TROUBLED by the slow pace of ARVN's thrust into Laos, South Viet Nam's President Nguyen Van Thieu made a painful decision early last week. He would have to put a new man in charge. At 7 one morning, he summoned Lieut. General Do Cao Tri, 41, his nation's most decorated and best-known soldier, to the presidential palace in Saigon. Then he told Tri that the job was his. The two men briefly discussed precisely how and when Tri would take over command of Lam Son 719 from I Corps commander Lieut. General Hoang Xuan Lam. After the talk, Tri boarded his helicopter to see how his troops were faring in their other outcountry incursion, a drive through Communist sanctuaries in southeastern Cambodia. Barely 2½ hours later, the body of Do Cao Tri was pulled from the wreckage of his craft in Tay Ninh province.
The crash took the lives of ten men, including several of Tri's aides and Newsweek Correspondent François Sully (see THE PRESS). According to an official government account, there was a mechanical failure that set off an explosion aboard the craft while it was 100 feet in the air. Predictably, Saigon's busy gossip mills ground out another version: Tri was the victim of an elaborate conspiracy—the standard and not always inaccurate explanation for anything that happens in South Viet Nam. He was shot down, so the story went, by personal or political enemies. U.S. intelligence officers suspect that Tri's helicopter was actually downed by Communist antiair craft fire; the government circulated its story of mechanical failure, they say, to deprive the enemy of the satisfaction of having killed one of South Viet Nam's foremost military heroes.
Tri was often rated as ARVN's best fighting general, and his feats of personal bravery became legend. During last May's campaign in Cambodia, Tri frequently swooped down in his chopper to take personal command of a unit in trouble. On one occasion, after the man standing next to him was killed by an enemy shell, the plucky general leaped aboard an armored personnel carrier and urged it toward the source of the gunfire, shouting, "Forward, forward!"
Tri's standard battlefield uniform was a camouflage jungle suit, a baseball cap with three stars and a baton that, he joked, was always on hand "to spank the Viet Cong." He relished the spotlight and was candid enough to admit it. "I like being a hero," he said with disarming frankness during last year's Cambodian invasion. Less well known was the fact that the "Patton of Parrot's Beak," as he came to be nicknamed, was also a skillful administrator who had commanded three of South Viet Nam's four military districts and at times was considered to head the fourth. He backed Vietnamization long before it became a stated policy.
Born into a wealthy landowning family in Tay Ninh province. Tri choppered daily between the battlefield and his sumptuous villa, complete with swimming pool, on the river at Bien Hoa. There, Tri reveled in the role of host, bon vivant and raconteur. He was something of a zoo keeper as well, with ducks, pigeons, a deer, an ox and a pig roaming the grounds. Tri was devoted to his wife and six children; he taught economy to the younger ones by using their allowances to buy animal feed for the pig, then letting them split the profit when the pig was sold. But his style of living was so lavish that suspicions of corruption were continually raised against him, and in 1965, during a government investigation of his wealth, he attempted suicide. One of the sponsors of the inquiry was Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, then head of the air force. The two men became bitter enemies, and though they often saw each other at official functions after Tri resumed military command in 1967, they never shook hands.
Tri often said that he was happiest when he was with his soldiers in the field. Last week, while a soldier held a bunch of roses bound with a ribbon that read DADDY—WE LOVE HIM SO MUCH, Tri's casket was lowered into a grave in Bien Hoa's military cemetery. Fastened to the coffin's lid were his dress hat, his gloves, his sword and his baton.