Assistant to Three 3rd Corps Commanders

Under Commanding General Pham Quoc Thuan

In 1973, Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Minh's leadership as Commanding General of the 3rd Corps was deteriorating so badly that President Thieu was pressured to replace him with someone else. He selected his former chief of staff at the 5th Division, Lieutenant General Pham Quoc Thuan. General Thuan told Thieu he needed the best strategist he could lay his hands on and wanted him to nominate Major General Nguyen Van Hieu to be his Deputy Commander of the 3rd Corps in charge of Military Operations. At that time, General Hieu was holding the position of Minister of Anti-Corruption in Vice-President Tran Van Huong's Office. Thieu - who had been discarding General Hieu since June 1971 - reluctantly relented to General Thuan's demand.

And so, General Hieu was transferred from an administrative job to a job he liked the most, being a strategist. One can see his obvious satisfaction by comparing pictures of him shot while he was the anti-corruption investigator (h.45) and the ones taken while he was visiting the troops as Deputy Commander of the 3rd Corps(h.14, h.16 and h.17), from a sad and grim face to a beaming and radiant one.

As 3rd Corps Deputy Commander in charge of Operations, General Hieu performed his function in the background, away from the glare of the media. All credits would be attributed to the Commanding General, either General Pham Quoc Thuan, or later General Du Quoc Dong who replaced General Thuan in November 1974. With this in mind, let me quote the description of several military operations occurring in the 3rd Tactical Region during General Hieu's active duty as Deputy Commander of Operations, as narrated by Samuel Lipsman and Stephen Weiss in The False Peace, The Vietnam Experience, Boston Publishing Company. You won't see General Hieu's name mentioned, but he lurked certainly somewhere in the background. His unique combat style was unquestionably present: the use of offensive tandem Infantry-Armor formula.

Svay Rieng Operation (April 27-May 2, 1974).

The two major thrusts of the new ARVN offensive were both directed against the veteran 5th NVA Division, which during January began moving from Tay Ninh toward Dinh Tuong Province. Time was of the essence, for if the 5th was able to occupy the Communists' Tri Phap base it would be extremely difficult to root out. Moreover, its presence in Dinh Tuong would place Route 4, Saigon's vital link to the delta, in grave jeopardy.

During the second week of February elements of the 7th and 9th ARVN Divisions attacked the Tri Phap from the south and east. Taken by surprise, the Communists fell back with heavy losses in men, ammunition, and supplies. For the rest of February and through the entire month of March, fighting spread across Dinh Tuong and Kien Tuong Provinces, but the focus of the campaign remained in the Tri Phap where government forces continued to score heavily. Hoping to divert ARVN's attention while reinforcements were deployed to the battle area, COSVN staged widespread attacks on isolated positions and stepped up its terror campaign in the delta. Twenty-three children died in a mortar attack on a school in Cai Lay. Nine more people were killed and sixteen wounded when terrorists hurled grenades into a religious gathering in Bac Lieu.

Such outrages failed to deflect the government's assault on the Tri Phap. After six weeks of fighting the operation had netted more than 1,000 enemy killed, 5,000 tons of food, over 600 weapons, eight tons of ammunition, and a large quantity of other military equipment. Looking to consolidate their victory, ARVN engineers began construction of fortified positions that were soon occupied by Regional Force battalions. At the end of April the NVA overran two of the RF outposts but were quickly driven back by regular government troops. By the first week of May the army of South Vietnam was in firm control of the Tri Phap. Communist forces in the area had been badly mauled, and the soldiers of the 5th NVA Division had been denied the crucial base area.

The division itself, however, now located in the Parrot's Beak salient along the Cambodian border west of Saigon, remained a serious threat to the Tay Ninh-Saigon corridor. That threat had materialized on March 27 when units of the 5th Division attacked and invested the ARVN base at Duc Hue. As April wore on, and Communist forays out of Svay Rieng Province in Cambodia increased, III Corps commander Lieutenant General Pham Quoc Thuan collected twenty South Vietnamese maneuver battalions around the Parrot's Beak, determined to neutralize the North Vietnamese before the onset of the heavy rains of the summer monsoon.

On April 27 General Thuan sent the 49th Infantry Regiment and the 7th Ranger Group through the swamp lands around Duc Hue toward the Cambodian border as South Vietnamese warplanes attacked known and suspected base areas of the 5th Division. Simultaneously, 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. On April 28, with eleven ARVN battalions already in the field mounting a variety of operations preliminary to the major assault Thuan had readied for the following day, the 275th NVA Regiment and 25th Sapper Battalion launched a furious assault on Long Khot District Town just inside the border of Kien Tuong Province. Whether planned in advance or a reaction to the initial ARVN maneuvers, the attack on Long Khot did nothing to change Thuan's plans. On the morning of April 29 three South Vietnamese armored columns plunged across the Cambodian frontier west of Go Dau Ha, driving straight toward the Communist 5th Division headquarters.

