General Hieu And Tandem Infantry Armor Formula

Although he had never been commissioned into the Armor Unit nor had he ever attended an Armor Training School either at Thu Duc (Vietnam), at Saumur (France) or at Fort Knox (United States), General Hieu had demonstrated an excellent ability in the use of the Tandem Infantry Armor Formula in all of the combats that he had conducted. Before providing proof of such talent, let's examine why it was difficult to solve and to apply this Tandem Formula, in other words, why it was not easy to employ tanks and armored vehicle in the Vietnam battlegrounds.

A Hard To Solve Tandem Formula

General Westmoreland had emphatically stated: "Except for a few coastal areas in the Center regions, one cannot use tanks in Vietnam." It was only in 1968 that he changed his thinking after he had seen ARVN Armor units use with efficiency combined infantry and tanks/armored vehicle forces and then ordered his American troops to mirror their lilliputian allies.

Not only did U.S. Armed Forces find it challenging to use tanks in the Vietnam battlefields, but the other participants, Armed Forces (Korean, Australian, New Zealander, and Thai, including North Vietnamese), did also. The Viet Cong introduced its T-54 tanks at Kontum-Tan Canh's siege, at Quang Tri's battlefront and An Loc's siege in the Summer of 1972. In the beginning, ARVN soldiers reacted awkwardly when they came face to face with those tanks for the first time in their life. But then, because Viet Cong tanks were rarely accompanied by infantrymen and thus always advanced unprotected, they became easy targets for South Vietnamese foot soldiers armed with individual anti-tank M-72 rifles. It seemed that NVA soldiers and officers were sent to Russia to learn how to drive and maintain tanks, but were not taught the art of tanks tactics.

Three major factors make it difficult to use tanks/armored vehicles effectively. The first factor is the terrain. Tanks are most fitted on flat, wide- open, firm, and unobstructed terrain. In this respect, Vietnam was divided into four distinctive terrain areas: the Delta (rice-paddy areas surrounding Saigon, My Tho, Can Tho), the Mountains (areas along the Annamite Mountains), the Coastal Plains (sandy areas surrounding Qui Nhon, Phan Thiet, Tuy Hoa, Danang, Hue), and the Central Plateau (areas surrounding Kontum, Pleiku, Ban Me Thuot). Amazingly, ARVN Armor units had shown that their light-weighted M41 tanks and modified M113 armored vehicles could be effectively used on all terrains but the Mountains, which constituted NVA troops inaccessible refuge.

The second factor is the massive factor of tanks. To effectively use them, one has to ascertain a precise knowledge of the terrain and then master the logistical complexities of providing fuel and ammunition to tanks, as well as their maintenance. A comparison between the maneuvering of a tanks squadron and the maneuvering of a horde consisting of 30 to 40 elephants would give an immediate understanding to its difficulty: instead of being a formidable weapon, it would constitute a cumbersome burden in one's hands.

The third factor is the tankers' attitude. In any Armed Forces, the black beret tankers are always a breed of proud warriors. They always look down on infantrymen, partly due to the mere fact of the vantage point of their high seating positions (looking down the foot soldiers walking pitifully below them) and partly due to their required qualification of sophisticated technical knowledge. As a result, tanks Commanders don't easily take orders from Infantry Commanders. That explained why ARVN tanks Commanders felt unhappy when Armor Regiment was renamed to Armor Squadron, which put them one level below the Commander of an Infantry Regiment. Nonetheless, tankers do realize that without the help of accompanying infantrymen, a tank would be like a blind-folded horse, easily knocked down by individual anti-tank rifles.

It is because of all the above-mentioned factors that a Commander has to be exceptionally competent and well respected to handle with efficiency the Tandem Infantry Armor Formula. That explains why General Nguyen Van Minh, a weak military leader, had to disband the 3rd Corps Armor Brigade and the 3rd Corps Assault Task Force at the end of 1971, rather than to make use of these two formidable and yet cumbersome big units.

General Hieu had an in-depth knowledge of the elements of terrain, of intelligence vis-a-vis enemy forces, and commanded respect and confidence of both his infantrymen and tankers. The effective use of the Tandem Infantry Armor Formula had become General Hieu's distinctive and unique combat style.

