General Nguyen Van Hieu
We are about to touch upon a nagging hidden spot – a deep resentment which started since the days in March, April 1975 – caused by the loss of country and dwellings, the existence of an expatriated, of humiliation that could not be restored, and that one could not find an explanation… Why? Because of whom?! Then, each individual had to draw from his/her one own personal situation, a rationalization of his own in responding to these stern questions. Why did it come to this? Why must one bear this tragic situation? Then we all kind of console one another in accepting that this is common suffering that the Vietnamese people as a whole have to embrace. But in this tragedy that the country was contemplating at the moment of agony, there was one man, a whole family that had to endure the resentment earlier and deeper, sooner than when South Vietnam collapsed: General Nguyen Van Hieu’s family – the General who was cut down at the same time the nation lapsed into total annihilation.
We are going to relive the unjust fate of the General and the unfortunate destiny of the Nation – April 8, 1975 – Thirty years ago, when South Vietnam collapsed, and also the day our Loyal, Courageous Soldier was harmed by dark devilish elements.
I. The Beginning of a Saga
In 1949, when the Red Army was about to take control of the entire China, young Nguyen Van Hieu who had just reached twenty years old, left Shanghai with his family, from the French concession to repatriate to Saigon. From there, he moved up to Hanoi, because his father, Mr. Nguyen Van Huong, a high ranking official in the security and national intelligence at its formation phase in the fifties, was nominated Deputy Director of Northern Security. With the wide connections and position of his father in the political milieu, coupled with a high level of education (student in technology at Aurore University run by the French Jesuits) and his proficiency in English, French and Chinese, young Nguyen Van Hieu would have no difficulty and plenty of opportunity to pursue high level of education in advanced institutions in Europe and United States, a general trend in the beginning of mid 20th century (after WWII); furthermore, the amount of students applying to study overseas were very low at that time. Nevertheless, he chose to follow a different direction, an uncertain path, more dangerous – the military career of a combat soldier. In 1950, he entered Class 3 of the Dalat Inter-arms Military Academy, one of the first classes after the Military Academy was transferred from Dap Da (Hue) up to Dalat to form the leadership cadre of the National Army. Such was the army with its officers that would carry out the heavy burden of a war between Nationalists and Communists that lasted three decades with a tragic outcome on April 30, 1975. Young Nguyen Van Hieu – General Nguyen Van Hieu, indeed went through the war that devastated the country without respite, and ended up at the same time as the unfortunate destiny of his country. We have the task of recounting the entire journey of his combat life – the General who lived, fought and died with the destiny of the country – for, the next generation’s history of the nation must reckon one great fact: the Soldier of the Republic of Vietnam was the entity that had performed the task of Defending the Nation and Protecting the People, despite the destiny of the country which was entering its decadent phase, with the lot unjustly imparted to the soldiers through the defeat on April 30, 1975.
General Hieu epitomized the stoical attitude and unselfish spirit of an ARVN soldier. His death, although was a tragic ending, nevertheless equally shed further light on an extremely noble heroic figure.
The military career path of Soldier Nguyen Van Hieu commenced with first uncertain steps that were not smooth by all means, although our 3rd Class Cadet of Dalat Inter-arms Military Academy possessed all the excellent abilities necessary to accomplish the training program with the highest scores. He was the officer cadet who had the highest scores in academic subjects, the highest scores in military subjects, equally the highest scores in behavior (côte d’amour) due to his amenability, his modesty, his helpfulness toward classmates, his respect toward rules and principles – a model suitable of a military life; in other words, young men whose mind and body were molded in view of becoming Commanders who would lead troops into the battlefield; men such as De Gaulle, De Lattre, Bigeard of the French Army, Montgomery of theBritish Army, Rommel, the Fox of the German Army, or the Great Soldier of the American Army, McArthur. Lieutenant Nguyen Van Hieu graduated 2nd of his Class, relinquishing the honor of 1st Rank to Lieutenant Bui Dzinh, because Emperor Bao Dai had expressed his desire of having a cadet originated from Center Vietnam to hold that position of honor. Lieutenant Nguyen Van Hieu did not hold grudge – he was confident of his own abilities – with the confidence of a Combatant coupled with the self-respect of an Oriental Scholar. His exceptional later life would prove the veracity of these high qualities of this beginning phase.
The next misfortune was caused by tuberculosis due to catching cold during a physical exercise conducted under the rain (another caused might also be hereditary since his mother also had died of tuberculosis). This might be the reason for our young lieutenant to slump into depression when he listened to a classmate, Captain Lu Lan, recounting his military feats in Quang Tri battlefield (which had allowed this classmate to be on a fast track in term of promotion to the rank of captain). “Look, I am a handicapped know, I wonder what my future will turn out to be?” But this feeling of depression at the bedside in Lanessan Hospital (Hanoi) was only temporary, and Lieutenant Hieu, unlike the majority of soldiers who contracted tuberculosis – since military career demanded physical stamina, and furthermore at the beginning of the second half 20th Century, the anti-dote to this disease was still rare – often times seized the pretext for an honorary discharge. In the contrary, after a period of convalescence, he went to the South, and continued his military career with a renewed attitude and a new position as a general staff officer under Chief of Staff, Colonel Tran Van Don, as a G3 officer (Operational Center, Training – the most important section in the general staff organization of all modern armies), Captain Nguyen Van Hieu’s skills were allowed to blossom entirely, in preparation for later positions of high command and general staff. For this reason, when Colonel Tran Van Don was promoted to Major General and was assigned I Corps Commander (Military Region I, from Quang Tri to Quang Ngai), he brought with him this excellent general staff officer to Danang. In 1971, when this general staff officer was summoned to appear on the floor of Congress to be questioned about the defeat in the withdrawal out of Snoul City (Kampuchea), Senator Tran Van Don, Chairman of the committee overseeing the Defense Department at the Senate, had this statement to say: “If the ARVN had more generals as competent as General Hieu, Vietnam would not have been lost”. It goes without saying that this statement was not a mere subjective endorsement but was based on proven facts. Let us examine some typical military exploits to back up this assessment.
II. In the Midst of Battlefield
Even though military historians have divergent opinions (even American officials, scholars who had unjustified prejudgment toward the Army of the Republic of Vietnam), nevertheless all had to agree one thing: General Do Cao Tri was the best tactician of the army of South Vietnam, of the entire Vietnam (if one compares him with the generals of North Vietnam); and not so much less than the famous generals of allied armies. But perhaps, the majority of them would lack in accuracy in not finding out one of the reasons behind the military exploits of famous General Do Cao Tri. This reason existed since the days he held the position of 1st Infantry Division Commander (before the 11/11/1963 coup), when he entrusted Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Hieu the position of 1st Division Chief of Staff. The close relationship between these two fine combatants lasted a decade (60-70), and only ended when General Tri died in a helicopter accident on 2/23/1971, before he was about to leave the position of III Corps Commander (Bien Hoa) to go to Danang to replace General Hoang Xuan Lam at the moment the battle in Laos (Operation Lam Son 719) was in critical situation. General Do Cao Tri only consented to accept the Command of I Military Region if the person who replaced him as III Corps Commander had to be (and nobody else): General Nguyen Van Hieu, 5th Infantry Division Commander (Binh Duong) – the attack spearhead that had created the Binh Tay Victory – the Campaign that defeated the Southern Central Command starting at the end of 1969. Something deeper than military task must have been the link that jointed these two exceptional military geniuses together. The following military feats will be the clear explanation for this excellent collaboration between a fearless commander and an outstanding chief of staff. It also rectifies one thing: General Do Cao Tri had never been someone who “discriminated Southerner-Northerner” as rumor believed; on the contrary, he was the one that “protected” General Hieu to the end. Similarly, General Hieu could only fulfill his thorny task in the Anti-corruption Committee, if he was not backed up by a Southerner – a pure Southerner Official who loved, respected, protected him: Mr. Tran Van Huong.
1964. Do Xa
Do Xa stronghold of the communist force nested in the mountainous area at the junction of the two Provinces of Kontum and Quang Nghia, according to the regional determination of the Republic of Vietnam; or it belonged to the operational zone of Communist Battle Fronts B3 and B5. It ss the most treacherous area of the Annamite Mountains right at peak Ngoc Linh, (8,524ft), dominating the entire Lower Laos region, leading down to the delta of the coastal region of Center Vietnam belonging to the two Provinces of Quang Nam and Quang Ngai, and it constituted also the path leading to Kontum, Pleiku of the Western Highlands. It was put under the command of General Nguyen Don and was an impenetrable area since the Indochina war time of 1945-1954. During the 2nd Indochina War (1960-1975), since he was appointed I Corps Commander (Danang), General Tri intended to “visit” this forbidden location, but he did not have sufficient force to launch a big operation (especially lacking tactical air support and troop transport helicopters); furthermore, social political unrest during the entire year of 1963 forced him to abandon the idea to clear up Do Xa stronghold. In 1/1964, General Tri took over the command of II Military Region, the “sticking bone” of Do Xa came back as a challenge, and this time he decided to act, although the majority of this operational area was set in the area of Quang Ngai Province (belonging to I Military Region). Colonel Nguyen Van Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff, was entrusted the task of designing and executinf the operation which was put under the command of I Corps Commander, Major General Do Cao Tri and Colonel Lu Lan, Operational Deputy Commander. The operational force was divided into two groups: Group A comprise three Rangers battalions under the command of Major Son Thuong; Group B consisted of 50th Infantry Division under the command of Major Phan Trong Chinh which was the main trust of the operation; it was reinforced by 5th Airborn Battalion of Major Ngo Quang Truong. With his wide connection since the days he was in charge of operations in I Corps, Colonel Hieu had established a close relationship with Major Wagner, USMC Advisor to I Corps HQ; and together with Major Wagner, they became the main factors in the coordination of the troop transport plan by helicopters. USMC HMM-364 Squadron with 16 helicopters H34 ferried the troops et debarked them at the same time on the landing zone, reinforced by two AFVN helicopters H34 coming from Danang. They were escorted by five UH-1B armed helicopters belonging to US Army 52nd Aviation Battalion “Dragon Flight” all along the flight and at the Do Xa landing zone (LZ). The operational zone was covered by the observation plane L19 US “Bird Dog”; furthermore Helio Courier STOL plane of Colonel Merchant, from the CIA and Colonel I Corps Senior Advisor circled at 5,000 feet to monitor the entire operation (USMC knew this operation under the name of Sure Win 202). Based on the above-mentioned facts, Operation Quyet Thang 202 was not merely a pure military activity, but was a testing of ARVN’s capabilities after the political turmoil of 1963, and specifically was aimed at assessing the capabilities of high ranking officers that were commanding and executing this operation.
On April 27, 1964 Do Xa campaign was launched. From Quang Ngai airport, where the Operational Forward HQ was set up, 18 helicopters H34 of the first attack wave ferried the entire 5th Airborn Battalion to the battleground. Enemy anti-aircraft batteries were not only positioned around the landing zone, but they were also set up on top-hills along the paths followed by the troop transport helicopters. Let us listen to the account narrated by Captain “Woody” Woodmansee, leader of the helicopter gunships (nowadays a retired US Army Lieutenant General), “On the first pass, low level at about 100 feet, all of my first four Dragon guns were throwing smoke out both sides of the aircraft. I could see tracers criss crossing the valley from both sides (only one out of five rounds were tracers). On one of my passes west to east, I was engaged by a 50 cal. from the south side. There was a stream of tracers passing about 10 feet under my helicopter for at least 10 seconds.” Such was the scene in the air. On the ground, 5th Airborne Battalion was attacked right at the landing zone. Major Ngo Quang Truong deployed all four combat companies and the Command Company to face the enemy. Company Leader Tran Dai Tan Au was killed right at the moment his foot touched ground at the landing zone; the 57 cal. recoilless machine gun of Headquarters and Headquarters Company (normally used to destroy bunkers and tanks) now was transformed into a direct firearm to defend the immediate perimeter of the battalion command post. General Tri personally commanded the battle from the air; the helicopter which carried him, General Lu Lan, General Minh (later AFVN Commander) had to fly at tree top level to avoid anti-aircraft gunfire; but when it returned to Quang Ngai airport, an examination showed that its flanks and bottom were pierced by several bullets. Without feeling any set back, General Tri sent in the rest of Rangers units into the battleground, to join in with the airborne units in an operatinal sweep of this impenetrable stronghold named Do Xa. Just in the second day into the operation, the Rangers only had captured a 30 cal. heavy machine gun, a light machine gun, 11 AR-15 rifles, six submachine guns and 144 individual weapons, 1,000 heavy detonators plus a great amount of grenades, mines, ammunition, documents and military equipment. At the end of the operation, the total amounts of weapons counted two additional 52 mm caliber machine guns, one 30 mm caliber machine gun, 69 individual weapons with 62 enemies killed and 17 captured. The operation ended exactly a month later, on May 27 with 50th Infantry Regiment of Major Phan Trong Chinh having swept the entire Do Xa area while Airborne and Rangers units forming peripheral blocking positions which interdicted enemy forces to escape into the western mountainous areas or toward south of Highlands.