The threat to the division's base had become so critical that the NVA was compelled to retrieve units fighting at Long Khot to defend Communist forces and logistical installations in the path of the ARVN advance. Meanwhile, South Vietnamese infantry and armored cavalry units based at Moc Hoa crossed into the Elephant's Foot, threatening to isolate the retreating 275th Regiment. As the armored columns continued to drive forward, penetrating as much as sixteen kilometers into Cambodian territory before wheeling south toward Hau Nghia Province, and government helicopters ferried troops into surprise attacks on enemy positions, other ARVN units conducted sweep operations between Duc Hue and Go Dau Ha. By May 10, when the last ARVN units turned for home, Communist communications and logistics in the area had been severely disrupted. The NVA had suffered more than 1,200 men killed, 65 captured, and hundreds of weapons lost. On the other hand, the speed, secrecy, and coordination of the multifaceted operation had limited ARVN KIA to fewer than 100.

Battle of the Iron Triangle (May-November 1974).

In the bloody year of 1974 no single operation or campaign was longer, more ferocious, or more costly than the Battle of the Iron Triangle. Pitted by countless bomb and shell craters, undermined by a network of abandoned tunnels, the Triangle bore the scars of thousands of skirmishes, firefights, and full-scale attacks that had raged across the flat, scrub-covered plain for more than twenty years. What made the area so valuable was apparent from one glance at the map. Like the head of an arrow pointed straight at the heart of South Vietnam, the wedge of land lying to the west of Ben Cat was no more than forty kilometers northwest of the capital. NVA control of the region would put Communist artillery within range of Tan Son Nhut Air Base and threaten what ARVN defensive positions at Phu Cuong, Cu Chi, and Lai Khe.

On May 16 two regiments of the 9th NVA Division, backed by a small contingent of tanks, overwhelmed Rach Bap and Hill 82, two outposts guarding the northern leg of the Triangle. By the evening of the seventeenth, as artillery and rocket fire drove some 4,500 civilians from Ben Cat, Communist troops from the 95C Regiment took possession of An Dien while the 272d Regiment pushed south along Highway 14 toward Phu Cuong.

With government forces clinging only to a narrow bridge connecting Ben Cat and An Dien, MR3 commander Lieutenant General Pham Quoc Thuan deployed the 18th ARVN Division in a multipronged counterattack designed to recapture all of the lost positions by May 22. The 43d Infantry supported by the 322d Armored Task Force attacked from the south toward Rach Bap and Hill 82. Task Force 318 advanced from the east toward An Dien, while three battalions of the 7th Ranger Group struck from the north toward Hill 82. None of these efforts met with success. By May 28, with the counterattack bogged down, Thuan decided to regroup for a fresh assault.

A renewed push began on June 1 spearheaded by the 52d Infantry, which crossed the Thi Tinh River south of Ben Cat then turned north toward An Dien, while other elements of the 18th Division attacked the village over the semi-repaired An Dien bridge. Over the next two days Communist and government forces traded heavy blows that decimated the 52d Regiment. On June 4 government troops battling enemy tanks finally entered An Dien. Although captured NVA soldiers reported terrible casualties among their comrades, the Communists launched a furious counterattack on the night of June 5 to 6 with two reserve battalions. But the ARVN held, and General Thuan predicted that the remaining two outposts would be recaptured within three weeks.

In fact, it would take four months before government soldiers regained Hill 82, only three kilometers west of An Dien. The dense bush and cratered terrain obscured the enemy's entrenchments and concealed reserve positions. ARVN armor, restricted to a narrow dirt road surrounded by high grass that reduced the attackers' visibility to no more than a few meters, were picked off by hidden enemy soldiers wielding B41 antitank grenade launchers and Soviet 82MM recoiless rifles. Meanwhile, Communist defenders occupying the high ground had the advancing government columns in full view. Dug into the thick jungle and rubber plantations north of Hill 82, concentrations of enemy artillery pounded the only avenues of approach as soon as ARVN soldiers came within range. Instead of concentrating on neutralizing the Communist artillery, government soldiers were lured into pretargeted artillery zones, then cut to pieces by heavy fire. Making matters worse was the onset of the summer monsoon that, combined with Communist antiaircraft barrages, virtually eliminated VNAF air support.

Between June 7 and July 1 the men of the 18th ARVN Division along with supporting armored task forces repeatedly attacked NVA position east, south, and north of Hill 82, only to be driven back by enemy artillery and antitank fire that claimed thousands of government casualties. By the end of the month the troops he had originally committed had been so roughly handled that General Thuan abandoned the attempt to retake Hill 82 until new plans could be devised.

