A Rare Commodity in the Vietnam War
When asked who were competent generals in the North Vietnamese Army, Bui Tin advanced the following names: Vo Nguyen Giap, Tran Van Tra, Hoang Van Thai, Le Trong Tan, Nguyen Huu An, Hoang Minh Thao.
Le Trong Tan was considered as "The Most Competent Combat Fighting General in Viet Nam", and Nguyen Huu An "A Battlefield General".
In the ARVN, among the more than 160 generals, those viewed as competent were: Do Cao Tri, Nguyen Viet Thanh, Ngo Quang Truong, Le Van Hung, Ly Tong Ba, Le Minh Dao.
Furthermore, General Westmoreland called Do Cao Tri "Viet Nam Patton"; the American military and media considered Do Cao Tri and Nguyen Viet Thanh as two outstanding fighting generals (David Fulghum, Terrence Mailand, South Vietnam on Trial - The Vietnam Experience, Boston Publishing Company); and General Schwarzkopf viewed Ngo Quang Truong as The Most Outstanding Regimental Commander while Colonel James H. Willbanks called him The Most Brilliant Commander.
As for the American Army, those often mentioned were General Westmoreland, General Abrams, General Kinnard, and General Weyland.
However, if a combat fighting general is defined as a general officer who has commanded and fought battles at divisional and higher scale and has won at least a couple of battles, not only due to a superior number of troops but rather due to outsmarting the enemy, then it is hard to place those above-mentioned generals on the list of combat fighting generals.
People often try to draw up an image of a combat fighting general by awkwardly pinning appellations that sound great, such as "a general of hot battlefields", "a battlefield general", "the most competent combat fighting general of Viet Nam", "an outstanding general of Viet Nam and the Whole World", "a Viet Nam Napoleon", "a Viet Nam Patton", "a Viet Nam Zhukov"; but if one looks closely into the drum, the inside is empty or contains only some small scale battles, like in the case of General Le Trong Tan who was attributed with the battles of "Binh Gia, Dong Xoai, Bau Bang-Dau Tieng... South Laos Route 9, front Tri Thien Summer 1972, Tet Mau Than 1968, commander of the eastern coastal military prong"!
Why was there a shortage of combat fighting generals? There are several reasons. The first being that the invading army - North Vietnamese Communist - chose to run a guerrilla warfare at battalion and below scale and only assembled and launched relatively big battles just a few times such as Pleime-Iadrang in 1965 (Chu Huy Man - Vinh Loc - Kinnard), Khe Sanh in 1968 (Cushman - Westmoreland - Vo Nguyen Giap), Dakto-Kontum in 1972 (Ly Tong Ba - Hoang Minh Thao), Quang Tri in 1972 (Ngo Quang Truong - Le Trong Tan), An Loc in 1972 (Le Van Hung). The South Vietnamese Army, the defensive side, for its part, was able to engage the unwilling enemy in a few big battles such as the battlefront of Toan Thang Cambodia in 1971 (Do Cao Tri - Nguyen Viet Thanh), the battlefront of Lam Son 719 Lower Laos in 1971 (Hoang Xuan Lam), and the battlefront of Duc Hue in 1974 (Pham Quoc Thuan). When the North Vietnamese Communists decided to launch significant attacks in 1975, the South Vietnamese Government side chose for tactical retreats in II Corps and then in I Corps, resulting in only the last big battle at Xuan Loc in April 1975 (Le Minh Dao - Hoang Cam). Therefore, not many generals from either side had the opportunity to conduct a big battle so that people could admire their combat fighting trait.
The second reason was the terrain configuration in South Vietnam, which was rather narrow and did not allow for the simultaneous deployment of all the units of a division - which comprised three regiments together with its two battalions of artillery and armor and its engineer unit. General Vinh Loc wrote:
Often, when it was said that a battle involved two or three divisions on each side, the reader would have the impression that it was precisely so, but a closer look would indicate that only a few units of each division were committed at the same time.
