My Brother, General Hieu

My brother and I were not very close to each other: partly because of a 13-year age gap, partly because of our divergent professions (he chose to be a soldier stationed in a remote front-line post, I preferred teaching kids in populated cities). However, due to our brotherhood relationship, I possess memories and experiences about my brother that others are not aware of. Here, I wish to share those personal experiences with the readers, especially those readers who have heard of and held General Hieu in high esteem.

His Youth.

My brother was born in Tientsin, China and grew up in Shanghai, in the French concession. That was why he received a multi ethnic and multi-cultural education and came to be quite a polyglot. He was especially fluent in English, French, German and Mandarin. My father told me that he rarely saw my brother study at home as a kid, which did not prevent him from always ranking first of his class, just like that. My father also said that my brother was born with a photographic memory: he won't ever forget what he saw even only once. My brother graduated high school at Le Collège Français with the Baccalauréat Français en Mathématiques (French High School Diploma in Mathematics).

When the Chinese Communists took over Shanghai in 1949, our family repatriated on a French destroyer sailing from Shanghai to Saigon, South Vietnam. That year, my brother was in his first college year, majoring in technology at Aurore University run by the French Jesuits.

After a couple of months living in Saigon, our family moved up to Hanoi, North Vietnam, where our father was assigned to the position of Deputy Director of Northern Vietnam Police and Security. In the first few months living in Hanoi, my brother gave private English tutoring lessons to some youngsters whose ambition was to go to the United States for college education. Although there was a freeze in abroad traveling due to the enactment of a general mobilization law, my father dared to issue passports to some catholic religious and to many youngsters, including males, wanting to go to the United States. My brother could have easily joined those students. However, he chose to stay and serve the country as a soldier.

While awaiting to enter the military academy, my brother oftentimes took me and some of my kid friends canoeing in Ho Tay and Ho Ha-Le. I remember, still vividly, one time, there were only my brother and I, ... plus a charming young girl! My brother and she paddled bicycles in tandem along a dirt road, bordered with green bamboos, without uttering a word. To this young couple, the scenery couldn't be more romantic at that moment in time! As for me, I sat quietly behind my brother's saddle. All of a sudden, he bent backward down and whispered into my ear:"why don't you jump over to the other bicycle?" I slipped down out of the saddle, quietly tiptoed toward the other bicycle and hopped onto it from behind, startling our charming young girl who temporarily lost balance, however after a few wavering attempts succeeded in steadying her vehicle. She then uttered:"You, devil!" with an obviously amused tone of voice that indicated her approval of the concerted action of the two of us! I didn't know I played the role of a chaperone at that time!

In 1950, my brother went up to Dalat to enter the Vietnamese Military Academy, still run by French officers. My father, after returning from attending the graduation ceremony of my brother, told me:"A French instructor said that your brother graduated with the highest grade of his class, but was not designated as its valedictorian because this honor was reserved to a graduate of Center Vietnam origin, same as His Majesty Bao Dai who was presented at the ceremony." Not long after his graduation, my brother was struck by tuberculosis and had to be admitted into Lanessan Hospital. Fortunately for him, Doctor Pasteur had just found a cure for this deathly disease which had killed my mother and my eldest brother a few years ago in China. I still remember he was allowed to recuperate at home for a long period. During that time, I often heard melodious sounds of his violin emanated from his room, and I also often entered his room to have him teach me to pluck guitar. Not following the footsteps of many other officers who seized the opportunity of being stricken by tuberculosis to request to be honorably discharged from the army, my brother chose to stay.

Upon regaining his health, he was sent to the South and assigned to work at the General Staff Command Office, located on Tran Hung Dao Street, Cho Quan. He boarded at the bachelors' quarter within the General Staff compound. Mr Tran Ngoc Nhuan, then a First Lieutenant, had the following remark about the personality of my brother in his memoir "Doi Quan Ngu" (Military Life):"I resided at the bachelors' quarter of the General Staff compound and had as roommate Lieutenant Nguyen Van Hieu. Since then we knew each other well. He was a kind, religious and polite officer, extremely helpful toward his comrades." (Page 59). During Summer 1954, my brother returned to Hanoi to get married. On July 6, 1954, I and Nha attended his marriage, by then a Captain, then my family moved to the South. From that date, our paths took different directions and we rarely saw each other.

