We knew each other way back in 1957, when General Hieu was still 1st Corps G3 Chief, and I was 1st Division G3 Chief. We had to muster all our skills in order to work in unison in an extremely delicate situation, in which constant clashes occurred between our two respective bosses, General Tran Van Don, 1st Corps Commanding General and General Ton That Xung, 1st Division Commanding General.
After I graduated from the US Army College of Command and General Staff, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, I reported to General Vinh Loc at the 2nd Corps Headquarters in Pleiku. While I was waiting in the anti-chambre, Colonel Hieu exited General Vinh Loc' s office. He shook my hand and said: "The General can see you now." When I shook General Vinh Loc's hand, I caused him to scream aloud, not because I had squeezed his hand too hard, but because he had a medical condition which caused him excruciating pain at the lightest touch. He informed me that he had just appointed Colonel Hieu Commanding General of the 22nd Division and Colonel Hieu had specifically requested that I be nominated to assist him as his Chief of Staff.
Not long after I had served at the 22nd Division, General Vinh Loc wanted me to run for Congress as a
representative for a province in Central Vietnam. At that time, Thieu and Ky were hand-locked into a power struggle to see who would get to biggest piece of the political pie. He wired a message ordering me to make arrangements to enter the race with the promise of a sizable amount of money to cover campaign organizational expenses. However, General Hieu withheld that message from me. When the deadline for submitting candidacy was over, General Vinh Loc convoked and reprimanded me for not acting on time. It was only then that I realized that Colonel Hieu did not want me to change my career. He told me: "I believe that the military career is better for you than the political arena." To this day, I thank General Hieu for his guidance and involvement in giving me an appropriate direction in life at that critical turning point. The military milieu had allowed me to fully develop my abilities. Had Thieu not discarded my candidacy for promotion three consecutive times, I could have been a General like everybody else.
When General Hieu was asked by General Tri to take over the command of the 5th Division, everyone expected that he would take his Chief of Staff along. But General Hieu pulled me aside and told me: "It is better that you remain with the 22nd Division, because if both of us leave, all the efforts the two of us had put into revamping the combat capabilities of this Division would dissolve in smoke. You know the inside-outs of this Division better than anyone else. Once I am gone, try to prevent it from slipping back into its old weak condition." But then I could not carry out General Hieu's wish because another team came in and it was business as usual again.
General Hieu lived like an ascetic monk which made me suspect wrongly that he was a defrocked monk. Let me give you a typical instance: he always took his meals with us in the Officers' Canteen and I used to seat next to him at the table. One day, I was shocked when I spotted a dead fly floating in his bowl of soup. I panicked because as Chief of Staff, I was in charge of supervising the canteen's staff. While I did not know how to react to this horrible scene, I witnessed with amazement General Hieu calmly used his chopsticks to pluck the dead fly out and put it aside on the table next to the bowl and continued to consume the content of his bowl of soup as if nothing had happened, without uttering a word of displeasure or reprimand.
In the same vein of thoughts, I have never witnessed General Hieu reprimand any domestics that served in his house. If his children fell down and hurt themselves, be it a minor knee bruise or a major head injury, due to their negligence in supervising his kids, he would just run over to pick up the injured child and go on tending to the injury without reprimanding them, or that one time when his second boy has suffered a hip injury that resulted in a permanent limp for the rest of his life.
General Hieu was a genuine uncorrupted General. I once told reporters that most of the high-ranking officers had the appearance of integrity only. I provided them with irrefutable proofs, and upon returning to their offices, they added General Hieu's name as the fifth General , but not the least, among the list of most honest Generals (Thang, Thanh, Chinh and Truong).
Many Generals put up a show when they acted honest. In contrast, General Hieu always acted with utter discretion. A typical example was, even to this day nobody knows about: One nice day, Lieutenant Hien, commander of the Divisional Headquarters Guard Company, delivered a refrigerator and a TV set to the Commanding General's residence as an intentional bribe. Madame the General was more than happy to receive these two expensive items that the family was not able to afford on its own. That evening, when her husband came home from work, she showed them off to him. General Hieu remained silent and did not show his displeasure. The next morning, he had Lieutenant Hien come into his office for a private woodshed session. He said: "I know that you could not possibly afford to buy those two expensive items with your meager salary. Did you use the company's fund for that purpose? I advise you to take back the refrigerator and the TV set and restitute the money to the company's fund." Besides the General, Lieutenant Hien and myself, nobody else knew about the incident. At the next regular promotion, Lieutenant Hien was not negatively affected by what had happened.
