(The reader is cautioned that this article is taken from a Viet Cong's propaganda media. Tin Nguyen)
At the Centre for Reeducation of puppet Army Generals, there was a thick-set 55 -year-old inmate whose rosy complexion testified to a well preserved youthfulness. He was Tran Van Chon, former chief of the Saigon Admiralty, who distinguished himself from his fellows by taking his meals alone, pretending to have been following a special diet for five years, in conformity with Buddha's teachings. He said he was very keen on reading the Book of Prayers and other sacred Buddhist scripts which would "turn his mind toward the sublime", to "find a heaven for his soul". However, puppet officers from the other armed services joked: "Well, man, a whole life in a monastery wouldn't be enough to make up for all your misdeeds in the Navy."
The Saigon Navy had provided limitless possibilities of getting rich in record time. Admirals and rear-admirals such as Tran Van Chon, Chung Tan Cang, Lam Nguon Tanh anh others - the Admiralty counted nine in all - were without exception multi-millionaires, in terms, that is, of US dollars. They had made fortunes "at the speed of American torpedoes," to use their own picturesque language.
When Tran Van Chon began his career, the puppet Navy was under French command and had only eight gunboats. Twenty-three years later, it commanded a fleet of 1,500 ships, 100 of which were ocean-going vessels. The growth of the Saigon fleet entailed a prodigious boost of the fortunes of naval officers. In contrast to the army top brass who found themselves confined each to a given area, they could extend their field of action to all the coasts of the South and even to foreign countries.
Their fortunes were given an enormous boost when the US began naval deliveries within the framework of the "Vietnamization" of the war. Trips to Guam, the Philippines, Okinawa, Hong Kong, even to Washington or New York for the reception of US ships, periods of probation on board US ships or at US Navy yards, could last one or two days, a month, sometimes up to three months, and even half a year. These were excellent opportunities for high-ranking officers to go on sprees and to indulge in speculation in foreign exchange, gold and drugs. They would return from these trips with their pockets stuffed with dollars. As Chon himself avowed, US deliveries included many old ships of World War Two vintage which had seen at least 30 years of service. They often had to be repaired, which of course gave added business to naval officers.
The traffic in drugs was rousing US public opinion. They were smuggled into the USA precisely through the medium of these formal missions of the Admiralty.
Sold by Thai smugglers from "trawlers" to Saigon Navy ships, or supplied from southern Laos to Saigon gunboats going up the Mekong on Cambodian territory, drugs coming from the Golden Triangle (Burma-Thailand-Laos) travelled quietly toward Marseilles, Hong Kong or New York after going through Bangkok, Vientiane, Phnom Penh, Pakse, Savannakhet, Rach Soi, etc. This famous route, organized and sponsored by Thieu and his Security Adviser Dang Van Quang, outstripped by far the smuggling by air practiced by Nguyen Cao Ky. Its yearly profits reached a hundred million dollars. Thieu made a wise move when he entrusted this important business to his admirals: Chung Tan Cang, his trusted agent who had profited from the relief aid organized on the occasion of the floods of 1965 to rob the victims of the aid due to them; Lam Nguon Tanh, his old classmate at the Navy School, a dark horse whose contraband activities dated back to the time when he commanded the Rach Soi-Tan Chau-Long Xuyen river base; and Tran Van Chon, who had been one of Thieu's gang during his secret extramarital debaucheries at Vung Tau.
One of the big scandals of the late Thieu regime revealed that the drug traffickers were the very same persons as were supposed to be suppressing drug traffic. Thus Chung Tan Cang, while he was chief admiral, was placed in the job of President of the National Anti-Drug Committee, and Rear-Admiral Lam Nguon Tanh became President of the Naval section of that committee. They both were confederates of Nguyen Van Thieu. To entrust them with suppressing the drug traffic simply amounted to guaranteeing absolute security to their nefarious undertakings.
As has been disclosed by other puppet generals, the Navy served less in actual combat than in the performance of extra-military missions of this kind. The ships were constantly on the move, carrying goods for admirals' wives, or hiring their services to traders from one area to another. The transport of rice for speculators in Cholon alone brought them dozens of millions of former Saigon piastres yearly.
This advantage naturally aroused a degree of jealousy in the other armed services. Navy brass had "a longer life expectancy", fewer pressures meanwhile enriching themselves scandalously. The sea was considered an absolutely safe hunting ground and the river regions were rewarding. If they saw a thriving village during a patrol, they had only to sound the alarm, pretend an imaginary enemy, fire at random, then plunder the village and make off, loaded with what booty they desired - cattle, pigs and poultry, motorcycles, jewels, gold, money, etc. These areas could be chosen beforehand, and pinpointed on the map even though they might be well known as completely free from "Viet Cong". As for those areas held by the NLF, these pirates would open up indiscriminate rolling fire, without bothering about setting a target and without taking the trouble to set foot ashore.
Each sector, each military port was the "game reserve" of some big shot: under the pretext of "State security", or "military secrecy", it was forbidden to hang around the dock areas. In reality, they were no more than dumps of fraudulently imported goods. The more the products were prohibited, the more they abounded in these dumps. It was common practice for Thieus or the Khiems, when in need of spirits of any special brand to fete their guests, to get themselves, supplied through the channel of the Admiralty.