An Incorruptible General

Although he was not named as one among the foursomes incorruptible Generals (Thang, Thanh, Chinh and Truong) by the general public, because when that opinion was circulating, he was still unknown, hiding behind General Do Cao Tri (most of General Tri's military exploits, whom the media called a Vietnamese Patton, was designed and executed by my brother). However, from time to time I read articles praising his virtue in newspapers and magazines around that period, in particular in Dieu Hau magazine. Because of his reputation as an incorruptible General, Vice-President Tran Van Huong, whom President Thieu entrusted the task of weeding out corruption in the government, appointed my brother to the position of Assistant to the Vice President in charge of Anti-Corruption in the Armed Forces.

In this capacity, he created quite a seismic wave among the general opinions by daring to expose the pilferage of the Army pension funds. Pressure coming from different angles tried to stop my brother from reaching all the way up to the top of the corruption chain links. I saw lines of my father's friends coming into our house as emissaries to persuade my father to stop my brother's arm from striking too hard. Apparently, these behind-the-scene meetings did not succeed in swaying my brother's determination. He told me that in order to prevent the results of the investigation from being ignored and discarded by the authority, he decided to go public by appearing before the TV the night prior to the day the dossier was to be officially presented to President Thieu, creating a "fait accompli". And thus, for several nights everybody was glued to the TV screen to follow his series of press conference. I did the same thing, however with a touch of pride for being the brother of such a daring and effective presenter. The outcome of that scandal was the dismissal of the entire staff in charge of the Army pension funds, including the Minister of Defense.

Each time I had the opportunity to come to Saigon, I used to visit my brother's family in the Chi Hoa Officers' Housing Complex. His house - lot QQ18 - was a modest attached row house, with a small additional piece of land to its right side. I still remember that most generals lived in sumptuous villas around that period. From time to time, I was fortunate to meet my brother in those occasions, when he too was able to come home. In one of such occasions, he confided in me that his officer's salary did not allow him to take friends out to a restaurant and could only afford to treat them at home. He also told me that, usually before the end of a month, my sister-in-law would complain to him that the family was already in the red! Another time, he pointed to me an official Falcon sedan made in USA (a government privilege reserved to generals) idling in the courtyard and said:"Fortunately, the Vice President office provides some additional fuel rations each month so that the car could be warmed up from time to time; otherwise it would be damaged from inaction!"

A Competent General

Besides being an incorruptible General, he was also a competent General. On this account, outside the military circle, particularly outside the circle of upper-echelon officers, not many civilians knew about this side of him. One UPI correspondent praised my brother while talking to me:"Few ARVN officers are capable to give a military briefing in English as fluent as General Hieu." An American General, General Charles J. Timmes, I believe, once told me:"Within the ARVN, perhaps only General Hieu has the ability and the charisma to handle an army corps with effectiveness; the other Generals are only capable to handle units up to a division."

I think that the ARVN Generals, in all fairness and objectivity, would not view this remark as an overstatement. General Vinh Loc wrote:

The terrain and the location of our country, in terms of search and destroy the enemy operation, do not provide the opportunity to deploy simultaneously three Regiments together with support units. Looking back from the day the Division was created to the Highlands' debacle, no Military Tactical Region had launched an operation that used a whole division, that is, all 3 Infantry Regiments, with Artillery, Engineer and Armored Cavalry Battalions, etc. Even if one would like to, one did not have enough space which would allow the deployment of a whole Division, not to mention that very few commanders underwent proper training in Large Unit command. (Letters to an American Friend, page 71)

I met General Tran Van Don in 1978, when he came to New York to participate in a symposium on Vietnam and to present his newly published book entitled:"Our Endless War: Inside Vietnam", (which was later translated into Vietnamese with the title:"Viet Nam Nhan Chung" in 1989). After I introduced myself as General Hieu's brother, he told me:"If the ARVN had more officers as competent as General Hieu, Vietnam would not have been lost." General Don knew my brother well because my brother began his military career as a lieutenant under his command when he was Colonel Chief of Staff Don in Cho Quan. My brother then followed him to Danang when he was appointed Commanding General of the 1st Corps.

