My Brother's Death

Even to this date, my brother's death is still shrouded with mystery. The sad news reached us on the evening of 8 April 1975 (in reality, he was assassinated that afternoon) by one of his chauffeurs he had assigned to drive my father's car, who drove from the 3rd Corps headquarters back to Saigon to announce to us that news. The next morning, we went to Bien Hoa and entered the military base. We were greeted by Lieutenant Colonel Quyen, Commander of 3rd Corps Military Police unit, who took us to the place where my brother's body was laid. I bent down to examine carefully and observed a small wound dot right at his left chin and another also tiny wound dot at the right top side of his head. Lieutenant Colonel Quyen also led us to his office. My brother was then the Deputy Commander of the 3rd Corps.

We were told that my brother had died right in his office while awaiting a colleague to go together to have supper in the officerss canteen. The alleged cause of his death: General Hieu, whose hobby was guns' collection, accidentally shot himself while cleaning his pistol. I said to myself: that's impossible, because my brother is right-handed, while the path of the bullet, entering his left chin and exiting his right top head, ought to be caused by a person who triggered my brother to react by throwing back his head slightly to the right to avoid the menacing pistol aiming suddenly at his face. Strangely nobody showed us the culprit pistol. I also noticed the absences of the Commander of the 3rd Corps and his close associates. Did they have something to hide? Either because they caused his death or because they knew about his death and therefore were prohibited from talking to us? And Lieutenant Colonel Quyen conducted himself as he was an unwilling movie director: his attitudes and words appeared quite awkward as though he was trying to hide something.

I regret that, due to the critical situation our country was in at that time, we did not get the results of a forensic test performed by a police officer on my brother's hands to determine if the gunshot wound was a self-inflicted wound or not, depending on the presence or lack of presence of gun powder trace on the victim's hand. Before leaving the scene, he came to salute my father: "Sir, I was a former student of yours, when you were the Director of the Police Training Center. I promise to let you know the results of the test. I just underwent the training of this marvelous technique in the United States." It would be hard though to know the truth when the assassin and accomplices, who were in power, were determined in covering-up their action.

In my own opinion, my brother was assassinated either for personal vengeance or political reasons. If it was for personal revenge, then it should have happened in a heated argument. Who else, besides the Commander of the 3rd Corps or one of his close associates acting under his superior's direct order, would dare argue with the Deputy Commander of the 3rd Corps right in his office? The content of the argument could have been a disagreement regarding tactics (one might want to disregard soldiers' lives, the other might want to preserve them?), at a time when the military situation was extremely volatile, in which the superior, already crushed with feelings of inferiority for being less competent than his inferior, was loosening ground in the argument. The last drop into a glass of water already filled up to the brink, causing it to overflow, leading to the act of assassination? The last time I talked to my brother, I asked him: "Why was Toan selected to be the Commander of the 3rd Corps?" He smiled with a tired and hopeless face and a touch of sarcasm in his voice: "President Thieu declared that the present situation warrants a General originated from the armored cavalry branch which is used to be aggressive." Furthermore, one side was a corrupt General with the nickname "cinnamon warlord" and "scrap metal warlord", the opposite side was an uncorrupt General who used to possess all the dossiers on corruption cases while at the position of Minister of Anti-Corruption under Vice-President Tran Van Huong. I recall, learning that General Toan was replacing General Dong as the Commander of the 3rd Corps, a friend of mine told me: "That's it, your brother resembles a sheep among a pack of wolves!"

After arriving in the United States, each time I met with former military officers who knew about my brother's death, I heard the same utterance: "It was no one else but General Toan!" Colonel Nguyen Van Y, a onetime Head of the Vietnamese Central Intelligence Agency, when we met in New York in 1986, gave me that same statement. However, in my recent telephone conversation with Brigadier General Ly Tong Ba, I asked him if it was General Toan who shot my brother. He answered me: "I don't think General Toan shot your brother because when he died, I was in a meeting with General Toan. After the meeting, on my way to the canteen, I heard the soldiers mention about General Hieu being shot in his office. Because I had to hurry back to my units, I did not linger for more information." On the contrary, another source told me that Colonel Luu Yem, the Chief of Bien Hoa city, who was also meeting with General Toan, asserted that General Toan shot my brother after the meeting. I would like to open a parenthesis here: why was the Deputy Commander excluded from attending such an important meeting?

