General Hieu, A Lonesome General

The departure of a lonesome knight...

General Hieu was assassinated in his office at the 3rd Corps Headquarters on April 8, 1975. General Nguyen Van Toan, 3rd Corps Commander, immediately showed up at the crime scene and gave orders to isolate General Hieu's body. Close associates - such as Colonel Phan Huy Luong, 3rd Corps Deputy Head of General Staff/Operations, Brigadier General Dao Duy An, 3rd Corps Deputy Commander, Colonel Nguyen Khuyen, 3rd Corps Military Security Director - were not allowed to approach their unfortunate superior. Even before the Military Police got to record the crime scene, General Toan gave order to a Major to hoist General Hieu's body onto a red-cross jeep to be taken to the hospital, unceremoniously and without any demonstration of tender loving care. All lights were ordered switched off by General Toan, plunging the Headquarters into total darkness. "Everybody at the headquartes was stunned by the gag orders issued by the Corps General Staff." General Hieu departed permanently in solitude.

In his 01/04/1999 letter, Colonel Ta Thanh Long wrote:

I returned to the Corps headquarters and saw Military Police cordoned the headquarters. I asked Colonel Luong: "What happened?" Colonel Luong answered: "After supper, General Hieu went back to his office, a few minutes later a gun shot was heard, guards went in and saw General Hieu covered with blood slumped at his desk, and sounded up the alarm. I invited you to witness so that the proper authority could investigate the cause, because you and General Hieu were classmates and you were the closest to him in this headquarters."

Colonel Ta Thanh Long added in his 01/20/1999 letter: "At Bien Hoa only the two of us were close to each other." Indeed, from February 1975, when President Thieu assigned General Toan's clique to take control of the 3rd Corps Headquarters, people - and General Hieu himself noticed that he was like "a helpless innocent lamb amidst a pack of wicked wolves".

...who used to be an affable and gregarious gentleman...

General Toan himself, upon taking over the command of the 3rd Corps, observed that General Hieu remained as affable as before. He wrote:

We were not very close, but like the other classmates, we all cherished Hieu, because of his friendly and very humble character, although he was a young man with a high level of academic background. After our graduation, for a long period of time, we did not have the occasion to working together. Therefore we did not see each other. It was not until November 1974, when I was assigned to the 3rd Corps that I met Hieu again, who was holding the position of Deputy Commander in charge of operations at the Corps. We cooperated very amicably and efficiently. Hieu was still able to maintain his friendliness and humility as before.

Just as General Toan had written, all 3rd Class Tran Hung Dao Cadets knew about General Hieu's affability and sociability.

Hoang Xuan Lam: "He possessed an even-tempered, loyal and pleasant character. Tran Hung Dao's classmates all cherished the Major General and held many good memories pursuant to our annual class reunions or military situation review briefings."
Dinh Van Chung: "Hieu was the one I admired the most. He was very studious, whenever I looked through his window, I saw him at his desk studying and writing. He was very jovial and very pleasant. Whoever met him for the first time would like him immediately. He was very straight worthy with his comrades and assumed his responsibilities with perfection. He had the appearance of a professor, Vietnamese and French instructors equally respected and liked him."
Nguyen Van Men: "I sincerely praise Hieu concerning his gallant attitude and character."
Duong Van Thuy: "During the period Hieu was Commanding General of the 5th Infantry Division, I was a House Representative of the Congress, representing Binh Long sector, which was located within his Tactical Region, therefore we had ample contact opportunities. He was as pensive and quiet as before. Because he was a very able Commanding General, competent equally in strategy and tactics, and with his straightforwardness, directness, non-partisanship, honesty, he was respected by many people, but also disliked by a few."
Quan Minh Giau: "Among cadets, Hieu was rather taciturn, affable and jovial, known never to use foul language and argumentative. All of his actions, even the ordinary ones, had a touch of perfection. I had the impression that beneath his taciturnity, along with his affability and a scholarly appearance lied an unspoken strong and determined soul, turned toward a lofty ideal. (...) Toward casual and close friends, Hieu showed equally affability and patience."
Lu Lan: "An now, although separated by two worlds, our fraternity is still intact, our understanding can surmount the distance of our two worlds of the living and the dead. A few years ago, Colonel Trinh Tieu, Chief of 2nd Corps G2 Intelligence, had written, prior to his death, a few articles pertaining to his service in the ARVN, in which he mentioned Major General Nguyen Van Hieu, with an absolute love and respect toward a Commander who was gallant, honest and most revered."

Instructors at the U.S. Army College of Command and General Staff concurred with these observations: "Major Hieu participated in the academic and social activities of his section. (...) He was well liked and respected by his classmates."

By nature, General Hieu liked to be in company with others. He always dined together with his associates (as Colonel 22nd Division Chief of Staff Le Khac and Colonel 3rd Corps Deputy Chief of Staff/Operations Phan Huy Luong recounted) at the officers' canteen. On weekends, he used to invite his general staff members (as Colonel 22nd Division G2 Chief recounted), or his colleagues (as General Lam Quang Thi when he was still Major 1st Corps Artillery Unit Chief recounted) to join him in pistol shooting competition.

