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General Hieu, a Combat Fighting General?

général nguyên văn hiếu, gen nguyen van hieu

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A Rare Commodity in the Vietnam War

When asked who were competent generals in the North Vietnamse 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 Word", "a Viet Nam Napoleon", "a Viet Nam Patton", "a Viet Nam Zhukov"; but if one looks close 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 big 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:

The terrain and the location of our country, in terms of search and destroy the enemy operation, do not provide the opportunity to deploy simultaneously three Regiments together with support units. Looking back from the day the Division was created to the Highlands' debacle, no Military Tactical Region had launched an operation that used a whole division, that is, all 3 Infantry Regiments, with Artillery, Engineer and Armored Cavalry Battalions, etc. Even if one would like to, one did not have enough space which would allow the deployment of a whole Division, not to mention that very few commanders underwent proper training in Large Unit command. (Letters to an American Friend, page 71)

Oftentimes, when it was mentioned that a battle involved two or three divisions on each side, the reader would have the impression that t it was exactly 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 memoire "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 great 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).

In the case of the American Army, besides General Westmoreland who served 4 years (6/1964-6/1968) and General Abrams also 4 years (6/1968-6/1972), the other American generals underwent a one year revolving door policy in the 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 great plan for a major 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 battlefield's time and location. And yet in reality, it did not have a general who was worthy with 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 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 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 major 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:

The Two Principals Players Of Pleime Chess Game

Tactical Moves in Pleime Battle

Pleime Battle's Diary

Reviewing "Why Pleime"

Pleime Campaign and Pleiku Campaign

Command and Control Skills in Pleime Campaign

A Few Things You Should Know about Pleime-Iadrang Campaign

What Historians Failed to Tell About the Battle at LZ X-Ray

What was special 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 great 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 types 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 prior to 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 special 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 batte 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 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.

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