An All Around Commander

In the heroic struggle of the South Vietnamese people against the red wave of the international Communism, with the communist Army of North Vietnam as pawn and the government of Hanoi as lackey sending Vietnamese to kill Vietnamese, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam constituted the main force which assumed the task of protecting the remaining part of Vietnam. Although still young and lacking sufficient weapons and ammunition, it had sustained numerous and ferocious attacks launched by the troops of North Vietnam. At times, it seemed to give in, but then regained strength to accomplish several resounding military victories. In order to perform these magnificent feats, the ARVN had formed and provided to the country numerous heroes who had written enlightening historical pages in blood. The most competent Generals of the ARVN had demonstrated to the whole world, to the military historians and to those who hold an unsympathetic views toward South Vietnam and those who are communists' sympathisers, that when the Army of the Republic of Vietnam was lead by competent commanders, it became a formidable fighting army capable of protecting the country.

One of the Generals who had commanded respect and admiration from his peers and from American high-ranking military authorities in Vietnam was Major General Nguyen Van Hieu, who had held several important positions in the ARVN, had been Commander of the 22nd Infantry Division and the 5th Infantry Division, Chief of Staff at different Corps and Deputy Commander for several well-known Generals of South Vietnam. Major General Hieu's abilities were not limited at the positions of divisional Commanding General or Corps Deputy Commanding General. Should the highest commanding authority of South Vietnam not act in the line of partisanship, and let Major General Hieu assume the command of a Corps, he would have accomplished bigger feats and contributed more significant achievements to the country.

Major General Hieu's name and his low-key contributions to the country were not well known to the general public, not until he was entrusted with the portfolio of Special Assistant in charge of anti-corruption by Vice-President Tran Van Huong. With his nature anchored on honesty and straightforwardness, he was adamantly determined in investigating and in exposing the biggest corruption act committed by the high-ranking officers at the Defense Department, who were pilfering the Military Savings Fund made up of money deducted from the soldiers' hard-earned money. He acted so swiftly and so forcefully that President Thieu, faced with a fait accompli, had to fired the Defense Minister, General Nguyen Van Vy and other key individuals.

Major General Hieu's career only climbed up to the position of Corps Deputy Commander then was blocked, because he was not politically correct. However, the fact he held the position of Deputy Commander consecutively through three Commanders of the 3rd Corps, namely Lieutenant General Pham Quoc Thuan, Lieutenant General Du Quoc Dong and Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Toan, must tell us something about General Hieu's competence, that of a formidable strategist who was needed in the operation at a corps level, especially when it pertained to the 3rd Corps, which occupied the most important key position.

Major General Nguyen Van Hieu was not born in his motherland of Vietnam, but rather in China and grew up in Shanghai, within the French concession. He was fortunate in receiving a dual education, both Western and Eastern, which allowed him to be fluent in many foreign languages, especially in English, French, German and Mandarin. He was also influenced by a religious education and was imbued with Jesuit's spirituality. In 1949, when the Chinese communists took over Shanghai, he was about finishing his first college year in Technology at Aurore University run by the French Jesuits. He had to interrupt his studies and went back to Vietnam together with his family on a French destroyer. The scientific knowledge he had acquired at Aurore University and two years later at the Vietnam Military Academy allowed him to possess a solid grasp of the modern technology applied to the military fields, such as signal, engineering, artillery, mechanized and armored units. That was why, whenever the topic of a conversation turned to any fired arms, big or small, any types of airplanes, any signal equipments, any types of tanks, even any types of phonographs or Polaroid cameras which were newly invented at that period, General Hieu would discourse in length all the technical advantages and disadvantages of each type to the listeners.

