General Hieu and Superstition

In his military career, General Hieu endured painful experiences in his dealings with superstitious generals.

While holding the position of II Corps Chief of Staff, Colonel Hieu was puzzled by the unusual high frequency of ambushes sustained by units of 25th Infantry Division. Taking a close look at this issue, he discovered that the cause of the problem came from the fact the divisional commander, Major General Lu Lan, believed in divination and always consulted a soothsayer prior to launching a military operation. He conformed to whatever the soothsayer told him to do: which day is good, which day is bad; which direction is compatible with his horoscope – east or west, north or south, southeast or northwest, northeast or southwest, etc and etc – to secure a successful military operation. General Lan was blindfolded by his superstition which caused him to be unaware of the fact his soothsayer was a VC mole who relayed all his moves to the enemy! It was only when Colonel Hieu an Colonel Mataxis, II Corps Senior Advisor, made arrangements with the CIA to quietly spirit our soothsayer that units of 25th Infantry Division were almost no more ambushed by the enemy.

General Tri respected and appreciated General Hieu’s strategic and tactical skills: masterful and intuitive comprehension of the terrain on which the operation is to be conducted; thorough understanding of the ways and thoughts of the enemy; and skillful in maximizing resources in hand. However, General Hieu was often amused by General Tri’s superstition. For example, in the cross-border operation into Kampuchea aiming at the Viet Cong Central Command in March 1970, a general planning had been agreed upon between the ARVN and US Army in which units of III Corps were to spearhead the attack on D day. But suddenly General Tri unilaterally decided to postpone D day for two days, turning upside down the logistical timetable of an army corps comprising over 100 thousands of both American and South Vietnamese troops, just because a soothsayer dictated that was the good day!

When General Nguyen Van Minh replaced General Tri as III Corps Commander, General Hieu was unhappy having to work under an incompetent general who relied heavily on superstition to cover his incompetence. General Hieu one time ridiculed General Minh’s pompous demeanor brandishing his general baton while committing a gaffe in reading the tactical map hanging on the wall.

Colonel Pham Ba Hoa talked about General Minh in his book entitled Đôi Dòng Ghi Nhớ (My Memoir) as following:

Lieutenant Colonel Minh asked me to request Lieutenant General Khiem for a transfer to the 21st Infantry Division, where he was willing to assume any position. He offered additional explanation:

- Do you know, according to my soothsayer, if I head toward that direction, I will have more chances of advancement. Therefore, try hard to help me, Hoa -

While awaiting Lieutenant General Khiem's decision, he communicated to me some additional information concerning his case. The Colonel Commander of the 21st Infantry Division agreed to appoint him Commander of Ca Mau Brigade. That was a first successful step. Now the next step:

- Please help me once more. This time I ask you to make arrangement for a L19 airplane to pick me up, the important thing is that the pilot has to be present at the VIP parking area at 7:00 p.m. sharp - and tell him not to shut off the engine, I will board the plane immediately. Let me whisper to your ear this: my soothsayer told me that if I depart at such time and in such manner and head toward the direction of the 21st Infantry Division, I will reach the pinnacle in the Army. Don't turn me down, Hoa -

Before he left the office, he gave me an envelope intended for the pilot and my "buy yourself a cup of coffee" was also an envelope.

Let me provide some additional explanations: after the transfer of the command of the 21st Infantry Division between Lieutenant General Khiem and Colonel Bui Huu Nhon, and General Khiem assuming the position of Joint General Staff Chief in December 1962, this Division moved down to Bac Lieu, ceding the Headquarters in Can Tho to the 4th Corps Command Post which was formed in the beginning of 1963. Therefore, the direction alluded by Lieutenant Colonel Minh was South East as related to capital Saigon.

In the Snoul Operation of 1971, General Hieu could not figure out the reason General Minh suddenly abandoned the luring plan when the Communist Army was biting the bait by amassing two Divisions, the 5th NVA and the 7th NVA, to surround 8th Task Force at Snoul. For his part, Colonel Bui Thach Dzan, 8th Task Force Commander, fumed at General Minh for giving order to delay the withdrawal day for two days under the pretext of celebrating the anniversary of III Corps. And General Tran Quang Khoi was flabbergasted when General Minh, upon replacing General Do Cao Tri as III Corps Commander, pulled back all troops out of strategic base camps situated within Cambodian territory to this side of the border, our troops were dominating the battlefields, all of a sudden stopped; our troops went rapidly from an offensive posture to a defensive one. The reason our three seasoned high ranking officers – Hieu, Dzan and Khoi – were unable to comprehend General Minh’ tactical moves was that he did not follow any military norms: the hour, the day and the direction of troops deployment were dictated by a soothsayer (it is imperative to head southwest and not to go northwest)!