At the funeral of my brother, a Major Battalion Commander, still wearing his combat outfit covered with reddish dusts, coming back from Xuan Loc battlefield to pay honor to my brother, told me on his way out:"When General Hieu gave us order to defend a strategic location, we all obeyed him with full confidence, knowing that he would never abandon us." After so saying, he hurried back to his jeep and drove straight back to the battlefield. At this same occasion, a Lieutenant Colonel of an Engineer unit told me:"You can fool other Generals with technical arcane in order to avoid obeying a difficult order, such as building a field force bridge across a river in an enemy controlled area, but you would not dare use the same tactic with General Hieu, because he mastered all details, even technical minutia, and you know damn well he only gave an order that he knew could be carried out." I recall, one day I visited him at the 5th Division headquarters in Lai Khe, I had the curiosity to ask him:"What differs a good General from a bad General?" He pointed to a tactical map and answered me:"When preparing for a military operation, a bad General would just take out a red pencil, mark two locations A and B with two dots, use a ruler to draw a straight line joining these two dots, then order his units to march without deviation along this straight red line, unaware of terrain conditions between these two locations. On the contrary, a good General would inspect the area of operation in person and would know exactly what types of obstacles his units would have to surmount while moving from location A to location B."

As a matter of fact, he used to order his pilot to land the helicopter down into the battlefield, causing his aide-de-camp to dread each time he had to accompany my brother on a battlefield inspection mission. He once confided in me:"Please don't repeat this to his wife, one time General Hieu and his whole commanding staff, after being unloaded by helicopter onto an open space, had to walk quite a few miles through the jungle to avoid the approaching enemy before the helicopter could safely pick them up!" When the Center of Vietnam was collapsing, my brother received the order to help General Nguyen Vinh Nghi to establish a Forward Command Post to contain the sweeping advance of enemy units. He flew by helicopter to the Center of Vietnam to select a location. Upon returning from that trip, his aide-de-camp complained to me:"It was so scary, while circling the area, I could see the faces of enemy staring up at us, and still, General Hieu gave the order to the pilot to land down not far away from there!"

Another time I asked my brother:"What is a good General?" He responded:" A good General would know the enemy well and would know how to use his units appropriately: where a squad is needed, then only commit a squad; where a battalion is needed, then only commit a battalion." I remember not long after he took over the command of 5th Division based in Binh Duong, whenever he visited his family in Saigon, he would drive his jeep himself with only his driver seated next to him, because he was able to establish security along the highway leading from Binh Duong to Saigon by positioning his units appropriately. Meanwhile, I heard that his predecessor had to use two armored vehicles to provide protection to his car each time he returned to Saigon. When I visited my brother the second time, his headquarters had moved to Lai Khe, to replace the American 1st Infantry Division. I asked him why move to such a destitute place, his response was:"Because the Americans did not want to give the impression they were running away in abandoning the camps to the enemy. It was not really necessary; on the contrary, one was forced to commit a few more battalions to protect the headquarters, instead of using them in the search and destroy the enemy mission."

The reason few people knew my brother was a competent General was his extreme modesty. He did not like to stand out. He usually preferred to quietly work in the back-scene, and let the actors receive applause from the audience. In the early phase of his military career, he specialized in strategy, ascending to the position of Corps' Chief of Staff under several Generals - Do Cao Tri, Nguyen Huu Co and Vinh Loc. It was not until later in his career that he was assigned to combat units, first as a Commander of the 22nd Division, then of the 5th Division.

