After the troop retreat out of Snoul (6/1971)
At Saigon Capital Military District Hqrs
(Foreword: this is the first one in a series of articles to be posted on generalhieu.com, as stated in comment #436 of "Readers' Comments".)
Early June 1971, while the news of the troop withdrawal from Snoul city, inside Cambodian territory, was still hot in the newspapers in Saigon Capital, with concern on heavy casualties sustained by friendly troops, an unofficial meeting was arranged at Saigon Capital Military District (CMD) Headquarters, between Major General Nguyen Van Hieu, 5th Infantry Division Commander, and Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Minh, III Corps/Military Region 3 Commander.
It was, I still remember, in the late afternoon after office hours; sunlight had entirely vanished behind the top level of high trees surrounding Le Van Duyet military camp in Saigon.
I stood by the helipad located in the flagpole ground of the Saigon CMD Headquarters, waiting to greet Major General Hieu for quite a long while. His helicopter was half an hour late because, at the last minute, the Division Commanding General still continued to visit the withdrawal units that had just reached the Cambodian-Vietnamese border area.
Early in the same afternoon, I had accompanied General Minh on his helicopter on his way back from the III Corps Forward Headquarters, set up at Trang Lon, in Tay Ninh Province, to meet with General Cao Van Vien , Chief of Joint General Staff. After my Boss dismissed his helicopter and its crew members back to Bien Hoa, I made preparations so that I could accompany him back to Saigon CMD by cars right after the meeting.
At the Joint General Staff Headquarters, as in previous meetings that occurred here, while the two bosses conversed in the office, outside, I and Major Tan (General Vien's attaché) exchanged general news in Military Region 3 along with events in other military regions.
In general, the military situation at that moment became critical at most of the battlefronts, because the quantities of North Vietnamese Communist troops, tanks, artillery, weapons and ammunition were pouring in South Vietnam from two channels: across the 17th parallel and along the HCM trail. Consequently, many battles reached the regimental level at several locations during that period.
After a brief half and hour consultation with General Vien, on the way back to the Saigon CMD Headquarters, General Minh remained silent and pensive contrary to usual habit. My Boss used to remind the driver to be careful not to drive fast or cut off other cars on the road, to restrain from blowing horn and forbid his civilian-clad bodyguards riding Honda motorcycles to weaving right and left … etc…
Because General Minh was recently appointed to his new assignment in replacement of General Tri, it was obvious that he did not yet have the opportunity to repeat those military accomplishments he had done in his previous assignment. When he was 21st Infantry Division Commander, well-known military victories in IV Corps U Minh, Chuong Thien district of the Delta region, were well publicized in the media during that period.
Furthermore, he had to act properly so not to reveal the internal disagreement among the leadership in III Corps. The new oral order of the high military hierarchy given to the new III Corps Commander was "to temporary withdraw troops from across the border and to regroup the defensive forces in order to defend the internal territory", which was in contradiction with the "adamant stance to continuing to press on search and destroy operations within the Cambodian territory, as performed previously by the current 5th Infantry Division Commander, Major General Nguyen Van Hieu. This 'search and destroy' plan had been adopted by Lieutenant General Do Cao Tri, the former III Corps Commander, aiming at attacking the Command Post of the so called Central Liberation Front, known to be the important rear base in South Vietnam of the North Vietnamese Communists.
The contradictory of new oral orders and old planning were two opposite tactical methods of troop maneuver: (1) the passive defensive mode applied to a troop withdrawal and (2) the proactive offensive mode of an attacking planning.
Initially, the cross-border operation was a joint operation between III Corps and IV Corps forces and was launched solely as a military operation with the agreement of the two leaderships of Cambodia and South Vietnam. However, a year into the operation, it took on a strong political significance, especially inside the United States at that moment.
The public opinion, both inside and outside the country, accused the United States of 'expanding the war', of committing troops 'to invade' Cambodia. In face of strong protests of the opposite Party in congress, coupled with the pressure coming from manifestations among the public and the antiwar groups in almost all the states, President Nixon's government had its hand tied and negated all necessary measures taken aiming at lending support to the war that defended the 'freedom outpost' which was South Vietnam.
The scenery within Le Van Duyet camp, after office hours had become tranquil. Those soldiers on 'night duty' had gone out eating in order to return to their desk on time to relieve those 'off duty' soldiers, allowing them to enjoy the remaining of the day with their family.
