General Hieu, A Low-Key And Discreet General

General Hieu was a superb strategist as well as an accomplished tactician. And yet this fact remains unknown due to his low-key and discreet nature.

One Among Other Competent Generals

A reader of General Hieu's Homepage commented: " One can count ARVN competent Generals with fingers of one's hands. General Hieu was one of those Generals." (Huynh Van Chau, #66). Another one wrote: " The ARVN possessed many competent officers from regimental level and down, but from divisional level and up many generals did not have leadership ability. In order to command a division and a corps, one must be good in terms of general staff, strategy in troops deployment. Many generals only knew to ram like a buffalo, and were weak in general staff (for instance operation Lam Son 719, the retreat of the 2nd Corps). I greatly admire general Hieu's competence and virtue, one who had the ability to command and maneuver troops at divisional level and up." (Pham Khiet, #54)

The majority of ARVN high-ranking officers, prior to being promoted to the rank of General, had been sent to the United States to attend the U.S. Army College of High Command and General Staff. And yet one has to wonder why General Vinh Loc made the following statement when he discoursed about the command of a division: "Even if one wanted to, one did not have the spatial environment to deploy an entire division, not to mention the scarcity of commanding officers who had been properly trained in the command of a Big Unit." (Letters to our American Friend, page 71). General Hieu graduated from the College of High Command and General Staff in June 1963 with the following comment: "Major Hieu established an excellent academic record, demonstrating complete knowledge of the principles taught at this College."

General Hieu had demonstrated his warrior abilities in the many military exploits posted on this Home Page, although they are not in great numbers because of limited amount of archival sources that stored Vietnam War documents due to the loss of our country: Do Xa, Pleime, Eagles Claw 800, Total Victory 46, Total Victory 8/B/5, Snoul, Svay Rieng.

The Most Competent General

Tran Hoai Thu wrote: "Just yesterday, I and my former company commander (405th Recon Company, 22nd Division) spoke on the phone, I asked his opinion about a General that he most admired. He answered without hesitation: General Hieu." (Readers' Comments, #12) Another reader remarked: "It sounds as if he was one of the best." (Glen Scarborough, #103)

One American General confided: "Only General Hieu was able to command troops at Corps level, the other Generals only up to divisional level."

Colonel Le Khac Ly, who had served as 22nd Division Chief of Staff under Commanding General Hieu, and who had been one of the most competent Chief of Staff officers in the ARVN, declared: "I admire the most two Generals: one is General Do Cao Tri, the second is General Hieu."

One thing is certain: be it enemy or friend, be it American or Vietnamese mass media, be it military professional or civilian public, everyone agrees that General Do Cao Tri was the best tactician. And yet General Tri seemed to admire General Hieu the most.

The two became close friends since 1955, when Lieutenant Colonel Do Cao Tri received the order from then Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, who acted under the advice of Nguyen Van Huong, former Director of the Northern Police and Security and General Hieu's father, to bring Paratroopers from Nha Trang into Saigon to crush the Binh Xuyen rebels who were holding the Bureau of Southern Police and Security. At that time, Captain Hieu was serving with the G3 General Staff of the Joint General Staff in Cho Quan. Afterwards, both followed General Tran Van Don to the 1st Corps in Da Nang. It was Colonel Tri who was deeply aware of Major Hieu's military abilities and who foresaw Major Hieu's military leadership potentials and recommended Major Hieu to attend the high command training given at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Leavenworth, Kansas. Upon Major Hieu's graduation from this College in June 1963, General Tri, who was then 1st Division Commanding General, concurrently holding the command of the 1st Corps in replacement of General Le Van Nghiem, promoted Major Hieu to Lieutenant Colonel and entrusted him with the position of 1st Division Chief of Staff. After the coup that toppled President Ngo Dinh Diem, General Tri assigned Colonel Hieu 1st Corps Chief of Staff. When General Tri swapped the 2nd Corps command with General Nguyen Khanh, he brought Colonel Chief of Staff Hieu along with him to Pleiku. As soon as they set foot down at Pleiku, the two of them joined efforts into attacking Do Xa, the very heart of Viet Cong sanctuaries, an area adjacent to Kontum, Quang Tin and Quang Ngai provinces. Following the 09/13/1964 coup instigated by General Duong Van Duc, General Do Cao Tri was discarded by General Khanh and was forced to accept the post of ambassadorship to South Korea. A few days before that, on 09/07/1964, General Tri appointed Colonel Hieu 22nd Division Commander. Not long after General Nguyen Huu Co had taken over the command of the 2nd Corps, he relieved Colonel Hieu of the 22nd Division Command and placed him back to the position of 2nd Corps Chief of Staff on 10/24/1964.

During General Tri's exile period, Colonel Hieu had the opportunities to demonstrate his abilities as a strategist in the rescue operation of Special Forces Camp Pleime, and broke the backbone of General Vo Nguyen Giap's Dong Xuan (Winter Spring) Campaign, whose intention was to slice Vietnam into two pieces from Pleiku up in the Highlands to Qui Nhon down in the coastal areas in 1965-1966. General Hieu also had the opportunities to hone his tactical abilities at the command of the 22nd Division during the years of 1966-1969, resulting in the 22nd Division to be listed as the best fighting division in the 1969 evaluation report.

