We knew each other way back in 1957
when General Hieu was still the 1st Corps G3 Chief, and I was 1st Division G3
Chief. We had to muster all our skills to work in unison in an
extremely delicate situation, in which constant clashes occurred between our
two respective bosses, General Tran Van Don, 1st
Corps Commanding General and General Ton That Xung, 1st
Division Commanding General.
After I graduated from the US Army College of Command and General
Staff, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, I reported to General Vinh Loc at the 2nd
Corps Headquarters in Pleiku. While I was waiting in the anti-chamber, Colonel
Hieu exited General Vinh Loc' s office. He shook my hand and said: "The
General can see you now." When I shook General Vinh Loc's hand, I caused him
to scream aloud, not because I had squeezed his hand too hard, but because he
had a medical condition that caused him excruciating pain at the slightest
touch. He informed me that he had just appointed Colonel Hieu Commanding
General of the 22nd Division and Colonel Hieu had specifically requested that
I be nominated to assist him as his Chief of Staff.
Not long after I had served at the 22nd Division, General Vinh Loc wanted
me to run for Congress as a representative for a province in Central Vietnam. At
that time, Thieu and Ky were hand-locked into a power struggle to see who
would get to the biggest piece of the political pie. He wired a message ordering
me to make arrangements to enter the race with the promise of a sizable amount
of money to cover campaign organizational expenses. However, General Hieu
withheld that message from me. When the deadline for submitting candidacy was
over, General Vinh Loc convoked and reprimanded me for not acting on time. It
was only then that I realized that Colonel Hieu did not want me to change my
career. He told me: "I believe that the military career is better for you than
the political arena." To this day, I thank General Hieu for his guidance and
involvement in giving me an appropriate direction in life at that critical
turning point. The military milieu had allowed me to fully develop my
abilities. Had Thieu not discarded my candidacy for promotion three
consecutive times, I could have been a General like everybody else.
When General Hieu was asked by General Tri to take over the command of the
5th Division, everyone expected that he would take his Chief of Staff along.
But General Hieu pulled me aside and told me: "It is better that you remain
with the 22nd Division because if both of us leave, all the efforts the two
of us had put into revamping the combat capabilities of this Division would
dissolve in smoke. You know the inside-outs of this Division better than
anyone else. Once I am gone, try to prevent it from slipping back into its old
weak condition." But then I could not carry out General Hieu's wish because
another team came in and it was business as usual again.
General Hieu lived like an ascetic monk
which made me suspect wrongly that he was a defrocked monk. Let me give you a
typical instance: he always took his meals with us in the Officers' Canteen
and I used to sit next to him at the table. One day, I was shocked when I
spotted a dead fly floating in his bowl of soup. I panicked because as Chief
of Staff, I was in charge of supervising the canteen's staff. While I did not
know how to react to this horrible scene, I witnessed with amazement General
Hieu calmly used his chopsticks to pluck the dead fly out and put it aside on
the table next to the bowl and continued to consume the content of his bowl of
soup as if nothing had happened, without uttering a word of displeasure or
In the same vein of thoughts, I have never witnessed General Hieu reprimand
any domestics that served in his house. If his children fell and hurt
themselves, be it a minor knee bruise or a major head injury, due to their
negligence in supervising his kids, he would just run over to pick up the
injured child and go on tending to the injury without reprimanding them, or
that one time when his second boy has suffered a hip injury that resulted in a
permanent limp for the rest of his life.
General Hieu was a genuine uncorrupted
General. I once told reporters that most of the high-ranking officers had the
appearance of integrity only. I provided them with irrefutable proofs, and
upon returning to their offices, they added General Hieu's name as the fifth
General, but not the least, among the list of most honest Generals (Thang,
Thanh, Chinh, and Truong).
Many Generals put up a show when they acted honestly. In contrast, General
Hieu always acted with utter discretion. A typical example was, even to this
day nobody knows about: One nice day, Lieutenant Hien, commander of the
Divisional Headquarters Guard Company, delivered a refrigerator and a TV set
to the Commanding General's residence as an intentional bribe. Madame the
General was more than happy to receive these two expensive items that the
family was not able to afford on its own. That evening, when her husband came
home from work, she showed them off to him. General Hieu remained silent and
did not show his displeasure. The next morning, he had Lieutenant Hien come
into his office for a private woodshed session. He said: "I know that you
could not possibly afford to buy those two expensive items with your meager
salary. Did you use the company's fund for that purpose? I advise you to take
back the refrigerator and the TV set and restitute the money to the company's
fund." Besides the General, Lieutenant Hien and I, nobody else knew about
the incident. At the next regular promotion, Lieutenant Hien was not
negatively affected by what had happened.