From the time he entered his office, besides giving order to make preparation to receive Major General Hieu who was on his way to come and meet with him, General Minh did not entertain anybody else within the Headquarters. Normally, he used to invite a few officers in the general staff present at their desk to come in his office for a chat before the end of the working day.
The helicopter bearing the 5th Infantry Division logo, following the coordinates of the helipad that I had provided, landed directly at the flagpole ground of the Saigon CMD Headquarters, right in front of the Commanding General's office (instead of having to land at the helipad of the International Military Aid Center, on Tran Quoc Toan street, next to the National Administration Institute at that time).
I was right next to the helicopter when the motor was still running, saluted and accompanied General Hieu and showed him the way to the staircase leading to the corridor connecting the offices and bureaus.
When he stepped out of the helicopter, the Commanding General did not wear his hat and did not carry his commanding baton. I noticed that he looked somehow tired, after a long day inspecting the battlefield. When we reached the platform at the top of the staircase, General Hieu turned to me and said:
- "Show me the toilet room, will you?"
I dutifully lead him around the corner of the corridor, opened the door for him, and stood still not far away outside waiting for him. It was the Commanding General's private toilet room. After office hours, the door was closed and carefully locked. Its location was at a close distance from the sentry guard post.
Almost 38 years had gone by (counting from June 1971), after that encounter, I still remember vividly General Hieu's stare; the emanation beaming out of his eyes was crystal clear and straightforward, full of kindness and magnanimity; it struck and left a lasting impression in me until this day.
To ensure privacy and quietness of the meeting, I told the military policeman to go down and stand guard at the foot of the staircase. Under the dim light of a 60-watt bulb lamp, when General Hieu stepped out of the toilet room, I saw General Minh had already appeared, standing nearby and raised his hand in salute. After a formal handshake, both men marched toward the office; I opened the door and let them inside. I returned to my desk, next to the Commanding General's office. Not until half an hour later, counting from the moment a soldier named Thanh carried in a tray of two tea cups for the Boss to entertain his guest, that the bell rang me in.
I sprang up with my notepad and hurried up to enter my Boss' office while a conversation was carrying on. Like in previous meetings, both Commanding Generals' voice was relative soft, as intended for only the two of them to hear. I stood still waiting ready to receive order until General Hieu finished his sentence.
Without wasting a second, my Boss ordered me:
- "Have the driver bring in my car to take the Major General home."
General Hieu waived his hand and said:
- "It's not necessary. Let me return to the Command Post."
Afterward, he stood up and my Boss hastened to do the same.
Once more, I opened the door and waited for the two of them to exit the office.
General Minh saluted General Hieu at the top of the staircase. I noticed that when there were only the two of them, my Boss used to salute General Hieu first, although he was higher in rank, as a sign of deference toward an elder in the army. General Hieu graduated 3rd Class of the Dalat National Military Academy, while General Minh belonged to the 4th Class. Also, when no other officers were present, both Commanding Generals addressed to one another 'brother', instead of by rank. As for me, I had my hat on, although it was already nighttime. I accompanied General Hieu down the staircase and to the waiting helicopter with the rotor already whirling.
The C&C UH-1 helicopter carrying General Hieu went straight up beyond treetop, then swiftly speed away for a nighttime flight heading north of Saigon Capital. I was pretty sure that Lieutenant Lien, General Hieu's attaché, was on the helicopter. He had appeared next to the Commanding General like his shadow all these past years.
I had the honor of coming face to face with General Hieu that night. It was the last time. It was only almost four years later, in April 1975 that I was flabbergasted by the sad news of General Hieu's accidental death (?) happening right in his office at III Corps Headquarters, in Hung Vuong camp, Bien Hoa.
As for General Minh, after that meeting at Saigon CMD Headquarters, I do not know if he had had any other conversation with General Hieu or not?
Nevertheless, I know for sure that in that face to face encounter, the two Commanding Generals maintained their usual civility; they appeared moderate and calm while talking. Even I, being a witness at that moment, could not believe that such an encounter could have unfolded as ordinarily. This 'ordinary' demeanor can only exist between two persons of equal intellectual capacity. Both of them were similar in personality, spirituality and morality; both of them showed respect toward each other.
