Valiant General Nguyen Van Hieu

I did not know my brother was a Valiant General until I was startled by the eye-catching headline on the front cover page of issue # 541 of Van Nghe Tien Phong, a well-known magazine within the Vietnamese communities: "THE TRUTH ABOUT THE DEATH OF VALIANT GENERAL NGUYEN VAN HIEU", which contained my article with a low-key title:"My Brother, General Hieu." Somebody within the editing staff ought to be a veteran or a former war correspondent who had witnessed or heard about the Valiance of General Hieu.

I always knew that my brother was a competent general, having heard that from the public opinion and media, but I was never aware of his Valiant trait. As a matter of fact, in all our rare encounters in his home, in the Chi Hoa Officer Housing Complex or in the headquarters of the 5th Division in Binh Duong, then in Lai Khe, even at our last encounter in the headquarters of the 3rd Corps, I always saw him in his simple civilian outfit, consisting of a white shirt and a pair of dark colored trousers. His demeanor was always modest, his tone of voice always mild, nothing that would show his stature of a general, not to say his Valiant side. Furthermore, I witnessed his friendliness and unpretentiousness toward soldiers, always waiving away salutes when we passed by guards.

I was told that one night General Hieu wandered leisurely toward the soldiers quarters and approached a poker game site. One player, not knowing his commander was standing next to him in the dark, chased him away:"You! go play somewhere else. Since you showed up your face, I lost my luck." My brother quietly walked away! Once, after finishing lunch, I requested my brother to let me try the M-16 rifle, which was recently introduced to the ARVN soldiers. My brother instructed his aide-de-camp:"Would you please advise the firing range officer that we are coming for a shooting party?" In so saying he grabbed two M-16 rifles, told me to carry a metal box containing rounds of ammunition. Then the three of us jumped onto a jeep with my brother in the driving seat. The firing range field was deserted when we arrived. We took out our rifles and started shooting at the existing targets. After a while, the officer in charge of the firing field showed up. He ran up to meet my brother and stood still in salute. As usual, my brother dismissed him with a "No need to salute". With a sigh of relief, as if been spared of a imminent calamity, the officer went to the aide-de-camp, poked his ribs and reproached him for not giving advance notice so that he could dispatch a security squad for protection (at that time the Binh Duong area was not yet secured). The aide-de-camp responded: "Are you kidding? He gave out orders in the run!"

I only got a glimpse of my brother's Valiant side when I attended the wake of one of my students' father who died in the Snoul battle as the Executive Officer of the 8th Regiment belonging to the 5th Division under the command of my brother. While inside the viewing room, I heard that the Commanding General of the 5th Division was arriving, I stepped into the adjacent room, and from there I witnessed, for the first time, my brother in his combat fatigue. His appearance was really magnificent, and his gesture was precise and decisive. He looked really like a general.

Then, after I finished writing the article "My Brother, General Hieu", an article based on vague and limited reminiscence, I wanted to learn more about him. Progressively, I discovered that he was indeed a Valiant General.

First of all, I found many pictures of him as a General. Looking closely, I came to the realization that he possessed the appearance of a General more than any other General of the ARVN, including 4-star General Do Cao Tri and General Cao Van Vien: majestic, handsome, gentle, strong and healthy.

Then I learned, from feedbacks of people who had read my article, that my brother, in his leisure time, instead of enjoying himself in one of the four decadent vices (liquor, women, gambling and drugs use), plunged himself in activities that rendered a soldier strong and valiant: he practiced weight-lifting and physical exercises, he became a pistol champion, he learned to drive tanks, he learned to fly helicopter, he could even fly combat jet, he earned the right to wear both Vietnamese and American Paratroopers insignias (Vietnamese on his left chest, American on his right chest).

Then when I had the opportunity to dig into the gold mine of documents preserved by the American Advisors on General Hieu, rays of his glory which emanated from this treasure box blinded my eyes.

The only document related to the period my brother was Commanding General of 22nd Division that I was able to find was the 22nd Division - 1st Quarter 1969 Assessment realized by the American Advisors of the 2nd Army Corps. I quote:

The 22nd Division spent more time on combat operations than any other division in the country during the period.[...] The highest number of contacts per battalion in the Corps were made in this division, and the number of enemy KIA nearly tripled from the previous quarter.

The battle commanded by my brother as Commanding General of the 22dn Division that I first read, was the battle of Eagles Claw 800 narrated by Colonel Trinh Tieu, provided me with the first glimpse of his Valiant side. In that battle, General Hieu dismantled an entire Viet Cong Regiment of the renown NVA Yellow Star 3rd Division, while the US 1st Cavalry with a formidable tactical helicopters' firepower was not able to find the enemy for 3 days preceding the Vietnamese 22nd Division feat.

The battle of Eagle Claw 800 nested inside the operations Pershing performed by the US 1st Cavalry Division. General John Tolson, the Commanding General of this Division revealed that during the one year time frame of these operations Pershing, Colonel Hieu had launched over 29 joint operations between his 22nd Infantry Division and the US 1st Cavalry Division.