He was able to do so due to his natural ability to learn by proxy. General Hieu learned the tactical maneuvering of tanks and armored vehicles by just listening to tankers whenever he got the opportunities to converse with them, i.e. Major George E. Kimball (his sponsor officer when Major Hieu was attending the US Army College of High Command and General Staff, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1963), Captain Tran Quang Khoi (Head of G3, when Colonel Hieu was 2nd Corps Chief of Staff under Commanding General Tri in 1964), General Harry Kinnard (1st US Cavalry Division when he was still 2nd Corps Chief of Staff under Commanding General Vinh Loc, in 1965, and when he was Brigadier Commanding General of 22nd Division in 1966), Colonel John Hayes (Senior Advisor, ARVN 5th Division, in 1969-1970), Major Shouse (G3 Advisor, ARVN 5th Division in 1970). Colonel Le Khac Ly, 22nd Division Chief of Staff, recounted that when General Hieu took over the command of the 22nd Division, he confided in him: "I was not meant to be a tactical commander, but rather a strategist in an international general staff command." Colonel Ly added: "General Hieu was just modest in saying so: he learned and caught up very quickly, and in no time he became an accomplished Commander of a tactical division."

General Hieu's Military Exploits using the Tandem Formula

It appeared that General Hieu applied the Tandem Infantry Armor Formula whenever he launched an attack with his troops. The following typical examples have been mentioned in other parts of this homepage:

Battle of Pleime. In this battle, he used the "shock" tactic with artillery 's fire-power supports to counter-attack the ambush set up by the NVA 32nd Regiment composed of 3 Battalions, the 635th, the 344th, and the 966th.

Also in the Battle of Pleime, when drawing lesson regarding the use of tanks, Colonel Hieu wrote:

We also learned that in the previous battle of Duc Co, the VC always tried to take advantage of the darkness to assault armored units. This time at Pleime, they had used the same tactics, offered to armored units one more opportunity to achieve exploits, and enhanced the pride of the 3rd Armored Squadron (stationed in Pleiku), the oldest armored unit in the ARVN which had taken part in the fierce fighting in Ninh Binh, Nam Dinh, Vinh Yen in North Viet Nam, before the cease-fire in 1954.

The terrain at Pleime is covered by dense vegetations, but the soil is hard, small streams rare, and armored cavalrymen could feel comfortably "at home".

In most cases, infantry protection is required to ensure the security of armored columns. The battle of Pleime, on the contrary, was a typical case in which the infantry elements considerably restricted the mobility and capabilities of the armored turrets. For this reason, Armor company commanders should not in the future cling to boo-principles and had better expose themselves daringly instead of limiting their mobility with close infantry protection. This would provide not only liberty of action but also the arguments to defend oneself in case of being surprised.

Phu Cu Pass Battle. Phan Nhat Nam wrote:

General Hieu took over the command of 22nd Infantry Division in June 1966, and by the end of the year (November), the newly appointed Commander scored a battle victory at Phu Cu Pass (Phu My District). At that time, we, the attached unit (3rd Airborne Task Force-Pnn) established a blockage position on the mountainside and witnessed our friendly unit (42nd Regiment/22nd Division) joining forces with the armored squadron of M113s in sweeping the enemy from National Route 1 into the mountains. The battle unfolded just like a military WWII documentary film. Infantrymen in front line formation followed M113 armored vehicles launched fierce assaults, after a salvo of artillery firing, just like Middle Age’s knights charging in combat. Airborne Task Force Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Khoa Nam, observed the battle from the mountainside with binocular. Although he was a man frugal in words, he had to utter his admiration: “Colonel Hieu conducts his troops like a seasoned “armor officer”, and combatants of 22nd Division fought as elegantly as our paratroopers.” Those were sincere words from a combatant complimenting another combatant on the battlefield.

Eagles Claw Battle. In this battle, General Hieu picturesquely used the "encirclement" tactic to cut the retreat route of a Regiment belonging to the NVA Three Yellow Star Division back into the mountains, after succeeding in luring it down from the Annamite Mountains.

Total Victory 8/B/5 Battle. In this battle, General Hieu used the "sweep" tactic with two Armor Squadrons, the 1st, and the 18th, to support the 1st, the 9th and the 333rd Regiments in search of the NVA 174th and 275th Regiments belonging to the NVA 5th Division in the areas surrounding Snoul City located deep inside the Cambodian territory.

Snoul Battle. In this battle, General Hieu used the "reconnaissance", the "sweep", the "shock" (when the 3rd Corps Assault Task Force came to the rescue of the 8th Task Force during its retreat) tactics, and was about to use the "encirclement" tactic with 8 task forces formed by units the 18th and 25th Divisions, but then the operation was spoiled by the inopportune intervention of General Nguyen Van Minh.

Svay Rieng Battle. In this battle, General Hieu used the "blitzkrieg" (lightning war) tactic as narrated by two American military historians named Samuel Lipsman and Stephen Weiss in the volume entitled The False Peace, The Vietnam Experience, Boston Publishing Company.

Nguyen Van Tin
27 July 1999.

Updated on 08.03.2005