General Hieu's Frustration

John Prados wrote in The Hidden History of the Vietnam War (1995): "In 1975 Hieu was deputy commander of the ARVN military region which included Saigon; he committed suicide when the collapse of South Vietnam became apparent." Prados was right when he stated that "the collapse of South Vietnam became apparent"; but he erred when he thought that had been the reason General Hieu "committed suicide". In this article, I attempt to visualize General Hieu's state of mind in his capacity of III Corps Deputy Commander/Operations toward the end of March and beginning of April 1975, partly based on my last encounters with my brother during that time, partly based on the outcomes of my recent research pertaining to this issue through documents and interviews of witnesses of that time.

At the time Ban Me Thuot and Danang were falling, I was living in Nhatrang. My brother telephoned General Le Van Than, who was II Corps Deputy Commander/Territory, and asked him to relay the message which stipulated I had to leave Nhatrang and go to Saigon immediately because President Thieu had decided to abandon I and II Corps. General Than had his son deliver the message to me. He told me that in a few days he and his family would board a navy ship to go to Saigon, and offered me to join them. I declined the offer, and asked him instead to help me gain access into the airport, where a nephew of mine who worked for Air Vietnam would put me on an airplane. At that time, in order to prevent a similar chaos that had occurred at Danang airport, General Phu imposed a very strict security measure at the airport gate. General Than had to use his personal one- star-blazoned jeep to get me into the airport. This assistance allowed me to board the last Nhatrang-Saigon flight.

A few days after, I reported to the III Corps headquarters at Bien Hoa to see my brother and to thank him. In this encounter, my brother appeared very pensive. His attaché told me that my brother just returned from a trip to Phan Thiet (later, I learned from the press that on April 2, 1975 my brother flew to Phan Thiet to have General Phu relinquished the remnant units of II Corps at Lau Ong Hoang). I asked him if we would be able to contain the enemy push. He answered: "Our troops are capable; we only lack ammunition; our troops can hold two months max then would run out of ammunition." I asked another question: "Why General Toan was selected as III Corps Commander?" His answered was: "The President said that the current military situation dictates the need of a general originated from the armor branch who knows how to charge like a bull." While uttering these words he glanced up to the TV screen where President Thieu was lamenting to the whole nation, and commented: "The head of a nation should not wail like that, he better off let his ministers talk to the population."

Back then, I did not pay much attention to our conversation. But now, in retrospect, I sensed through his sarcastic tone of voice and his disdain facial expression that my brother appeared to be frustrated that his military skills was not put to use because an incompetent president did not choose him, but instead had selected an incompetent general to the post of III Corps Commander.

That was the last time I saw my brother. A few days later, on April 8, 1975, he was assassinated at III Corps headquarters. The following day, April 9, the Xuan Loc battle exploded. Our troops put a stop to the enemy advance for ten days. On April 21, President Thieu resigned. On April 30, the ARVN disbanded.

Twenty five years later, I was curious to know if my brother, in his capacity of III Corps Deputy Commander/Operations, had any credits in the victory of the Xuan Loc battle in particular, and had any plans to defend Saigon in general. I found some documents and made contacts with witnesses who knew my brother at that time which might shed some light on my inquiry.

Based on his personal character and on his training in the strategy field, it is certain that General Hieu ought to sketch in his mind a plan which was encompassing and meticulous to counter the enemy who was about to inundate the 3rd Military Region. Colonel Le Khac Ly narrated in Tears Before The Rain: An oral history of the fall of South Vietnam authored by Larry Engelmann (1990): "I visited my good old commanding officer, General Hieu, who was a really honest officer in the Army. I asked him about the situation in Military Region 3. He said we had to reorganize and try to block the enemy armor advances. And a couple of days later he was killed."

But no one knew how this plan looked like. I inquired the following persons: General Ly Tong Ba (25th Division Commander), General Le Minh Dao (18th Division Commander), General Tran Quang Khoi (III Corps Assault Task Force), General Dao Duy An (III Corps Deputy Commander/Territories), General Nguyen Van Toan (III Corps Commander), Colonel Phan Huy Luong (Assistant to III Corps Deputy Commander/Operations - Nota Bene: the post of III Corps Chief of Staff was held by General Le Trung Tuong), General Tran Dinh Tho (G3 Chief, Joint General Staff), General Fred C. Weyand (Fact Finding Delegation Head sent by President Ford to evaluate South Vietnam situation toward the end of March 1975), Richard Peters (American Consul General at Bien Hoa), Charles Lahiguera (American Deputy Consul General at Bien Hoa). Following are their responses to my question: Did General Hieu discuss with you about his plan to defend Saigon?