The amount of weapons captured and the enemies killed did not constitute a major military victory, but from a political standpoint, it had proved one thing: After the political turmoil (1963-64) in which the whole army had been swirled in by some individual military leaders who wanted to snatch the power of the nation according a trend which championed “Military authority with the power of the gun” in vogue all over the world (Nasser in Egypt, Pak Chung Hy in South Korea, Fidel Castro in Cuba, and nearby in the Indochina region, Captain Kong Le in Laos, etc), the ARVN had regained combat strength; it was capable of conducting big operations at regimental and divisional levels when general staff officers and commanders received adequate supports, in particular when they were given full authority in the deployment of troops based on battlefield’s reality rather than on a display with a political agenda. An evidence which supports this interpretation lies on Operation Phi Hoa with hundreds of troop transport helicopters (the biggest troop transport by helicopters, mobilizing helicopters from the entire Southeast Asia) and with the involvement of four airborne battalions being dropped at once in the Ho Bo sanctuary (Binh Duong) in the end of August, 1964. This operation did not produce the anticipated desire. Or on this same Do Xa battleground, General Nguyen Khanh and his Chief of Staff Ngo Dzu, once had failed before they swapped positions with General Do Cao Tri and Chief of Staff Nguyen Van Hieu respectively. Finally, all had shown that Operation 202 of II Corps into Do Xa was a well designed plan, responding to the situation and demand of the battlefield, was commanded and executed by competent strategists and tacticians with determination: Attacking with a sure win, not as troop display betting on soldiers’ lives. Furthermore, one detail needs to be mentioned: airborne, rangers and infantry units in Do Xa battle, all were commanded by officers originated from airborne branch: General Do Cao Tri, Majors Phan Trong Chinh, Ngo Quang Truong, Son Thuong – But all had relied on Colonel Nguyen Van Hieu’s planning and strategic skills. This is also the purpose of this task which is although belated, nevertheless essential that we must do today toward a Soldier who had died in the hand of a regime composed of immoral, corrupt, power hungry, blood sucking leaders. The following will prove this Common Suffering will lead to the painful collapse of April 30, 1975.
1965. National Route 19, An Khe Pass – National Route 14, Duc Co; Pleime
07:00 pm June 24, 1954, only less than six month later (June 20, 1954) the Geneva Accord would be signed, ending the First Indochina war. But on Mang Yang Pass, at Kilometer 15th, on National Route 19 linking Pleiku (Highlands Military Capital) with Qui Nhon (the most important seaport of Center Vietnam), an infernal scene was unfolding. 803rd Regiment NVA attempted to annihilate the entire Korea Regiment of the French Expeditionary Army, a unit whose feat was to stop the human waves of the Communist Red Army on the Korea battlefield in 1952, along with US 2nd Infantry Division. That was why soldiers of this regiment still wore on their shoulders the insignia boring a White Star with the Head of an Indian of this famous unit. But now, in 1964, it was An Khe Pass of the Vietnam War and no more the Korea peninsula of 1953. The remaining combatants of the 100th Mobile Task Force (of which the Korea Regiment was the assault element, the pride of the task force) were trying to regroup after being decimated by a six hour close combat with Communist units. In reality, they had endured six month of devastation since they got involved in this Highlands battleground. Night time came down quickly although the sky of this mountainous region in June was enlightened by illuminated grenade explosions thrown by soldiers to destroy artillery batteries, to burn up equipment, to use up heavy machine guns in preparation of an escape of the encirclement by 803rd Regiment NVA. (Bernard B. Fall, Street Without Joy. Schoken Books - New York, 1972 pp 214-220). To put it bluntly, the battle of An Khe Pass on National Route 19, with the total annihilation of 100th Mobile Group, was only the tactical aspect of an overall strategic plan: To isolate the Highlands, to occupy the route linking North-South, west of Annamite Mountains, along Route 14 down to Ban Me Thuat, to the upper end of Dong Nai River, and the eastern region of South Vietnam. This battle plan of 1954 would later be repeated in the years 1974-75 before the lost of South Vietnam with the Highlands territories leaving open, caused by the ill-fate refugee flow along Provincial Route 7 from Pleiku to Tuy Hoa of II Corps with the entire territorial force of this military region. But 1965 in the Highlands was different. Let us see how Colonel Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff had lived and fought in the Highlands.
In 1965, North Communists launched a campaign aiming at slicing Viet Nam in two pieces, from Highlands down the coastal region along Route 19 by defeating the ARVN in a conventional warfare. At this point, we have to use “North Communists” because the forces that participated were regular units belonging to B3 and B5 battlefronts, commanded by the North Vietnam Military General Directorate with a facsimile of 1954 Dong Xuan campaign as described previously. National Route 19 and Mang Yang Pass once more were inflamed. On February 20, 1965, Forward Operational Outpost #1 of a Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) Company on Route 19, west of Mang Yang Pass, was attacked after a Regional Force Company was ambushed while moving from Pleiku back to a camp at Mang Yang Pass. Both the Regional Force Company and the CIDG Camp were not capable of facing the Communist regular forces, because these units were equipped with the lattest models of Russian weapons: AK machine gun, RPD grenade-launchers, and improved replica of anti-tank rockets RPG2. Meanwhile, the CIDG, Regional Forces, or ARVN units like Paratroopers, Rangers, Marine Corps, (in 1965, 66, 67…) still used antiquated weapons from WWII such as Garant, Carbin M1, etc. The battles along Route 19, on the two western and southern sides of Mang Yang Pass repeated the typical tactics applied (and applied with success) by the Communist side – “Attack the Post and Ambush the Relief Column”. However, after two days of fierce fighting, CIDG #1 (West of Mang Yang Pass) and CIDG #2 Camp (East of Mang Yang Pass) still held with the help of rotational supports; they also received relief from a Rangers Battalion garrisoned at An Khe (50 kms East of Mang Yang Pass) which constituted a reserved force. The Special Force Command Post in Pleiku had also created CIDG companies specialized in helicopter intervention groups using Eagle Tactics when needed. Athough caught off guard by helilifted troop transport tactics, with close firepower supports provided by US armed helicopter gunships, AFVN Skyraiders and B27, enemy anti-aircraft system was very sophisticated and efficient, causing great damages to CIDG, Rangers and Eagle flight units. By February 24, the situation reached a critical point: Forward Operational Camp #2 of CIDG (with an addition element of Rangers stuck behind) needed to be evacuated because they could no more sustain the pressure of continuous mortar pounding coming from 83mm mortars positioned tightly around the camp. Among the 220 soldiers that needed to be evacuated was a wounded 9 month old baby, the sole survivor among the passengers of a civilian bus going from Qui Nhon to Pleiku that had been massacred the day before when the vehicle entered the enemy artillery grid.
Colonel Chief of Staff Nguyen Van Hieu and US II Corps Senior Advisor, after two days monitoring and studying the battlefield reached a common conclusion: enemy forces were regular battalions of Battle Front B3 equipped with modern weapons; they were efficient in mobile firepower and anti-aircraft concentration tactics. This army showed clear signs that it intended to joint force with the army from the delta (Binh Dinh region-Military Zone 5 NVA) to transform An Khe valley (East of Mang Yang Pass, along Route 19) into a huge battleground, aiming at cutting South Vietnam into two pieces as they had done in the 1945-1954 war. And the urgent measure was to pick up immediately the troops encircled in Camp #2 before it would be engulfed. General Nguyen Huu Co, the newly appointed Corps Commander, agreed in principle but raised a dilemna: lack of sufficient firepower to cover the area in support of the helicopter operation aiming at picking up the troops at Camp #2; furthermore, the network of enemy 82 mm mortars around the camp would create a pool of flames at the landing zone (within the camp). Under such conditions, the helicopter operation would become a suicidal attempt. Finally, III Corps resorted to adopt General Westmoreland’s decision: to use US F-100s jets together with ARVN A-1E and B57 in close strafing along the two valley sides, while helicopter gunships flew shotgun at mortors positions near the camp, allowing transport helicopters to enter the landing zone to pick up troops. This helicopter operation was designed and executed like a miracle. No one was hurt in the first three lifts, only one helicopter was hit and one soldier were wounded in the last lift. Colonel Chief of Staff Nguyen Van Hieu had succeeded a rescue operation designed by him with a smooth coordination between US and VN units, a feat not known by many until these days.
After the relief of CIDG camp, II Corps Command called up the reserved force: 2nd Airborne Task force comprising two Battalions, the 7th and the 8th, was helilifted from Saigon and disembarked at An Khe airport; from here, they launched a sweeping operation along the entire thorny stretch from An Tuc District to Mang Yang Pass. Feeling outsmart, the enemy switched north and attacked K’nack Special Force camp (North of Route 19 to alleviate the pressure exerted by the paratroopers at An Khe valley) with human waves (similar to Red Communist Army’s tactics used at hilltops Pock Chop, T-Bone and Old Baldy in the Korea battle in 1953): two battations gave assault at outpost manned by merely a CIDG platoon. An outpost was overrun, but was retaken by a CIDG counter-attack, supported by paratroopers attacking from the south, which broke the enemy forces around the Force Special camp. At the end of the battle, the enemy withdrew leaving behind 126 dead, numerous 57 mm recoilless batteries, 82 mm mortar-launchers with lots of ammunitions and explosives. But the major accomplishment of the operations was: convoys of trucks escorted to Pleiku instilled a renewed morale in the Highlands. Food and commodities prices dropped 25 to 30 percent, and the population regained sense of security, confidence and hope. Students in Pleiku volunteered in helping soldiers in unloading cargoes and people reverted back to their homesteads. (General Vinh Loc, Military Review, April 1966) However, not many individuals among the population of Pleiku those days were aware that the life they had recuperated was the result of the sacrifice of hundreds, thousands of soldiers – Among them was the Great Soldier, extremely modest, totally dedicated to the army and the country – Colonel Chief of Staff Nguyen Van Hieu. Who among the population of Pleiku knew or heard of Him; even this writer, a young lieutenant belonging to the 7th Airborn Battalion, the unit that cleared the road between An Khe and Mang Yang Pass in March 1965.
After defeating the enemy at the battles on Route 19, II Corps Command launched a campaign to retake Bong Son, Tam Quan (April 1965) with 22nd Infantry Division reinforced by a Marine Corps Brigade in order to counter the enemy’s intention to cut National Route 1 around the tactical area of Quang Ngai-Binh Dinh (belonging to Battle Front B5 NVA) which forced the Communists Command in ARVN Military Region II to revise their plan. And once again, the Hanoi’s leadership reverted back to the battleground along National Route 14 (which linked Pleiku with Ban Me Thuoc to the south, with Kontum to the north, from the raining season to the beginning of the dry season (from April 4 to the end of 1975) with the most seasoned divisions of Battle Front B3: 325th, F10th, 2nd Golden Star Divisions, commanded by competent Generals Vu Lang , Hoang Minh Thao, Chu Huy Man (later, toward the end of the war, in February 1975, Chief of Joint General Staff Van Tien Dung in person commanded the campaign to control the Highlands under the direction of Hanoi General Directorate). Meanwhile, II Corps Command consecutively replaced its Commanders: General Do Cao Tri, Nguyen Huu Co, Vinh Loc successively held the position of II Corps Commander – while only the Chief of Staff remained at the same position. Therefore, we can make the assertion about a fact without being afraid of making an error, of being subjective: It was Colonel Nguyen Van Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff who was the person who dealt continuously and directly against the military command of the North at the Highlands battleground during the entire year of 1965.