His father, Mr. Nguyen Van Huong, upon returning to Vietnam, stayed a few months in Saigon, then moved up to Hanoi where he was assigned to the position of Deputy Director of the Northern Police and Security Bureau. Later on, when he moved back down to the South in the late 1950, he was appointed Deputy Director to General Nguyen Ngoc Le, the Director of the National Police Bureau. In 1950, young Hieu signed up for the National Military Academy in Dalat and attended the 3rd Class. At that time, the majority of the military instructors were still French officers. Cadet Nguyen Van Hieu graduated with the highest scores, but had to relinquish the first rank position to a cadet originated from the Center, same as Emperor Bao Dai. Upon graduation, first lieutenant Nguyen Van Hieu was struck with tuberculosis, due to the combination of excessive exertion put into physical training and exposition to wet weather conditions. He was confined to a long convalescent period. Meanwhile his classmates were sent to participate in the Dien Bien Phu battle and other important campaigns. In 1954, our newly promoted Captain Hieu got married, then moved down to the South with his family. It was in this milieu, that his military and strategic skills had the opportunity to blossom. He was one of the few Generals who moved up the military hierarchy not by way of battlefield exploits, but by proving general staff skills from the lowest level up.

Lieutenant General Do Cao Tri, when he was still the 1st Corps Commander recognized Major Nguyen Van Hieu's abilities at a early stage, promoted him to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel as soon as he returned as a graduate of the High Command and General Staff in the United States in June 1963, and appointed him 1st Corps Chief of Staff. An extrovert, aggressive and fearless General, with a playboy reputation, and a modest, low-key, effacing General, with a simple life-style, joined together to form a formidable military leadership tandem. They professed mutual respect and understanding and had lead the Army of South Vietnam into harvesting many resounding military victories.

Major General Hieu was twice entrusted the command of the 22nd Infantry Division, one of the best fighting force which had produced many young capable and promising officers to the ARVN such as Regimental Commanders Colonel Nguyen Huu Thong and Le Cau. During his tenure at the helm of the 22nd Infantry Division, his straightforwardness and his respect toward honest officers pushed him into disapproving Lieutenant General Vinh Loc's action in the transfer of Lieutenant Colonel Tran Van Hai from the position of Phu Yen Province Chief to the position of Superintendent of Duc My Rangers Training School. Lieutenant Colonel Tran Van Hai was well liked by the population living in Phu Yen Province. Under his care, the entire province enjoyed a peaceful time. The local communist guerillas were not able to cause any disturbances, due to his many successful sweep operations. General Vinh Loc found fault in Lieutenant Colonel Hai for disobeying his order of putting official vehicles and residency to the service one of his mistress while she was visiting Phu Yen.

Major General Hieu established excellent relationship with the American commanders within the operational areas of the 22nd Infantry Division and with the Commanders of the Korean Army in Binh Dinh. One time, a Commanding Major General of a Korean Division came to visit the 22nd Infantry Division. During the conversation with the Commanding General of the 22nd Infantry Division, he proud himself as being a graduate of the US Army High Command and General Staff, because very few Korean officers were qualified to attend that military college. He asked Major General Hieu how many officers in the ARVN had graduated from it. Major General Hieu politely answered he did not know how many officers in the ARVN had been sent to attend it, but in the 22nd Infantry Division, he and Lieutenant Colonel Le Khac Ly did graduate from it. The Commanding General of the Korean Tiger Division was extremely surprised and immediately shed his arrogant attitude. From that day on, he showed deference to Major General Hieu and to the general staff officers of the 22nd Infantry Division. That was why during the 1968 Tet Offensive, when approximately 200 Viet Cong caused disturbances in the city of Qui Nhon, upon receiving Major General Hieu's request, the Commanding General of the Tiger Division immediately dispatched his troops to switfly dislodge Viet Congs from their positions.