In the above quotation, General Vinh Loc also advanced another reason for the shortage of combat fighting general in the ARVN: "not to mention that very few commanders underwent proper training in Large Unit command". See ARVN Generals, Graduates of USACGSC
It was the same among the rank of NVA generals, typically in the situation of General Nguyen Huu An. He recounts in his memoir "Chien Truong Moi" that he twice missed the opportunity of going abroad for higher military education; the first time in 1963, he was about to go to Russia when he was ordered to cancel his study to join the battlefield in Lower Laos; and the second time in 1964, he was readied to go to China but was retained back to head the 325th Division to march into war in the Highlands. Therefore, the NVA seemed to be suffering the same handicap wherein "very few commanders underwent proper training in Large Unit command." Furthermore, the NVA suffered an additional weakness in that a high number of its generals were issued from the peasantry and possessed a very low level of education - such as, according to Bui Tin, General Nguyen Chi Thanh (a peasant with no education), General Doan Khue (grade two under the French colonization) or General Le Quang Hoa (peasant with a 6th grade education). Furthermore, it is known that around 1957, the following generals received private schooling at home given by a teacher by the name of Doan Mau Hoe: Nguyen Chi Thanh and Song Hao were instructed in fundamental Physics and Chemistry (grade 10); Hoang Van Thai and Pham Ngoc Mau studied grade 8 and grade 9; Pham Kiet grade 3 and grade 4.
In the case of the American Army, besides General Westmoreland, who served four years (6/1964-6/1968) and General Abrams also four years (6/1968-6/1972), the other American generals underwent a one-year revolving door policy in command of a division. They wasted the first three months to familiarize themselves with the new job and the last three months to arrange preparation for their successors. And thus, they lacked sufficient time to make an excellent plan for a significant attack and to leave their combat fighting legacy, not counting on the fact that the Viet Cong avoid confronting the American troops.
Being the attacking party, the NVA should have been able to produce more combat fighting generals, having the luxury of choosing a battlefield's time and location. And yet, in reality, it did not have a general who was worthy of that appellation, including General Vo Nguyen Giap. During the period of "fighting against the Americans", he did not achieve any victory; the all-out attack of Tet Offensive in 1968 was a flop. And during the period of "fighting against the French", his myth of a combat fighting general, in particular in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, had dissipated in smoke when declassified Chinese documents emerged to reveal the main invasive role of Chinese advisors in all of the victories achieved by Giap and the Viet Minh against the French, namely Jiaoshing, Chen Geng and Wei Guoping. After the Chinese advisors had left, Vo Nguyen Giap did not achieve any victory, on the contrary, just defeats (Pleime, Khe Sanh, Tet Offensive 1968, etc...)
A third reason for the shortage of combat fighting generals had to do with politics. The American generals were confined to fight within the South Vietnamese boundaries and were not permitted to pursue the enemy into Cambodia and Laos; when President Nixon allowed the American troops to operate across the border into Cambodia in April to July 1970, a thirty-mile limit was imposed. The American policy forced the South Vietnamese generals into a defensive posture and did not facilitate offensive initiatives since it only provided defensive weaponry (no Cobra helicopters, for instance) and dated from the WWII area; furthermore, the South Vietnamese troops were equipped with weapons comparable in power to the Viet Cong's on a retarded schedule, such as M16s versus AK47s.
The fourth reason was the element of partisanship. In 1970, Allan Goldman established a list of generals by partisanship inclination toward Thieu or Ky. In selecting commanders for division and corps, President Thieu did not rely on the criteria of military abilities but aimed at recruiting "loyal subjects" who were void of the desire to foment a coup. It was why General Cao Van Vien was kept in the position of General Chief of Staff Chairman for such a long period from 1965 to 1975; and among the commanding generals of division and corps, the ratio of attendees and non-attendees of the USCGSG was 9/25. Furthermore, General Do Cao Tri was kept out of the military as an ambassador to South Korea (1965-1969); and General Nguyen Van Hieu was banned from the military as an anti-corruption special investigator under Vice-President Tran Van Huong (Feb 1972-Dec 1973)
The fifth reason for the shortage of combat fighting generals in the Vietnam War was the lack of in-depth studies pertaining to the various big battles in which the multiple facets of a battle were addressed, comprising analysis of intelligence on enemy intentions, of planning for attack or counter-attack, of the unfolding process of control and command, of implementation of different tactical phases, etc... For example, in the case of the retaking of Quang Tri, General Le Van Than, an artillery officer and I Corps Chief of Staff at that moment, was thought to be the main agent rather than General Ngo Quang Truong. Or in the case of the battle of Kontum in Summer 1972", General Ly Tong Ba reclaimed his merit while Colonel Trinh Tieu gave credit to General Nguyen Van Toan, II Corps Commander.