- Ly Tong Ba: In the afternoon of April 8, 1975, I attended a meeting presided by General Toan. General Hieu was not present at that meeting. After the meeting, on my way to the helicopter pad, I passed by General Hieu's office and saw a gathering of troops discussing about an incident occurred to General Hieu. Because I had to rejoin my units immediately, I did not linger to follow the event.

- Le Minh Dao: He did not talk to me about his plans. As a matter of fact, the 3rd Corps had to take care of three divisions, the 25th in Tay Ninh, the 5th in Lai Khe and the 18th in Xuan Loc. The Corps Commander let each division have full responsibility in defending its own operational area. If everything ran smoothly, then all was fine, but if something went wrong, the divisional commander got all the wrath. Each divisional commander had full authority in the disposition of his troops. The Corps played only a supporting role, and did not provide any initiative. Therefore, the victory of the battle at Xuan Loc was due entirely to my efforts and ingenuity and the 18th Division. I must say though that the 3rd Corps did provide me with the attachment of one Airborne Brigade for the Xuan Loc battle.

- Tran Quang Khoi: No, he did not. But it is irrelevant, since due to the desperate situation of that time, one wonders what could General Hieu have possibly done? On April 8, 1975, General Hieu came to Go Dau Ha by helicopter to meet with me at 8:00 am. At 10:00 am he went back to Bien Hoa. In the afternoon, I got the news he was killed.

- Dao Duy An: No, he did not. Perhaps you should ask Colonel Phan Huy Luong.

- Nguyen Van Toan: The battlefield situation was very critical at that time and we had to take turn to supervise and command operations. Major General Hieu always denoted a high degree of competency and always performed his duties admirably. I myself had to use a megaphone to order the undisciplined soldiers of disbanded units of I and II Corps not to enter Saigon surroundings and to rally at Vung Tau, and I had to threaten to have the tanks open fire if they disobeyed. Whence Saigon was spared of the chaos that had occurred in Danang.

- Phan Huy Luong: No, he did not. The two Generals only conferred among themselves.

- Tran Dinh Tho: During the days that preceded Hieu's death, almost every evening I flew by helicopter to Bien Hoa to consult with him. He was very versed in general staff matters and grasped the situation thoroughly. Oftentimes I stayed overnight in his trailer. (At this point, instead of answering my question, General Tho took a tangent course): One time, I accompanied Hieu on a field inspection of a unit stationed in Cambodge. When the helicopter landed, we jumped out and looked around without seeing any soldiers showing up to greet us. Hieu was quite surprised: "How strange: no doubt we are at the coordinates of the location of the unit. Damn it, the unit commander had moved his troops without notification."

- Frederick Weyand: It is quite longtime ago, I no more recall having met with General Hieu during my fact finding mission in the end of March 1975.

- Richard Peters: No. Officially, I met with General Toan almost daily to discuss military matters in the 3rd Corps. My after-hour encounters with General Hieu were on a social level. I tried not to touch upon military issues with him on social occasions. General Hieu might from time to time mention territories gains or losses of military units. But that was about all.

- Charles Lahiguera: No, General Hieu was very discreet. Besides, General Hieu always upheld national dignity and only discussed such matters among the Vietnamese circle. Nevertheless, in the telegram the American General Consulate in Bien Hoa sent to the Secretary of State to report about General Hieu's death, one of the theories advanced was that General Hieu was killed because he advised to surrender in order to prevent needless bloodshed among the troops.

In these answers, the respondents either knew but would not spell out (in particular in the cases of Tran Dinh Tho and Richard Peters), or did not really know because General Hieu was discreet or because the need to secrecy when spies had infiltrated at all military levels (a typical example, when preparing for the Road Clearing Operation, only Colonel Hieu et Brigadier General Vinh Loc, III Corps Chief of Staff and its Commander knew about the operation).

General Hieu might be cautious toward Colonel Phan Huy Luong because Colonel Luong had been invited by General Nguyen Van Minh, who evicted General Hieu from the 5th Division in June 1971 and filled III Corps key-posts with his lackeys from the Delta Gang, to hold the post of III Corps Chief of Staff.

Generals Ly Tong Ba, Le Minh Dao and Tran Quang Khoi were not considered as confidants by General Hieu, because in his capacity of III Corps Deputy Commander, General Hieu did not hold direct authority on them, rather he merely monitored them and reported back to the Corps Commander and relayed to them the Corps Commander's orders. As for these divisional level commanders (25th, 18th, III Corps Assault Task Force), as well as for General Le Nguyen Vy (5th Division), General Hieu only supervised and assisted in the defense of the operational areas belonging to their respective division. On matters of strategy at corps level, obviously they were not consulted. For example, when it was ascertained the Communists selected Xuan Loc as the main battleground rather than Tay Ninh, III Corps Command attached the 1st Airborne Brigade to the 18th Division (at that moment, General Hieu was dead); at the same time, III Corps Assault Task Force was repositioned from Go Dau Ha, near Tay Ninh, at the west to Dau Giay Junction near Xuan Loc, at the east, in order to protect Bien Hoa in case the front line at Xuan Loc could not hold. And when the situation showed that the 18th Division could no more hold position, on April 20, 1975, III Corps Command ordered the 18th Division to retreat to Phuoc Tuy.