Another great military exploit of Major General Hieu which had caused the Commanding General of the US 1st Cavalry Division to admire the tactical and strategic skills as well as the by-the-book commanding style of a Vietnamese Commander had been recounted in the Vietnamese-American-Korean combined military operation of Eagles Claw 800 in 1967. According to the agreed upon strategy of the three allied forces, the 22nd Infantry Division was given the task of pacifying the four most populated northern districts of Binh Dinh Province: Tam Quan, Bong Son, Phu My and Phu Cat. The southern areas comprising the districts of Qui Nhon, Tuy Phuoc, Phu Phong and Van Canh fell under the Tiger Division's responsibility. The four western districts of An Khe, Vinh Thanh, An Lao and Hoai An which were located in a hard to reach mountainous areas were entrusted to the 1st Cavalry Division with the task of search and destroy the enemy. The US troops were extremely aggressive and during the first three days of the operation were able to destroy many enemy's food caches and their well-fortified rear service stations in the areas of Vinh Thanh and Hoai An, but the enemy avoided any contact with the American units. The US Commanding General requested that Major General Hieu diverted units of the 22nd Infantry Division toward An Lao to join force with the 1st Cavalry Division in order to encircle the 3rd Yellow Star Division. However, Major General Hieu adamantly opposed the request, because he knew the 3rd Yellow Star Division was maneuvering troops toward the areas between Hoai An and Phu My districts. Lieutenant Colonel Trinh Tieu, the head of the 22nd Infantry J2 Intelligence had skillfully used money in enticing a captured local Viet Cong guerilla who had disclosed the presence of the 3rd Yellow Star Division units in the operational areas of the 22nd Infantry Division.

Major General Hieu specialized in the tactic of luring out the enemy to crush him. Rats are very fearful of light and noise, that's why it's very difficult to lure them out into the open in order to kill them. Major General Hieu ordered Lieutenant Colonel Bui Thach Dzan, the commander of the 41st Infantry Regiment, to take with him only two infantry battalions along with the Regiment Command Post unit into the operational area very early in the day. Upon reaching the target area around 3:00 p.m., Lieutenant Colonel Bui Thach Dzan had his troops campsite, prepare supper with an air of festivity and dig foxholes for a night stay. This area was infested with enemy informants who signaled back to the 3rd Yellow Star Division the weak fighting force of the 41st Infantry Regiment. In reality, Major General Hieu had secretly positioned on the ready an infantry battalion and two armored squadron 10 kilometers away, out of enemy's eye sight with the mission of cutting off the retreat route of the enemy. As predicted by Major General Hieu, at 2:00 a.m., a regimental size of enemy troops attacked vehemently Lieutenant Colonel Dzan's position as if they were going to swallow their bait in one bite. The reserved forces immediately sprung into action under a day light condition created by luminous rockets launched by the 1st Cavalry helicopter units and under fire power support of the 22nd Infantry Division' artillery units. Using the hammer and anvil tactic, with the 41st Infantry troops pushing outward, and the reserved troops pushing inward, the enemy regiment was bottled up in between. Soldiers of the 41st Infantry Regiment were long ready in the look-out position, and therefore when the enemy launched a human wave tactic in the open space, their combatants constituted easy moving targets at the mercy of the 41st Infantry Regiment shooters who were having fun like participants in a turkey shooting party. The battle raged until 5:00 a.m. when the enemy started to disengage in disarray, leaving behind more than 300 dead bodies and a multitude of broken weapons and abandoned ammunition on the battlefield. Fifteen minutes later, Major General Hieu and the American Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division landed down to observe the battle scene. It was only at that point that the American General came to realize and admire the strategic acumen and the tactical skills of the Vietnamese Commanders. The Americans still had much to learn from the Vietnamese on the battlegrounds. The American General also shook Lieutenant Colonel Trinh Tieu's hand to congratulate him for succeeding in ascertaining solid intelligence gathering. Therefore, it was Lieutenant Colonel's contribution that had rendered possible the great victory attained by the 22nd Infantry Division and caused the American Generals to admire the military skills of the Vietnamese officers. In the past, Nguyen Cong Tru, when he lead his troops in hunting down a rebel of the Nung tribe named Van Van, also intentionally exposed the position of his troops, had his troops indulge in noisy festivities, while he himself brought in geishas to entertain him days in days out in order to lure Van Van in brining out his army to attack. Because otherwise Nung Van Van would hide himself in a shrewder manner than rats. And so Nguyen's troops succeeded in defeating the Nung's troops and captured Nung Van Van. Major General Hieu was reputed as an avid reader of Western as well as Eastern ancient military strategy books. He undoubtedly had enjoyed reading Nguyen Cong Tru's military exploits.