Even at that moment in time, it could be firmly stated that the picture that I got in directly witnessing the encounter between General Hieu et General Minh was entirely opposite to the fact which had just recently occurred a few days before regarding the troop withdrawal from Snoul back to our side of the border. If one solely based on the version of the newspapers, the picture that one got would appear not to be simple. Because it was considered as a 'hot point', it easily lead to 'heat' arguments, due to the difference in perceptions and opinions of the parties involved.
During all that time (and even up until nowadays), both Commanding Generals of Toan Thang Operation in 70-71, either directly commanding the battlefield as Major General Hieu or indirectly supporting the operation as General Minh, seemed to have reached an agreement not to express any more opinions regarding the troop withdrawal from Snoul. (Even close members in their families were not provided with any or more information on this matter). Meanwhile, the General Staffs of 5th Infantry Division and of III Corps were instructed to draw up awards records for combatants involved in the battle of both Vietnamese and American forces to be submitted to ARVN Joint General Staff. They were also ordered to intervene with the Ministry of Veteran Combatants to obtain financial disbursements for families of death combatants, as well as speedy aid provided to wounded combatants and their families as to alleviate sufferings and losses caused by wars as happening in the troop withdrawal from Snoul.
- The time separating the Snoul battle and General Hieu's accidental death (?) in his III Corps Deputy Commander's office was merely four years.
- As for General Minh, like all other Vietnamese refugees after April 1975, he had elected to live a simple life, in silence and privacy among his close members of his family. After more than three decades of an expatriate life, General Minh quietly passed away of old age. In writing these lines, I believe my Boss has reached a place where he enjoys a complete peace.
It was obvious that the two division and corps commanding general, in charge of command task in the army, assumed together their respective responsibility of the troop withdrawal from Snoul in late May 1971. However, during the last four years of his epic life of a competent, honest and virtuous general, Major General Hieu had not utter a word, nor had he added any further comment on the Snoul battle. Similarly, Lieutenant General Minh did not act differently. "That silence", for that reason, was able to last for more than three decades.
As described in the first section of this article: after the troop withdrawal from Snoul, before leaving to assume his more important assignment, General Hieu came to meet and bade farewell to General Minh in the office at Saigon CMD Headquarters, in the first week of June 1971. In this unofficial meeting, the "silent attitude' ought to be one of the issues discussed and agreed upon by the two Commanding Generals and both of them kept their words since that day (?).
The author temporarily concludes on this point as following: if the high ranking leadership chose to put a lid on their own opinions about the troop withdrawal from Snoul, why should we, as subaltern soldiers, remained questionable? Why should we continue to probe on the facts that should be considered as belonging to history? Why should we try to unearth more evidences? Would that lead to any good?
For sure this attitude of "digging up dirt" is not in compliance with the two Commanding Generals (?), because it is the policy of community build up, aiming at strengthening the internal unity of all the Vietnamese refugee blocs in general, and in particular of the United Civilian and Military Personnel Movement, which has been strongly promoted everywhere.
A. The 8th Regiment of 5th Infantry Division was never defeated in the Snoul battle:
This writer stresses an important point that anybody must admit, which is, if the outcomes of the troop withdrawal from Snoul are compared with the outcomes of operation Lam Son 719, Lower Laos (which occurred at the same time), the public opinion and the ARVN Joint General Staff must recognize that the 8th Regiment/5th Infantry Division, lead by Colonel Bui Trach Dan as 8th Regiment and 8th Task Force Commander, under the direct command of Major General Nguyen Van Hieu, 5th Infantry Division Commander, was never defeated in the Snoul battle as implied in newspapers' editorials of that time.
Let's look at the following proofs:
1./ Operation Toan Thang, III Corps:
Following are the results recorded between enemy and friendly forces, counting from the troop withdrawal from Snoul, on 5/28 (?) until 5/31/1971:
(i) North Vietnamese Communist force: 2,086 KIA, not counting WIA soldiers and captured by 8th Task Force and a large amount of heavy and light weapons confiscated by 8th Task Force which our troops had to destroyed and abandoned along the withdrawal route.
