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General Hieu, a Combat Fighting General?
A Rare Commodity in the Vietnam War
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 a 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 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, 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:
And, unfortunately, the 22nd ARVN Division can’t see that. It isn’t being a great division, going out battling with regiments and battalions and so on! Goddamn it, the name of the game that’s got to be done is this other thing! And that’s what needs to be done in Binh Dinh! And that’s what the 22nd Division can’t see! And that’s what the division commander is psychologically indisposed to do! And what everybody’s got to do, instead of talking about going off to war and battling with the—Christ, they’ve been down there licking their chops waiting for the 3rd NVA to come back! Well, of course if the 3rd NVA came back they’d clean their clock. But that’s the day they’re waiting for—when the 3rd NVA comes back! Well, bullshit! The thing—you can’t do what you’re organized for, you can’t do what you’re trained for. You’ve got to go out to do what has to be done right now in this country! Everybody’s got to do it!
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:
There are two feasible remedies to the division's plight, both of which have been proposed to General Tri: (a) replacement of the division commander, MG Nguyen Van Hieu, and the commander of the 8th Regiment; (b) further participation by divisional elements in cross-border operations, to lift the morale and exercise of the combat skills of the unit commanders and soldiers involved. (General Tri has recommended that General Hieu be replaced, and is considering future operations involving the 5th Division.)
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:
When General Tri assumed the Command of III Corps, coincidently all three divisional commanders of III Corps were graduated of 3rd Class of Dalat Military Academy: Major General Nguyen Xuan Thinh held the command of 25th Division, Major General Hieu, 5th Division and Major General Lam Quang Tho, 18th Division. Among these three Commanders, General Tri seemed to favor General Hieu the most because General Hieu used to be his Chief Of Staff at I Corps and II Corps in 1963.
Apparently General McAuliff was unaware that General Tri had recommended to President Thieu that General Hieu should replaced him at the helm of III Corps when he was designated to replace General Hoang Xuan Lam to rescue the deterioration situation of Lam Son 719 operation. Unfortunately thing did not occure 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:
His mild appearance might have caused soldiers not to see him as a fighting leader, and that would make him less effective, in the end, as a tactician.
Dale Andrade noticed that ARVN generals tended to avoid facing problems and therefore preferred to be on the defensive rather than on the offensive:
Hung was no coward, but like many other high-ranking South Vietnamese officers he tried to refrain from making tough decisions. If possible he would wait and watch, hoping a bad situation would just go away.
However, General Hieu was different. Once he had studied the battlefield scene thoroughly and obtained solid 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.
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 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 came to the conclusion that "that only spies within the ranks could be furnishing friendly forces the location and movements of the regiment's elements".
According to Colonel John Hayes:
Since Major General Nguyen Van Hieu took command; the Division has initiated a program of carrying the war to the enemy. This initiative is a vital element which the Division has lacked. The employment of the Cavalry Regiment in an offensive role was a dramatic departure from their "Palace Guard" mission.
Furthermore, Colonel Hieu also demonstrated his above-average skill of a savvy armor officer:
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 two-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.
General Hieu excelled also 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:
On 3 January 1975, Major General Nguyen Van Hieu, deputy government of Vietnam Military Region 3 (GVN MR3), commander for operations, analyzed Viet Cong/ North Vietnamese Army (VC/NVA) military activity since 6 December and discussed Communist intentions. In Tay Ninh Province, VC/NVA forces failed to accomplish their objectives of overrunning the outposts of Ba Den Mountain and Soui Da (XT335576) northeast of Tay Ninh City because after the artillery of Vietnamese Army (ARVN) forces was initially destroyed by the VC/NVA counterbattery fire, the ARVN forces were able to bring additional artillery to bear on the attacking forces. The 205th VC/NVA Independent Regiment lost about one-third of its troops, while the 101st VC/NVA Regiment suffered about 100 casualties. The VC/NVA tactics are to destroy the ARVN artillery by couterbattery fire based on intelligence of howitzer locations and then to employ massive artillery on the defending force. In the battle for Suoi Da, the GVN forces were able to have additional artillery pieces within range of the attacking forces which VC/NVA units were unable to find and destroy. According to General Hieu, intelligence indicates that the two VC/NVA Regiments will renew the attack in TayNinhProvince and employ additional artillery pieces to neutralize ARVN artillery.
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 case 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 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
January 10, 2011