Star 3rd Division in Operation Eagles Claw 800.

The American Senior Advisor of the 5th Division, John Hayes has praised General Hieu for converting the Armored Cavalry from a "Palace Guards' role" into an offensive role, when he took over the command of the 5th Division.

Lieutenant Colonel George G. Layman, Deputy Senior Advisor noted in his 4th Quarter 1970 Assessment report, that General Hieu put his Armored Cavalry Regiment to a rigorous and intensive training program:

The 1st Armored Cavalry Regiment has conducted an intensive training program this quarter. The 1st Troop spent nine days at the Tu Duc Training Center with instructors from the ARVN Armor School. The 2nd and 3rd Troops conducted classes at Lai Khe. All troops have utilized the Trang Bom Range for firing of all organic weapons.

In all of his battles, General Hieu always used the tandem Infantry-Armor formula. As a result, he chased the enemy out of the two Provinces of Binh Long and Binh Duong, which were under the operational areas of the 5th Division, after only two months from the day he took over the command of this Division. And going into 1970, he entirely attacked the enemy across the border in the Fish Hook area and the vicinity of Snoul North of Loc Ninh, with an imposing units strength composing of 3 Infantry Regiments and 2 Armored Cavalry Squadrons with 30 M41A3 tanks, 62 M113 armored tracked vehicles, 8 M577A1 command post carriers, 7 M548 6-ton cargo carriers, 8 M1251 mortar equipped tracked vehicles, 2 M132 self-propelled flamethrowers, 2 M578 light armored recovery vehicles and 1 XM706 convoy security light tank.

He constantly reminded his Task Force Commander to apply the tandem Infantry-Armor formula when planning for an attack.

Major Truong Duong, a paratrooper, wrote in his book entitled "Doi Chien Binh" (Military Career, page 86):

The lesson we learned in the Dalat Military Academy on Tandem Infantry-Armor Formula analyzed clearly two operational methods using tanks: When tanks are used as support unit, the infantry is the main force. On the contrary, tanks can be used to penetrate enemy territory, in which case the infantry will be the support unit."

When he was still a student in the Dalat Military Academy, General Hieu was undoubtedly instructed by French Armor officers on basic tactics using this tandem formula. Then when he attended the US Army High Command and General Staff College in Fort Leaven worth, Kansas, Major Hieu really fell in love with this tandem Infantry-Armor formula. Under the guidance of Major George E. Kimball, Armor, Major Hieu had acquired a complete knowledge of all principles related to this tandem formula, and would later on apply it with brilliance to the point of no match.

It is not sufficient just to know the theory of this tandem formula; every single military student possesses it. To be able to apply it in the battleground is the daunting task that only a few chosen can achieve with success. General Hoang Xuan Lam, Armor, Commander of the 1st Corps, had his hands tied and was not able to order the Armor Cavalry unit to advance in the rescue mission of two Rangers Battalions encircled by the enemy in the Northern battlefield of the Lower Laos Lam Son 719 Campaign. The Armored Cavalry Commander refused to advance, claiming the supporting Paratrooper Unit would not cover his advance. The Paratrooper Unit Commander refused to advance, claiming the Armored Cavalry unit would not support his advance! And thus, the lesson learned by Major Truong Duong on tandem Infantry-Armor formula crashed into a dead-end! General Nguyen Van Minh, Commander of the 3rd Corps, had to disband the 3rd Corps Armor Calvary Brigade and the 3rd Corps Assault Task Force, although these two units had given hard time to the enemy when General Tri was still alive, only because he did not have the skills to maneuver these two hard headed units; in other words, he was not able to resolve the complicated tandem Infantry-Armor formula. Brigadier General Khoi had to resign the command of the 3rd Corps Assault Task Force after numerous disputes with General Minh because he wanted to protect his soldiers' lives.

What did General Hieu possess that our two Generals Lam and Minh lacked? Charisma. Indeed: the infantry unit commander and the armor unit commander must have absolute confidence in the leadership skills of the commander of the operation in order for the tandem Infantry-Armor formula to take place. If either one of the two commanders has the slightest doubt that the operation has not been carefully planned, to the point that the attack has to have a positive outcome, they will both refuse to obey the orders, in order to protect the lives of their men. Facing such dilemma, any decent Commander would have to resign to inaction: who would dare assume such a heavy responsibility! General Hieu had succeeded in imparting this total confidence in his Infantry and Armor Cavalry Regiment Commanders. In such doing, he succeeded with brio in applying the tandem Infantry-Armor formula, a feat not many ARVN Generals could emulate.