General Hieu excelled in many different
areas, even in mahjong. One night, personnel of the General Staff relaxed in a
tent, after a hard-working day during an out-of-field operation. A Lieutenant
Colonel friend of mine taught me how to play mahjong. General Hieu was passing
by and saw us played. However, he did not say a word and proceeded to the open
sky shower quarters to take his bath. On his way out, he approached our table,
made himself comfortable, and proceeded to show us several astute moves of
this complex game. He then stood up and said: "It is good to know how to play
mahjong, but be aware of becoming addicted to it: it could ruin one's life."
I admire two Generals the most. The
first one is General Do Cao Tri because he was fearless. To anyone who would
express apprehension for his life when he ventured into the midst of
battlefields, General Tri would respond: "At the battlefield, one should walk
erect. If the bullets hit you, you become a hero in the public's eyes. If
the bullets miss you, you still would be considered a hero in the public's
The second is General Hieu because he fought with high class. Another
General who fought with intelligence was General Lu Lan, but at a lower level
than General Hieu's though.
General Hieu made the life of his Chief of Staff easy by simplifying
his tasks. He always carried a small notepad in his shirt pocket. Whenever he
gave orders out on the battlefields, he always jotted them down on his
notepad. Upon returning to the Headquarters, he called me in and advised me
about his recent orders, based on his notes and had me send out a written
confirmation of the operational orders to the field commanders. In doing so,
he avoided the situation in which "the trumpet sounds toward one direction,
and the drum signals on the opposite direction." Many Generals loved to give
out indiscriminate orders out in the battlefields to satisfy their hunger of
powers. Once back to the Headquarters, they went straight home to have dinner
and go to sleep without advising their Chief of Staff regarding their orders
to the field Commanders. When these Commanders received the written
operational orders, they called up the General Staff confused: "What is this,
your orders contradict the Commanding General's orders!"
It is without saying that General Hieu excelled in strategy, but he was
also excellent as a tactician. Upon taking command of the 22nd Division, he
confided in me: "My real role is not the one of a tactical commander, but
rather of a strategist within an international general staff command." He was
just modest in his statement. He learned very quickly, and in no time, he
became an accomplished Commanding General of a tactical division.
One could not possibly compare General Ngo Quang
Truong to General Hieu. In one meeting at the 1st Corps Headquarters,
officers of the divisional General Staff took the turn to present all the tactical
options for General Truong to choose. After listening to their presentation,
General Truong remained silent for quite a long time, without uttering a word.
He then suddenly, without saying a word, walked away to an adjacent room where
his American advisors were waiting. After conferring with them, he came back
to issue orders based on his American advisors, disregarding all the advice
presented by his G3 advisors.
I am not a bit surprised in learning
that high ranking officers who knew General Hieu are now reluctant to talk or
write about General Hieu. In reality, they are still afraid of threats coming
from some underground groups. Let me give you the case concerning Pham Huan.
When he published his first book, he aggressively quoted me as stating that
General Pham Van Phu was only capable of commanding a Regiment. Afterward, he
received threats from a certain group, forcing him to relent on his writing.
And so, when he published his next book, he turned against me with unfounded
accusations and praised General Phu profusely.
General Toan asked me to tell you that
he wants you to call him or to write to him so that he can talk about General
Hieu's tragic death. He said that many people had confronted him about this
issue, but he had preferred to remain silent. But if General Hieu's brother
contacted him, he is willing to
I met with General Hieu two days before
his mysterious death. After the 2nd Corps' debacle in the Highlands, I went to
the 3rd Corps Headquarters to visit him. After inquiring about the
ordeal of the 2nd Corps' ill-organized retreat, General Hieu turned to the
subject of the defense he ha been designing to counter the enemy rapid advance. He
was in a very upbeat mood as usual during my entire visit.
I regret that Lieutenant Colonel Vinh Ho, General Toan's former G2
Intelligence Chief of the 2nd Corps, had died from cancer. Otherwise, I could
ask him for more details, because the day General Hieu died, he was present at
the 3rd Corps Headquarters, waiting to be received by General Toan. He heard
not one but two pistol shots.