Beginning of the rainy season of 1965, along National Route 14, communist forces continuously launched systematic attacks as following: On May 16, Phu Tuc District and Buon Mroc belonging to Phu Bon Province (or Hau Bon, old name Cheo Reo), about 70 kilometers southwest of Pleiku, were attacked; the Regional Forces called the nearby Special Force Camp for help without success because that the Special Force unit was also attacked, both the rescue column and the camp. The situation at Phu Bon deteriorated rapidly, II Corps had to helilift one battalion of 40th Regiment/23rd Division to come to the resue. Phu Bon Province could only communicate and be resupplied by air because Le Bac Bridge on Provincial Route 7 had been damaged. On May 20, the enemy attacked the Regional Force unit that guarded the Pokala Bridge and destroyed this important bridge, cutting off the entire network of outposts, Special Force camps located northwest of Kontum. The situation was getting worst entering May 1, when a delegation of Pleiku Province lead by the Province Chief on an inspection mission at Le Thanh District (30 kilometers west of Pleiku, on the left side of Route 14) was ambushed and the District was overrun early in the same day. II Corps had to deploye Eagle Flight teams to rescue the delegation and dispatch an airborne task force present in the region to rescue Le Thanh District. The situation did not end here, the rescue column met the chief of province’s delegation convoy at a location on National Route 19 (between west Pleiku and the Vietnamese-Kampuchean borders). This was also the ambush location set up by the enemy. Helicopter gunships of US Army 52nd Aviation Battalion from Camp Holloway had to continuously intervene to lend air support and to allow the delegation to withdraw. Two helicopters were shot down; the delegation convoy suffered heavy lost both in human beings and vehicles (including the relief column units); and the survivors disbanded and attempted to get back to Pleiku. Finally, General Vinh Loc, II Corps Commander, had to abandon the old Le Thanh District headquarters and moved it to a nearby location close to National Route 14 (near Pleiku) for easier support. However, he had to hold Duc Co outpost, the fartherst remote outpost of governmental forces situated at the western end of Route 19, facing Kampuchean border.
The situation in the south, at Phu Bon Province was no better, a battalion of 40th Regiment/23rd Infantry Division on its way to Le Bac Bridge to establish security and to repair the bridge fell into an enemy ambush, and was forced to revert back to Phu Tuc District to finally suffer the same fate of encirclement of the entire province. Next Thuan Man District, southwest of the province was also attacked and at rist of being overrun. Again the airborne task force was dispatched to join force with the 40th Regiment in an attempt to rescue the besieged troops. The enemy attacked the mid secion of the airborn and infantry units formation, overran the artillery position and destroyed the convoy transporting ammunition supply to Thuan Man. Airborne battalions had to regroup in self defense for medevac of wounded combatants and for ammunition resupply. II Corps Command was facing with a grim situation which was getting worse and worse with signs of enemy’s determination to conquer the Highlands in the rainy season becoming more obvious, and was forced to request reserved forces from Saigon. A Marine Corps Task Force and an Airborne Task Force were dispatched to Phu Bon in emergency. In no time Cheo Reo airport became the busiest airport in the Viet Nam War. US transport airplanes coordinated by II Corps general staff flew in continuously round the clock to ferry in troops. As soon it touched ground, the second Airborne Task Force hurried up to enter the jungle to deflate the pressure imposed on the task force that was encircled at Thuan Man.
North of Pleiku, Toumorong District at the northest part of Kontum was overrun beginning July. Because it was too remote, and was not an essential military location, II Corps gave the order to retreat to Dakto District (Tan Canh) where the Command Post of 42nd Regiment was located. It was then the turn of Dakto District headquarters to be attacked (july 7); the 42nd Regiment Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lai Van Chu was killed; the US Senior Advisor, Major John R. Black was gravely wounded while commanding the relief column. This situation of the regiment deteriorated after the death of LTC Chu; II Corps hastened to appoint Colonel Dam Van Quy 42nd Regiment Commander; the US Senior Advisor, LTC Thomas Perkins (who had worked with Colonel Quy in the past) was also dispatched up hastely to reinforce the US Advisory Team. A Rangers Battalion and the Marine Corps Task Force newly arriving in the region were helilifted to Tan Canh to join force with 42nd Regiment to block the enemy at the northern part of Kontum.
While the military situation was exploding every single day in the Highlands, in Saigon military turmoils were also swirling rapidly: Military showdown on 9/12/1964, failed coup attempt on 2/19/1965, followed by counter-coup on 5/20. Governmental cabinets raced in and out with Phan Huy Quat, Tran Van Huong; catholics and Buddhists took turned occupying the streets, fighting and transforming Saigon into a battleground no less fierce than the one with guns up in the Highlands. Battles at Special Force Camps Duc Co, Pleime were like the last drop tipping of water out the glass at the same time corps commanders were replaced reflecting the military situation in Saigon. Only Colonel Hieu stayed put in the position of II Corps Chief of Staff by the sides of soldiers who stood fast amist the flames ravaging the mountaineous regions of the Highlands.
Duc Co Camp was located at western end of Route 19, facing the Vietnamese-Kampuchean border. It was under the full pressure exerted by the enemy force of Battle Front B3 after Le Thanh District was overrun (as above-mentioned). By mid July, the camp was tightly encircled and all patrols venturing outside the camp were beaten back in. And although hundreds bombardment missions had been executed around the camp, enemy units conducted perfectly the art of underground warfare and had cleverly set up a network of mortar launchers around the camp, threatening the helicopters landing zone which became unusable. A bold military operation was designed with sophistication and precision by Chief of Staff Nguyen Van Hieu and submitted to II Corps Commander, using 1st Airborne Task Force comprising three Battalions, the 1st, the 3rd and the 5th , first rank assault units of the Airborne Brigade (prior to 12/1965, Airborne Division was not yet created) with the mission to take the earliest possible control of the airstrip (reserved for C123 and Caribou planes) after tactical bombers attacked enemy mortars position around the camp. After succeeding in landing on the airstrip as planned, 1st Airborne Task Force attempted to widen the control perimeter failed, they had to revert back to the airstrip. The challenge faced by II Corps General Staff was that the number of enemy troops engaged in the battle was much much superior to the number of Airborne combatants (merely a task force comprising three battalions which had been severely damaged by battles at Phu Bon, Cheo Reo areas since April); while the enemy force encircling the camp numbered one regiment, which means the enemy had thrown in a division into the battleground. It was no more a matter of battles at battalion, regiment levels with a Special Force Camp as target, but rather a strategic intent of the entire battle of 1965 in the Highlands areas had clearly emerged : Hanoi’s army under the command of General Hoang Minh Thao was determined to take control of the Highlands and then poured down the the coastal area, cutting South Vietnam in two along the axe Pleiku-Binh Dinh (The battle in March 1975 was merely a replica with some adjustments of this battle in 1965). Colonel Hieu submitted a great plan to the Joint General Staff: to request the American troops to replace ARVN units as reserved force and to assume the role of territorial security, allowing them to form an assault task force the size of a division in order to deal with the battleground at Duc Co (military textbook dictates that the attacking force cannot be less than 1/3 of the defending force). The plan was approved by General Wetmoreland and he decided to deploy 173rd Airborne Brigade, with General Stanly R. Larsen as US I Field Force in Pleiku, to replace ARVN units with the task of support and territorial security. This relief allowed II Corps General Staff to establish a Task Force comprising 1st Armored Cavalry Regiment (M41 tanks, M8; Armored Personnel Carriers M113); a Rangers Battalion; Marine Corps Task Force with artillery and territorial artillery support. The rescue column force was put under the command of Brigadier General Cao Hao Hon, 24th Special Zone Commander (north Kontum).
On August 8, the task force entered the area; the forward unit encountered immediate enemy resistance, and one tank was knocked down by a recoilless gun upon veering from Route 14 into Route 19. The enemy adopted close contact tactics clinging close to the relief column to avoid artillery firepower and attacked at its center to cut the task force into isolated pieces. That night, the two rescue column sections regrouped and redistributed troop positions despite the fact the enemy launched a series of attacks and artillery poundings aiming at breaking the rescue plan. At dawn August 9, 1st Airborne Task Force poured out from Duc Co airstrip and attacked down Route 19 toward the east to link with the relief column force in an anvil-hammer tactics. To avoid entrapment between these two attacking forces, the enemy retreated, leaving behind small delaying forces, snipers and mines along their paths. Duc Co battle ended with a heavy loss on the Viet Cong side. The governmental troops took control of the battlefield and the victory boosted the morale of the ARVN troops. They had sustained the worst the enemy could have imposed on them; not only were they able to stand fast, they succeeded also in forcing the enemy to break contact and flee, leaving numerous weapons, dead on the battleground. (Colonel Theodore Mataxis – VC Summer Monsoon Offensive 5/1966). General Westmoreland and the Head of State, Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Thieu came to Duc Co to emphasize the importance of the victory. But Colonel Chief of Staff Nguyen Van Hieu did not get the time to catch his breath; he used the newly liberated camp as the command post to deploy troops in conquering the second objective: Special Force Pleime Camp. He stayed all nights during the rescue mission of Pleime.
Before 10/1965, few people had heard of the name Pleime, a Special Force Camp located west of National Route 14, at a distance of 40 kilometers southwest. But suddenly, Pleime became notorious in the South Vietnam military history because after the defeat in the attack of Duc Co, the enemy had “manipulated the reality – a necessary process after performing a tactical attempt, a political endeavor without consideration of the outcome, defeat or victory”. And with the lesson newly learned from Duc Co, they came up with the following plan: 1/ to encircle Pleime; 2/ to destroy the rescue column; after concentrating troops at Pleime in order to transform it into tactical point that weakened II Corps defense force in Pleiku, and finally 3/ to utilize the remaining regiment still intact to attack Pleiku with a three-prong directions (from north, along Route 14; from east along Route 19, and from southwest, the gate of Duc Co, Pleime). All these tactical moves were entrusted to General Chu Huy Man with 320th Division (Dien Bien Phu Division) comprising three Regiments, the 32nd, the 33rd, and the 66th, ever since the main forces in the Highlands region. In order to defeat the enemy plan, II Corps General Staff designed a counter-attack based on the following premises: 1/If Pleime were to be rescued, the rescue column would unavoidably fall into the ambush on its way to the camp (similar to what had happened when rescueing Phu Tuc, Thuan Man, and recently Duc Co, etc.); the defense of Pleiku would weakened; 2/If Pleime were left alone to its fate, then it would be a damaging blow to the moral of the entire Military Region II. Once more, General Westmoreland took a wise and efficient decision, which was to bring in an Air Cavalry Brigade from An Khe to Pleiku, under the command of General Stanly R. Larsen, to be the defense force of Pleiku, and reserved force of the operation. This brigade also deployed 155 mm and 105 mm artillery batteries to directly support the rescue column task force. This task force comprised 1200 troops placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Trong Luat, armor, comprising 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, 1st Battalion/42nd Regiment; two Rangers Battalions, the 21st and 22nd. The task force was supported by combat engineer and artillery units. Furthermore, there were two Special Force companies belonging 91st Airborne Rangers Battalion (the predecessor of 81st Airborne Rangers) in coordination with Delta Project Tean of Major Charlie A. Beckwith (US Special Force); on 10/20, they jumped in the area close to Camp Pleime, to become the assault force coming out the camp to link with the rescue column units of Lieutenant Colonel Luat as planned from Route 14 which advanced to the camp from the junction of Provincial 6C.
