General Hieu, A Martial Arts Master

In Chinese martial arts movies, a martial arts master distinguishes himself with the following traits: a chain of attack/defense postures/movements denotes extreme fluidity, flexibility, concision, and decisiveness; although he excels in the use of a specific weapon (a long sword or a scimitar, for example), he can make use of any object which is within arm reach (a pan, a stool, a ladder...for instance) as a temporary weapon; he comfortably joins forces with other fighters of various expertise levels in the fight against opponents; and, while fending for himself he would jump at any moment into the rescue of his brothers-in-arms when he sees they are about to be squashed by stronger opponents. Such was the image General Hieu projected in the performance of his military dealings with the Popular Force units, with his associates, with other combat and service units, and in general staff or operational meetings.

Popular Forces and Rifle Forces

Units of the PF/RF were rated poorly by everyone in terms of fighting effectiveness, with a grade nearing zero. Nevertheless, General Hieu held them in high-esteem and deftly inserted them into his overall strategy.

According to the 1969 Assessment Report on the 22nd Division, "the division training center provides leadership training for ARVN/RF company commanders and executive officers." And "due to the release of regular forces from pacification and the employment of RF and PF instead, - country-wide, the 22nd Division spent the least time on security," and "spent more time on combat operations than any other division in the country during 1st quarter 1969." As a result, "the highest number of contacts per battalion in the Corps was made in this division, and the number of enemy KIA nearly tripled from the previous quarter." The Report further added: "Increased assumption of pacification and territorial security responsibility by the RF/PF has enabled the 22nd Division to free more of its battalions to conduct sustained mobile offensive operations."

Then when General Hieu took command of the 5th Division, in August 1969, it took him only 4 months to strengthen the PF/RF units within the 5th Division operational areas (Binh Duong, Binh Long and Phuoc Long Provinces) to the point which allowed him to entrust these units the main role of protecting these territories, so that the main forces could be freed to conduct crossover operations into Kampuchea. Indeed, going into 1970, the Communists were no more capable of launching an attack at the battalion level within this side of the border in the 5th Division operational areas, and General Hieu entirely wrestled with the enemy in the neighboring Kampuchia's territories.

When General Hieu launched the 9th Regiment on a crossover border assault recon operation into Kampuchea into Fish Hook area northwest of Loc Ninh for 10 days on January 4, 1971, he assigned to Binh Long Sector the tasks of "conducting operation inside the country during the period TF9 performed across the border operation" and to "coordinate with TF9 in providing security for the supply route to the area of operation in the above-mentioned period."

When he executed the across-border Total Victory 4/B/5 Operation, General Hieu assigned to:

Binh Long Sector: (1) responsible of security of supply route from Ban Long to Loc Ninh; (2) protect US Engineer squad repairing highway between Chon Thanh and An Loc; (3) receive one recon squad beginning 060800H/5/70.

Phuoc Long Sector: (1) attach one PF and one group of RF to area Bo Duc on D-1 for 3/9th Battalion to participate in the operation on day N.

Binh Duong Sector: (1) receive one recon squad beginning 060800H/5/70; (2) responsible for security according to message Total Victory 3/B/5.

In the battle of Svay Rieng, General Hieu had "two RF battalions pushed north from Moc Hoa, establishing blocking positions on the southwestern edge of the 5th Division's logistical base and assembly area."

General Hieu had the opportunity to lay out his concept and his position pertaining to PF/RF units in a discussion session with General McAuliffe:

5. General Hieu then spoke about pacification. He commented that military operations are relatively straightforward and easy for a military man to comprehend. Pacification, on the other hand, is complex. Citing General Tri's recent guidance, he said that the 5th Division should move away from the pacified areas, leaving these to RF/PF forces to secure. He drew an analogy of thrusting one's fist into a fishbowl; the fish move away, and stay away as long as the arm is in the fishbowl; however, as soon as the fist is withdrawn, the fish return to that spot. He said that the same thing can happen with regard to VC in populated areas, i.e., when ARVN and US forces move away the VC tend to return. He has spoken to all of the district chiefs in his AO, as well as to many village chiefs, and many are uneasy at the prospect of ARVN and US forces moving away from the populated areas. In his view, Binh Duong Province has sufficient RF/PF forces, but these forces require further improvement in combat effectiveness, and need the reassurance of support from nearby US and ARVN forces in order to keep out the VC and maintain security for the populace. Therefore, he indicated that he feels an obligation to overwatch these territorial forces and to assist and support them as much as possible. I assured him that we shared this view. However, he considers this a most difficult problem, particularly in light of General Tri's guidance.

6. In a digression, he spoke about the generally narrow views which many district chiefs hold. Their concern, he said, is primarily about their pacification statistics, and they look at military activities only insofar as these will assist their statistical picture. General Hieu stressed, however, the desirability of battalion commanders (ARVN and US) coordinating daily operations with the chiefs of the districts in which their forces are operating -- as I pointed out is now being done in the Phu Hoa District.