General Hieu has to be admired even more on this tandem Infantry-Armor formula, because the American High Command, according to Brian Ross, had difficulties in using tanks in the Vietnam War. In his article on "The Use of Armoured Vehicles in the Vietnam War", he wrote:

Essentially, all the combatants in the Vietnam War, who used armour, except perhaps the ARVN, did so reluctantly. It simply did not fit the viewpoint present in any of the high commands as to what sort of war Vietnam was perceived as.
[...] The deployment of Armour (tanks as against APC's that is), did not occur until the arrival of the 1st Infantry Division ("the Big Red One") in country in late 1965. Up until that point, each US Armoured and Cavalry unit which had arrived as part of the deployment of its parent division had swapped its tanks for APC's, usually in the form of ACVA's (Armoured Cavalry Assault Vehicles) or if Mechanized Infantry its APC's to become leg infantry. It was at the insistence of General Johnston, the US Army Chief of Staff that the Divisional Cavalry Squadron should keep its medium tanks so as to test the feasibility of the use of tanks in Vietnam. If it performed well, then it would be possible to reinforce it to full battalion strength, if it failed, then the reverse would also be easily achieved with it becoming simply another APC mounted unit.
General Westmoreland, commander of MAVC's reply to this decision was that, "except for a few coastal areas, most notably in the I Corps area, Vietnam is no place for either tank or mechanized infantry units". Indeed, even though it was against the wishes of the Chief of Staff, the 1st Infantry Division 's Cavalry Squadron's tanks were kept at Phu Loi, and it took six months of hard arguing to convince Westmoreland that his "no tanks in the jungle" attitude was wrong before they were released for general use.
While the 1st Infantry Division had led the way, it was not really until the arrival of the 25th Infantry Division and its forceful commander, Major-General Weyand who insisted, despite resistance from both the Department of the Army and MACV, that his division would deploy complete with all its armour elements intact, that the US Army really started to make use of both tanks and APC's in a combined arms role.
This attitude though, was one which was to persist for many years, until the armour enthusiasts had finally proven their detractors wrong. Indeed, by 1969, after the Tet Offensive of 1968, General Westmoreland had been so turned around by the successes enjoyed by the armoured units during the defeat of that offensive that he requested that all future reinforcements be armoured, rather than infantry.

However, even since 1965, General Hieu advised armor commanders to be flexible in the application of the armor-infantry formula by not being too dependent on the protection of infantry in cases the infantry impede on the mobility of the tanks (Pleime, chapter VIII):

We also learned that in the previous battle of Duc Co, the VC always tried to take advantage of darkness to assault armored units. This time at Pleime, they had used the same tactics, offered to armored units one more opportunity to achieve exploits, and enhanced the pride of the 3rd Armored Squadron (stationed in Pleiku), the oldest armored unit in the ARVN which had taken part in the fierce fighting in Ninh Binh, Nam Dinh, Vinh Yen in North Viet Nam, before the cease-fire in 1954.

The terrain at Pleime is covered by dense vegetations but the soil is hard, small streams rare and armored cavalrymen could feel comfortably "at home".

In most cases, infantry protection is required to ensure the security of armored columns. The battle of Pleime on the contrary was a typical case in which the infantry elements considerably restricted the mobility and capabilities of the armored turrets. For this reason, Armor company commanders should not in the future cling to two-principles and had better expose themselves daringly instead of limiting their mobility with close infantry protection. This would provide not only liberty of action but also the arguments to defend oneself in case of being surprised.

Major Delbert F. Shouse, DCAT G3 of the 5th Division, expressed the following assessment on General Hieu's use of the tandem Infantry-Armor formula in his 4 April 1970 evaluation report:

The employment of one infantry regiment and one armored cavalry regiment into enemy sanctuaries and supply bases in Cambodia in May and June enabled the division to exercise itself in military operations involving large unit airmobile operations, long range resupply, and sustained large unit operations. The resultant capture of enemy weapons, ammunition, food, and other equipment increased troop morale and demonstrated to the ARVN that they could destroy enemy effectiveness.

The release of the division armored cavalry regiment from route and static security missions has allowed this unit to exploit its firepower and mobility against North Vietnamese regular force units in Cambodia and northern Binh Long Province. However, Cambodian operations suggest that the M41 tank was not employed as a tank. The M113 of the armored cavalry troop was more suitable for employment in the single canopy jungle and was capable of defeating any enemy threat in that area.

Nguyen Van Tin
(02 November 1998)

Updated on 07/27/2010

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