However the rescue plan was not that simple. II Corps General Staff had drawn lessons learned from Duc Co battle in August 8. On 10/23, 22nd Rangers Battalion, instead of being used as element accompanying armored vehicle units of LTC Luat, was dropped by helicopters at a spot south of the ambush location set up by 32nd Regiment/230 Division NVA in an anvil-hammer tactic. Although the battle on the 23rd and 24th had been prepared meticulously (by both sides), the military situation still changed at the most unexpected moment. 635th and 344th Battalions NVA belonging to 32nd Regiment NVA under the command of LTC Nguyen Huu An, from well prepared and camouflaged positions, moved in to attack the rear section of LTC Luat’s rescue column, causing heavy damages and succeeded in pinning down the forward units at 5 kilometers of Camp Pleime. II Corps dispatched artillery forward observers of the US Air Cavalry brigade to assist the relief task force. These forward observers coordinated precise close artillery poundings (from batteries of the US Air Cavalry), creating a carpet unfolding a step ahead of the slow advancing armored vehicles. Furthermore, US F-100, helicopter gunships and AFVN AD1 using precise firing techniques set up a firepower fence protecting the flanks of the relief column. The excellent coordination between counter-ambush tactics, combat skills of soldiers on the battleground, such as the courageous action of the US and ARVN combatants, surging out of the camp, to assault the enemy with flamethrowers resulted in a heroic victory: in the evening of 10/25/1965 the relief task force linked with the camp defenders, ending the siege of Pleiku that the command of B3 Battle Front had planned since Spring 1965. “…The field commander can go to sleep to wait for the news of victory when the campaign starts!!” Marshall Montgomery of the British Royal Armored has so dictated to emphasize the determinant role of organization, general staff planning in big campaign. Duc Co and Pleime had confirmed this determinant role of the preparation in planning, execution, organization, general staff (it is without saying, the realities of the battlefield and the combat skills of the soldiers on the battleground constitute the other important factors). The victory of Pleime had been glorified by General Vinh Loc who made it into the combat and victory symbol of II Corps. II Corps HQ was named Pleime City. But it seemed that not many people (in and outside the army) knew that Colonel Chief of Staff Nguyen Van Hieu practically stayed up all nights and days during the 20th, …the 25th in the command post bunker of Camp Duc Co, to make use of the stronger radio signal network of US Special Force units which allowed easy communication and coordination with American commanders of various branches and units, Air Force, Special Force, Infantry, Air Cavalry during the entire operation.
Applying the principles from military textbooks, II Corps General Staff collaborated closely with US 1st Air Cavalry. Furthermore, an excellent friendship blossomed between two individuals, Colonel Nguyen Van Hieu and Commander Kinnard of US 1st Air Cavalry through the two victories of Duc Co and Pleime. The two sides planned together a pursuit operation going after the fleeing units of 32nd, 33rd and 66th Regiments NVA to prevent them the chance to catch their breath, as they had always enjoyed in the past since they always held the upper hand on the battlefield. With the quasi unlimited capabilities of helicopters (US 1st Air Cavalry with more 600 helicopters was the first and unique unit that had the biggest tactical mobil capability as compared to all units operating in the entire world), US 1st Air Cavalry dispatched 1st Battalion and 2nd Battalion of 7th Regiment/1st Air Cavalry Division in coordination with four ARVN Airborne Battalions into the battleground at Ia Drang Valley, close to the Kampuchean border, the stronghold of Battle Front B3. The ARVN Airborne Battalions were commanded by Airborne Chief of Staff , LTC Ngo Quang Truong with the assistance of a US advisor going by the name of Major Norman Schwarzkopf. With a operational plan well designed, cautious, anticipating all eventualities, and with seasoned paratroopers under the command of competent officers, combined with air cavalry mobility, modern technology, awesome firepowere and full support from US1st Cavalry Division helicopters, the enemy pursuit operation at the tip of Ia Drang River, close to the Kampuchean border in 11/1965, was one of rarest successful joint operations of ARVN and US Army in the entire war since 1960.
1966. Binh Dinh; 1970. Snoul
But General Nguyen Van Hieu was not only competent in strategy; he was also a resourceful commander on the battlefield. The following battles will atteste to his competency.
Binh Dinh was one of the largest provinces in the Center, as well in the entire South Vietnam, with twenty-two districts, and the highest density in term of population (almost one million), but it was also the province which counted the largest communist sympathizers and collaborators. During the 1945-1954 war, it was the capital of Region 5 VC. The French Expeditionary Army was not able to set foot in this region. It only fell into the governmental control after 7/20/1965. In this area, the Communists had the NVA 3 Yellow Stars Division, a Governor and Command Post composed of numerous local battalions, and innumerable guerillas. This network, strengthened through a decade of war in the 50s, had been set in place before the Communists left in 1954. Based on the “search and destroy” adopted by General Westmoreland and the ARVN Joint of General Staff, the province was divided into three regions: the southern region (next to Tuy Hoa/Phu Yen border) comprising the outskirt of Qui Nhon City, Phu Phong, Tuy Phuoc and Van Canh Districts was put under the control of Korean Tiger Division; the mountaineous western region (next to Pleiku/Kontum border) comprising An Khe, Vinh Thanh, An Lao and Hoai An Districts was put under the control of US 1st Cavalry Division, with An Lao sanctuary (stretching along An Lao river, the northern branch of Lai Giang River which poured into the sea at Bong Son/Hoai Nhon, the richest delta area of the Center), and constituted an important rear base of the entire Region 5 NVA; the northern and eastern region (stretching along the coastal area, next to Quang Ngai border), the most populous area comprising Hoai An (Bong Son), Tam Quan, Phu My, Phu Cat Districts was put under the control of ARVN 22nd Infantry Division, under the command of General Nguyen Van Hieu. He was outstanding as a commander in this Region II; and yet he was only a colonel although he was the person who had designed all those victories in 1965 above-mentioned. He held the rank of colonel since 11/1963.
General Hieu took over the command of 22nd Infantry Division in June 1966, and by the end of the year (November), the newly appointed Commander scored a battle victory at Phu Cu Pass (Phu My District). At that time, we, the attached unit (3rd Airborne Task Force-Pnn) established a blockage position on the mountain side, and witnessed our friendly unit (42nd Regiment/22nd Division) joining force with the armored squadron of M113s in sweeping the enemy from National Route 1 into the mountains. The battle unfolded just like a military WWII documentary film. Infantrymen in front line formation followed M113 armored vehicles launched fierce assaults, after a salvo of artillery firing, just like Middle Age’s knights charging in combat. Airborne Task Force Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Khoa Nam observed the battle from the mountain side with binocular. Although he was a man parsimonious in words, he had to utter his admiration: “Colonel Hieu conducts his troops like a seasoned “armor officer”, and combatants of 22nd Division fought as elegantly as our paratroopers.” Those were sincere words from a combatant complimenting another combatant on the battlefield. Not allowing the enemy to recuperate (after the victories of Pleime and Duc Co), now with full authority of a division commander, Colonel Hieu gave order to pursue the enemy to destroy units of 3rd Yellow Star Division NVA, to prove who was the master on this battlefield in Region 5 VC, named “Nam Eo”, a code name the enemy uttered with pride, an impenetrable area that the government of the 1st Republic of Vietnam of President Ngo Dinh Diem had to spend two years (1955-1957) to pacify.
The American-Vietnamese-Korean joint operation started on D-Day with US1st Cavalry Division entering the areas of Hoai An and Vinh Thanh Districts. US Airborne troops discovered numerous treasures, military equipments hidden in secure secret areas (rear bases of Region 5/3rd Division NVA). However, the enemy regular units avoided all contacts, because they realized the overwhelming firepower of the US Air Cavalry. Therefore, at 11:00 pm on D+3 , US 1st Cavalry Division Commanding General came to see General Hieu (promoted to Brigadier General in 11/1966) at 22nd Infantry Division headquarters with a request that 22nd Infantry Division abandoned the plan to attack west of Phu My as previously set, in order to join with 1st Air Cavalry to invade An Lao where he believed 3rd Division NVA was concentrating. Commanding General Kinnard rationalized: “Today, I had a company of Rangers heli-lifted into that area to search and destroy the enemy, but no contact was made. I knew I did wrong in so doing because I stepped in the operational area of the 22nd Division, but due to my eagerness to destroy the enemy, I was forced to do so”. General Hieu had Major Trinh Tieu, his G2 intelligence officer defend his position: “Major General, the Communists were extremely careful in avoiding making contact with the American units because they were afraid of your firepower. I am convinced the 22nd Division will make contact with the 3 Yellow Stars Division at this target.” He added: “I had encountered a Viet Cong guerilla who resided in the mountainous areas west of Phu My district. I had spent a lot of money to feed this guerilla's family. A few days ago, he informed me that numerous units of the 3 Yellow Stars Division rallied at the boundary areas between Phu My and Hoai An districts.” And so General Hieu concluded to General Kinnard: "According to the plan discussed by the three Vietnamese, American, Korean Divisions, our Division will go into our operational area tomorrow, we should not hasten to change our plan too early."
Based on intelligence information provided by G2, General Hieu ordered Lieutenant Colonel Bui Trach Dzan, Commander of 41st Regiment to only use 2 infantry Battalions and the Regiment Command Post unit to enter the operational area early in the morning and when the units reached the designated area around 3:00 p.m., have the units settled down, have the soldiers take their supper and dig extremely solid defensive fox holes. This area was infested with Viet Cong informants. Knowing perfectly that these informants would signal to the Communists to attack our units when they knew the number of our committed units in the operational area, General Hieu made a plan to counter attack them with the force of armored cavalry. General Hieu hid one Infantry Battalion and one Armored Cavalry Squadron at a distance of 10 km away from the operational area, out of enemy sight. At 2:00 a.m., Lieutenant Colonel Bui Trach Dzan radioed back to the headquarters that the enemy began attacking his units. General Hieu gave the order to the Armored Cavalry Squadron and the reserved Battalion to speed into the targeted area and to go behind the enemy line, to encircle the enemy, preventing the enemy from withdrawing and to destroy the enemy. The American 1st Cavalry, finding out that we came into contact with the enemy, sent up helicopters to provide lightning support. Artillery of both Vietnamese and American Divisions fired continuously in support. Luminous rockets launched by the American 1st Cavalry were so bright that night became as clear as day. The Communists' night attack planning was sapped. Thirty minutes later, the Armored Cavalry Squadron and the reserved Battalion arrived at the scene on time, encircled the enemy and killed a lot of them. At 5:00 a.m. the Communists had to leak their wounds, dispersed and withdrew into the jungle, leaving behind 300 KIA lying all over the place, numerous weapons and ammunition scattered all over the operational area. Military experts estimate that for one dead left on the battlefield, the unit should have suffered three times more in human loss. Operation Eagle Claw 800 and other operations at battalion level of this division since General Nguyen Van Hieu held its command (6/1966) had in six months transformed 22nd Division from an average unit to become:
This evaluation pointed out other merits. We conclude with the following thought: If all ARVN Infantry Divisions had as commanders like Generals: Nguyen Viet Thanh, Truong Quang An, Ngo Quang Truong, Nguyen Khoa Nam, Tran Van Hai, Nguyen Van Hieu, a decade sooner; and heroes like Nguyen Viet Can, Le Nguyen Vy, Le Van Hung, Ho Ngoc Can, Nguyen Huu Thong, Dang Phuong Thanh, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, LTC Nguyen Van Long of the Police Force… were promoted sooner to the rank of general and given the task of defending the country, then perhaps the dark day of April 30, 1975 would not have happened. Indeed, this suffering was not the lot of just one individual alone.