General Do Cao Tri, when he took over the command of the 3rd Corps, dared to discard the 5th Division Commander and replaced him with Major General Hieu. A fortuitous coincidence occurred which boosted up the spirit of the combatants of the 3rd Corps, and which contributed to the achievement of many great victories in crossover operations into Kampuchea in 1970, was the presence of two great Generals who happened to be Major General Hieu's classmates from the Military Academy 3rd Class. General Tri appointed Major General Nguyen Xuan Thinh as Commander of the 25th Infantry Division and Major General Lam Quang Tho as Commander of the 18th Infantry Division. All these three Divisions took turn in crossover operations into Kampuchea and all had achieved great victories. Around January 1971, President Thieu wanted to replace Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam with Lieutenant General Do Cao Tri as Commander of the Lower Laos Operation. General Tri agreed provided that he would be replaced by Major General Hieu as Commander of the 3rd Corps, because he believed General Hieu had the capabilities to command the crossover expeditionary troops with success. His wish was not fulfilled when he suddenly died in a helicopter's accident in the sky over Tay Ninh. He was replaced by Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Minh. Afterwards, the 3rd Corps' victory upper swing trend reversed direction with a string of defeats. Generals Thinh's, Tho's and Hieu's advices fell into General Minh's dead ears. Furthermore, General Minh cavalierly disbanded the 3rd Corps Assault Task Force, which had mightily crushed over many enemy front-lines during General Tri's time. The ARVN had lost a powerful punching fist that the enemy troops used to dread, and the expeditionary units returned back into the country one after the other.

With Lieutenant Tri's death, Major General Hieu had lost a well attuned fighting partner and a strong supporter which would have allowed him to execute a huge luring plan that would sap the enemy's strength at its heart. According to the plan designed with General Tri's blessing, Toan Thang 02/71 Operation would unfold from 3.1971 to 6.1971. Major General Hieu would used the 8th Infantry Regiment of the 5th Infantry Division as the bait placed in the Snoul area. In case the 5th NVA Division took up the challenge and sent in its 174th and 275th Regiments to attack the 8th Regiment, the 3rd Corps would immediately dispatch from one to three divisions, as circumstances dictated, to encircle and destroy the 5th NVA Division. In May 1971, the plan seemed working with the enemy maneuvering to encircle the 8th Regiment in Snoul. But unfortunately for General Hieu and the 3rd Corps, General Tri had died, and General Minh was not wholeheartedly supporting this plan. He hesitated between the pressure imposed onto him by his American advisors who advised him to change the initial plan in letting the 5th NVA Division encircle the 8th Regiment then to use the carpet bombing of B-52 airplanes, instead of using the 5th, 18th and 25th Divisions ground troops. Major General Hieu cautioned Lieutenant General Minh that, the bombing would killed indiscriminately foe and friend troops, which would be too cruel to the 8th Regiment combatants. Major General Hieu warned Lieutenant General Minh that if he could not make up his mind, he should immediately pull back the 8th Regiment before the enemy tightened its encirclement and it would then be too late.

