Military Tandem Tri-Hieu

General Do Cao Tri spotted immediately General Hieu’s exceptional and yet hidden military talents right when the two first met at Joint General Staff, garrisoned in Cho Quan in March 1955, at which time Major Tri brought in the airborne units from Nhatrang to Saigon. Around that period, Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem was looking for ways to eradicate the Binh Xuyen faction that was holding the Southern Police and Security Force in the Capital of Saigon. He sought advice from Mr. Nguyen Van Huong, General Hieu’s father, former Northern Police and Security Director recently immigrated to the South. Mr. Huong had an intimate knowledge on the real capabilities of this Binh Xuyen force, and advised that it sufficed to bring in the airborne units from Nhatrang to squash it. After this advice was successfully carried out, Mr. Huong was rewarded with the position of Deputy Director General of the National Police, assistant to Major General Nguyen Ngoc Le. When this happened, Captain Hieu was Deputy Chief of G3. Both emanated a noble appearance: Tri, from a rich family in Bien Hoa; and : Hieu, from a well to do family in Shanghai. No doubt, the two used the French language in mapping out the plan to pacify the Binh Xuyen rebellious faction in Saigon city. After the pacification, Tri was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in May 1955, then Colonel by the end of 1955.

In October 1957, when General Tran Van Don went to Danang to take over the command of I Corps, both Colonel Tri and Captain Hieu accompanied him to the Center; Tri, as I Corps Deputy Commander, and Hieu, as I Corps Head of Operation/G3.

In May 1963, when Major Hieu returned to Vietnam after his graduation from the US Army Command and General Staff College in the United States, Colonel Tri, 1st Infantry Division Commander, assigned him to the position of 1st Infantry Division Chief of Staff. During that time, Hue City was boiling with the Buddhist struggle demanding free-hand in hanging Buddhist flags, while the Central Government’s regulation stipulated that the national flag should occupy a predominant position. According to Mr. Nguyen Tran, Tang Ngoc Tieu, the former Hue Information Bureau Director said that (Công và Tội: Những Sự Thật Lịch Sử, 1999) on 7 May 1963, he received a mailgram sent from Saigon by the Information Ministry and relayed by G5/1ID (Information and Press Bureau), with the content instructing that the national flag should occupy the central position and hung higher than all religions’ or organizations’, with a hand scribbled note by Major Hieu that read relay to Information Bureau for announcement. This indicated that Colonel Tri entrusted entirely Major Hieu the responsibility of dealing with the Buddhist issue, especially after the explosion that had caused the death of seven persons when troops from Thua Thien Sector led by Major Dang Sy who acted under the direct command of General Le Van Nghiem, I Corps Commander, to disperse the demonstrators in front of Hue Radio Broacasting Station in the evening of Buddha’s Nativity. After this serious incident, the Central Government transferred the full authority of coping with the Buddhist issue in Hue from I Corps to 1st Infantry Division.

Major Hieu and Lieutenant Duong Dien Nghi resolved tactfully all issues in this political and psychological warfare and restored order and security to the residents in Hue. As a result, Colonel Tri was rewarded by the Central Government with a promotion to Major General in July 1963. On 11/06/1963, following the coup that toppled down President Diem, Major Hieu and Lieutenant Dien Nghi were promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and Captain respectively. Two weeks later, Lieutenant General Do Cao Tri was nominated I Corps Commander to replace General Le Van Nghiem by the Revolutionary Military Committee; General Tri immediately had Lieutenant Colonel made Colonel and gave him the position of 1st Infantry Acting Commander (a fact not many people knew). Three weeks later, under the instigation of Buddhists, General Tri had to swap I Corps and II Corps with General Khanh, and Colonel Hieu relinquished the command of 1st Infantry Division to Colonel Tran Thanh Phong in order to follow General Tri to Pleiku in the position II Corps Chief of Staff.

While at the helm of 1st Infantry Division, in his capacity of Chief of Staff, Major Hieu had had the opportunity to show his polyvalent talent, in particular in the area of psychological warfare dealing with various groups of university students and Buddhists and in the area of foreign languages when he entered in contacts or gave press briefings to foreign correspondents in fluent English, French, German and Chinese. However, up in Pleiku, Colonel Hieu got the first chance to show off his general staff skills in assisting General Tri in the design of operation Quyet Thang (Sure Win) 202, attacking directly into VC’s Do Xa sanctuary with a divisional level force. This military operation demonstrated to the whole world which was concerned about the combat capabilities of ARVN following the coup against President Diem and multiple consecutive infightings among general officers in the Army, that the Vietnamese military leadership was capable of defeating the Communists.