General Nguyen Van Hieu’s military leadership skills did not stop at division level with infantry units, but it reached up to corps level with coordination of different army branches. Operation Toan Thang 46 attacked R Central Committee located in the Fish Hook area, northwest Loc Ninh, on the other side of Vietnam-Campuchea. Fish Hook area was the headquarters of 5th Division VC. This unit allegedly belonged to the South Vietnam Liberation Armed Force, but the majority of its cadres were Northerner with its Political Commissiary a pure native of Hanoi, from the lowest level. This structure was implemented entirely since Ba Cap (name unknown, who replaced Chin Chien, a Southerner) received the order from Le Duan to directly run the People Democratic Alliance For Peace since the beginning of 1970 (Truong Nhu Tang, Journal of a Vietcong, Johanathan Cape, London, England 1986, p197) in which The South Vietnam Liberation Front and its armed forces were subordinate elements. This area was also the rear base of 70th and 80th Groups which not only supported 5th Division NVA, but also the entire Fish Hook area, comprising Binh Long battleground inside Vietnam.
The operation involved 9th Regiment/5th Infantry Division, comprising 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Battalions, and 5th Recon Company. The Regiment was enforced by US 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. The operation unfolded in five phases: phase 1, attack; phase 2, 3 and 4, search and destroy the enemy; phase 5, withdrawal back to Vietnam. This operation lasted only from May to July, 1970 and its purpose was to test the enemy, to improve and coordinate the general staff network in preparation for more important subsequent operations, also inside Kampuchea aiming at 86th Rear Base, around Snoul city area. On October 14, 1970, III Corps Command gave order to 5th Division to launch operation Toan Thang 8/B/5 with the following forces: 1/ 1st Task Force, comprising 1st Armored Cavalry Squadron as main force; 2/ 9th Task Force, comprising 9th Regiment/5th Division, as secondary force; 3/ 333rd Task Force, comprising 18th Armored Cavalry Squadron and four Rangers battalions. The 5th Division Forward Command Post, established at Loc Ninh, conducted directly the operation and only reverted back to Lai Khe when all involved combat units withdrew out of Kampuchea and returned safely to their base camps on November 1, 1970. Through these two (short-term and recon in force) operations, III Corps and 5th Division Commands were able to established two fundamental facts: 1/ In the phases when ARVN forces advanced, the enemy retreated deep into Kampuchean territories; 2/ When ARVN troops withdrew was when the battlefield became risky because the enemy then set up ambushes to harass the withdrawing troops. Consequently, despite the fact numerous treasures, equipments, weapons and ammunition, foods were destroyed by the above-mentioned two operations, ARVN forces were still unable to dismantle the two main enemy forces, namely 174th and 275th Regiments NVA, and the 5th Division NVA central command and its subsidiary units in the region. Once more, Colonle Hieu proposed to General Tri to change operational concept: instead of search and destroy, we have to lure the enemy into a trap, then zero in to destroy them. Actually, in the operational area of 5th Division, there was the 5th Division NVA with its two Regiments, the 174th and 275th. We use one regiment to lure the enemy; if the enemy attacks with a regiment, we will concentrate one division to counter-attack; if the enemy attacks with its entire division, we will thrown in our three divisions (18th, 25th and 5th) to counter-attack. General Tri approved this bold luring plan “Trick the Tiger down the Mountain” and he started the meticulous preparation plan through the remainder months of 1970. He had 11 position of sensor devices set up around Snoul, and signal monitoring center established in Loc Ninh manned by personnel of G2 Intelligence Bureau round the clock.
On January 4, 1971, the luring plan commenced with 9th Task Force comprising 9th Regiment/5th Division, 74th Ranger Battalion, 1st Armored Cavalry Squadron and 5th Engineer Company, entering the operational area. But remaining clever as always, the enemy avoided all contacts; only two months later did the enemy show signs he is heading toward the trap. But an unexpected event occurred: on February 26, the helicopter carrying General Tri exploded. The Field Commander died at a critical phase of the campaign. On March 8, 1971, the enemy started shelling 9th Task Force positions, one kilometer south west Snoul. At the same period, the Battle of Low Laos, Lam Son 719, was getting bog down. General Nguyen Van Minh replaced General Tri as Corps Commander and approved the continuation of General Hieu’s luring plan, but not wholeheartly, partly because it was not his own, partly because he was not capable of pursuing a plan that would eventually branch out to more complex and unanticipated avenues (It would require the use of the two divisions 18th and 25th in case the enemy concentrate a force the size of a division). All through the three months, both sides were monitoring the battlefield in preparation for a decisive attack. General Hieu ordered 8th Regiment/5ht Division to replace 9th Regiment, a force taking up the name of 8th Task Force, comprising attached units to Rangers and Armored units remaining unchanged. With 5,000 troops, supported by US Air Force, General Hieu spanned out the operational area with the intention of pushing the enemy into the trap. On May 26, 1971, the enemy attacked Snoul, but was rebuffed by the defender troops. On May 27, the enemy switched the attack direction to the west; and on May 29 gave assault at the command center of 8th Task Force with a force the size of a regiment and destroyed a communication network and the control station. General Hieu asked General Minh to send in III Corps reserved force to use superior number in order to squash the enemy as planned. The American Advisors advised General Minh not to act on General Hieu’s request, but rather “to wait until the enemy concentrates much more and then to use B52 to annhilitate them.” General Nguyen Van Hieu refused to accept this tactics, because B52 would kill indiscrimantely both foes and friends. He only asked B52 to bomb along the withdrawal route (Nationale Route 13 from Snoul to Loc Ninh); and the initial plan (use rescue force to counter-attack) that an order should be issued to 8th Task Force to retreat from Snoul. On May 30, 1971, as soon as General Minh washed his hands with an irresponsible statement: “Do as you wish!”, General Hieu boarded his helicopter to fly straight to Snoul where 8th Task Force CP was under direct enemy fire, to give in person the order of withdrawal to all leaders of units involved, after knowing that his request for B52 to support the withdrawal had been rejected by III Corps Command and by the American Adivisors.
Nevertheless, the retreat from Snoul was a success (although 1/3rd of troops lost, and the 8th Regiment Deputy Commander was KIA), because units maintained their formation while withdrawing, and maintained their combat resolve after heavy lost, because commanders and troops were aware that their Division Commander remained close to them during the most dangereous time. The withdrawal also succeeded because it was supported by III Corps Assault Task Force of Brigadier General Tran Quang Khoi which attacked from Loc Ninh along National Route 13 toward Snoul. Finally, General Nguyen Van Hieu, after the event was dragged to justify himself for the loss in the battle of Snoul by appearing in front of the Congress.
Withdrawal operation is the most difficult military exercise, because it bears the defeat seed in itself. Military history, western and eastern, ancient and modern, has confirmed this fact through defeats of famous generals and invincible armies. Napoleon withdrew from Russia (1812); Mongolian armies withdrew from Dai Viet (13th Century). And not far off, on the Indochinese battle scene with the dismantling of Charton-Le Page army on Route 4 (1953); 100th Mobile Group (GM 100) on National Route 19 (1954). And recently, in the Battle of Low Laos, Lam Son 719 (February 1971): one Armored Cavalry Squadron, one Ranger Group, one of the best Infantry Divisions in the Army, two general reserved forces (1st Infantry Division, Airborne Division, Marine Corps Division) were used as guinea pigs by “third and fourth classes strategists”, those incompetent and worthless general officers. It goes without saying one should mention those so called “National Ruling Committee Chairman, Military Committee Chairman, National Executive Committee Chairman, National Security Committee Chairman, Defense Minister, Chief of Joint General Staff.” They built their “glory” on our Soldier’s blood and bones, on many Soldiers’.
South Vietnam had really begun to be lost since the so called “tactical retreat” that started on Mars 15, in the Highlands.
III. A Murky Affair
What was the Military Pension Funds? How was it operated?
On July 4, 1972 in the uplifting atmosphere of the entire South Vietnam Military-Civilians defending the country on the battleground, the National Television Station in Saigon fired an augural explosion of a battlefront devoided of bullets but no less fierce: Major General Nguyen Van Hieu, Special Assistant to the Vice President in Charge of Anti-corruption, Special Investigation Committee Secretary General of the Military Pension Funds (MPF) delivered his report after three months of work. The entire South Vietnamese people were filled with hope: both outside and inside enemies were attacked simultaneously. The nation’s fate was passing from a phase of tribulations and sufferings to the phase of glory and easiness. Major General Nguyen Van Hieu was indeed lighting up a candle of Hope to the entire South Vietnam. But unfortunately, only two years later, the Person who put up the light and the country were both terminated. Let us look back at this Pain that has not subsided even with the past thirty years.
Starting January 1968, each rank and file from ARVN regular and regional forces had 100 dong deducted from his monthly paycheck. With about 1 million troops, that amount bulged up in no time to an immense sum that no commercial or industrial entities could emulate. And if this money is only put in savings accounts, with the interests generated given to each soldier when discharged from the army, its initial concept was a plan to be lauded. In such case, there would be no possibility of corruption, and dishonesty in the management of such account. Or if more clever, wiser had been taken, this huge capital had been invested in enterprises, commercial tradings with honesty and good intention, to earn benefit for the investors, the entire troops who were contributing with their sweat and blood in the defense of South Vietnam; then this concept would constitute a hallmark, a source of strong economy, of wealth, of talents which would contributed in strengthening the Soldier and the Republic regime. Unfortunately, things did not occur according to everybody’s wish. Let us go back to General Nguyen Van Hieu’s accusatory report, a task he had to deal all alone in the long and unfortunate night of the country.
1.- Legal Shortcomings:
The Decree Law #10 issued on August 6, 1950 (Under the Royal Regime of Emperor Bao Dai), Article 1- this ordinance explicitly forbids associations to have activities the purpose of which is to "divide up income." And yet the Board of Managers of the Military Pension Funds had used the capital of the Funds to purchase shares of two governmental companies: COGIVINA and SICOVINA; to establish the Industry and Commerce Bank, and to found four new companies: VICCO, VINAVATCO, ICICO and FOPROCO wih a capital of 1, 232, 753, 000. 00 VN dong (nearly 1,3 billion). Because they were not allowed to become members of the Fund in order to sign official certificated registered in the Saigon Notary Public Office, Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Vy (Defense Minister) and others registered in their private capacities. Then, knowing they were acting illegally in the establishment of certificates pertaining to the organization, the parties concerned signed “Transfer Shares Certificates” to the Association with the pledge: “These are Private Certificates” while the original certificates maintained in the Saigon Notary Public Office were still under the names of private individuals. The two legal shortcomings pertaining to the founding and organization of the association above-mentioned were caught by the Prime Minister’s Office which issued Memorandum # 2960 on August 27, 1970 requesting the Defense Ministry to rectifying the organization according to current laws. However, Defense Minister Nguyen Van Vy and the Fund Board of Managers continued to operate the Fund based on its unlawful policy, in purchasing additional shares in the Vietnam Textile Company and in founding new companies: VN Industrial Construction Company (VICCO), VN Transportation Company (VINAVATCO), Industrial and Commercial Insurance Company (ICICO), Food Processing Company (FOPROCO).
In wrapping up this presentation regarding the organization and management of the Association, two facts needed to be mentioned: 1/ Defense Minister Nguyen Van Vy graduated from Hanoi Law School and French St. Cyr Mililatry Academy; 2/ Soldiers started to contribute 100 dong/month in the Fund since January 1968, but not until May 9, 1969, did the Defense Ministry issued instructions and regulations determining the collection and managing of the money contributed by the entire Army. Due to dishonesty in organization and management as above-mentioned, the Fund obviously exhibits the following flaws: there are huge discrepancies between receipts and expenditures, which cannot be explained. This flaw is stemmed from the different accounting methods adopted in each unit. There are more than 400 units in the entire country (including the central accounting unit) which are not maintaining a transparent bookkeeping (no dates, no signatures of the chief accountant, any pagination etc.)
From these obstacles, the Investigation Committee could only work based on two concrete numbers: the amounts collected from 1968 to 1981; the amount the Fund actually disbursed to members who had been discharged, or to next of kins (of soldiers who had been killed in action, or missing in action).