During the period my brother commanded the 22nd Division, from June 1966 to August 1969, he was promoted twice, from Colonel to Brigadier General, then from Brigadier General to Major General on November 1968, at the age of 39, because of his multiple military exploits. During that period, the abuse of military promotions based on partisanship did not yet exist. When General Thieu became President in 1968, he monopolized the right to promote Colonel to General. Afterwards, my brother was no more promoted and he saw with dismay others less competent than him bypass him to receive their 3 stars and become his superiors.

Three months after he took over the command of the 5th Division in August 1969, on November 20, 1969, the American Division Senior Advisor John Hayes, reported that General Hieu was a strong Commander. I quote:

Combat effectiveness of the 5th Infantry Division (ARVN) is improving. Since Major General Nguyen Van Hieu took command, the Division has initiated a program of carrying the war to the enemy. This initiative is a vital element which the Division has lacked. The employment of the Cavalry Regiment in an offensive role was a dramatic departure from their "Palace Guard" mission.

MG Hieu has evidenced that he is receptive and will react to meaningful suggestions. It cannot be overemphasized that he is a strong commander, and will only implement ideas which will definitely improve the combat effectiveness of the Division.

[...] With the assumption of command by MG Nguyen Van Hieu on 14 August 1969, 5th Division units are changing from a defensive to an offensive posture.

In the following trimester assessment, Colonel John Hayes reported to his superiors on 7/2/1970:

MG Nguyen Van Hieu, DOR 1-11-67, 20 years service. General Hieu is an above average commander. Good qualities include dedication, experience as a combat leader, ability to stimulate and maintain morale, and ability to control those in his command. He is quite religious and patriotic, and demands high standards of conduct and discipline. He is methodical but decisive. He is rated better than the average US Division commander in overall performance.

In 1969, General Hieu still fought with the Viet Cong this side of the Vietnamese-Cambodia borders in the Provinces of Binh Duong and Binh Long. Once in 1970, General Hieu forced the enemy to the other side of the borders and fought them entirely on that side, around the Fish Hook area and in the vicinity of Snoul north of Loc Ninh, through numerous operations named Total Victory (46, 1/B/5, 2/B/5, 3/B/5, 4/B/5, 5/B/5, 6/B/5, 7/B/5, 8/B/5, 9/B/5 and TT.02)

General Vinh Loc said that no ARVN General had the opportunity to put in action a whole division. He wrote:

The terrain and the location of our country in terms of search and destroy operations did not create an opportunity to deploy simultaneously all three Regiments and their support units. Looking back from the day the division was created to the day the Highlands was defeated, no Tactical Region had employed the entire division, that is all 3 Infantry Regiments, Artillery Battalion, Engineer Battalion, and Armored Cavalry Battalion, etc. Even if one wanted to, the environment did not allow the deployment of the whole division, not to mention the rarity of commanding officers who had been properly trained to conduct a Big Unit.(Letters to Our American Friend, page 71)

I don't know if General Vinh Loc was aware that General Hieu have had the opportunity to conduct a Big Unit in the operation Total Victory 8/B/5 or not? In this operation, General Hieu deployed, not only 3 Regiments, but 3 Task Forces, with the following listed units:

Task Force 1:

1/1st ACR
2/1st ACR
3/1st ACR
1/7th Battalion
4/7th Battalion
Demolition Sqd, 5th Engineer Battalion
POLWAR Platoon

Task Force 9:

Recon Company,9th Regiment
1/9th Battalion
2/9th Battalion
4/9th Battalion
74th Ranger Battalion
Company(-), 5th Engineer Battalion
Company, 30th Engineer Battalion
3A, 3C/50th Arty (Four 155mm tubes)
A/53th Arty (Six 105mm tubes)

Task Force 333:

3rd Ranger Recon Company
18th ACR
31th Ranger Battalion
34th Ranger Battalion
36th Ranger Battalion
52nd Ranger Battalion
Platoon, 30th Combat Engineer GP
C/61st Arty (Six 105mm tubes)
A/46th Arty (Six 155mm tubes)

Types of Tracked Vehicles of 1st ACR and 18th ACR: 30 M41A3 tanks; 62 M113 armored tracked vehicles; 8 M577A command post carriers; 7 M548 8-ton cargo carriers; 8 M125A mortar equipped tracked vehicles; 2 M132 self-propelled flamethrowers; 2 M578 light armored recovery vehicles; 1 XM706 convoy security light tank.

The rhythmic movement of these 3 Task Forces in their coordinated withdrawal was in itself a delight to the eyes.