In June 1968, when General Tri was called upon by President Thieu to take over the command of the 3rd Corps in replacement of General Le Nguyen Khang with the mission of revamping its fighting forces, General Tri immediately thought of bringing in General Hieu to assist him in that task, not in the capacity of a strategist with the general staff though, but in the capacity of a tactician with the command of the 5th Division. However, he was stopped by President Thieu. It was not until August 1969 that he succeeded in overcoming President Thieu's resistance in replacing General Pham Quoc Thuan with General Hieu as 5th Division Commander. Colonel Nguyen Khuyen, Chief of 3rd Corps Military Security remarked: "When General Tri took over the command of the 3rd Corps, coincidentally all three 3rd Corps divisional Commanding Generals were 3rd Class/VNMA graduates. Major General Nguyen Xuan Thinh held the 25th Division Command, Major General Hieu, the 5th Division and Major General Lam Quang Tho, the 18th Division. Among these three Commanding Generals, General Tri appeared to value General Hieu the most because General Hieu was his former Chief of Staff at the 1st and the 2nd Corps in 1963. The period when General Tri was at the helm of the 3rd Corps was the most trying times for the NVA 5th, 7th and 9th Divisions. General Tri had switched from a defense posture to an attack posture, pushing troops of the Viet Cong Liberation Front back into the other side of the borders. Duong Minh Chau and Ho Bo, military areas under the control of the Viet Cong, were literally bulldozed , denying safe sanctuaries to the Viet Cong Central Command."

Just like the old days in Da Nang and in Pleiku, now in Bien Hoa, General Tri was very much attuned with General Hieu. General Hieu continued to be General Tri's brain, complementing General Tri's aggressiveness. In all matters, be it of strategy or tactic nature, General Tri always consulted with General Hieu. General Tri had acted on General Hieu's advice when he switched from using "Eagles Plunge" tactic to using "round up" tactic with the Tandem Infantry Armor Formula. Consequently, General Tri expanded the potential of the 3rd Corps Armored Brigade into the 3rd Corps Assault Task Force, mirroring the model which had been successfully applied by General Hieu in expanding the potential of an Armored Squadron into a Task Force at the 5th Division. The common characteristic of both General Tri and General Hieu was not to sit tight and wait, but rather to take the initiative and to always attack at the heart of enemy headquarters.

In the beginning of 1971, when President Thieu wanted to send General Tri to replace General Hoang Xuan Lam as Commanding General of Lam Son 719 operation, in order to rescue the deteriorating situation of that cross-border into Lower Laos operation, General Tri expressed to President Thieu his wish to have General Hieu replace him at the 3rd Corps Command. But then while his wish was still up in the air, he died in a helicopter accident.

General Thieu was well aware of General Hieu's competence, that was why he made use of General Hieu's strategy abilities in retaining him at the position of 3rd Corps Deputy Commander to the last end, but was afraid to put troops into General Hieu's hand by giving him the command of the 3rd Corps.

A Self-Effacing General

General Hieu was that competent, and yet he remained unknown, unnoticed and rarely mentioned. He graduated 3rd Class/VNMA with the highest scores, but he was officially ranked second for political reason. He was of the same class as Generals Hoang Xuan Lam, Nguyen Xuan Thinh, Lam Quang Thi, Lam Quang Tho, Nguyen Van Toan, Lu Mong Lan, Bui Dzinh, Ly Ba Hy, Nguyen Ngoc Oanh. He was elder to Generals Nguyen Van Minh (4th Class), Nguyen Viet Thanh, Pham Quoc Thuan, Du Quoc Dong, Nguyen Vinh Nghi (5th Class), Ly Tong Ba, Tran Quang Khoi, Tran Dinh Tho (6th Class), Tran Van Hai (7th Class), Pham Van Phu (8th Class), Le Minh Dao, Tran Van Nhut (10th Class), and some other Generals who had graduated from the Thu Duc (reserved officers) Military Academy: Nguyen Khoa Nam (3rd Class), Ngo Quang Truong, Bui The Lan, Le Quang Luong (4th Class), Le Van Hung (5th Class). And yet these Generals' names were more frequently mentioned by the press than General Hieu's name.

Colonel Raymond Battreall, Armor, U.S. Army (retired), served three years and a half in the Vietnam war, and was Senior Advisor of ARVN Armor Training School in 1965-1966 and 1970-1972 at Thu Duc, nearby Lai Khe, Binh Duong, where General Hieu was stationing, at the 5th Division headquarters. He used to advise divisional commanders in the creation of Armor Squadrons at the divisional level. He knew Generals Do Cao Tri, Nguyen Van Toan and Tran Quang Khoi. He found General Hieu's biography fascinating. And yet he did not meet with General Hieu. He "cannot imagine" why so.