He emphasized the following major points:

1. the core defense forces in populated areas should be PF/RF units and not units of the regular forces;
2. PF/RF units have the capacity to achieve their territories defense responsibility when the main combat forces lend them appropriate supports;
3. one must understand and use psychology in dealing with the population, with sector chiefs and with regimental commanders (Vietnamese as well as Americans);
4. and one must educate villages' elders, sector chiefs and regimental commanders on their respective roles in the common combat efforts.

Even when he was still a Major, G3 Head of Corps 1, around 1963, General Hieu showed respect to the weakest force unit - the Paramilitary Force - and "spoke highly of the strategic hamlet program" to an American Marine Corps: "In each tactical area, the Army is responsible for support, barbed wire, and weapons, and we are making progress. Elections are being held in many of the strategic hamlets."


General Hieu was very meticulous in the selection of his associates. When he was assigned to the command of the 22nd Division in June 1966, General Hieu requested General Vinh Loc to appoint Colonel Le Khac Ly, who had just returned from the United States after his graduation at the U.S. Army College of High Command and General Staff, his divisional Chief of Staff. Later on, Colonel Ly proved to be the most competent ARVN Chief of Staff. When he assumed the command of the 5th Division in August 1969, a short period afterward (in June 1970), General Hieu brought over Lieutenant Colonel Bui Thach Dzan, the hero of the battle of Eagles Claw 800, from the 22nd Division to assist him in the command of the 8th Regiment. Tran Hoai Thu recounted how General Hieu had put his heart into the selection of his Commander for the 405th Scout Rangers Company.

Although he wanted to have capable associates working with him, General Hieu did not fall into partisanship and usually employed the existing personnel staff he found when taking over a new command post. A typical instance was when he was called by General Do Cao Tri to take over the command of the 5th Division, he did not follow the general practice of taking along his Chief of Staff, Colonel Le Khac Ly.

Toward his staff, General Hieu required efficiency and did not pay attention to their private life, although he might be keenly aware of an individual's weaknesses, such as alcoholism, gambling, philandering, etc...In a particular instance, a spouse of a Captain working at the 5th Division Headquarters came to General Hieu's father for help because her husband was having an affair with a female staff member of his. General Hieu's father took the pain to go to Binh Duong to intercede his son for the lady. General Hieu listened attentively but did not make any promise. It was not known if he did take any action against that Captain at all, but it appeared that the adulterous relationship did not stop because the spouse was seen coming back to General Hieu's father several more times afterward.

It was the same toward his General ranking peers. General Hieu drew a clear-cut line between the two military and private-life areas. This explains why he was able to maintain his integrity and virtue while working with other corrupt and low moral Generals. A typical example was the close relationship that spanned two decades between General Do Cao Tri - an exceptionally competent warrior but who was tainted by a cavalier attitude and a reputation of alleged corruptions - and General Hieu.

Everybody agreed with Colonel John Hayes, 5th Division Senior Advisor's assessment that General Hieu had "good qualities include dedication, experience as a combat leader, ability to stimulate and maintain morale, and ability to control those in his command; he is quite religious and patriotic, and demands high standards of conduct and discipline." However, no one had ever witnessed General Hieu admonished anybody on the issue of virtue. He only spoke by his actions and good examples.

Other Combat and Service Units

General Hieu had the opportunities to collaborate with the majority of other combat and service units in his military operations, typically with: Special Forces and Airborne Rangers (Pleime-1965, Phuoc Long-1975), Paratroopers (Do Xa-1964, when General Ngo Quang Truong was a Captain and received a battlefield promotion to Major at this campaign, Duc Co-1965, Lien Ket 66-1966, when General Nguyen Khoa Nam was still Major, 5th Airborne Battalion Commander, Eagles Claw 800-1967), Rangers (Do Xa-1964, Total Victory 8/B/5-1970, Snoul-1971, Svay Rieng-1974), Popular Forces (Svay Rieng-1974).

General Hieu's specialty was Armor because his unique combat style consisted of the use of the Tandem Infantry Armor Formula, coupled with the use of Artillery's firepower to support tanks and armored vehicles.

General Hieu always relied on the Air Force for troops transportation and air tactical firepower supports and air reconnaissance.

Because he liked to be in the attack posture and always lunged at the heart of enemy sanctuaries, he constantly needed the help of Engineer units to clear the terrains.

The service unit that General Hieu did not have the occasion to make use of was the Navy. Nevertheless, he had entrusted Major Sidney Linver, G3 Advisor of the 5th Division, the task of designing the use of River Patrol Boats in the 5th Division operational areas.