When the ARVN counterattack resumed on September 7, the initial results were no better than they had been two months earlier. A new government task force swiftly reached the enemy perimeter but could not penetrate the mines and barbwire that ringed the base of the hill. Driven back through pouring rain by fierce artillery fire and tank assaults, the task force was replaced by three battalions of the 9th Regiment which began still another assault on September 19. Using effective counterbattery fire and small assault teams, the 1st and 3d Battalions inched forward, eliminating enemy bunkers one by one. Joined on October 2 by a battalion of the 25th ARVN Division, the attackers pounded NVA defenses with salvos of 155MM howitzer fire that forced the remaining enemy soldiers from their shattered earth and log fortress. Finally, on the afternoon of October 4, government soldiers placed their flag atop Hill 82.

Another six weeks passed while ARVN regrouped and reinforced its battered units before driving the NVA from its last foothold in the Triangle, Rach Bap. In the interim the southern Communist command received instructions from Hanoi to prepare for the offensive strikes to begin at the end of the year. Withdrawing most of its units to base areas farther north, the enemy left behind only token forces. On November 20, after a firefight that left forty ARVN soldiers wounded, GVN troops enter Rach Bap unopposed. The Battle of the Iron Triangle was over.

Under Commanding General Du Quoc Dong

On October 30, 1974, under the mounting pressure of anticorruption movement headed by Father Tran Huu Thanh, President Thieu removed three of his four regional commanders, Lieutenant Generals Nguyen Van Toan (2nd Corps), Pham Quoc Thuan (3rd Corps) and Nguyen Vinh Nghi (4th Corps). Lieutenant General Du Quoc Dong replaced General Thuan as Commanding General of the 3rd Corps. He retained General Hieu as Deputy Commander of the 3rd Corps in charge of Operations. However, as you will see, both of them would not have free hands in their military plannings, especially in the Phuoc Long Battle as narrated by Clark Dougan and David Fulghum in The Fall of the South, The Vietnam Experience, Boston Publishing Company.

The Battle of Phuong Long (December 13, 1974-January 6, 1975)

The five South Vietnamese outposts in the Phuoc Long province were important because they lay across the east-west and north-south supply lines used by the NVA in the Saigon area. While an obstacle to the Communists, their location placed them far north of the main South Vietnamese defense line in Military Region 3. Major concentrations of COSVN infantry and special units, such as the M-26 Armor Command, bordered ARVN's position on three sides. The government soldiers had as their only links to outside help Route 14 to the south and an airfield big enough to land C-130 transports at the capital city of Phuoc Binh (also known as Song Be or Phuoc Long City) almost in the center of the province and about 110 kilometers northeast of the nation's capital. The forces in the government salient kept enough ammunition stored for a week of intensive combat before they required resupply.

A week before the Phuoc Long attack, Tra struck in the west at Tay Ninh to attract any ARVN reserves away from his main battlefield. The move fulfilled ARVN expectations and focused attention far from their eastern flank. On December 13 (the date predicted by Tra's assistant), B-2's 7th and newly formed 3d Divisions struck hard, capturing Bo Duc and Duc Phong the next day. Don Luan, held by a Regional Force battalion of about 350 men, survived the initial assault, but Route 14 beyond the town was closed by the Communists. The ARVN forces at Phuoc Binh managed to launch a counterattack toward Bo Duc, but as they did so the NVA struck behind them capturing Fire-base Bunard and its four 105MM lowitzers. The South Vietnamese air force began flying in replacement artillery and taking out civilians, but soon NVA artillery fire destroyed a C-130, damaged a second, and closed the airfield at Phuoc Binh. By December 22 the remaining ARVN garrisons were cut off.

In Bien Hoa the III Corps commander, Lieutenant General Du Quoc Dong, newly appointed in November weighed the attacks at Tay Ninh in the west against those at Phuoc Long to the northeast. With his major units tied in their defensive positions, and the Airborne and Marine Divisions, the nation's strategic reserve, still in 1 Corps, General Dong possessed only a few battalions of reinforcements. Dong decided that these had to be saved to defend the more important city of Tay Ninh, the keystone of Saigon's defense. He sent only one battalion to reinforce Phuoc Binh, a smaller force than even Tra had anticipated.

Nevertheless, the implications of losing a province capital, especially when the South Vietnamese were already discouraged by shrinking U.S. aid and support, was not wasted on General Dong. With his own III Corps reserves gone, he cornered President Thieu's assistant for security affairs, Dang Van Quang, and insisted that to save Phuoc Long he needed at least part of the Airborne Division that currently was in the lines north of Da Nang.