From a simple and sincere request, the Investigation Committee obtained two total amounts (up to December 31, 1971), but without a plausible explanation even with an open mind and generous understanding.
The actual total amount of receipts from 1968 to 1981: 3, 267, 631, 585. dong
The actual total amount of expenditures:
a/ From 1968 to 1969:: 14, 487, 642 dong
b/ From 1970 to 1971: 293, 287, 047 dong
In summary: In two years (1970-1971) the Fund paid to discharged soldiers, and next of kin of deceased soldiers an mount twenty times the amount of the past two years (1968-1969)!!
2/ Abuses, violations:
However, these legal violations could well be corrected and justified if those who managed the Fund would heed to the voice of conscience. This monitary contribution made by soldiers to the Fund is indeed the price of their blood and their families’. But is has been used in enterprises that benefit individual (and a group of individuals), in the following manner: The building located at 8 Nguyen Hue Street was constructed to be the Industrial Commercial Bank headquarters and offices of four newly found companies as above-mentioned. The decision to construct such building did not come from the Board of Managers of the Fund but from Defense Minister Nguyen Van Vy. He is only the Honorary Chairman who does not have the authority over the Board of Managers. This violation was not an unintentional management act and has led to serious consequences.
The Defense Ministry employed army personnel and resources (Engineer Corps/Defense Ministry) to construct a building for an Association (private). It was only one year later that the Investigation Committee approved and validated the decision of the Defense Minister. The Defense Minister signed Decision No. 1815-QP/TCTT/QD (on August 8, 1969), governing formation of three committees named respectively the Works Committee, the Procurement Committee, and the Control Committee. These three committees granted full authority to the Defense Minister in person in the management, decision in all matters: procurement of all the material needed for construction and installation, examination and approval of costs of procurement and installation services, approval of reports of receipt of the material and construction work, examination of records of payment, signing and issuing checks for payment to contractors, etc. Because the power limitation had been determined by these three committees, the defense minister (no matter how consciencious and honest he might be) had violated managerial and financial principles that the Board of Managers had clearly defined: the checks must have the signature of the Cashier, the Secretary General, and the Chairman of the Board of Managers, the former Minister of Defense not being one of them. This violation in the managerial and financial principles translated into the following transaction.
A businesswoman won the bit for the purchase of four (4) elevators to equip the building with a total amount of 79,000,000 dong (56 millions for equipment; 23 millions for installation). She got the intervention from the Defense Ministry (Who was the Defense Minister?) allowing her to import Hitachi elevators at the parallel exchange rate of 275 piasters for one dollar, while the Economy Ministry advised to import preferably Otis elevators (USA) at 118 dong/one dollar. Without spending a penny, without laying out one dollar capital, just acting as an intermediary (between the owner of the building and the importer of the elevators), she gobled the entire profit of 17 millions dong (without taking into account the commission paid to the importer). Then the transaction of thirteen air-conditionners (to equip the building) with a businesswoman (another one) squandered about 19 millions dong to a woman who knew how to talk her way in and out!!
But it was not only the case pertaining to the building of the Industrial Commercial Bank on Nguyen Hue Street. The Board of Managers of the Fund and even its Honorary Chairman, Defense Minister Nguyen Van Vy, continuously violated legal points in other cases:
Purchase of a merchandise (2,069 aluminum doors) without proper certificate from Trinh Phuong Binh (through the transaction of VICCO) with the price of 17 millions dong, plus middleman's commission of two soldiers which amounted to 8 million 250 thousands; Binh received 2 millions 290 thousands commission. The end result was that these aluminum doors were discarded in a waste pile because they were not usable. All these had a cause: Binh is the husband of Nguyen Thi Chieu, the Defense Minister’s sister.
VICCO Company of General Le Van Kim (a close friend of the Defense Minister) purchased 650 tons of steel from Hung Nam Company with the price of 9 millions dong, then left them unused; instead of purchasing the steel directly from Lucia Company to avoid paying 3 millions in commission to Hung Nam, because the Director of Hung Nam is Le Thi Thuong, General Kim’s sister.
We might forego these rather insignificant matters (although the loss amounted to tens and hundreds millions) in considering these as only regular bidding transactions (althought with the intention of favoring relatives of the Board of Mangement personnel), but we cannot let go violations against management principle that members of the Board of Managers have raised the degree of abuse to become a policy, a way of action as following:
Special detachment of personnel: a total number of soldiers (350 individuals) have been specially assigned to work at the Industrial Commercial Bank and six other companies managed by the army (as above-mentioned). This action could be tolerated if it did not violate the following points: a/ the Military Code never allows soldiers to be attachedto a private position (even a soldier belonging to Regional Force); b/ a number of attached soldiers received paychecks from the private companies but never reported to the place of work; c/ the attached soldiers still received paychecks from the Defense Ministry’s budget. In summary, the Industrial Commercial Bank and the six companies are the place for draft dodgers being paid with the highest salaries.
But the greatest violation and abuse lies in the management of the fund. Just in the year of 1971, the Industrial Commercial Bank had the following expenditures: a/ personnel’s salaries: 38 millions 119 thousands dong; b/ exterior transaction expenses: 19 millions 431 thousands dong; c/ general purchasing expenses: 25 millions 744 thousands dong. Total: 83, 285,000 dong. Besides this total, there was the sum paid to the Board of Managers: 16, 149, 398.00 dong. Not finish yet, just with Ma Hi, Director of Commission Division, who had the authority as guarantor of the loaner, and for this service he received a commission of 15% if the loan amount (without collateral). Just in one year, Director Ma Hi received from 15 to 30 millions dong official commission (not counting his salary and other benefits). Meanwhile the Military Pension Fund put in the savings account 249,300.000 dong at the Industrial Commercial Bank, which is 99.72% of the capital, for which the Fund only received a very small amount of interest. In summary, one million soldiers contribute their blood money to benefit a small group of individuals comprising the Board of Managers and the personnel system it has established.
Corruption was really a plague. On July 19, 1972, the American Embassy in Saigon sent a report to the State Department in Washington, D.C. with the following content: Vice President Tran Van Huong, during a visit by Ambassador Whitehouse stated: “Corruption is a plague in South Vietnam. He attributed the reason China fell into the hands of Communists the rampant corruption of Tsang Kai Sheik regime. He is convinced that if strong and urgent measures are not taken in South Vietnam, South Vietnam will suffer the same fate.” That was the words of the Chairman of the Anti-corruption Committee to the American Ambassador – A government that controlled the fate of Vietnam – And the corruption in Vietnam was an issue in the coming presidential election in the United States. But when we touch upon the task of General Hieu, we also also touch upon a task which was controlled by a man named President Nguyen Van Thieu. In such case, even with a strong personality as Tran Van Huong, in more than one case, he faced with dilemma; General Hieu remarked: “Vice President Huong did not have a firm attitude. He was wary when it came to go head on against President Thieu and General Quang (Dang Van Quang, political advisor to President Thieu). One day, General Hieu submitted a report about a house representative who had clearly been involved in corruption activities, Huong noted that the legislator was a member of the pro-administration bloc and the day before had had dinner with the President. He advised General Hieu not to pursue this matter!” In another example, General Hieu reported about Colonel Pham Kim Quy, chief of the judicial bloc, national police. According to Hieu, gross corruption in the National Police Immigration Service, a branch of the judicial bloc, has been traced directly to Col Quy, who is known to be close to Presidential Assistant Dang Van Quang. Vice President Huong is also reluctant to pursue this case.”
Corruption did not occur only at the high echelon level, but spread all over, from an officier at a medium level in a combat unit, to an officer with a administrative leadership position. General Hieu commented to an official of the American Embassy: “Colonel Truong was appointed by General Minh, III Corps Commander, as province chief partly in order to ensure his hold over the lucrative lumber trade in Long Khanh.”
Corruption reached down to remote hamlets and villages among the officials in charge of the Phenix Program. The situation was so bad that “General Hieu said he is going down to Rach Gia and Can Tho on September 19 and 20, 1972 to investigate alleged extortions, imprisonments of VC suspects, and then demands of pay-offs in return of the release of the suspects.”
Finally, corruption attacked equally the highest unit: the Agency that performs the Truth of Justice. On September 1, 1972, the National Group of House Representatives issued an accusation: “Huynh Khac Dung, Public Prosecutor General at Saigon Court House was accused of numerous acts of corruption, abuse of power, authoritarism, poor conduct, like acquitting guilty persons and imprisonment of innocents, with intention of earning money dishonestly. Deputy Prosecutor Ly Luu Van Ngo, once jailed for bribery, colluded with Dung in releasing Tran Van Ken, principal in the gasoline thef at Nha Be. It was for sure that Ken did not steal some hundreds or some thousands liters of gasoline to sell it in retail on the market; here is what General Hieu had to say about this matter: “There are indications that the gasoline stolen at Nha Be was transported to Kampuchea and sold it to the NVA!” Without this huge quantity of gasoline stolen from Nha Be storage, enemy tanks originated from the North would be reduced to a pile of useless steel.
General Nguyen Van Hieu felt helpless with a frustration that increased by the day and had to utter: “If we do not correct our mistakes ourselves, the Communists would to it for us.”
At this point, we surely understand why Ngu Tu’s hair turned white after a night worrying about the fate of the country. The Hero has always been the first victim falling into the most desperate and critical situation.
IV. The Death of a Soldier:
1973, General Nguyen Van Hieu returned to the Army, a request submitted by General Pham Quoc Thuan to President Thieu: III Corps needed an outstanding general in order to deal with the military situation which was worsening by the day. General Nguyen Van Hieu was assigned to the position of III Corps Deputy Commander, under General Thuan. The combat capacity of the South Vietnamese Army was entirely hampered by the Paris Agreement signed on January 27, 1973, through a reduction in financial aid imposed by the American Congress, added to the War Powers Act – ratified by the American Congress (1974) cutting all capacity of any president who had the good will of rescueing Vietnam. In September, 1974 President Nixon resigned taking with him all agreements (considered as genuine) with President Thieu; President non elected General Ford succeeded, bearing the load of Vietnam War which was reaching its end with an abysmal financial reduction, 50% each starting from the Pariss Accord. In 1973, 2,1 billions; 1974, down to 1,4 billion; and in the fiscal year intended for 1975: 700 millions! (Henry Kissinger Ending the Vietnam War Simon and Schuster New York, 2003 p493). Before 1973, in the battlefield, an artillery battery (comprising 6 105 mm tubes) of the Vietnamese Army could fire 10 rounds (of 60 shells) to clear a target in preparation for troop landing; now with a reduction in military and economic aids to an allied country, only just “Four (4) shells for a day of operation for each tube).” And one did not have to read the report Foreign Minister Kissing reported to President Ford about the combat support capacity for South Vietnam: “The Air Force reduced 50% activities of 11 combat squadrons; the Navy reduced from 30 to 82 % operational activities; the Infantry had only in reserve ¼ ammunition minimum…” (Kissinger idid p 496). Hanoi also saw the bleeding of South Vietnam through its statistics: “The Artillery was reduced ¾ of its consumed shells; the Air Force had only 1/5 activities left, the amount of airplanes used declined 70%, of helicopters 80%...” (Tạp Chí Học Tập, Hà Nội, 01/1975)”.
