Interview with NVA General Tran Van Tra

6/12/2006 • Lyndon B. Johnson, Vietnam

As military commander of the B-2 Front from 1964 to 1976, General Tran Van Tra of the People’s Army of Vietnam led the war in the field against the Americans. On November 23, 1990, at the Vietnam Mission to the United Nations in New York City, John M. Carland of the U.S. Army Center for Military History conducted the following interview with General Tra. Tran Minh Dzung, the third secretary at the mission, served as interpreter.

Tra, at 72, looked remarkably fit and was cooperative and at ease throughout the interview. Although forthright about what he had done during the war, and especially proud of what the B-2 Front had accomplished in its struggle against American units, he came across as a pragmatic military man and not an ideologue. For example, he could easily have referred to the government of Vietnam (i.e., South Vietnam) as the ‘puppet government’ instead of using, as he did, the more neutral term ‘Saigon regime.’ He seemed to be what might be called a practical Communist.

A number of notes have been inserted in the text below to address discrepancies between the general’s statements and what has heretofore been accepted in American historical records of the Vietnam War.

Vietnam:What was your position in the Central Office, South Vietnam, or COSVN, as we called it? Our information says that you were deputy commander for military affairs. Is this so? [At this point there was some confusion over the term COSVN. Tra and the interpreter seemed more familiar with the term B-2 Front, so that term was used thereafter.]

Tran Van Tra:General Nguyen Chi Thanh was the political chief of the B-2 Front. I was military commander of the Front. When General Thanh went to Hanoi in 1966, he did not come back.

VN: 1966? Do you mean 1967?

Tra: No, 1966. [We know that Thanh went to Hanoi in April 1966 to defend his Main Force war against the Americans. Heretofore we have assumed that he returned to serve as commander for another year, until his death in July 1967, after which Tran Van Tra became acting political commander of the B-2 Front from July until October, when Pham Hung took over. This intriguing suggestion that Thanh did not return to the South may reflect a translation misunderstanding; all the evidence we have supports the notion that he did come back.]

VN: What was the B-2 Front’s objective in the 1964 dry season campaign?

Tra: Our objectives were limited. We wanted to defeat the most well-trained Saigon regime battalions and defend the liberated zones. We had no expectation of collapse [of the government of South Vietnam].

VN: Were you aware that, after you had mauled several of the best South Vietnamese battalions, senior Americans in Saigon, such as General William Westmoreland and Ambassador Maxwell Taylor, thought that you were planning to go in for the kill?

Tra: I knew that after we had destroyed several South Vietnamese battalions Taylor and Westmoreland realized that the morale of the regime was so low that it [the Saigon government] might collapse from within.

VN: How did you and General Thanh see the American intervention, especially when it got into full swing in late 1965? Did it make you change your 1965-66 dry season strategy and campaign?

Tra: Yes. It did make us change our strategy. We were forced at the beginning of this phase of the war to think and discuss at length the U.S. intervention. At the time we were strong enough to counter the Saigon army, but when U.S. forces came, we were very concerned about whether we were able to counter the U.S. Army. That was a modern army with sophisticated weapons. This was to be the first time we had fought with the U.S. Army, so we had to study its organization and tactics. So we had long discussions on the tactics of the U.S. Army and what our tactics should be in response.

VN: How specifically did the first major battles with U.S. Army forces in November 1965 — along Route 13, near the Michelin plantation and in the Central Highlands — affect your approach to fighting the Americans? What tactical lessons did you draw from these engagements?

Tra: Let me tell you about four battles. First, the Battle of Nui Thanh in Quang Nam province [possibly the October 28-29, 1965, attack on the Marine Corps Marble Hill helicopter facility on the Tiensha Peninsula, Quang Nam province]. We were aware that a U.S. Army [Marine Corps] force was in encampment on top of a small hill. We used our well-trained forces, and we won the battle. In the Battle of Van Tuong, in Quang Ngai province [against U.S. Marines during the Corps’ Operation Starlight, August 1965], the U.S. used amphibious forces. In this battle we were able to destroy some of the tanks and helicopters of the U.S. Army [Marines]. In another battle in Ben Cat district one platoon of guerrillas fought a very strong unit of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. In the battle our platoon did not take casualties and defeated the U.S. force [Battle of Hill 65 in Operation Hump, November 8, 1965]. In the battle at Bau Bang on Route 13, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division planned to stay near Bau Bang for one night and then attack at Dau Tieng the next day [November 12, 1965]. I was at Bau Bang at the time. So I sent two regiments, the 1st and 2nd of the 9th [NVA] Division, to attack the Americans. We destroyed the American force. [In the Battle of Bau Bang, the American force — made up of a battalion command group, an armored cavalry troop and a rifle company — killed about 200 of the enemy while losing 20 men. Nonetheless, despite grossly misstating the results of these engagements, Tra’s reading of the general outcome for the Communist troops — a feeling that his men could hold their own against the Americans — rings true.] In these four battles there were four different styles of fighting and we used four different tactics. In the Bau Bang battle the United States used B-52 bombers to clear the battlefield. That was the first time B-52s were introduced into the Vietnam theater. [Actually, the first Boeing B-52 mission in South Vietnam had been launched in June 1965.] Our conclusion was that the United States carried out a classic and conventional war relying mainly on U.S. firepower — ground and air. We concluded that our army could cope with U.S. forces even though the U.S. Army was superior regarding weapons and number of troops and had control of the air. These four battles led to our adjustment to the tactics of the U.S. Army.