One of the reasons his ability was not put in full use was his non-alignment attitude and his straightforwardness, not liking to flatter his superiors. That was why he was not promoted rapidly. I notice that he climbed up to the rank of Major General then stagnated there in 1968. That was when promotions based on partisanship and without merits were rampant under President Thieu's tutelage. Because of his unyielding straightforwardness, the first time he was given the command of the 22nd Division in September 1964, he only held that position for merely a few weeks, and was reassigned back to this previous position of 2nd Corps' Chief of Staff by General Khanh, when General Khanh ascended to the position of Prime Minister. The second time, when he was re-assigned to the command of the 22nd Division in June 1966, he was the one who successfully protected Qui Nhon city during the Tet Offensive in 1968. According to Brigadier General Tran Dinh Tho, the head of G3 of the General Staff, my brother was the person who, on the eve of Tet phoned him to give advance warning of an imminent general attack to the entire South that would be launched on the first day of Tet, as revealed by Viet Cong prisoners. The General Staff relayed this intelligence information to the President who immediately canceled the cease-fire agreement. And thus, the enemy lost to a certain degree the element of surprise in the Tet Offensive.

According to the Evaluation Report of the 22nd Division for the first trimester of 1969 presented by the American Advisors' Team, the 22nd Division under the command of General Hieu achieved the highest number of contacts with the enemy, and spent more time on combat operations than any other division in the country during that period.

During the 3 years at the helm of the 22nd Division, General Hieu was highly respected by Generals of the American 1st Cavalry Division - Major General Harry Kinnard, Major General John Norton, Major General John Tolson III, Major General George Forsythe - and by General Lee of the Korean Tiger Division. Because of his numerous military exploits, he was rapidly promoted from the rank of Colonel in 1966 to the rank of Major General in 1968.

When General Tri took over the command of the 3rd Corps with the mission of revitalizing the weakened units of the 3rd Corps, he called upon General Hieu to revamp the 5th Division. As soon as he took command of the 5th Division, General Hieu changed the 5th Division from a defensive posture to an offensive one. During less than 2 years (from 8 August 1969 to June 1971), although he was busy moving the 5th Division headquarters from Binh Duong to Lai Khe, General Hieu incessantly launched a series of big operations: Operation QL/14 (2/1970), Total Victory 46 (5/1970), Total Victory 8/B/5 (6/1970), Loc Ninh (9/1970), Snoul (3/1971), Total Victory 02 (5/1971), etc. The American Advisors at the 3rd Corps and at the 5th Division, all praised General Hieu's exceptional leadership, except General Michael Davison, the Senior Advisor of 3rd Corps who showed some reservation (see American Advisor's Evaluation).

One fact illustrated the combat leadership ability of General Hieu:
The Retreat of Snoul

One particular incident occurred when my brother left the position of Deputy Commander of the 1st Corps to become Minister of Anti-Corruption under the aegis of Vice President Tran Van Huong. Prior to the announcement of that date, he had been invited by the Commander of the American 7th Fleet to visit the American armada. Brigadier General Phan Dinh Soan was assigned to replace him. After consultation with his soothsayer to select a good day, he requested my brother to switch the date to an earlier day, prior to the 7th Fleet's visit date. My brother reluctantly acquiesced to the request, not wanting to miss the much coveted visit to the 7th Fleet. So, the newly installed Deputy Commander of the 1st Corps had that honor. Unfortunately, on the way to the 7th Fleet, the helicopter carrying the Deputy Commander blew up in the sky (*) . My brother wondered if this mysterious accident was not aimed at him?!

My brother made the following remark about General Nguyen Van Minh:"When he was newly nominated the Commander of the 3rd Corps, he came to inspect the 5th Division headquarters. Standing in front of a tactical map, he pompously pointed his general's baton and asked a question that somebody who was versed in reading tactical maps would never have raised!" I still remember reading in the newspapers around that time about the news of General Minh replacing General Tri to be the Commander of the 3rd Corps the first time. General Tri in some way had offended a few Generals members of the Generals' Ruling Committee. He was fired and exiled to France under the pretext of health problems. After a few months, when he was allowed to repatriate, he went straight down to the 5th Division headquarters commanded by General Hieu, and stayed put there. He used the imposing strength of the 5th Division units to challenge General Minh. The confrontation ended up with General Minh relinquishing the 3rd Corps command back to General Tri. Later on, when General Tri died in a helicopter accident, General Minh got the chance to return to that position!