General Hieu excelled in many different areas, even in mahjong. One night, personnel of the General Staff relaxed in a tent, after a hard-working day during an out-of-field operation. A Lieutenant Colonel friend of mine taught me how to play mahjong. General Hieu was passing by and saw us played. However, he did not say a word and proceeded to the open sky shower quarters to take his bath. On his way out, he approached our table, made himself comfortable, and proceeded to show us several astute moves of this complex game. He then stood up and said: "It is good to know how to play mahjong, but be aware of becoming addicted to it: it could ruin one's life."
I admire two Generals the most. The first one is General Do Cao Tri, because he was fearless. To anyone who would express apprehension for his life when he ventured into the midst of battlefields, General Tri would respond: "At the battlefield, one should walk erected. If the bullets hit you, you become a hero in the public's eyes. If the bullets miss you, you still would be considered a hero in the public's eyes."
The second is General Hieu because he fought with high class. Another General who fought with intelligence was General Lu Lan, but at a lower level than General Hieu's though.
General Hieu made the life of his Chief of Staff become easy by simplifying his tasks. He always carried a small notepad in his shirt pocket. Whenever he gave orders out in the battlefields, he always jotted them down on his notepad. Upon returning to the Headquarters, he called me in and advised me about his recent orders, based on his notes and had me send out written confirmation of the operational orders to the field commanders. In doing so, he avoided the situation in which "the trumpet sounds toward one direction, and the drum signals to the opposite direction." Many Generals loved to give out indiscriminate orders out in the battlefields to satisfy their hunger of powers. Once back to the Headquarters, they went straight home to have dinner and go to sleep without advising their Chief of Staff regarding their orders to the field Commanders. When these Commanders received the written operational orders, they called up the General Staff confused: "What is this, your orders contradict the Commanding General's orders!"
It is without saying that General Hieu excelled in strategy, but he was also excellent as a tactician. Upon taking command of the 22nd Division, he confided in me: "My real role is not the one of a tactical commander, but rather of a strategist within an international general staff command." He was just modest in his statement. He learned very quickly, and in no time, he became an accomplished Commanding General of a tactical division.
One could not possibly compare General Ngo Quang Truong to General Hieu. In one meeting at the 1st Corps Headquarters, officers of the divisional General Staff took turn to present all the tactical options for General Truong to choose. After listening to their presentation, General Truong remained silent for quite a long time, without uttering a word. He then suddenly, without saying a word, walked away to an adjacent room where his American advisors were waiting. After conferring with them, he came back to issue orders based on his American advisors, disregarding all the advices presented by his own G3 advisors.
I am not a bit surprised in learning that high ranking officers who knew General Hieu are now reluctant to talk or write about General Hieu. In reality, they are still afraid of threats coming from some underground groups. Let me give you the case concerning Pham Huan. When he published his first book, he aggressively quoted me as stating that General Pham Van Phu was only capable of commanding a Regiment. Afterwards, he received threats from a certain group, forcing him to relent on his writing. And so, when he published his next book, he turned against me with unfounded accusations and praised General Phu profusely.
General Toan asked me to tell you that he wants you to call him or to write him so that he can talk about General Hieu's tragic death. He said that many people had confronted him about this issue, but he had preferred to remain silent. But if General Hieu's brother contacted him, he is willing to talk.
I met with General Hieu two days before his mysterious death. After the 2nd Corps' debacle in the Highlands, I went to the 3rd Corps Headquarters to pay him a visit. After inquiring about the ordeal of the 2nd Corps's ill-organized retreat, General Hieu turned to the subject of the defense he was designing to counter the enemy rapid advance. He was in a very upbeat mood as usual during my entire visit.
I regret that Lieutenant Colonel Vinh Ho, General Toan's former G2 Intelligence Chief of the 2nd Corps, had died from cancer. Otherwise, I could ask him for more details, because the day General Hieu died, he was present at the 3rd Corps Headquarters, awaiting to be received by General Toan. He heard not one but two pistol shots.