As a young man, General Hieu liked to invite friends to join him sightseeing. Cadet Quan Minh Giau recalled:

On one weekend, we were allowed to leave our military camp. Hieu invited me to visit Entreray's tea plantation by motor bicycle rented in downtown Dalat. In all honesty, I did not know how to ride a motor bicycle; I did try once and fell miserably, but when Hieu invited and promised to teach me how, I was eager to go. And so, we rented each one a Peugeot motor bicycle, turned on the engines, and Hieu instructed me how to change gears, turned on the accelerator etc...and he rode slowly ahead of me, I rode behind him! On our ways, when we engaged into some elevated roads, I killed the engine quite a few times! Hieu slowed down and signaled to me when to change gear number 2, number 3, and when to change gear back to number 1. It was quite laborious, but then we made to our destination and came back sound and safe. During all our trip, Hieu demonstrated joviality and patience, never did he express any complaint and impatience because of my clumsiness.

Prior to joining the army, young Hieu loved to sit around with children, loved to take his younger brothers and sister and their kid friends sightseeing the zoo, the botanical garden, Ho Tay Lake, Ha Le Lake. Even when he took his girlfriend out for a promenade, he did not mind tagging his kid brother along!

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!

...and was cornered into isolation during his entire military career because he was politically incorrect...

General Hieu was affable, gregarious and altruistic, and yet he was continuously isolated because he was also straightforward and spiritual. He had no desire to impose his life style onto anyone and would not let anyone force their life style onto him. Those in command positions who valued General Hieu's talents got full cooperation from him, but would fail miserably if they wanted him to be subservient, to kowtow with flatteries to their abuses of power and enterprises of corruption or to be molded into a clique's mentality. Let's review some typical instances.

Cadet Hieu graduated Dalat Military Academy with the highest final scores, but cadet Bui Dzinh of Center Vietnam origin was selected to be the valedictorian of 3rd Class Tran Hung Dao to please Emperor Bao Dai.

During multiple consecutive military disturbances which followed the coup that had toppled President Diem in November 1963, Generals competed with one other in forming various factions to eliminate one other. General Hieu maintained a neutral course and remained focused in performing his military tasks. Henceforth, he remained as 2nd Corps Chief of Staff while the position of 2nd Corps Commander changed hands at a rapid pace: first in 01/1964, General Do Cao Tri (belonging to the Dalat Generals' faction: Don-Dinh-Kim-Xuan); second in 09/1964, General Nguyen Huu Co (belonging to General Khanh's, then to Generals Ky-Thieu's faction); third in 06/1965, General Vinh Loc (belonging to General Ky's faction). In particular, during this period, General Hieu was the victim of partisanship when General Do Cao Tri appointed him 22nd Division Commander on 09/07/1964, then General Nguyen Huu Co, acting under General Khanh's order, relieved him of that Command a few weeks later on 10/24/1964 and put him back to the previous position of 2nd Corps Chief of Staff.

General Hieu got General Do Cao Tri's trust and was assigned the Command of the 5th Division in August 1969. But when General Tri died in a helicopter accident in February 1971, General Hieu was immediately isolated by General Nguyen Van Minh (belonging to General Thieu's faction), then under the pretext of Snoul defeat, was discarded on June 09, 1971.

Although he was afterwards assigned to Danang to be the 1st Corps Deputy Commander/Operations, he was relegated into inaction by General Hoang Xuan Lam, 1st Corps Commander, who apparently acted under General Thieu' s order. He was a persona non grata in the midst of General Lam's general staff at the Corps Headquarters, and was reduced to spend his time visiting different units and struck a close relationship with the 1st Corps Deputy Commander/Territory, Colonel Nguyen Dinh Vinh. When General Hieu's father traveled by bus from Saigon to Danang to see his son in the end of 1971, General Hieu had the leisure and luxury to drive his father through Hai Van Pass to go sightseeing the ancient royal Inner City of Hue and stayed overnight at a royal palace reserved for VIPs, while the military situation at Quang Tri was at a boiling point. Because he never, or rarely, saw his Deputy, who held this position from 06/1971 to 01/1972, when he was asked by Colonel Ta Thanh Long on 02/01/1999, General Lam emphatically stated that General Hieu had never come to Danang to be his assistant!

Then, in March 1972 General Hieu became Special Minister in charge of Anti-Corruption at the request of Vice President Tran Van Huong. And because he performed his assigned duty with diligence, he was pushed further into isolation. During that period many high ranking officers (Colonels and Generals) were either demoted or imprisoned for being corrupt. General Hieu did not hesitate to compile corruption files of the Generals who were holding powerful positions at that time: General Dang Van Quang (Special Security Advisor to the President), General Cao Van Vien (Chairman of Joint General Staff), General Tran Thien Khiem (Prime Minister), and even General Thieu (President). General Hieu's military strategic and tactical skills were put on hold by this administrative function, while different battles exploded in Quang Tri, Tan Canh-Kontum, and An Loc in the Summer of 1972. By October 1973, General Hieu returned to the Army as 3rd Corps Deputy Commander/Operations. When General Hieu faced corrupt high-ranking officers, they would divert their stare away from him with embarrassment, because they were keenly aware that General Hieu had read their tainted dossiers. Because he had to work with Thieu's cronies, a bunch of corrupt individuals, General Hieu was completely isolated until ... the day of his lonesome departure ...

Nguyen Van Tin
10 December 1999.

Updated on 02.27.2000