Two Fighting Generals
Generals Do Cao Tri and Nguyen Viet Thanh

Great generals lead great armies, or so it has seemed throughout history. In Vietnam neither the fledgling ARVN nor its often corrupt and highly politicized leadership appeared destined for greatness. Yet to succeed in building an army capable of withstanding the North Vietnamese, ARVN needed generals able to inspire war-weary troops, leaders who could somehow stretch their own personalities to help fill the gaps left by the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

When MACV issued a "report card" on Vietnamese division commanders in early 1970, many of the ARVN generals received failing grades. Quoting anonymous U.S. senior advisers, the report minced no words in its descriptions. A few of the evaluations read, "coward," "super defensive," "weak," "the Vietnamese generals... hate his guts,", and "domineering-scares his commanders." Paradoxically, an effective and popular general with loyal troops often came to be considered a political threat in a country that had experienced more than its share of military coups. "This is a country that won't allow anyone to remain a hero very long," an American observer in Saigon explained. "But they sure could use one."

For a time, ARVN got its hero; in fact two outstanding fighting (as opposed to political) generals emerged from the packs of mediocre officers to take command of III and IV Corps shortly after the 1968 Tet offensive. Both young, confident, and aggressive, Lieutenant General Do Cao Tri and Major General Nguyen Viet Thanh proved themselves capable military strategists and inspiring leaders.

In the post-Tet shakedown of the ARVN officer corps- part anticorruption campaign, part political maneuver by President Thieu to remove officers loyal to Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky- Generals Tri and Thanh received command of the two densely populated and politically sensitive southern corps tactical zones. They faced daunting problems. Though rated best of the three divisions in IV Corps, the 7th Division, from which General Thanh was promoted, was unable to shake the reputation it had picked up as the "Search and Avoid Division." The other IV Corps divisions, the 9th and the 21st performed no better.

Despite the 7th's lackluster record, Thanh had earned high praise from General William C. Westmoreland as the best ARVN division commander. Westmoreland and senior U.S. advisers had high hopes for him, but they feared that obvious American "sponsorship" might taint Thanh in the eyes of political and military leaders in Saigon. Fortunately, President Thieu not only recognized Thanh's dynamic leadership, but he also appreciated his lack of political ambition and so backed the general wholeheartedly.

Thanh commanded the loyalty of his troops, and during the Tet offensive Thanh's popularity nearly cost him his life. In an attempt to exploit the 7th Division's devotion to its commanding general, Vietcong troops took Thanh and his family prisoner, hoping to induce the demoralized troops to defect. But their ploy failed, and, curiously, Thanh was released unharmed.

General Thanh's senior IV Corps adviser in 1968 and 1969, Major General George S. Eckhardt, recounted another tale of Thanh's popularity. On one occasion the two generals flew to My Tho, Thanh's former divisional headquarters, in search of a quiet lunch. But when word of their arrival got out, townspeople crowded into the restaurant to welcome their former commander. For forty-five minutes Gen. Thanh bowed and shook hands with the stream of well-wishers; most South Vietnamese senior officers never fraternized with their peasant soldiers or with the rural population.

In III Corps Tactical Zone to the north, Gen. Do Cao Tri struggled to work his corps' ragged divisions, the 5th, 18th, and 25th, into shape. One U.S. general dismissed the 5th Division as "absolutely the worst outfit I've ever seen," And the 25th Division had the ignominious distinction of being considered by one adviser "the worst division in any army anywhere."

Gen. Tri had the personality to achieve the near-impossible. Having survived three assassination attempts, a mid-1960s exile at the instigation of Nguyen Cao Ky, and a barrage of corruption charges, Tri thrived on adversity. Not one to be deterred by Saigon's displeasure, Tri spent months trying to replace two incompetent division commanders, who were favorites of Thieu's. He succeeded. Tri promised to have his three infantry divisions in fighting trim by the end of 1970.

The two generals and their infantry divisions face their greatest challenge with the Cambodian incursion of May 1970. President Thieu awarded Gen. Tri command of the ARVN operation to clean out enemy bases in the Parot's Beak and appointed Gen. Thanh to lead four infantry-armor task forces from IV Corps on a sweep north to link up with Gen. Tri's troops. The infantry units selected for the two operations were mustered in part from the improved 5th, 25th, and 9th Divisions.

On the first day of his troops' operation, Thanh flew to the battlefield as usual, knowing that his presence insured a disciplined and speedy advance. Ten miles inside Cambodia, his helicopter collided in midair with a U.S. Cobra. No survivors escaped the fiery crash. Thanh's death cast a pall over operation. As if to repay his dedication to them, Thanh's troops performed with an unexpected aggressiveness in Cambodia.

As reports of ARVN success reached Saigon, Thanh's death was overshadowed by the exploits of Tri, who catapulted to the status of national hero. Hard work and careful planning were as much a part of his accomplishment as his inspiring presence on the battlefield. Tri achieved effective results with his use of armor. A sound tactician, he was not satisfied unless he personally directed the battle. More than one hesitant tank commander found the excited three-star general in camouflage jungle suit, baseball cap, and sunglasses dashing through machine-gun fire, shouting "Go fast, man! Go fast." For men starved for leadership, the assurance that Tri's helicopter might set down whenever they were in trouble or stalled worked marvel with their morale. "Tri was a tiger in combat, South Vietnam's George Patton", Gen. Westmoreland later wrote in admiration.

His flamboyant style of command, however, irritated many of his fellow ARVN generals. They cited Tri's actions during the battle for the Chup rubber plantation in Cambodia - Tri had nonchalantly taken a dip in the plantation pool in the midst of the fierce fighting - as evidence that Tri cared more for his own heroics than for sound military judgment. His extravagant lifestyle and growing wealth fueled jealousies and raised suspicions in Saigon. Called "flagrantly corrupt" by two South Vietnamese senators, Tri was accused of being a partner in a money-smuggling ring even as Saigon still buzzed with news of his victories in Cambodia.

Despite controversy over his private life, Tri's renown as South Vietnam's best field commander continued to grow after the Cambodian incursion. Under his direction, ARVN troops repeatedly performed well in their cross-border raids into Cambodia. When the ARVN incursion into enemy strongholds in Laos in 1971 began to flounder, President Thieu turned to Tri. Calling him to Saigon, Thieu ordered him to assume command of the Laotian operation. His new orders in hand, Tri boarded his helicopter. Shortly after leaving Bien Hoa, his helicopter lost power and plummeted to the ground, killing Tri and the other passengers.

"When the ARVN troops were well led they fought as well as anyone's soldiers," recalled Brigadier General George Wear. "They simply needed commanders who would support them properly and who could win their confidence and make them believe that their cause was worth risking their lives for." Generals Tri and Thanh had been two such commanders.

David Fulghum, Terrence Mailand
South Vietnam on Trial - The Vietnam Experience.
Boston Publishing Company

ARVN Generals
generalhieu.com