Furthermore, General Do Cao Tri had created an opportunity for General Hieu to plan for a potential deployment of an Army Corps with 3 Divisions - the 5th, the 18th and the 25th - when he agreed to the concept of strategy intended to lure the enemy out of its sanctuary into a trap, conceived by General Hieu. General Hieu was entrusted the task of planning and execution of Operation Snoul TT02/71/5/B. Unfortunately, General Tri was killed in a helicopter accident one month into the operation. When the enemy started biting the bait, the American Advisors at the 3rd Corps interfered into the course of the operation, causing the spineless General Nguyen Van Minh to stagger, to hesitate, to waver. Not only did he allowed the enemy to elude the trap, but he almost jeopardized the bait. The pain-taking efforts of the inseparable tandem Tri-Hieu went up in smoke!(A General whom General Tri liked and respected ought to be a strong and valiant one).

Because he was a Valiant General, relishing in offensive posture and uneasy when forced into defensive posture, General Hieu excelled in using the tandem Infantry-Armored Cavalry, a formula that he employed in the battle of Eagles Claw 800. Let me quote again the comment of the American 5th Division Senior Advisor mentioned previously: "Since Major General Nguyen Van Hieu took command , the Division has initiated a program of carrying the war to the enemy. This initiative is a vital element which the Division has lacked. The employment of the Cavalry Regiment in an offensive role was a dramatic departure from their "Palace Guard" mission". In the Operation Orders, addressed to the Commander of Task Force 8 number 3685/BCH/HQ/S5/P3/M on 4 May 1971, General Hieu ordered to "apply the formula Infantry-Armored Cavalry in the planning of attacking enemy target on a favorable terrain".

When he attended the US Army Command and General Staff at Fort Leaven Worth, Kansas, he chose "Armor" as his major and succeeded in acquiring a "complete knowledge of the principles" taught in this subject class, especially the tandem Infantry-Armor formula, under the guidance of Major George E. Kimball, Armor. He then later applied so brilliantly with no match this not-that-easy-to-execute tandem formula in his battles. He even went so far as to learn how to drive all types of armored vehicles used in the Vietnam battlefields, in order to thoroughly understand the positive and negative details of each one of these vehicles.

Brigadier General Tran Quang Khoi wrote:

The 3rd Cavalry Brigade is the back bone unit and is the frame of the 3rd Corps Assault Task Force. This unit was established by General Do Cao Tri and I was entrusted with its organization, training and command from November 1970 to serve in the Kampuchea battlefield.
During the two years 1972-1973, I attended high command school abroad. General Nguyen Van Minh, Commanding General of 3rd Corps disbanded the 3rd Cavalry Brigade and dismissed the 3rd Corps Assault Task Force. When the An Loc, Binh Long battle raged, the 3rd Corps Cavalry unit was totally paralyzed.
When I returned to the country, General Pham Quoc Thuan replaced General Nguyen Van Minh and requested that I returned to the 3rd Cavalry Brigade. On 1 November 1973, I took over the Brigade and proposed to General Thuan to reorganize the 3rd Corps Assault Task Force, applying the same organizational model of General Do Cao Tri.

(KBC issue # 17, page 3)

I cannot resist from noticing the presence of General Hieu behind General Tri and General Thuan and his absence behind General Minh , which coincided with the respective establishment and the disbandment of the 3rd Corps Assault Task Force. I wrote in my article "My Brother, General Hieu": "My brother used to labor incognito behind the scene, and let the actors receive all the applause from the audience". General Tri took over the 3rd Corps in 1968; General Hieu came to the 5th Division/3rd Corps in August 1969, made full use of the offensive capability of the 1st Armored Cavalry Regiment with success within the 5th Division; General Tri then asked General Hieu to extend his concept to the whole 3rd Corps; and in November 1970 the Assault Task Force came into existence. (One can say that, before General Hieu joined the 3rd Corps, General Tri excelled in "Eagle's Plunge" tactic, using of helicopters for rapid troops surprised attacks, rather than the use of "round up" tactic, using the tandem infantry armor formula, which was General Hieu's unique combat style). General Minh discarded General Hieu, then disbanded the Assault Task Force, partly because it was the creation of General Hieu, and also partly because General Minh was not capable of handling such a difficult tandem formula. When General Thuan took over the 3rd Corps, he asked General Hieu to lend him a hand by giving him the position of Deputy Commander of the 3rd Corps and heeded to General Hieu's advice in reestablishing the Assault Task Force.

If Thieu did not prevent General Hieu from ascending, and if he did not surround himself with incompetent and corrupt generals, the military situation of Vietnam would not end shamefully for the ARVN. I always remember what General Tran Van Don told me in 1978:" If the ARVN had many Generals as capable as General Hieu, Vietnam would not have been lost." I am convinced that in the future, there will be a military historian who, after carefully reviewing General Hieu's military exploits, would not hesitate to put him up to the same level as Rommel of Germany, Montgomery of England, Patton of United States and Leclerc of France. All these famous Generals had a common trait: they excelled in the strategy of using the tandem Infantry-Armored Cavalry formula.

Nguyen Van Tin
(25 September 1998)

Updated on 03.17.2001