Thieu's decision must have been an agonizing one. All the tactical and logistical weaknesses of the RVNAF had finally caught up with the president's policy of no retreat. Either he shifted some of his overextended troops to Phuoc Long which would endanger the nation's military position somewhere else, or he allowed the province to fall, which would undermine his political position. On this occasion Thieu opted to preserve the precarious military situation around Saigon. The single group of Airborne Rangers remaining in the JCS reserve stayed in Saigon and the Airborne Division stayed in I Corps. According to Colonel William Le Gro, the senior U.S. intelligence officer in South Vietnam, Thieu wrote off Phuoc Long with the statement that "the Airborne was not available and that it could not be moved in time anyway."

The noose around Phuoc Binh closed a little more tightly when the NVA brought up tanks and unleashed a thousand-round artillery barrage on December 26 to overrun the stubbornly held town of Don Luan. At the end of the day only the garrison at Phuoc Binh remained. Since all the maneuvering had narrowed the campaign down to the final battle, both sides decided to raise their ante on January 5, The Joint General Staff (JGS) relented enough to send two companies of the 81st Airborne Rangers into the fight! The 250 Rangers, highly skilled in commando operations, moved in by helicopter early in the day and joined the survivors of the city's other units. But on the opposite side of the battle lines, Le Duan and the Politburo allowed Tra to commit more of the precious T54 tanks and 130MM field-gun batteries.

The attacking Soviet-built tanks were equipped with shields to neutralize the effects of armor-piercing shells. As one survivor described the phenomenon: "The enemy tanks had something new and strange. Our M-72 rockets were unable to knock them out. We hit them, they stopped for a while then moved on." Another ARVN combatant, Major Le Tan Dai, watched as his men, despite the NVA's four-to-one superiority of forces, climbed onto the backs of the buttoned-up tanks in brave attempts to throw hand grenades into the hatches. The defenders of Phuoc Binh destroyed at least sixteen tanks, but more appeared to continue the attack on the city. At midnight, with all their heavy guns and communications destroyed by NVA artillery and while under direct fire from Communists tanks, a few hundred survivors of the Rangers and Territorial Forces filtered out of their defensive positions into the jungle. Eventually 850 of the 5,400 soldiers of various types defending Phuoc Long returned to government lines.

Under Commanding General Nguyen Van Toan

After the loss of Phuoc Long, General Dong resigned and was replaced by General Nguyen Van Toan. General Hieu remained as Deputy Commander in charge of Operations.

General Toan has the following comments about his Deputy Commander:

It was not until November 1974 (it was more likely February 1975 - Tin Nguyen), when I was assigned to the 3rd Corps that I met Hieu again, who was holding the position of Deputy Commander in charge of operations at the Corps. We cooperated very amicably and efficiently. Hieu was still able to maintain his friendliness and humility as before.

The battlefield situation was very critical at that time and we had to take turn to supervise and command operations. Major General Hieu always denoted a high degree of competency and always performed his duties admirably.

On April 2, 1975, General Hieu flew to "Lau Ong Hoang", in Phan Thiet. There, in a brief ceremony, General Pham Van Phu released the command of the 2nd Corps remnant units to General Hieu. But then, instead of retaining the command of the 3rd Corps Forward Command Post, General Hieu was replaced by General Nguyen Vinh Nghi the next day and returned to his 3rd Corps Deputy Commander/Operations position in Bien Hoa.

The military situation in the 3rd Corps, as reported by General Weyand to President Ford on April 4, 1975, was still good:

The fighting in MR 3 has been sporadic and, on occasion, heavy but there, the ARVN has basically held its own during the past three weeks. In MR3, ARVN forces do not yet face the problem of being significantly outnumbered. Though the Communists are already applying severe pressure in several areas (e.g., Tay Ninh and around Xuan Loc) and are clearly planning a round of new attacks, GVN forces by and large are holding their own and fighting well, and in the process have badly mauled a few Communists units. Barring a wholesale morale erosion on the part of ARVN forces or a significant further increase in Communist strength beyond that of the past week, the GVN should be able to held the situation in MR 3 about as it stood on 3 April, at least for the immediate future.

The Battle Of Xuan Loc

On April 6, Colonel Le Khac Ly, Chief of Staff of the 2nd Corps, who had just escaped from the disaster of Pleiku, visited General Hieu, his former Commanding General of the 22nd Division, at the 3rd Corps Headquarters. After been briefed about the ill-planned withdrawal from the Highlands, General Hieu, standing in front of a huge tactical map, disclosed to his former chief of staff his meticulous planning for an counterattack using tanks to be launched at the coming Xuan Loc battle. Colonel Ly noticed how upbeat General Hieu was during that encounter. Unfortunately, two days later, on April 8, General Hieu was cowardly assassinated, and on April 10, 1975 the battle of Xuan Loc exploded.

Nguyen Van Tin
31 December 1998

Updated on 12.30.2001