Although General Tran Dinh Tho's wife was related to General Hieu's wife, General Hieu might well remain reserved toward General Tho who was close to General Cao Van Vien and General Thieu. These two generals were not fond of Hieu. While befriending with Tho, Hieu was well aware that all his uttered words would be reported back to these two gentlemen.

As of General Toan, it is obvious that General Hieu had to be extremely cautious with the attitude of a gentleman facing a mean-spirited individual. General Hieu knew he was not valued when President Thieu assigned General Toan to III Corps Command and afterward when General Toan assigned General Le Trung Tuong to be III Corps Chief of Staff. General Hieu belittled General Toan for only knowing to ram without planning. General Hieu always denoted a high degree of competency and always performed his duties admirably, as General Toan remarked, but he did not volunteer beyond his duties, not for lack of dedication but because he knew he was not valued. Furthermore, as Richard Peters said, "If there were any disagreements between the two, I have the impression General Hieu, out of sense of discipline, would abide by General Toan's command."

General Le Minh Dao commented that General Hieu never or seldom asked question about anything, he simply looked around with his keen eyes, and only offered his opinions when asked. On April 6, 1975, when President Thieu had General Hieu come to the Presidential Palace for consultation, General Hieu spoke out his mind. "Uncle Huong, [General Hieu's father], had told Xuan that morning that Hieu had recently refused to cover up the indiscretion of some of 'Thieu's cronies. He had also openly opposed Thieu's policy of retreating troops from strategic areas, "giving up and leaving more territory to the Communists" (The Fate of a Patriot). No doubt President Thieu asked General Hieu's strategic views regarding how to cope with the critical military situation and it was likely that General Hieu laid out a comprehensive analysis of the real predicament of the military situation which had reached an irremediable terminal impasse and straightforwardly advised to surrender in order to prevent needless bloodshed among the troops. (according to Charles Lahiguera).

When General Frederick Weyand said, "It is quite longtime ago, I no more recall having met with General Hieu during my fact finding mission in the end of March 1975", he did not lie, because when I asked if he ever met General Hieu in 1970, when he held the position of Deputy Commander of MACV and General Hieu was 5th Division Commander, his answer was negative. However, I did come across a copy of a VPI guest log book of the 5th Division kept at the National Archives in which it was noted that Lieutenant General Frederick C. Weyand, Deputy Commander of MACV, paid a courtesy visit to General Hieu on April 9, 1970. I did verify this matter with Richard Peters, American Consul General, by asking him, Did General Hieu brief General Weyand when he came to the 3rd Corps?, his answer was, I don’t know, since I did not arrange General Weyand’s schedule. General Weyand did talk to some Vietnamese in Long Binh before he came to the 3rd Corps and I did talk to General Weyand personally.

Furthermore, I asked General Weyand about Clinton Granger who wrote in a memorandum addressed to General Scowcroft on April 5, 1975, He has expressed concern over the political viability of President Thieu, and over capabilities of several of the senior generals in the Vietnamese Army; he will bring these points out to the President. Which were the generals that he alluded to? General Weyand answered that he did not recall Clinton Granger was a member of his delegation and he did not remember this topic either.

I believe that General Weyand might not have met in private General Hieu, but when his delegation came to III Corps headquarters to be briefed on the military situation in III Corps, one of the briefer ought to be General Hieu, not only because of his role as a Deputy Commander/Operations, but also because nobody else was able to make a presentation in English as fluent as General Hieu (according to the opinion of a UPI reporter).

In the memorandum General Weyand presented to President Ford on April 4, 1975 after his fact finding mission trip, General Weyand included the following two topics: III. Current GVN Plans and Intentions and IV. Current Prospects.

III. Current GVN Plans and Intentions

The GVN has what it calls a "strategic plan" but it is being revised almost daily in the light of events. A week ago (25 March) it envisioned an enclave at Da Nang and a southern defense line anchored on the coast at Binh Dinh or, failing that, just below Tuy Hoa in Phu Yen Province. The contemplated line was to swing through Tuyen Duc and Lam Dong Provinces, then to Xuan Loc in Long Khanh Province and over to Tay Ninh. Since the plan was developed, Da Nang has fallen, the GVN's position in coastal MR 2 has collapsed north of Cam Ranh.