Combat Fighting General Hieu
General Hieu was well-known as an incorruptible general, but people do not know him to be a combat fighting general who relished in attacking the enemy with well-thought tactics and strategy, who was skillful in the use of all types of army branches, be it armor, artillery or air force, and all types of units, be it top-notch like rangers, marine corps, airborne, special forces, or be it ordinary like local and militia forces.
Victories that General Hieu had achieved in the three big battles of Pleime, Than Phong 1, and Duc Hue/Svay Rieng are sufficient to qualify him to be placed in the category of combat fighting generals.
Both the North Vietnamese Communist side and the American side viewed the battle of Pleime - or the battle of Ia Drang (to be more accurate the battle of Chu Pong) - in the trilogy of Pleime-ChuPong-IaDrang battles within the Pleime Campaign - as their respective first big large scale battle; the NVA side committed the 32nd, 33rd and 66th Regiment; the American side threw in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Air Cavalry Brigades. But nobody talks about the significant role played by ARVN II Corps Command, in general, and in particular by Colonel Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff, in this entire campaign. This issue has been thoroughly addressed in the following series of articles:
What was unique in the conduct of the Pleime Campaign was that Colonel Hieu outsmarted the enemy and showed his mastering skill in the control and command area, including his subtle manipulation of American commanders.
Colonel Hieu assessed the battlefield scene swiftly, anticipated all enemy schemes and succeeded in dismantling them with the limited means available to him, from the first phase of overcoming the mobile ambush in order to liberate the camp under siege with the Armored Relief Task Force, to the final phase of pursuing and annihilating the enemy to the very heart of its stronghold with the Airborne Brigade.
He also knew to take advantage of his holding of accurate and meticulous intelligence pertaining to the locations and conditions of all enemy units, from headquarters to tactical, which enabled him to persuade the American commanders to listen to and to act on his suggestions related to operational concept and scheduling; and he did so with such subtlety and discretion that outsiders and even the commanders involved were convinced that it was the American command that was in total control in the battle of Iadrang (or rather Chu Pong).
Moreover, he demonstrated his exeptioncal ability in putting to use all the various types of modern armaments, such as tactical attack helicopters and strategic B-52 bombers as well as in maneuvering different kinds of units as appropriate, both American and Vietnamese: airborne rangers, special forces, cdgi, infantry, marine corps, air cavalry, armor, artillery and air force.
He also showed how versatile he was in the implementation of all types of tactics: envelopment, counter-ambush, camp relief, pursuit, ambush, exploitation, attack and destroy.
Than Phong 1
Two months before the Pleime Campaign, Colonel Hieu revealed his trait of a combat fighting commander in the Than Phong 1 operation. This operation has been narrated in the article Road Clearing Operation.
What was unusual in this road clearing operation was that Colonel Hieu made use of a diversionary tactic which bogged down the enemy troops into paralysis, preventing them to maneuver into ambush formations along the road with a simultaneous deployments of units of 22nd Infantry Division, 3rd Armored Squadron, Airborne Task Force 2, Regional Forces, CDGI, Marine Task Force Alpha, 42nd Regiment and Group 20 Combat Engineer in various directions, along Route 1 from Qui Nhon to Tuy Hoa, Route 14, and Provincial Route 7 from Phu Bon to Tuy Hoa, and also at Le Thanh District and at Le Bac. In other words, "the essence of the concept was to forestall ambushes rather than intervene to disrupt and counter ambushes with relief forces."