The admirals, associating themselves, with traders, established fishing monopolies in certain areas, and rights on the processing and salting of sea food to feed the home or foreign markets. The most docile sailors were assigned to work in these establishments. Where they were not docile enough, they were immediately sent to the front for a period of combat, the length depending on the seriousness of the case. As the Navy was rarely engaged in combat, these recalcitrants were mostly assigned to paratroop, commando or marine units. Of all punishment, the sailors feared this the most.
These special advantages of the Navy prompted Tran Van Chon to make his three sons - all of them naval officers, including a lieutenant-commander of a cruiser - take up their father's career.
The admirals however, were not entirely pleased with the conditions of their fleet, which the US advisers rated fourth in the world. They did all they possibly could to get delivery of vessels of great tonnage, to increase their fortunes. The collapse of the Saigon regime ended this dream for good.
Province Chiefs - Mailed Fists in Velvet Gloves
Recalling the days when he was chief of Phuoc Vinh province, Aspirant General Ho Trung Hau related:
"I was assigned to Phuoc Vinh on September 18, 1961, at a time when the State policy of "strategic hamlets" became widespread. On the initiative of I don't know whom, Thuong Long, Tan Tich and Dat Quoc townships were razed to the ground by the 8th Regiment of the 5th Division, and their inhabitants, nearly 2,000 women, children and old folk, were brought by truckloads to Phuoc Vinh. I put them in the strategic hamlet of Vinh Hoa, the construction of which had just been completed. But they deserted. I had to catch them and use rough handling to keep them from fleeing away.
"My function was to ensure the protection of existing agricultural settlements and opening new ones. The groups of scattered houses were moved to around Phuoc Vinh. For the defence of the provincial capital, I ordered bulldozers to raze neighouring forests and set up an airfield north of the town. The 5th Division scoured the area, but without significant results. So we had to conduct continual operations.
"Substantial advantages made up for the hard work inherent in the charge of a province. So people had to pay for this post, from 500,000 to one million, or even two million former Saigon piastres, depending on conditions and the importance of the province."
Le Van Tu, another Aspirant General, was successively Chief of Phong Dinh, Hau Nghia, Go Cong and Long An provinces. In his view, "the advantages of a province chief far surpassed those of a regiment or even division commander, for he had a whole area under his control."
He explained, like his former confederates: "The province chief combined all the functions of military sector commander. He controlled all the administrative and military affairs. He was a veritable lord vested with power, including that of issuing decrees applicable in the province under his jurisdiction. He took advantage of this to hold the population to ransom.
"He decided the provincial budget; and proposed the amount of US military and civilian aid for the province. He received plenty of materials for the construction of strategic hamlets and military installations. He could misappropriate them to build his own villas, or even to sell them to entrepreneurs. No control was possible because of the state of war.
"Unlike a military unit commander, he led a sedentary life of comfort. Almost all of them lived in the old palaces of French administrators, fitted up with materials and modern gadgets supplied by the Americans. Some of those palaces even had swimming pools and deer-parks. At the time when Vinh Loc was governing the Central Highlands, he arranged his offices and his residence on the pattern of royal courts. Now and then he would parade on the back of a richly harnessed elephant.
"Unit commanders could of course make money by means of false statements of effectives: dead and deserters figured on the payroll after disappearance. But the regular units had to replace their losses each time they returned from an operation and to proceed to a check-up of effectives, so the cheating could not go on indefinitely. On the other hand, province chief had a thousand ways of hiding the truth about the effectives. First of all, men killed separately in the course of a raid were never put on the casualty list. The longer they were reported as living, the greater became credit to the administrator and the higher the officer was rated. Secondly, the province chief bestowed his favours on the richer military men, allowing them to live at home and only to report when called upon to do so. Aside from substantial bribes, the province chief pocketed the soldiers' pay when they were absent. Lastly, each time soldiers of the regional forces were sent to replenish the regular units, sons of rich families were invariably singled out. As these lads dreaded going to the front they would pay up huge sums to the province chief to obtain exemption.
"Besides this, the province chief signed trading permits, entry or exit visas for goods, delivered licenses for the opening of shops, restaurants, brothels, gambling dens and other enterprises. To bribes were added payments for benefits received. If the sums offered were considered insufficient, the province chief could "close down" the business and later hand it over to some other, more compliant person. Above all, he reserved for his wife the most lucrative deals.
"The province chief could arrest people, throw them into jail, beat them up and put them to torture, as he pleased. It sufficed for a man to be suspected of being a Viet Cong for all kinds of misfortunes to fall on his family. All he could do then was to tip the province chief, so as to get out of trouble."
"Puppet army generals finally came to the following conclusion: the district was too low a level for really big deals; the military regions, though very enviable, were too much competed for and as there were only four of them, they quarreled continually. On the other hand, the intermediary level, the province, brought in a good deal. Many generals made fortunes as province chiefs. The only problem was that their power was in proportion to the amount of tips they paid each month to the commander of the military region, and to Thieu himself.
The zeal shown by General Le Van Tu in all the four provinces where he had operated, manifesting itself in repeated raids, building of strategic hamlets, his herding of the population, his conspicuous presence at the hottest spots in military campaigns, the long-term, accelerated and supplementary "pacification" efforts, failed to save him from setbacks in his career, due to the inadequacy of the tips he gave to his superiors. In 1962, Tu was sacked as chief of Phong Dinh province when he was in the thriving city of Can Tho. In 1965, he was again dismissed as chief of Hau Nghia province. He was later promoted to the rank of aspirant general only to end up in jail on charges of "corruption, breach of trust, misappropriation of fuel, and the falsification of papers of ghost effectives."
Vietnam Courier #51 (August 1976)