Because both sides (American and Communist) knew clearly (and exactly) each other in this issue, in October 1973, the Hanoi Central Party issued Resolution 21 (becoming Resolution 12 of South Vietnam Central Committee) with the determination to achieve “the takeover South Vietnam with force, gaining victory by steps, until the final victory is obtained.” It was not a mere paper: the battle of Phuoc Long exploded on December 12, 1974. It was the first time after the Paris Agreement, one province of South Vietnam was overrun. The American Defense Department took the following measures: 1/ Increase air intelligence over North Vietnam sky; 2/ Change the activity direction of Enperprise Aircraft Carrier Ship from Indian Ocean to Tonkin Gulf; 3/ Dispatch F4 combat jets to Philippines and Thailand, and B52 from the United States to Guam. Foreign Minister Kissinger expressed the following opinion: “Based on my personal experience, when we are timorous we loose. But when we are agressive we always win.” (Kissinger ibid p.505). But all was mere proposition and opinion, because the American Congress was dominated by McGovern’s group. And this senator was determined to revenge his defeat in the presidential election in 1972; and the Pentagon was wary to face the Congress and the media for its involvement in Vietnam. The Enterprise Aircraft Carrier never returned to the Indochina Sea, in the Tonkin Gulf; therefore, in Hanoi, in its end of 1974 meeting of the Politburo, Pham Van Dong emphazied: “Even given money, the United States would dare not take it in order to come back and intervene (in Vietnam).” (Kissinger ibid p507)
On March 10, the Chief of Joint General Staff of the Army of North Vietnam, General Van Tien Dung launched five regular divisions to attack Ban Me Thuot. On March 13, the high ranking officials of the South, so called “president, prime minister, political advisor to the president, chief of joint general staff, met at Cam Ranh to devise a decision: to withdraw the entire II Corps military force from Pleiku to the coastal region along Provincial Route 7 via Phu Bon (Cheo Reo). That route and the different military locations on it that the army and the population of the Highlands had defended and kept every pieces with the price of their blood ten years ago when General Nguyen Van Hieu was still II Corps Chief of Staff, who championed the defense of this part of the country. Its fall triggered a domino affect: March 24, loss of Hue, March 30 loss of Danang, March 31 loss of Nhatrang. And in III Corps, 5th Ranger Group had to abandoned An Loc to retreat to Chon Thanh, and Chon Thanh, which was only merely 50 kilometers from Saigon, started to be shelled by enemy artillery. The III Corps Deputy Commander, Major General Nguyen Van Hieu inherited the battlefiefl heavy load left by three consecutive commanders: General Pham Quoc Thuan, General Du Quoc Dong and General Nguyen Van Toan. Together with the fate of the country, General Hieu sustained a rapid fire of events: on April 2, 1975, he flew to Phan Thiet, to receive from General Pham Van Phu the remnant troops of II Corps, and I Corps who fled in disorder from the Center… But on April 4, President Nguyen Van Thieu who “dread even his own reflection and shadow” as described by General Vinh Loc, changing bedroom every night (according to Nguyen Cao Ky), after having assigned General Hieu to the position of III Corps Forward Command Post, realizing suddenly a danger (still obsessed by the death of President Diem who was assassinated twelve years ago) in handing troops to a clever and courageous officer, he changed his decision: General Hieu must immediately relinquish his post to General Nguyen Vinh Nghi, the IV Corps Commander who had lost his position for corruption a couple of months before. Furthermore, in the morning of April 6, President Nguyen Van Thieu summoned General Nguyen Van Hieu to the Presidential Palace. In the morning of April 8, pilot Nguyen Thanh Trung flew a F5E combat jet and bombed the palace. President Thieu’s fear materialized. On the same day the 8th, Brigadier General Le Trung Tuong, former 23rd Infantry Division Commander last month in Ban Me Thuot, after a period of convalescence (due to a minor bruise on his leg), and now assigned to the position of III Corps Chief of Staff, lead a contingent of soldiers (coming from II Corps) to replace the Military Police guards at the headquarters. Gun shots were heard coming from the office of General Hieu, two not one, according to an unexpected witness (LTC Vinh Ho coming from II Corps, while waiting to see General Toan in a room next to General Hieu’s office). General Hieu’s family got the news in the evening (7:00 p.m), that he accidently shot himself while cleaning his pistoal (from around 5:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.). This crime was not so mysterious to be difficult to comprehend. Let us relive the minutes and hours of the last moment of our Man who had died along with the Destiny of the Country by reviewing the witnesses and the circumstances at III Corps headquarters, in Bien Hoa, on April 8, 1975.
1. The Core Witnesses (by order in reference to the unfolding of the event):
-General Nguyen Van Toan, III Corps Commander, immediate superior of Major General Nguyen Hieu, Deputy Commander. According to the account of Captain Do Duc, General Toan’s attaché: “There was a 100 percent base camp curfew. All day long, General Toan worked in his office at the 3rd Corps Headquarters. I sat on duty in the adjacent room. My room faced General Hieu's office. I recall that day General Toan did not meet with General Ly Tong Ba, 25th Division Commanding General, because whoever wanted to see General Toan had to go through me. At 5:30 p.m., General Toan had me called up his car to go back to his residence, located next to the Bien Hoa Administration Building, a mere 10-15 minute drive with a siren police military escort.” After dropping off General Toan's briefcase, I went out drinking in the company of Air Force Major Luong, who had recently been transferred to the 3rd Corps from the 2nd Corps at my recommendation, and Air Force Major Cuu (still in Vietnam), who was well known as pilot of several Commanding Generals of the 3rd Corps. After 10 to 15 minutes into partying, we were told that General Toan had hastily returned to the Headquarters with his bodyguard. I dropped everything and speeded back to the Headquarters. When I arrived, the place was already crowded with military policemen working at the scene. General Toan had ordered General Hieu's office cordoned.” Also in relation to General Toan (after 5:30 p.m. on April 8 as narrated above), at the crime scene: “Colonel Khuyen, Colonel Luong and General Toan strolled together into General Hieu's office. M.P.'s were sketching the crime scene. One M.P. climbed up a ladder to look for the bullet who had reached the ceiling; but he did not find it. Suddenly General Toan exclaimed:"Here it is, here it is, I found the bullet!" In his letter dated March 10, 1999 addressed to author Nguyen Van Tin, General Toan wrote: “…But a surprise happened on (which day I don't recall), I was returning from an airborne operation when I got the news of Major General Hieu's death in his office. I immediately flew to Major General Hieu's office and saw he had died from a pistol bullet piercing through his eye and exiting the top of his head, causing him to die right at his desk.”
-Brigadier General Le Trung Tuong, III Corps Chief of Staff recounted: “…I remember the day the unexpected event occurred as you already knew, Hieu upon returning from a mission came into my office to invite me to have dinner together. At that moment I was too busy with paperworks and told him that after I finished reading the officials documents I would go to his office to invite him to go to dinner. He went back to his office, which was located about 30 meters away. After about 15 minutes, a gun shot was heard, Hieu's staff members came over to my office to announce that a gun shot was heard coming out of Hieu's office. I immediately gave order to call the Judicial Military Police to come to open the door to investigate. After a few minutes, the Judicial Military Police arrived; they opened the door and saw Hieu lying nearby his desk with a pistol. The bullet went through his head, the gun shot wound was too serious and caused him to die on the spot.”
Pertaining to this matter, Le Trung Tuong had the following action. On April 8, 1975, a group of soldiers in combat outfit commanded by Brigadier General Le Trung Tuong came to III Corps headquarters, chased away the regular contingent of Military Police. This detail has been revealed by LTC Quyen, III Corps Military Police Chief (to the author) on January 23, 1999.
- Colonel Ta Thanh Long, Head of Vietnamese Delegation, member of the 4-Party and 2-Side Combined Military Committee (in Bien Hoa area; a 3rd Class classmate of Major General Hieu) stated: “That evening, I attended the meeting and General Hieu presided. I was told that General Toan, Commanding General, was busy at the Forward Command Post stationed at Go Dau Ha, Tay Ninh. During the meeting, General Hieu sat in the middle. At his left: General Dao Duy An, chief of Staff and Colonel Phan Huy Luong, Deputy Chief of Staff/Operations. At his right: Mr. Peter, the Consul General of Bien Hoa and I. The back row was occupied by Officers of the General Staff. After the meeting, General Hieu, General An and I walked into the guest room to have tea. General Hieu told me in General An's presence: "My Pistol Collection has reached the number of 37, I just got a P.38, and had the grooves redone by the Equipment Unit, let me go get it and show it to you." At that point, Colonel Luong stepped in to invite General Hieu to go to supper. General An and I stood up and excused ourselves. My car took me to Hotel de la Piscine, Bien Hoa (the office of the International Committee), I visited there for about 20 minutes to brief about Communists' breaches with the Colonel Chairman Member. Afterwards, I went home. Upon reaching my office (still in my car), Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Thang, my deputy reported to me: "Colonel Luong needs to see you immediately, General Hieu just died." I returned to the Corps headquarters and saw Military Police cordoned the headquarters. I asked Colonel Luong: "What happened?" Colonel Luong answered: "After supper, General Hieu went back to his office, a few minutes later a gun shot was heard, guards went in and saw General Hieu covered with blood slumped at his desk, and sounded up the alarm. I invited you to witness so that the proper authority could investigate the cause, because you and General Hieu were classmates and you were the closest to him in this headquarters."
- Colonel Phan Huy Luong, III Corps Assistant to Deputy Commander/Operations (in a phone conversation with Tin Nguyen in July 1999): “…around 5 or 5:30 p.m., General Hieu, Brigadier General Le Trung Tuong (3 Corps Chief Of Staff) and Colonel Luong, as a daily routine, chatted unofficially in the Chief Of Staff's office while awaiting for supper time; Colonel Luong invited General Hieu to go to supper; General Hieu went back to this office to pick up something; a moment later, a gun shot was heard in the Deputy Commander's Office; some Military Police soldiers ran in and came out to announce the news of General Hieu being shot; a moment later General Toan appeared; Colonel Luong said he was too upset by the tragic event to pay attention to what happened afterwards. He stated that he did not make any phone calls to anybody to communicate the news, and only knew that Madam the General came to III Corps headquarters around 9 or 10 p.m”
- Colonel Nguyen Khuyen, Chief of III Corps Military Security Office said: “…The event happened nearly a quarter of a century, but I still remember vividly its development as following: I still recall that morning I had a meeting with General Hieu at 10:00a.m. in his office. The meeting lasted until around 12:00 noon then ended. I went back to my office, which was not too far away from the Command headquarters, about only 10 minutes drive. I was preparing to have lunch with some friends who had come down from Saigon to visit me, when the Security Office called to let me know that General Hieu killed himself with a pistol in his office. I was dazed and surprised because it was just unbelievable. I just departed with him 15 minutes ago, after the meeting. I found him to be jovial as usual, and there was no sign whatsoever of a despondent man. I apologized to my friends from Saigon and hurried to drive back to the Command headquarters. When I arrived the Red-Cross ambulance had taken General Hieu's body to the hospital. I did not know what to do but to go in to see Colonel Phan Huy Luong who was the Chief of Staff of the 3rd Corps. According to Colonel Luong's account, around 12 o'clock noon everybody near General Hieu's office heard the sound of a pistol in his office. Colonel Luong ran in and saw General Hieu lying immobile in his armchair next to the desk. A blood streamed effusively down his face and chest. A bullet had pierced his forehead and went straight up to the brain. The bullet found force to reach up to the ceiling, and perforated it. As it was shown by the fact, the bullet terminated immediately General Hieu's life. In other words, he died immediately, without feeling any pain. He held in his hand a pistol. There was no one present in his office at that time.
The first thing Colonel Luong did was to call in the Doctor of the 3rd Corps to come and try to see if it was still possible to rescue him and then to advise the Military Police unit of the 3rd Corps. Colonel Luong took precaution to have General Hieu's office cordoned, not to admit anybody in before the Military Police could record the crime scene and start the investigation process. When I entered General Hieu's office I saw some M.P.'s sketching the crime scene. One M.P. climbed up a ladder to look for the pistol bullet which had reached up there. Blood and pieces of brain splattered on the wall! There was no sign of struggling.” (Letter of Colonel Nguyen Khuyen sent from San Jose, July 18, 1998 to Tin Nguyen). Colonel Khuyen added: “There was no proof that General Hieu was assassinated or killed himself. Not too long prior to that, somebody gave him as a gift a pistol, of a rare type. He cherished this pistol but what bothered him was that it was trigger happy. He had given it to be repaired by the Supply Command unit 3 times in the past. This information was provided to me by Colonel Khang, Head of the Supply Command unit.”