(ii) Friendly force: the results provided by General Hieu was around 14% of the entire force, with 37 KIA, 167 WIA and 74 MIA. Regarding equipments losses, official numbers were as following: 10 tanks and 14 armored vehicles destroyed by enemy fires, 12 artillery batteries were destroyed prior to withdrawal, 22 mortars were uncounted for, and a sizable of military vehicles abandoned due to lack of POL.
2./ Operation Lam Son 719, I Corps:
Early February 1971, operation Lam Son 719 was launched in Military Zone I and ended in early April 1971. During the one-month and a half engagement (about 45 days), both sides suffered heavy casualties:
(i) North Vietnamese Communist force: 13,688 KIA, 120 tanks and 279 vehicles destroyed, tons of weapons, ammunition and large amount of food captured by our friendly troops. (Figures provided by Saigon sources).
(ii) Friendly force: Figures reported: 1160 KIA, 4271 WIA, 240 MIA, plus casualties sustained by Air Force, Armor and Artillery units … with a large amount of heavy weapons and ammunition losses.
According to Associated Press, casualties suffered by friendly troops amounted to almost 50%, among which 3,800 KIA, 5,200 WIA and 775 MIA.
In terms of American side, Saigon source recorded 450 KIA, 104 helicopters down, 608 helicopters damaged, among which there were 5 airplanes destroyed.
B. General Hieu appeared before the Vietnamese Congress:
After the troop withdrawal from Snoul, Major General was invited to appeared before the general assembly session of the Congress in Saigon to testify and to give explanation on some facts related to civilian and administrative issues which had emerged during the course of the cross-border operation, which was under the direct command of Major General Nguyen Van Hieu:
- The massacre that occurred during the cross-border operation was going on. It was reported that 200 people of Vietnamese ethnicity was killed in the area of Svay Rieng province (in two separate incidences in mid April 1970).
- Some observations and reports coming from American Advisers of ARVN 5th Infantry Division during the operation.
- The incident of husbandry (?) such as cattle, chickens belonging to Cambodian, were discovered crossing the border together with the withdrawal troops.
C. Major General Hieu was appointed to a new assignment: I Corps Deputy Commander.
After pulling troops of 8th Task Force from Cambodian territory back to III Corps and after the meeting between General Hieu and General Minh at Saigon CMD Headquarters, the following week, 5th Infantry Division Commanding General was assigned by the President and the Chief of Joint General Staff to the position of I Corps Deputy Commander.
At that time, I Corps was considered as one the four tactical zone with the heaviest task at the farthest northern territory of South Vietnam, especially after the operation Lam Son 719. The struggle against the North Vietnamese Communist invaders had become fierce. And the government had determined that situation required the presence of a competent general like Major General Nguyen Van Hieu, who was skillful in tactics and troop maneuver, coupled with experience in command of joint force operations at corps level.
D. Changes in III Corps after the troop withdrawal from Snoul:
A few important changes at III Corps General Staff happened in the months following the departure of Major General Nguyen Van Hieu from the command of 5th Infantry Division for a new, higher and more challenging position as Deputy Commander to I Corps Commander General Hoang Xuan Lam.
1/ Major General Nguyen Xuan Thinh, 25th Infantry Division Commander, was assigned by the President and the Joint General Staff to the Command of the Artillery Unit.
To keep up with large sized unit operations, the Artillery unit needed also to expand, in order to strengthen its organization and allow better coordination between territorial and mobile artilleries.
(General Thinh was a former Commander of the Artillery unit, before his Command at 25th Infantry Division).
2./ Major General Lam Quang Tho, 18th Infantry Division Commander: At the same period (around April 1972), General Tho was assigned Superintendent of Dalat National Military Academy, a well-known military school producing excellent officers of ARVN.
The Vietnamese National Military Academy, with its high caliber in terms of training in both educational and military areas, was rank at par with West Point of the United States.
* The picture captured General Hieu, 5th Infantry Division Commander and General Minh, III Corps Commander, conversing in the party celebrating the anniversary of the creation of III Corps, organized in the garden of III Corps Commanding General's residence in Bien Hoa. The pensive and anxious moods that transpired in the facial expression of both Commanding Generals can be attributed to the fact that the D-day set for the troop withdrawal from Snoul was only a few days down the road. (The author keeps this picture as a personal document of May 1971).
* (The author was the attaché of III Corps Commander from 3/71 to 10/73).
Nguyen Ngoc Tung