Furthermore, General Hieu had collaborated closely with the US 1st Cavalry Division, the Korean Tiger Division, the US 173rd Airborne, the US 4th Infantry Division, the US 1st Infantry Division, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the 3rd Brigade/82nd Airborne Division, the 3rd Squadron/17th Air Cavalry, The 174th Assault Helicopter Company, the 7/15th Field Artillery Battalion, The 19th Engineer Combat Battalion, and to a certain degree with the US 1st Marine Division prior to 1963, along with the USMC HMM-364 (Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364) and the 52nd Aviation Battalion in the Do Xa Campaign.

However, General Hieu did not overly depend on the Allied Armed Forces. The American military high authority was amazed by the fact that in a short period which followed the transfer of the two Provinces of Binh Long and Phuoc Long by the US 1st Infantry Division over to the 5th Division in August 1970, General Hieu had ascertained better security for these two Provinces than ever before and could afford to jump over to Kampuchea in the pursuit of the NVA 5th Division.

General Hieu always fraternized with soldiers of other combat units and acquired the technical knowledge pertaining to each combat unit.

He achieved the requirement of 5 daytime and 2 nighttime jumps for the acquisition of the Vietnamese Airborne license; and had to perform 4 maintenance jumps each year in order to retain his paratrooper qualification. He also, later on, earned the American Airborne license. That was why he so proudly displayed the two Vietnamese and American Airborne insignia on his chest.
While still a Major serving at the G3 General Staff, he more than once abandoned his desk to join the Paratroopers on their operations into the jungles. Once, while crossing a stream, Major Hieu slipped and fell into the strong current; luckily he was caught by a sturdy paratrooper who helped him back on his feet.
He learned to drive all armored vehicles, he could fly helicopters and even combat jets.
An Engineer unit's Lieutenant Colonel remarked: "You can fool other Generals with technical arcana in order to avoid obeying a difficult order, such as building a field force bridge across a river in an enemy-controlled area, but you would not dare use the same tactic with General Hieu, because he mastered all details, even technical minutia, and you know damn well he only gave an order that he knew could be carried out."

General Staff And Operational Meetings

Soldiers noticed that a Commander who was only good in tactics and weak in strategy, would only preside a meeting and let his general staff officers do the presentation and would not utter any comments or give out on the spot oral orders. It was the opposite in General Hieu's case: he always took over the center stage in strategy meetings - like the one he held with his Lieutenants of the 5th Division -, in operational meetings - like the one he held with the Command of the US 1st Infantry Division -, or in one-to-one discussion meetings - like the one he held with General McAuliffe.

One former officer recalled when he was still a young Lieutenant and was part of a team that the central military authority dispatched to different field combat units to be briefed on the newly established joint Vietnamese American operational protocol. This team came to the 22nd Division instruct its general staff in the presence of General Hieu. In his presentation, our young Lieutenant touched upon the use of strategic B-52 bombers and tactical F-5 combat jets. General Hieu intervened and requested clarification on the distinction between strategy and tactics. After getting a fuzzy explanation attempt, General Hieu stood up and provided to the audience a better understanding of the two notions, and told our young Lieutenant: "You are still young, and have ample opportunities for more advanced studies." Our young Lieutenant still recalled that he did not feel intimidated by General Hieu - as he did while facing General Ton That Dinh - because General Hieu demonstrated a demeanor more of a debonair professor than of a towering army general.

Many other people felt the same way:

Colonel Phan Huy Luong: "I took delight in conversing at length with General Hieu. He was not like other Generals. He was more of a literary-like type than a soldier-like type."
Colonel Dinh Van Chung: "He had the appearance of a professor, Vietnamese and French instructors equally respected and liked him."
Colonel Quan Minh Giau: "Among cadets, Hieu was rather taciturn, affable and jovial, known never to use foul language and argumentative. All of his actions, even the ordinary ones, had a touch of perfection. I had the impression that beneath his taciturnity, along with his affability and a scholarly appearance lied an unspoken strong and determined soul, turned toward a lofty ideal.
A UPI's reporter: "Few ARVN officers are capable of giving a military briefing in English as fluent as General Hieu."


The image of a martial arts master befits General Hieu because he excelled in many aspects, even frivolous ones. Colonel Le Khac Ly had mentioned General Hieu's expertise in mahjong. Let's add another anecdote: Colonel Ta Thanh Long revealed that General Hieu was an accomplished dancer and recounted that when he was Chairman of the 4-Party-2-Side Committee in 1974, he used to organize night dancing parties to entertain the different foreign military delegations and always invited General Hieu to join in with him. General Hieu gladly accepted the invitation each time. Meanwhile, it was known that a particular General classmate of General Hieu, even when he had reached the rank of General still did not know how to dance and had to quietly ask an officer under his command to give him private dancing lessons: "I learned to jump parachute in one shot; I just let the instructor push me out of the airplane and got it. Why are these dancing steps so difficult to learn!"

Nguyen Van Tin
02 January 2000.

Updated on 12.09.2001