One particular incident occurred when General Hieu left the position of Deputy Commander of the 1st Corps to become Minister of Anti-Corruption under the aegis of Vice President Tran Van Huong. Prior to the announcement of that date, he had been invited by the Commander of the American 7th Fleet to visit the American armada. Colonel Phan Dinh Soan was assigned to replace him. After consultation with his soothsayer to select a good day, he requested General Hieu to switch the date to an earlier day, prior to the 7th Fleet's visit date. General Hieu reluctantly acquiesced to the request, not wanting to miss the much coveted visit to the 7th Fleet.

Besides the above-mentioned General Hieu’s experiences with superstition, it is worthwhile mentioning other generals’ superstition.

Dang Van Nham wrote in his book, Hậu Trường Chánh Trị Miền Nam (1999), page 177, "General Chinh’s belief in divination should be mentioned. Prior to any military operation, he sought the advice of a soothsayer. When he got the opportunity to come to Saigon, he won’t miss to drive his jeep to come to see me at my office and invite me to breakfast and join him in paying a visit to a soothsayer."

Within the Marine Corps Division, many people knew that General Le Nguyen Khang and his general staff were very superstitious. General Khang was not near-sighted, and yet he always wore glasses with a golden frame. Some thought he was just vain or wanted to project an intellectual aura. The truth of the matter was that a soothsayer told him he needed to wear glasses in order to maximize his longevity.

Marine Corps combatants who participated in the Lam Son 719 campaign felt discouraged because their Commander did not show up to boost their morale in the first week of the dangerous campaign. They did not suspect that a soothsayer predicted that if a flight were to take off at such hour and going to that direction, it would crash for sure. That explains why General Khang and Colonel Bui The Lan, his chief of staff, dispatched in their stead Colonel Ton That Soan, who at that time was relegated to a sinecure position of a general inspector at the Marine Corps headquarters since two years, to be the MC Division Deputy Commander in charge of operations. When they discovered Colonel Soan survived through the flight, General Khang sent Colonel Lan out to replace Colonel Soan during the second phase of Lam Son 719 campaign. Unfortunately for Colonel Lan, at that moment Lam Son 719 campaign sank miserably into quick sand and the Marine Corps Division sustained heavy losses. Consequently, Colonel Lan was not awarded with a star like the commanders of other units: Brigadier General Pham Van Phu of 1st Infantry Division was promoted to Major General; Colonel Vu Van Giai, 1st Infantry Division Deputy Commander and Colonel Ho Trung Hau of Airborne Division to Brigadier General.

Finally, General Thieu’s case should be mentioned. According to General Hoang Van Lac, one of the reasons General Thieu kept General Cao Van Vien as Chief of Joint General Staff that long was superstition. He wrote in his book Blind Design, "No matter how irrelevant it might appear, there was another possible reason, superstition. Vien's astrological horoscope shows that he was "the force" capable to contain the power of Vo Nguyen Giap. Thieu frequently talked about that with a lot of interest." General Cao Van Vien was also very superstitious. He dreaded the number 13 and could not understand why the American could have chosen to launch the rocket to the moon on the 13th. General Abrams recounted: "The other day when I was over talking to General Vien…, he spent a considerable amount of time trying to elicit from me how in the hell our government ever went and launched this damn moon thing on the 13th [An inauspicious date.] Christ, everybody knows about that! Incredible! I said, ‘I understand, but you see they’re all scientific people. They’re unaware of all these other things that go on." (The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972, Lewis Sorley, page 403). General Abrams was also taken aback by General Tri’s superstition. He recounted: "Recalls an operation when Tri couldn’t start on Monday ‘cause Tuesday, according to his astrologer—[Somebody “an inauspicious day] one of the worst in the whole year. And so he couldn’t start till Wednesday. And he didn’t. Crazy!" (page 431)

Following this line of thoughts, it is safe to extrapolate that when he ordered the withdrawal of II Corps (3/13/1975) and I Corps (3/23/1975), General Thieu did not consult any military manual, nor did he listen to Ted Serong, an Australian strategist(*); he merely acted upon the instructions of a soothsayer.

(*) Early December 1974, Ted Serong advised General Thieu that he needed to abandon I Corps and II Corps and to regroup his forces to III Corps and IV Corps; General Thieu did not approve this strategic concept. In January 1975, Ted Serong reiterated to General Thieu that he should regroup troops before mid-February as a deadline, if he wanted his regime to survive; General Thieu ignored the warning. In mid-March, General Thieu requested a consultation meeting with Ted Serong who told General Thieu that it was too late and that the war would be over within three weeks; two days later, the Communists attacked Ban Me Thuot. (Ann Blair, author of "There to the Bitter End: Ted Serong in Vietnam")

Nguyen Van Tin

Updated on 10.11.2005