-LTC Quyen, Head of III Corps Military Police. On January 12, 1999, LTC Quyen stated to me (Tin Nguyen): “General Hieu died sometimes after 6:30 p.m. He recalled that day, the Military Police guards under his command was chased away from the 3 Corps Headquarters by Brigadier General Le Trung Tuong accompanied by a group of soldiers in combat outfit. That evening, after taking a 6:30 p.m. shower, he passed by the Headquarters and saw General Hieu still sitting at his desk in his office. He added that when he had to assume the investigation of the crime, he was afraid for the life of the investigators under his command and had to resort to a scheme to bring in the Police group of Captain Thinh Van Phuc, and the POLWAR group of Colonel Nguyen Hung Khanh, to alleviate the responsibilities of his investigation team and the pressure coming from higher authority.”
- LTC Ly Ngoc Duong, MD, Chief of Cabinet of General Nguyen Van Toan (Phone conversation on August 31, 2004): “I still recall vividly the events happening on the day of General Hieu’s death. It was a hectic day because that morning the Presidential Palace was bombed and I was busy with the drafting of a radio announcement to be delivered by General Toan regarding the bombing to reassure the public. Around 6:30 p.m., General Toan walked into my office to announce he was leaving and going to his residence located in Bien Hoa. I gathered my papers in view to finish the drafting of the said document and joined him in his car to go back to his residence; Captain Do Du, his attaché was riding also in the car. On my way out, I saw General Dao Duy An hurrying up to go home in his jeep which sped up in roar. I heard General Hieu inviting General Le Trung Tuong to go to dinner together, to which General Tuong responded: “Let me take a shower first.” At General Toan’s residence, the phone rang. I picked up the phone, at the other end of the phone line, General Tuong said: “Hieu is dead.” I ran into General Toan's bedroom to break the news. General Toan was still untying his shoes. We hurried back to the Headquarters. Captain Do Duc accompanied us in the car. In entering General Hieu’s office, I cautioned General Toan not to touch anything so as not to leave his finger prints. I saw General Hieu sitting on his chair, his head slumping on the desk, his left arm resting on the desk, his right arm dangling above floor, and a pistol lying next to his hand on the floor. I noticed that the bullet went from his neck … uh … uh … uh…no, it was not so, let me say it again, from the right hand side jaw to the left hand side temple. General Toan did not come near, he stood with an arm leaning on the door frame, and I witnessed him crying. That was the second time I saw him cry..
- Doctor Ly Khanh Tri, III Corps Physician. He suffered a stroke, and when author Nguyen Van Tin asked him about the wound inflicted to General Hieu, he did not recall anything. Therefore, he can only quote Doctor Ly’s words he told a relative of the family when they came to visit the body thirty years ago (1975): “The bullet upon entering the chin, encountered the jaw bone which was too solid for it to go straight up to the top of the head, and had to veer down and exited to the back of the skull, resulting in an instantaneous death, with no feeling of pain.” Pertaining to the location of the wound and the path taken the bullet, author Nguyen Van Tin stated: “Based on my own observation when I visited my brother’s body, the bullet pierced the left hand side chin then exited behind the top of the skull slightly toward the right.” Or: “I observed the bullet only left a tiny black dot at the left hand side of the chin, 1cm from the left corner of the lips, and about 45 degree pointing down. The bullet also left a tiny black dot at the top of the head to the right (and at the back of the skull as Doctor Tri reported to a relative).” Also on this issue of wound location and bullet path, Colonel Ton That Soan, a former Marine Corps Brigade Commander, Chief of Hau Nghia Province while looking at a pack of ten photos depicting the crime scene shown to him by LTC Police Pham Khac Dat, Hau Nghia Police Commander wondered: General Hieu was a right hand man, why was that the wound seemed to be produced by a left hand man.” (Encounter on October 2, 2004 in New Jersey).
- Brigadier General Ly Tong Ba, 25th Infantry Division Commander: Recently, in a phone conversation with General Ba, I (NVT) asked: Is it General Toan who shot my brother: He (General Ba) answered: “I doubt it was General Toan, because at that moment I was meeting with him. After the meeting, on my way to the helipad, I heard the soldiers talking about General Hieu being found dead in his office. Because I had to hurry up to join my troops in the battlefield, I did not have time to linger to get more information.”
- Colonel Nguyen Van Y, Chief of Central Intelligence Agency: Whe he met me in New York (1986) he stated: “It was nobody other that General Toan.”; and “What a pity, General Hieu died before he got the chance to have his lunch.”
- Captain Do Duc, attaché officer of General Nguyen Van Toan: “General Toan had ordered General Hieu's office cordoned, and so, I did not get to see the crime scene. What I am certain of is that General Toan could not have shot General Hieu, because I was with him all day long until he went home after 5:30 p.m. If General Toan stated that he heard General Hieu's accident news while in the air, he erred due to his diminished health condition as a result of a by-pass operation. Both his two pilots, Major Luong and Major Cuu, were partying with me; he could not have been up in the air at that moment.” Captain Duc added: “If General Hieu was assassinated, then the assassin had to be someone who was very familiar with the maze inside the 3rd Corps Headquarters building. Even after been there 2, 3 months, I still got lost when I had to go from one office to another one.
- Brigadier General Tran Dinh Tho , (G3 Joint General Staff). End August, 1998, while present in Virginia, I (NVT) paid a visit to Brigadier General Tho. He stated: “General Hieu died at noon. I recalled quite clearly, that noon I was about to have a late lunch, I received a phone call from Colonel Luong.”
- Colonel Le Khac Ly, II Corps Chief of Staff: General Toan told him (Colonel Ly): “General Hieu died at noon time.”
- Brigadier General Tran Quang Khoi, III Corps Assault Task Force Commander: In a conversation in June 1999, he (BG Khoi) stated: “General Hieu died around noon time, because I recall on that day, General Hieu met with me at 8:30 a.m. in Go Dau Ha; around 9:30, he flew back to Bien Hoa; a few hours later, I heard the news of his death.”
- Colonel Le Trong Dam, II Corps Police Force Commander: He was the only witness belonging to II Corps present at III Corps headquarters in the morning of April 8, 1975. Colonel Dam entertained the author (NVT) by phone that lasted 45 minutes (time and location unknown-pnn): He (LTD) said the morning General Hieu died, he was present at III Corps headquarters and went home in Saigon that morning. That evening, LTC Duong, MD, broke the news of General Hieu’s death to him by phone. When I (NVT) said: “Colonel Khuyen stated that General Hieu died around noon time”, Colonel Dam firmly contradicted immediately: “Colonel Khuyen was not correct because I was still present at III Corps at 2:00 pm.”
We can now stop talking about the story of our Hero General Nguyen Van Hieu and come to a final conclusion about his death, which signaled the painful final moment of the entire South Vietnam, of each one of the ARVN soldier. We obviously do not have to find an answer (which is rather fairly easy for specialized crime investigation agencies or officials, even for those with some basic knowledge on this specialty, despite the fact the witnesses have thrown out a smoke screen grenade of discordant and contradictory details): who had ordered to kill him? Who was the assassin that shot him? He died at noon, or in the evening, by which type of weapon? All is senseless since The Soldier had died. Unfound and cheap arguments to cover up the assassination, such as: General Nguyen Van Hieu committed suicide; or, General Hieu accidentally shot himself while cleaning his pistol?!!, cannot convince anybody, because he was a devoted catholic and he was a first class marksmanship. And, the entire military-civilian population was at the decisive moment of the Vietnam War with the fate of the country threatened by the minutes. Furthermore, that morning the Presidential Palace was bombed. We hold in our hand this fact with the following consequences: the Presidential Palace was bombed, President Thieu panicked in the thought a coup d’etat was triggered. He ordered the assessment of the locations of all high ranking officers in the entire four military regions and was reported by the intelligence agency of General Quang (Dang Van Quang, political advisor) everybody was at his usual location, except General Hieu who was at Go Dau Ha having a meeting with Brigadier General Tran Quang Khoi, III Corps Assault Task Force. President Thieu immediately suspected these two were fomenting a coup, because the fact General Minh (former III Corps Commander) had reported a coup plot in the past (June 1971), while these same two officers joint forces during the retreat of Snoul. The situation in April 1975 was much more critical with the ready plan (not just an vague intention) of Nguyen Cao Ky, using the Air Force, the Airborne, the Marine Corps and the Armor units which “only need to take control of the presidential palace, the joint general staff, the radio station and the television station in order to control the entire South Vietnam…” Ky did not hide this plan. He discussed it openly with generals and high ranking officers close to him like Le Nguyen Khang, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, Phan Phung Tien, etc… (and later even directly to President Huong) to the point the CIA Chief Station in Saigon (Eric Von Marbord) had to negate support (Olivier Todd; Cruel Avril Robert Lafont, Paris, 1978 pp 326-349). The President obviously knew it, therefore he “shredded the Airborne Division into pieces” without mercy (according to Le Quang Luong – narrated by Le Ba Chu in How Did Thieu Broke up the Airborne Division into Pieces? Tap Chi Hon Viet, CA, 1972). Furthermore, April was the month Thieu was obsessed by the death (after his father’s tomb in Ninh Chu Village, Phan Rang was destroyed by the military and civilian populace). The individual named Nguyen Van Thieu could not let his life terminated in the way that tragically happened to President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu in the hands of generals whom he knew too well their dark side in the plot in which he took part to take over the power and gain interest since 1963 until now. In order to preserve his life, Nguyen Van Thieu had to act first and Our Hero Nguyen Van Hieu had to die.
To back up this line of thoughts, I can advance concrete and objective elements that have been proven during the dark days of South Vietnam in April some thirty years ago. They were: If Major General Nguyen Van Hieu were not killed, it is certain after Nguyen Van Thieu stepped down as President, President Tran Van Huong would select Major General Nguyen Van Hieu to be Chief of Joint General Staff of the ARVN. This is not a hypothesis because the political front revealed a solution with France and Red China (principal members of 1954 Genera Accord) with members sympathizers of France such as former Prime Minister Tran Van Huu, of Red China such as the Chairman of South Vietnam Liberation Front Nguyen Huu Tho whom Red China introduced as The President of the Republic of South Vietnam to the people and the government of African nations all along the primary phase of Paris Agreement signed on January 27, 1973. This political solution did not please Hanoi nor the United States because the only political trend these two countries would want (or solve the situation in Vietnam around April 1975-pnn) was to collaborate with Moscow (Kissinger ibid p 542). And if Major General Nguyen Van Hieu was Chief of Joint General Staff, it was certain that the military situation would unfold in another direction, leading to a different political outcome. And individuals like Nguyen Van Thieu and Tran Thien Khiem would not be able to peacefully leave the country even if the American Embassy would have provided maximum security. Therefore, Nguyen Van Hieu was not allowed to survive.
To conclude, we can summarize the following elements: He was born in Tsiensin and grew up in Shanghai, living in a French Concession. When he came back to Vietnam (in 1949), he still spoke Vietnamese with a French accent; former student of Aurore University; after graduation at Dalat Military School, Lieutenant Nguyen Van Hieu worked at the office of Chief of Staff Tran Van Don (a graduate from a French Military School). And his father, Mr. Nguyen Van Huong was Director of Police and Security Bureau in the North before 1954. These elements certainly were not ignored by the French Embassy in Saigon with a high degree of interest. Major General Nguyen Van Hieu intervewed directly in Chinese businessmen implicated in the Military Pension Fund affair.
We belong to the next generation of the individuals in above-mentioned tragedy. We are not tainted by subjectivity, self interest as those implicated in power grabing and interest seeking in that tragedy. Nowadays with the age 60, after a long existence of thirty years, we certainly have learned the Meaning of life and death. Therefore, we do not write about our Hero with the intention of accusing or judging anybody. This right is reserved to History. We merely want to express our tribute to our Hero whose Death was closely linked with the Unfortunate Destiny of the Nation.
Phan Nhat Nam