The Retreat of Snoul.

In 1970, from March to June, American and Vietnamese units crossed over Vietnam/Cambodia borders to attack the Communists' units right in the heart of their sanctuaries, as ordered by President Nixon. In the beginning of 1971, the 8th Regiment was sent back to Snoul, north of Loc Ninh. At that time, General Hieu was the Commanding General of the 5th Division and General Do Cao Tri, the Commanding General of the 3rd Corps. General Hieu proposed to General Tri to use the 8th Regiment as a bait to lure out and destroy the ever-evading enemy, with the full 3 Divisions of the 3rd Corps in the ready to jump in if the enemy bit the bait, similar to the scheme used by the French in Dien Bien Phu, or by the Americans in Khe Sanh, or by General Hieu himself in his successful Eagles Claw 800 operation, when he was Commanding General of the 22nd Division, which was narrated by Colonel Trinh Tieu. Unfortunately, General Tri died in a helicopter accident in February 1971, replaced by General Nguyen Van Minh. The enemy waited after General Tri's death, then began to attack the 8th Regiment. General Hieu advised General Minh about the initial luring scheme and urged him to immediately withdraw the 8th Regiment if he was not resolute in implementing that plan. General Minh, under his American Advisors pressure, whose plan was to use B-52 bombs to massively destroy the enemy, hesitated to send in the reserved units. General Hieu adamantly opposed the American Advisors' plan, because it would indiscriminately kill foes and friends alike. When the situation reached the critical point of the 8th Regiment units being annihilated by the encircling enemy units, General Minh washed his hands in Pontius Pilate's style and told General Hieu:" Do whatever you have to do!"

The situation was so urgent to the point General Hieu had to land his helicopter directly down into the 8th Regiment's command post in order to orally explain the withdrawal plan, because it was unsafe to use signal communications. Such a courageous gesture created confidence in his soldiers, allowing for an orderly withdrawal through the enemy's encirclement to occur, and two third of the 8th Regiment units reach safely back to Loc Ninh. The Deputy Commander of the 8th Regiment was mortally wound when his armored vehicle was hit by a B-40 rocket, and died upon arrival in Loc Ninh. The number of casualties could have been less, if the American Advisors did not rejected General Hieu's request to use B-52 bombs to destroy enemy ambush sites along the withdrawal route in preparation of the retreat. General Hieu's unyielding stand towards the American Advisors' bossy attitude demonstrated the strong character of a Vietnamese General whose priority was men's lives under his command. The Deputy Commander of the 8th Regiment who died in this battle happened to be one of my students' father. Coincidentally, when I was attending his wake in his modest dwelling, suddenly the Commanding General of the 5th Division, my brother, also showed up to personally present his condolences to his 8th Regiment Deputy Commander's family.

One had to be an extremely competent General, in order to maintain order among the soldiers within a big unit in a withdrawal through an enemy tightened encirclement situation. In the lack of such a extraordinarily strong leadership, the soldiers would throw away their weapons to "sauve qui peut", stepping on each other body to try to escape, as what had happened in the Lower Laos', in the Pleiku's, and in the Da Nang's debacles. When the ARVN units began losing the battle of Lam Son 719 in Lower Laos, I asked my brother why we did not send in a rescue units force. His response was: "Although we have three divisions in reserved, nobody would dare to commit reinforcement units without a readied plan." At that time, I heard that President Thieu intended to send General Tri to replace General Hoang Xuan Lam whose weak leadership caused the deteriorated situation of Lam Son 719 operation. General Tri told President Thieu he would not go to the 1st Corps, unless General Hieu was allowed to replace him as Commander of the 3rd Corps. When things were still unclear, General Tri died in a helicopter accident, replaced by General Minh, and then the Snoul event unfolded...

Nguyen Van Tin
June 1998