The GVN intends to reorganize and refit the ARVN and Marine units decimated in last month's battles with all possible speed. It also intends to take other steps to augment ARVN's strength by upgrading significant numbers of territorial forces and Ranger groups. The success of all of this will depend on the degree to which RVNAF is able to correct serious deficiencies in command and control and its capacity to translate plans into coordinated action. President Thieu and General Vien are aware of the need and have promised corrective action.

[...]

IV. Current Prospects

What happens in South Vietnam over the next month or so, let alone a longer time frame, depends very much on what is done--or not done--by North Vietnam, the GVN, and the United States during the next two to three weeks and even the next few days.

Unless North Vietnamese Forces are somehow checked in battle or Hanoi induced to pause by some form of diplomatic or other suasion, the North Vietnamese will defeat the GVN militarily. There is no evidence that the North Vietnamese are developing logistic problems or beginning to outrun their supplies. The southward march of one, let alone two, of Hanoi's five divisions now in MR 1 would be enough to seal the fate of the GVN's hold on coastal MR 2. If one of Hanoi's five divisions already in MR 2 were brought down into MR 3, particularly if augmented with more armor and artillery, that would tilt the present balance of forces in MR 3. The GVN's forces in the Delta have all they can handle with the North Vietnamese troops already in that region, and MR 4 could not hold if MR 3 collapsed in the wake of defeats in MR's 1 and 2.

The above picture may be altered as the GVN deploys into MR 3 units reconstituted from the remnants of the ones recovered from MR 1 and MR 2. This, however, requires time to reorganize and equip. The odds are that in pure capability terms, the North Vietnamese can move and commit existing division within SVN faster than the GVN can form new ones.

As for the GVN, some steps--dramatic and demonstrably effective--have to be taken not just to prevent any near term deterioration in the GVN's military position in MR 3, but also--and perhaps more important--to give the population, and the RVNAF, a psychological lift and confidence in the GVN's top leadership. In the morale sphere, South Vietnam--at least in MR 3, including Saigon--is very near the brink of a slide into the kind of hopelessness and defeatism that could rapidly unravel the whole structure.

These thinking and assessments of General Weyand, if they were not influenced or did not reflected, at least they were similar to General Hieu thoughts at that moment.

If General Weyand did not meet in private with General Hieu, Clinton Granger, a member of Weyand's delegation, after having met with General Toan, certainly would seek to meet with General Hieu, whose office was adjacent to General Toan's.

A couple of General Hieu's opinions also appeared in Clinton Granger memorandum. General Hieu stated, "our troops can hold two months max then would run out of ammunition."; Clinton Granger wrote, "Without substantial assistance from the United States, I do not think the GVN will survive until the end of April. With a rapid replacement of key weapons by the Unite States, the situation could be sustained until mid to late May." General Hieu told Colonel Le Khac Ly that "we had to reorganize and try to block the enemy armor advances"; Clinton Granger wrote, "General Toan saw the prime threat as the NVA armor. He desires additional tanks to counter this threat, but we did not discuss the effectiveness of TOW anti-tank missiles mounted on M113 armored personnel carriers as an alternative. (I later determined independently that the ARVN have sufficient TOW launchers and M113 carriers to use the two together as an effective military tool, and that they had developed local adaptations to mount TOW on the carrier. However, the carriers and TOW are scattered through ARVN units, and the probability of a withdrawal and refitting is low.)

General Hieu was frustrated because Thieu was incompetent and refused to make use of competent generals, including him, instead he made use of generals who were incompetent and at the same time corrupt, and surrounded himself with a council of yes-men (Khiem, Vien, Quang). General Hieu criticized directly at Thieu for his ill-advised decision to retreat with haste and without well-thought planning I and II Corps, and by so doing precipitated rapidly the military situation to the point of total desperation. He was also saddened by the fact that soldiers' lives were taken lightly by the military leadership who considered them as insignificant pawns that could be dispensed without consideration. 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." When soldiers' lives depended on him, General Hieu only launched an attack when he was assured of the victory; and when he had to defend a post, he always rescued it with a rescued force (FOB2, Duc Co, Pleime), and in case the base camp could not be sustained, he deftly resorted to using escape and evasion tactics (Than Man, Snoul), and would not opt to force the soldiers to defend the camp at all costs in futility, just to cover the deficiencies in military skills (lack of foresight, lack of well-thought planning) among the military leadership. General Hieu loved his soldiers; and they knew it. Chap, a Ranger major, confide: "General Hieu was my idol and I knew him since when he came to the 5th Division. At that time I was with an attached unit that jumped into a cross-border area which was under his loving tender care. When we were about to enter Krek, he gave the order to retreat. He said, "Without support, I refuse to commit my troops into combat." He was a honest general, a general who took great care of his men and virtuous. He deserves my greatest admiration."

Nguy­en Van Tin
07 July 2003

Updated on 08.14.2003

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