Duc Hue/Svay Rieng
The battle of Duc Hue/Svay Rieng was the last biggest battle conducted by the ARVN, which occurred in April 1974. Colonel Legro, DAO chief intelligence officer, has recounted this battle in detail. General Hieu who was III Corps Deputy Commander/Operations assembled a force at corps scale aiming at relieving camp Duc Hue under pressure imposed by NVA 5th Division, with 20 mobile infantry battalions surrounding the Parrot Beak area, then launched a cross border attack 16 kilometer deep into Svay Rieng with three armored task forces: 315th Task Force comprising 15th Armored Squadron, 64th Ranger Battalion and spearheaded medium-sized armored unit; 318th Task Force comprising 17th Armored Squadron, one Ranger battalion, one tank unit; 310th Task Force comprising a battalion belonging to 18th Division and one battalion belonging to 25th Division and Group 3, 10th Armored Squadron. Additionally, the operation was supported by two battalions from IV Corps and by artillery and VNAF. This blitzkrieg styled operation was characterized by the use of speed, secrecy, and coordination of a multi-facet operation.
Do Xa, Eagle 800, Snoul
Besides the three large scale battles at divisional and corps levels, General Hieu had also performed three significant major ones at the regimental level: Do Xa in 1964, Eagle 800 in 1967, and Snoul in 1971.
In the Do Xa operation, bearing the official name of Quyet Thang 202 (Sure Win 202), General Hieu who held the position of II Corps Chief of Staff at that moment under the command of General Do Cao Tri, dispatched with audacity a two-pronged troop formation comprising Task Force A with three ranger battalions under the command of Major Son Thuong and Task Force B with units of 50th Regiment/25th Division under the command of Major Phan Trong Chinh deep inside the impenetrable VC stronghold of Do Xa, situated at the junction of Kontum, Quang Ngai and Quang Tin. These two task forces were also reinforced with 5th Airborne Battalion under the command of Captain Ngo Quang Truong.
In the Eagle 800 operation, General Hieu succeeded in luring a regiment belonging to NVA Yellow Star 3rd Division down from its hideout to attack a lesser ARVN unit playing the role of bait and inflicted heavy tolls to the enemy that had to abandon 300 killed on the battlefield. This victory was achieved right after the US 1st Air Cavalry Division had failed to discover the enemy in a three day search and destroy operation.
In the withdrawal operation of Snoul, General Hieu demonstrated his combat fighting trait in the duress of a defensive posture when he succeeded in withdrawing the 8th Regiment/5th Division under threat imposed by two NVA 5th Division and 7th Division. The withdrawal along a 13 kilometer stretch from Snoul in the Cambodian territory to Loc Ninh was considered a success with relatively light casualties. In this operation, General Hieu implemented the eight components of a classical troop withdrawal.
Portrait of a Combat Fighting General
One reason that accounts for the fact that very few people know that General Hieu was a combat fighting general was his discreet character; he rarely talked about his military feats, and he usually remained in the shadow of other commanding generals, like General Tri, General Vinh Loc and General Thuan when he designed and executed the battles of Do Xa, Than Phong 1 and Duc Hue/Svay Rieng.
Colonel John Hayes, the 5th Division Senior Advisor, stated: "He is methodical but decisive". In this regard, perhaps Colonel Hayes was the only American high ranking officers who understood General Hieu thoroughly; the majority thought that General Hieu was timorous and not combative enough. For instance, General Abrams expressed his opinion about General Hieu, 22nd Division Commander, as following in a meeting on July 26, 1969:
General McAuliffe, III Corps Deputy Senior Advisor, also erred in his opinion about General Hieu when he wrote in his November 26, 1970 evaluation report:
Dead wrong, because General Tri, on the contrary, valued General Hieu the most amongst the three Commanders of 5th, 18th and 25th Divisions, according to Colonel Khuyen (Chief of III Corps Military Security)'s opinion:
General McAuliffe was unaware that General Tri had recommended to President Thieu that General Hieu should replace him at the helm of III Corps when he was designated to replace General Hoang Xuan Lam to rescue the deteriorating situation of Lam Son 719 operation. Unfortunately, things did not occur as planned because General Tri died in a helicopter accident in February 1971.
Even General Le Minh Dao, 18th Division Commander, formulated a wrong opinion about General Hieu's fighting spirit:
Dale Andrade noticed that ARVN generals tended to avoid facing problems and therefore preferred to be on the defensive rather than on the offensive:
However, General Hieu was different. Once he had studied the battlefield scene thoroughly and obtained reliable intelligence pertaining to enemy units he was facing, he did not hesitate to attack to the very heart of the enemy stronghold, as he did in the Do Xa operation in 1964, the Than Phong 7 operation in 1965, the Snoul operation in 1971 and the Duc Hue/Svay Rieng operation in 1974.
