Tribute to a Brilliant Commander

The Ia Drang Valley campaign was a landmark for me, because it introduced me to the most brilliant tactical commander I'd ever known.

Colonel Ngo Quang Truong was General Dong's chief of staff. He did not look like my idea of a military genius: only five feet seven, in his midforties, very skinny, with hunched shoulders and a head that seemed too big for his body. His face was pinched and intense, not at all handsome, and there was always a cigarette hanging from his lips. Yet he was revered by his officers and troops-and feared by those North Vietnamese commanders who knew of his ability. Any time a particularly tricky combat operation came up, Dong put him in command.

The airborne was alerted to prevent the North Vietnamese regiments defeated in the Ia Drang Valley from escaping back into Cambodia. I was half asleep in my room at the Manor BOQ after a big meal of curried chicken and beer when the call came to get out to the airport. Truong had assembled an unusually large task force of some two thousand troops to go to the Ia Drang the following morning, and had chosen me as his advisor.

We flew in transports to the red clay strip at Duc Co, my old stomping ground, then by chopper south to the river valley. From the minute we stepped off our helicopters we were involved in skirmishes and firefights. The valley was about twelve miles wide at the point where the Ia Drang flowed westward into Cambodia-and somewhere in those miles of dense jungle the main body of the enemy was on the move. We had landed to the north, and Truong ordered the battalions to cross the Ia Drang and take up positions along the Chu Prong Mountains, which formed a series of steep ridges to the south. It was fascinating to watch him operate. As we marched, he would stop to study the map, and every once in a while he'd indicate a position on the map and say, "I want you to fire artillery here." I was skeptical at first, but called in the barrages; when we reached the areas we found bodies. Simply by visualizing the terrain and drawing on his experience fighting the enemy for fifteen years, Truong showed an uncanny ability to predict what they were going to do.

When we set up our command post that night, he opened his map, lit a cigarette, and outlined his battle plan. The strip of jungle between our position on the ridges and the river, he explained, made a natural corridor-the route the NVA would most likely take. He said, "At dawn we will send out one battalion and put it here, on our left, as a blocking force between the ridge and the river. Around eight o'clock tomorrow morning they will make a big enemy contact. Then I will send another battalion here, to our right. They will make contact at about eleven o'clock. I want you to have your artillery ready to fire into this area in front of us," he said, "and then we will attack with our third and fourth battalions down toward the river. The enemy will then be trapped with the river to his back."

I'd never heard anything like this at West Point. I was thinking, "What's all this about eight o'clock and eleven o'clock? How can he schedule a battle that way?" But I also recognized the outline of his plan: Truong had reinvented the tactics Hannibal had used in 217 B.C. when he enveloped and annihilated the Roman legions on the banks of Lake Trasimene.

But, Truong added, we had a problem: the Vietnamese airborne had been called into this campaign because of high-level concern that American forces in pursuit of the enemy might otherwise venture too close to the Cambodian border. He said, "On your map, the Cambodian border is located here, ten kilometers east of where it appears on mine. In order to execute my plan, we must use my map rather than yours, because otherwise we cannot go around deeply enough to set up our first blocking force. So, Thieu ta Schwarzkopf"-thieu ta (pronounced "tia-tah") is Vietnamese for "major"-"what do you advise?"

The prospect of letting an enemy escape into a sanctuary until he was strong enough to attack again galled me as much as it would any soldier. Some of these fellows were the same ones I'd run into four months earlier at Duc Co; I didn't want to fight them again four months from now. So why should I assume that my map was more accurate than Truong's?

"I advise that we use the boundary on your map."

Long after he'd issued his attack orders, Truong sat smoking his cigarettes and studying the map. We went over the plan again and again late into the night, visualizing every step of the battle. At dawn we sent out the 3rd Battalion. They got into position and, sure enough, at eight o'clock they called and reported heavy contact. Truong sent the 5th Battalion to the right. At eleven o'clock they reported heavy contact. As Truong had predicted, in the jungle below us the enemy had run into the 3rd Battalion at the border and decided, "We can't get out that way. We'll double back." That decision violated a basic principle of escape and evasion, which is to take the worst possible route in order to minimize the risk of encountering a waiting enemy. Had they climbed out of the valley up the Chu Prong Mountains, they might have gotten away. Instead they followed the low ground, as Truong had anticipated, and now we'd boxed them in. He looked at me and said, "Fire your artillery." We shelled the area below us for a half hour. Then he ordered his two remaining battalions to attack down the hill; there was a hell of a lot of shooting as we followed them in.

Around one o'clock, Truong announce, "Okay. We'll stop." He picked a lovely little clearing, and we sat down with his staff and had lunch! Halfway through the meal, he put down his rice bowl and issued some commands on the radio. "What are you doing?" I asked. He'd ordered his men to search the battlefield for weapons: "We killed many enemy, and the ones we didn't kill threw down their weapons and ran away."

Now, he hadn't seen a damn thing! All the action had been hidden by jungle. But we stayed in that clearing for the remainder of the day, and his troops brought in armful after armful of weapons and piled them in front of us. I was excited-we'd scored a decisive victory! But Truong just sat, smoking his cigarettes.

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf
It Doesn't Take A Hero (1992)

ARVN Generals