Another indication of the competence of General Hieu: in the end of the Vietnam war, when Saigon was critically threatened by the Communists' advance, President Thieu pulled him out of an idle function and assigned him to be the Deputy Commander of the 3rd Corps - but not Commander of the 3rd Corps, because General Hieu was not a member of his clique - to protect Saigon, then retained him at that position while he changed repeatedly three 3rd Corps Commanders: Pham Quoc Thuan, Du Quoc Dong (who resigned after his request for calling back the paratroopers from the Center to reinforce the battle of Phuoc Long was denied) and Nguyen Van Toan. Furthermore, President Thieu initially assigned General Hieu to be the Commander of the 3rd Corps Forward Headquarters with the mission to contain the enemy units advance. On 2 April 1975, at "Lau Ong Hoang" in Phan Thiet, General Pham Van Phu released the command of the remaining units of the 2nd Corps to General Hieu. But then President Thieu changed his mind and put General Nguyen Vinh Nghi in that position instead. I got the impression that President Thieu reserved the chess-man "Hieu" up his sleeve, to be used at a final phase when it was needed to pull him out off a critical situation, but then somehow felt threaten by the aura of General Hieu!


You have so far read about my personal feelings and thoughts, coated without saying with abundant subjectivity, about my brother, who twice rescued me from the Communists' encirclement: the first time, when Nhatrang was about to be over-run by the Communists, my brother phoned to Brigadier General Le Van Than, Deputy Commander of 2nd Corps, asking him to assist me in going to Saigon; the second time, although already dead, he facilitated our escape, me and my sister-in-law's family, to the United States on 29 April 1975.

My brother had sacrificed his whole prime life, from the day he entered the Military Academy at the age of 22 to the day of his death when he was about to round up 45 years of life, to the ARVN and to his country. I view him as a lotus flower living within a pond without being soiled by impurities. He was closely associated with several Generals who had the bad reputation of corruption. These Generals recognized my brother's military skills , and at the same token realized he was unyielding in his conviction, respected him, made use of his skills but dared not forced him to take up their vice. In my encounters with my brother, I sometime noticed he showed signs of frustration for having to work under those less competent than him, or having to stand on the sideline of a chess game table and to watch uncoordinated moves made by an inexperienced chess player who had been selected to compete just because he belonged to the clique. Once, while President Thieu was lamenting endlessly on the TV screen, he made this comment to me:"A President should not act like that, he should delegate to his ministers the task of communicating with the general public."

If General Do Cao Tri was compared to General Patton, I venture to compare General Hieu to General Colin Powell. Both excelled in military and civilian skills. Both excelled equally in tactical and strategic skills. Both proudly worn their paratroopers insignia on their chest. Both held important position in the civilian branch of the government (Assistant to the Minister of Anti-Corruption, Assistant to the Secretary of National Security) and both were respected for their administrative skills. There are even striking physical similarities: majestic, gentle and humble at the same time. Both were promoted based on achievements, not on, or even despite partisanship.

Without doubt, other people knew my brother better than me. I wish these people to personally either contact me or publish articles on him to let the general public know about one of the competent and virtuous Generals of the Armed Forces of Vietnam.

(*) On August 1, 2005, Colonel Ngo Han Dong’s spouse, I Corps Artillery Commander who died while accompanying Brigadier General Phan Dinh Soan on 2/25/1972, requested that I make the correction in that the helicopter did not explode in the air, but rather crashed inland after being heavily damaged due to a collision with an antenna pole when it took off from the American battleship deck. The families were able to recover the bodies of both Major General Soan and Brigadier General Dong (posthumously promoted).

Nguyen Van Tin
New York September 1998

Updated on 08.02.2005