General Minh remained undecisive, until the situation became critical, with the 8th Regiment totally encircled at Snoul and about to be overwhelmed, at which point he washed his hands and told General Hieu: "Just do whatever you want to do." Major General Hieu had no other choice than to fly into Snoul with his general staff and courageously landed down in the 8th Regiment command post, while the enemy were conducting final assaults. A hasty meeting was set up; General Hieu personally laid out the retreat plan and gave out direct instructions. The presence of the Commanding General had the effect of lifting up the spirit of the 8th Regiment combatants. Furthermore, the Regiment Commander and his Executive Officer would remain with the troops in its withdrawal by land. The 5th Division's senior officers had demonstrated their courage and their willingness not to abandon their men and their readiness to die along with them. It made them stayed tight together in their retreat, covering each other, maintaining discipline and order. The retreat of the 8th Regiment through the encirclement of the enemy and under dire conditions constituted in itself a military feat. In order to reach back to the border, the 8th Regiment had sustained a loss of 1/3 of its troops, with its Deputy Commander mortally wounded. Major General Hieu had succeeded in limiting the loss to the minimum. Nevertheless, that did not prevent him from being called up to the Congress, to face an inquisitorial assembly, and to give an explanation of the defeat sustained by the 5th Division. Senator Tran Van Don understood quite well the isolation of Major General Hieu and managed to defend his former protege. Nevertheless, Major General Hieu was relieved of the command of the 5th Division. Not long after that, the Joint General Staff appointed him Deputy Commander of the 1st Corps, under the Command of Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam.

Major General Hieu had the opportunity to return to the Eastern battlegrounds to show off his abilities and to add more victories to the ARVN after the Paris Agreement that was signed on January 27, 1973. In 1974, Lieutenant General Pham Quoc Thuan was appointed 3rd Corps Commander by President Thieu in replacement of Lieutenant General Minh. Well aware of his own limitations, Lieutenant General Thuan was keener than Lieutenant General Minh in terms of discerning human assests. He was determined in his request to have Major General Hieu assist him in the capacity of 3rd Corps Deputy Commander in charge of Operations. The fact that he did not choose an individual member of his clique and specifically asked for Major General Hieu showed that General Thuan valued very highly General Hieu's competence. He needed a strategist who would be able to command troops at the Corps level in the fight against the enemy. He did not need incompetent and corrupt Generals that would weaken the 3rd Corps and would cost him the 3rd Corps Commanding seat. This trust and confidence carried on with the transfer of command of the 3rd Corps to Lieutenant General Du Quoc Dong and then to Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Toan.

During his service under Lieutenant General Thuan, Major General Hieu helped Lieutenant General Thuan achieve two great victories. Our 18th and the 5th Division entered and destroyed the area of Iron Triangle and our 5th Division together with Rangers and Armored units decimated the 5th NVA Division. In both of these two great victories, General Hieu employed the Infantry-Armor tandem formula. However, this tandem formula had greater success on the open space, devoid of obtacles in the Cambodian territories than in the dense foliage covered area of the Iron Triangle. In the battle of Svayrieng, with the support and trust of Lieutenant General Thuan, Major General Hieu launched an entire force composed of 20 infantry and rangers battalions with the support of 3 Armored Squadrons to encircle the 5th NVA Division in the Parrot Beak areas and to assault directly at the headquarters of the 5th NVA Division, resulting in more than 1.000 enemy K.I.A with less than 100 ARVN casualties. General Hieu had more chance than other ARVN Generals in terms of conducting his battles in the wide open space of the Cambodian territories rather in the confined and narrow space inside the Vietnamese territories. General Vinh Loc, who once was the Commander of the ARVN Armor Unit, wrote the following comment regarding the use of armored tanks on the battlefields:

The terrain and the location of our country, in terms of search and destroy the enemy operation, do not provide the opportunity to deploy simultaneously three Regiments together with support units. Looking back from the day the Division was created to the Highlands' debacle, no Military Tactical Region had launched an operation that used a whole division, that is, all 3 Infantry Regiments, with Artillery, Engineer and Armored Cavalry Battalions, etc. Even if one would like to, one did not have enough space which would allow the deployment of a whole Division, not to mention that very few commanders underwent proper training in Large Unit command.