While, according to Colonel James H. Willbanks, "General Creighton Abrams thought General Truong was capable of commanding an American division", Colonel John Hayes, ARVN 5th Division Senior Advisor, rated General Hieu "better than the average US Division commander in overall performance".
He became a combat fighting general for knowing how to maximize the use of three military instruments: intelligence, armor, and artillery.
He always obtained in-depth intelligence about the enemy situation by inserting recon teams in enemy territories and by cleverly interrogating prisoners and deserters. He instructed that his "Regiment Commanders must improve Recon and LRRP units, make full use of these units in the search and destroy mission. First of all, you must infiltrate enemy inner sanctuaries to pinpoint their bases or stations of relay, and use the element of surprise to attack right at the heart of enemy bases" and that "it was not sufficient to know the identity of the enemy units involved, it was imperative to know the favorite tactics of the unit commander". He, therefore, instructed his G2 staff to ascertain the identity and personality of enemy commanders.
In the Pleime battle, Colonel Hieu pointed out enemy unit positions so precisely that their commanders concluded that "that only spies within the ranks could be furnishing friendly forces the location and movements of the regiment's elements".
He was very versatile in the use of armor units at regimental level (Pleime 1965), divisional level (Toan Thang 8/B/5,) and corps level (Duc Hue/Svay Rieng).
According to Colonel John Hayes:
Furthermore, Colonel Hieu also demonstrated his above-average skill of a savvy armor officer:
General Hieu also excelled in the use of artillery in all of his battles. He demonstrated his skills of an outstanding artillery officer in countering with dexterity the enemy artillery action:
One unique combat fighting trait of General Hieu was his command style; he did not impose his order but rather expressed his orders so gently to the point those who executed his orders thought that they were acting on their own initiative, like in the case of General Kinnard in Pleime/Pleiku campaign and the occurrence of General Tran Quang Khoi in the battlefront of Duc Hue/Svay Rieng. And General Schwarzkopf was convinced that Colonel Ngo Quang Truong was acting on his own during Than Phong 7 operation. General Hieu discussed his command style as follows in the Than Phong 1 operation: "The task forces were closely controlled in their progress. They retained complete freedom of action, but 2d Corps's planning had compelled them to occupy high grounds along the highway and to move by successive bounds." When General Hieu uttered order, he did it in a chief of staff's mild manner rather than a field commander's coarseness, because he knew how to place each chess piece at its appropriate position and according to its value on his battlefield chessboard game, allowing that chess piece to carry out its task in a de facto manner, and it did not need to be pulled and pushed so that it might be put in an awkward position which was beyond its value.
Another unique combat fighting trait of General Hieu was his ability to use all of the chess pieces, be it king queen (Vietnamese and American), or rook bishop knight (airborne, marine corps, rangers), or even pawns (territorial forces). He expressed a comment that General Du Quoc Dong, airborne, did not know how to use territorial forces: "MR3 Commander Lieutenant General Du Quoc Dong has not had experience in commanding territorial forces but that he is learning fast.". General Abrams made the same comment regarding General Do Cao Tri: "He’s been a good tactician, although I had to point out to the president that, while I admire his tactics and so on, he’s really fought the war in III Corps with the airborne, the marines, and the rangers, and has done nothing to improve the performance of the --. " And Brigadier General Tran Dinh Tho, G3 Assistant Chief of Staff, JGS, stated that General Ngo Quang Truong was able to hold I Corps only with the reinforcement of the entire Airborne and Marine Corps units: "Both the Airborne and Marine Divisions, which were the general reserved forces, were sent to support the 1st Army Corps. Even after the objective was achieved, General Truong retained these divisions and utilized them as the local forces instead of sending them back to the Joint General Staff to maneuver other areas."
General Nguyen Khoa Nam once witnessed General Hieu's tactical skill; Phan Nhat Nam wrote:
General Hieu has become a hidden military gem these days. It is about time that he should be recognized as a combat fighting general in the Vietnam War, an outstanding military genius indeed.
Nguyen Van Tin
General Hieu, a Military Genius?