This phenomenon can only be explained by attributing it to General Hieu's low-key and discreet nature. General Hieu was so good in the use of Tandem Infantry Armor Formula and yet the Senior Advisor of ARVN Armor, Colonel Battreall failed to meet with him simply because General Hieu always stood quietly in the background and always delegated the public relation task to his staff.

Colonel Le Khac Ly said that the American Senior Advisor at the 22nd Divisions used to complain that although Commanding General Hieu always listened attentively to what he had to say, but then General Hieu would always conclude the meeting with the following sentence: "Thank you Colonel, let me consult with my General Staff first, and I will get back to you with my opinion and decision afterwards."

In the Eagles Claw 800 operation, General John Norton, the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division Commanding General, burst in General Hieu's headquarters office and pressured him to change the course of the preplanned American-Korean-Vietnamese combined operation. General Hieu calmly had Major Trinh Tieu, his G2 Intelligence Chief, come in to brief General John Norton on enemy presence in the operational areas, then politely but firmly concluded that it was better to stick to the initial joint operational plan. Then when the 22nd Division was able to inflict a resounding defeat to the enemy, General Norton flew onto the battleground and went straight to Major Trinh Tieu to shake his hand and to congratulate him on a job well done, then turned to General Hieu and admonished: "In order to win a battle, one must have accurate intelligence." As usual, General Hieu modestly smiled back and acknowledged the admonition with an obedient nod.

It was because of this low-key and discreet trait that General Hieu's credits from his contribution in various major battle victories were attributed by the mass media to other Commanding Generals: General Do Cao Tri re: Do Xa operation and cross-border into Cambodia operations; General Vinh Loc re: Pleime operation; Pham Quoc Thuan re: An Dien and Svay Rieng operations, for instance.

Let me advance a fact that illustrates how General Hieu's low-key and discreet nature had the effect of making his presence become unnoticed by people around him. After he was relieved of the 5th Division Command on June 9, 1971, he was transferred to Da Nang and assigned to the 1st Corps as its Deputy Commander, under Commanding General Hoang Xuan Lam. He held this position until January 1972 when went back to Saigon to assume the position of Vice President Tran Van Huong's Special Assistant in charge of Anti-Corruption. Therefore, General Hieu had held the position of 1st Corps Deputy Commander for 08 months, from June 1971 to January 1972. And yet, when I inquired , from June 1998 to March 1999, about this period of General Hieu's military career, nobody - literally nobody: Captains, Majors, Colonels, Generals - recalled him ever holding that position in Danang. Even General Hoang Xuan Lam, the 1st Corps Commanding General, when asked by Colonel Ta Thanh Long in a meeting on February 1, 1999, did not recall General Hieu being his assistant in Danang. Two months later, in a letter dated March 1, 1999, General Lam apologized for having misled Colonel Long and recalled: "Major General Hieu did come to Danang to be my assistant in the position of 1st Corps Deputy Commander for a brief period". So, General Hieu, where were you hiding all these 08 "brief period" months?! (this photo shows General Hieu with his father, Mr. Phan Huy Quat, M.D. and Mr. Tran Nhu Thuan; they came from Saigon to Danang to visit the 1st Corps Deputy Commander).

General Hieu was so discreet to the point his wife and children knew very little about his military career. Not only did they not know about his military exploits, they did not even know if he had been awarded of any medals!

A Self-Confident And Self-Content Individual

Those close to General Hieu always found him friendly, humble and jovial. General Nguyen Van Toan wrote: "We were not very close friends but like all other 3rd Class cadets, we all cherished Hieu, because of his friendliness and humility, although he possessed a high educational background." General Hoang Xuan Lam wrote: "He was poised, direct and pleasant. All of us Tran Hung Dao Class cadets loved Major General Hieu and retained fond memories of him from our annual class reunion and military review briefing encounters.[...] We are extremely proud for having a friend as straightforward and as majestic as Major General Nguyen Van Hieu." Colonel Phan Huy Luong, 3rd Corps Operations Deputy Chief of Staff, who used to have meals with General Hieu at the Officers' Canteen said: "I took delight in conversing at length with General Hieu. He was not like other Generals. He was more of a literary-like type than a soldier-like type."

General Hieu expressed himself more through his eyes than his mouth. Nobody had ever witnessed General Hieu raise his voice to chastise or to show his power. One time a letter of complaint addressed to the 2nd Corps Commanding General, in reference to the disruptive behavior of a group of undisciplined Rangers, reached the desk of the Colonel Chief of Staff. Colonel Hieu had the Rangers Commander come in his office: "So, Captain, what did our soldiers do which caused people to voice their complaint? Would you please help me in resolving this matter?" Our Ranger Captain responded: "Yes, Sir." Colonel Hieu ended the meeting at this point. It was that simple.

General Hieu's personality exuded an aura of peaceful self-confidence in his personal abilities and self-contentment in his personal accomplishments, and thus he did not feel the thirst for external glories and approvals. His attitude was to quietly accomplish his duty for the benefit of all while remaining indifferent toward personal gains and gratification.


Nguyen Van Tin
17 September 1999.

Updated on 09/16/2002

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