Another reason for the death of my brother could have been he was suspected by somebody to organize a coup d'etat. This hypothesis took life in my mind after my several contacts with the American General Consul of Bien Hoa. After the funeral of my brother at the Military Cemetery in Bien Hoa, he invited us to an informal meeting in his residence. In this encounter, he pulled me aside and told me that he had been very close to my brother: they used to play chess at his poolside and often watch American movies together in the private American General Consulate's theater on weekends. My theory is that the authority suspected this CIA operative was nudging my brother into organizing a coup during those frequent meetings and had him killed as a preventive measure. I recall one day my father told me:" Two CIA men came to see me today and inquired how close General Truong is to your brother. For what purpose, I don't know." Is it possible the CIA intended to recruit General Truong, who was holding the Command of the 1st Corps, and General Hieu to join forces in a coup? General Truong had once threatened to topple President Thieu down when he was frustrated because of President Thieu's order and counter-order to keep and not to keep Hue. Around this time, the CIA wanted Thieu gone, because the American Congress would not release the 700 million dollars military aid package unless President Thieu resigned. At the same moment, Vice-President Tran Van Huong, who held my brother in high esteem, was ready to take over the Presidency. "Mosquitoes die when two buffalos fight"!

Would my brother dare to take charge of a coup? He was a purely military man without political ambitions. In several frequent coups in the past, I was curious to look for his name in the list of participants' names of a coup but never found his name among them. However, I think my brother was a courageous man, if circumstances demanded, he would not hesitate to spring into action, even if his action might harm him. While the cities in the Center of Vietnam were rapidly falling one after the other, he made this statement to me: "If the United States stopped its military aid to Vietnam, our Army would be able to hold two months max. Our soldiers possess abundant abilities; what's lacking is ammunition." I still remember reading a letter he sent to my father after the 1963 coup against President Diem, in which he narrated how he was able to disarm the guards protecting Ngo Dinh Can's Palace without firing a shot. At that time he was Lieutenant Colonel 1st Division Chief of Staff.

During the time the country was deteriorating rapidly when everybody worried the Communists were about to invade the South, he used to pat his wife's shoulder and said: "Don't worry, I will take care of everything." On the morning of 8 April 1975, an F-5 combat jet, piloted by Nguyen Thanh Trung, took off Bien Hoa airfield and bombed the Presidency Palace. My brother phoned home to advise his wife "not to let the children play on the streets." Those were the last words he noted in his diary.

The following days, my sister-in-law was busy organizing my brother's funeral. The Army and the Government wanted to have the wake held either at the Joint General Staff facilities or City Hall to host a solemn and vast military ceremony. My sister-in-law, still bitter by the fact an Army's or a Government's hand had killed her husband, rejected that idea and had the wake ceremony held at her home. And so a solemn military service took place in a tiny little room. At the four corners of the casket, groups of four Generals in a white uniform with a chest full of medals, took the turn to stand in guard round the clock. The majority of civilian and military dignitaries came to the wake. Vice-President Tran Van Huong, on behalf of President Thieu (why didn't he come?), came and promoted my brother to the rank of Lieutenant-General.

I once wrote to the CIA, invoking the "Freedom of Information Act" to try to find out the truth surrounding my brother's death. The CIA denied my request, although the event had happened more than 20 years ago.

News updated.- On May 06, 2015 a military intelligence source revealed to me:

At 10:45 a.m., when General Hieu entered his III Corps Deputy Commander's office, the assassin jumped over from behind, delivered a chopping blow at the back of the neck causing a temporary immobilization, then used a small Browning P6.35 mm caliber pistol to shoot at the chin. The bullet pierced the chin, traveled up to the brain, and lodged inside the skull without exiting the head.

The assassin was General Toan's bodyguard, Captain Đ̃ Đức, a third-degree black-belt Taekwondo.

Right after the killing, General Toan called President Thieu to let him know: "Mission accomplie".

Nguyen Van Tin
September 1998

Updated on 05.07.2015