General Tri trusted Colonel Hieu entirely to the point of not limiting his responsibility to the role of a Chief of Staff but widened it in delegating him the running of the whole II Corps. He even deferred the presiding of the flag raising ceremony every Monday to Colonel Hieu. Even with the benefit of total confidence, Colonel Hieu still felt restless behind the desk, and wished to jump over to a combat position. In response to this desire, on September 10, 1964, General Tri assigned Colonel Hieu to head the 22nd Division. Nevertheless, a few days later, on September 13, 1964, General Duong Van Duc attempted military putsch that resulted in a failure. General Tri, who was an in-law of General Duc, was suspected of being part of the coup, and was relieved of II Corps Command. General Nguyen Huu Co replaced him. On October 24, 1964, General Co brought back Colonel Hieu to his previous position of II Corps Chief of Staff.

The day General Tri was sent into exile as Ambassador to South Korea, Colonel Hieu and First Class Duong Dien Nghi (he was demoted under the pressure of Buddhist activists and General Nguyen Chanh Thi, I Corps Commander) flew to Saigon to bade him farewell at his residence located at 23 Phung Khac Khoan, regardless of negative reactions from various opposite groups. The farewell ceremony was emotionally charged because General Tri and Colonel Hieu were both caring persons, although one was rather extrovert and the other introvert. General Tri went away with the promise of a certain reunion day in the future to resume serving together the army and the country.

Four years later, on August 5, 1968, General Tri was recalled by President Thieu to head III Corps. At that time, General Hieu was holding the 22nd Infantry Division. General Tri would want to bring over General Hieu to III Corps immediately, but he encountered resistance from President Thieu. Only one year later, on August 14, 1969, did President Thieu allowed General Hieu to take control of 5th Division which became the spear head of III Corps in enemy sweeping operations as well as cross-border operations into Cambodia. Colonel Nguyen Khuyen, Chief of III Corps Military Security wrote:

When General Tri assumed the Command of III Corps, coincidently all three divisional commanders of III Corps were graduated of 3rd Class of Dalat Military Academy: Major General Nguyen Xuan Thinh held the command of 25th Division, Major General Hieu, 5th Division and Major General Lam Quang Tho, 18th Division. Among these three Commanders, General Tri seemed to favor General Hieu the most because General Hieu used to be his Chief Of Staff at I Corps and II Corps in 1963.

During General Tri's time as III Corps Commander was the most trial period for the 5th, 7th and 9th VC Divisions. General Tri switched from defensive to attack posture, forcing VC units of the Southern Central Command to the other side of the borders. Duong Minh Chau combat zone, Ho Bo sanctuary were bulldozed and no more constituted safe haven for the Southern Central Command.

In July 1970, President Thieu summoned General Tri to the Presidential Palace and offered him the position of IV Corps Commander, in replacement of General Ngo Dzu, because the military situation in the IV Military Region was deteriorating. He was promised another star if he agreed to it. General Tri responded that he preferred to give that star to one of his protégé. President Thieu asked whom that might be, General Tri’s answer was General Hieu, 5th Division. President Thieu ignored the suggestion and later assigned General Truong to replace General Ngo Dzu as IV Corps Commander.

In October 1970, President Thieu cleverly pushed aside General Tri out of the helm of III Corps and exiled him to France for health reason, replaced by General Nguyen Van Minh. In the letter dated 6 June 1970, Captain Wayne T. Stanley, secretary of G3 of the American Advisors of the 3rd Corps, wrote to Lieutenant Colonel John L. Huestis, Fort Braggs, North Carolina: "General Tri continues to rule the land with fire and determination. He is now on vacation in Europe and he continues to plan on being CG, III Corps until he retires in 18 months." After a while, General Tri was able to make arrangements for his return. Upon setting foot on homeland, he immediately went to 5th Division HQ and stayed put with General Hieu. He threatened to use force with the aid of units of the 5th Division. President Thieu was forced to relent and gave back III Corps command to General Tri.

In February 1971, President Thieu once more summoned General Tri to the Presidential Palace and expressed his desire to assign General Tri to take over the command of I Corps from the hand of General Hoang Xuan Lam, because the military situation of Operation Lam Son 719 in Lower Laos was deteriorating. At that time, General Tri and General Hieu were implementing the Luring the tiger down the mountains plan to entrap the enemy at Snoul, inside the Cambodian territory. General Tri set the condition that he only accepted the new position provided he was replaced by General Hieu at the helm of III Corps. President Thieu did not approve the proposition and when General Tri suddenly died in a helicopter accident on February 23, 1971, he selected General Nguyen Van Minh as III Corps Commander.

In reviewing the two decades (1955-1971) during which time the tandem Tri Hieu struck a close relationship, we can see that General Tri recognized, utilized and promoted the exceptional military skills of General Hieu in both strategic and tactical, general staff and combat areas. No doubt the outcome of struggle against the Communist invasion would be rosier for the ARVN, if the tandem Tri Hieu was not hampered or discarded by partisanship, preventing these two excellent warriors the opportunities of deploying their military skills on the battlefields.

After his assassination on April 8, 1975, General Hieu was buried next to General Do Cao Tri' in Bien Hoa Military Cemetery. Later on, General Hieu's remains were transferred and kept in Tan Dinh church.

Nguyen Van Tin
08 August 2005

general hieu