According to General Hieu's opinion, the tactic using Armored Cavalry assault achieves better result than the tactic of "Eagles' Plunge" using helicopters. In this latter tactic, the enemy can disperse as soon as clusters of helicopters appear on the horizon. But with the Infantry-Armor tandem formula, our troops penetrate deep into the central brain of the enemy, then from there span out to the four directions to attack and neutralize enemy rear positions. In this tandem formula, armored and mechanized units have as task to overrun enemy front at main points, while infantry units perform smoke curtain attacks and concentrate their forces at enemy flanks. Air Force attacks enemy positions as well as enemy rear service areas.

In the beginning of April 1975, while NVA columns rumbled down main arteries to enter the 3rd Corps territories, at first President Thieu intended to appoint Major General Hieu to assume the command of the Forward Post at Phan Rang comprised of Airborne, Rangers and 2nd Infantry Division troops, but then for some unknown reason he changes his mind and appointed Lieutenant General Nguyen Vinh Nghi instead. While NVA troops invade Long Khanh areas, Major General Hieu, the Deputy Commander of the 3rd Corps was mulling counter-offensive plans using armored tanks. It was unfortunate that he did not get the chance to put his plan into action because he was mysteriously killed in his Bien Hoa headquarters office on April 8, 1975.

Major General Hieu's death at a critical point experienced by the country was quickly forgotten by sad news coming from the battlefields that were not favorable to South Vietnam. People still recount many anecdotes concerning our General, who is regarded as honest, living a simple life-style and pious. As the anecdote recounted by Colonel Trinh Tieu when he was serving under General Hieu at the 22nd Infantry Division. General Hieu ordered his driver to return a container of condensed milk cans to the Supply Unit's storage warehouse and to accept only six cans which constituted the quota of any soldier. The one recounted by Colonel Le Khac Ly, the 22nd Infantry Division Chief of Staff of the years of 1966-1969. Colonel Ly recalled that General Hieu lived like an ascetic monk. He valued each grain of rice as well as the food that were served at his table, because he considered them as God's gift. He used to take his meals at the officers' canteen and refused to be treated differently than his men. He ate the same food as served to other soldiers and was not choosy in terms of dishes. He finished all plates present to him, indiscriminately. One day, he saw a dead fly floating in his bowl of soup. He just plucked it out with his chopsticks, put it aside on the table then proceeded to consume his bowl of soup as if nothing had happened. Another anecdote recounted General Hieu's piety and his deep knowledge of Holy Scriptures. One Sunday, during the period he was 22nd Infantry Division Commander, while he was attending mass, the celebrant suddenly approached him and invited him to address the congregation. He amazed everybody with an although improvised, but nevertheless concise, well constructed and filled with multiple biblical quotations, sermon. The anecdote that recounted the compassion he had toward those afflicted with leprosy residing at the Di Linh leprosarium. On April 12, 1972, General Hieu entered the bedroom of Monsignor Jean Cassaigne, the founder of Di Linh Leprosarium and himself a terminal leprous, to bestow him with the 4th Degree of National Medal on behalf of Vice President Tran Van Huong.

Together with other Generals, with officers of all levels and with all the anonymous combatants of the ARVN who had committed suicide, preferring death to the humiliation of surrender to the enemy, General Hieu's death was a big and irreplaceable loss to the country and to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

An now, may the spirits of all Generals, - who are now considered as deities of South Vietnam, such as Pham Van Phu, Nguyen Khoa Nam, Le Van Hung. Le Nguyen Vy, Nguyen Van Hieu, Ho Ngoc Can, Lieutenant Colonel Tran Van Long of the National Police, and all the Regiment Commanders, officers at all levels, anonymous combatants of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, - have mercy of the sad conditions the people of South Vietnam are reduced in. May they come to the rescue of those who have to live in sufferings and darkness and grant them the day when light is allowed to come back with the righteous men, dispersing the darkness of deception and oppression, so that the people of South Vietnam can look up while marching into the new millennium filled up with happiness, progress and welfare.

Pham Phong Dinh
Dien Dan Phu Nu 192-2000