VN: Is it fair to say that you and General Thanh were proponents of the big unit, Main Force war? Various articles and speeches by Thanh in 1965 and 1966 led most American analysts to believe that this was so.

Tra: This is right. We based this approach on our own experience in the war against the French. In our war [against the Americans] we used the old regular forces, the Main Force units.

VN: Did a difference develop between the B-2 Front — that is, General Thanh — and Hanoi — General Vo Nguyen Giap — over how to prosecute the war during or after the 1965-66 dry season campaign? Again, from our reading of speeches made and articles published by General Thanh and others in Hanoi, it seems that as the main unit war faltered, Thanh continued to argue that his approach was the best way to fight the Americans, while those in Hanoi argued that a reversion to guerrilla war might be the best strategy for the moment.

Tra: Not correct. There was agreement between Hanoi and our people in the South. In the South there were different opinions, but General Thanh and I did not hold different opinions. No, it is not the case. I administered the building of main force units and the use of those units. General Thanh as political commander was in charge of political affairs of the Front. General Thanh did agree with me [on the main force war], but there were others in the South — they were not military people — who wanted to go back to guerrilla war.

VN: Where was the B-2 Front headquarters located?

Tra: It was north of Tay Ninh City in War Zone C. General Westmoreland knew this very clearly. Operation Junction City was Westmoreland’s attempt to destroy the B-2 Front headquarters. [At this point, I asked Tra if he would show the location on a map. I then spread out an old American tactical map of the III Corps Tactical Zone that highlighted such features as the war zones, the Iron Triangle, etc. Tra proceeded to indicate how Junction City was supposed to unfold, showing sure knowledge of the concept of operations. In discussing the concept behind Junction City, the question of the precise location of the B-2 Front got lost, or Tra simply decided not to answer the question.]

VN: With the Americans pushing so hard in Junction City, where did you go? Where did the headquarters go? Did you go north or west to Cambodia? East to War Zone D or the Iron Triangle?

Tra: Our staff soldiers became fighting soldiers. Everyone had to fight. As for me, I stayed in War Zone C. I moved from one place to another. We never stayed in one place very long. [He laughed when he said this and seemed to enjoy very much the idea that he and his headquarters had stayed and eluded the massive American search force.]

VN: Let me ask a question about the 1968 Tet Offensive. Did the B-2 Front have a forward command post during Tet, and if so where was it located?

Tra: Yes, there was a forward command post. The B-2 Front forward command post was at Hoc Mon. It is northwest and almost on the outskirts of Saigon. But I did not stay there all the time. We moved about.

VN: After your first major encounters with American soldiers in 1965, how did you evaluate their effectiveness? Did your evaluation make you change your approach to fighting American forces?

Tra: We had to change our plan and make it different from when we fought the Saigon regime, because we now had to fight two adversaries — the United States and South Vietnam. We understood that the U.S. Army was superior to our own logistically, in weapons and in all things. So strategically we did not hope to defeat the U.S. Army completely. Our intentions were to fight a long time and cause heavy casualties to the United States, so the United States would see that the war was unwinnable and would leave.

VN: Would it be fair, then, to say that you fought ‘a protracted war of attrition’? [I purposely used General Westmoreland’s phrase in this question.]

Tra: Strategically it was a war of attrition. Tactically we tried to destroy U.S. units. We tried to cause heavy casualties and damage the U.S. units so much that the U.S. side would realize that there would be no retreat and that the U.S. was waging war against a whole nation. We were determined in this so that the world community would see that we were carrying out a just war to win independence for our country. On the other hand, regarding the Saigon army, it was our intention to defeat South Vietnam totally. When the U.S. Army first came in, we discussed whether we should fight the U.S. troops or the Saigon regime troops. After discussion and after the events I have talked about before [the early experience of fighting with the Americans], we came up with the decision to fight the U.S. and Saigon troops at the same time. We would fight the enemy according to each situation.

VN: How did you rate the 9th People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) [VC] Division? Our information suggests that it was the best unit in the B-2 Front. Do you agree with this assessment?

Tra: Yes.

VN: Which regiment was the best and why?

Tra: Each regiment had its own way of fighting. In their tactics and fighting they were each strong in one point. For example, the 1st Regiment was strong in the kind of fighting where their opponents were moving. The 2nd Regiment was strong at attacking fortified emplacements. The 3rd Regiment was strong at carrying out ambushes.

VN: Did the 3rd Regiment, the one that was good at ambushes, attack units of the 1st Infantry Division at Minh Thanh Road in July 1966? [I pointed out the location on the map.]

Tra: [Laughing] No, it was the 2nd Regiment. Each regiment was strong in one place, but it had to be able to fight in all ways.

VN: Was the 5th PLAF Division a hard-luck division? Our information suggests that it was.

Tra: No, but the 5th Division was not as strong as the 9th.

VN: In late 1967, as the Tet Offensive approached, what was the strategic purpose of the border battles, in particular the attack on Loc Ninh?

Tra: They were, especially at Khe Sanh, feints to draw American troops away from Saigon and populated areas.

VN: How did the knowledge that President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 prohibited American combat forces from entering Cambodia, Laos and southern North Vietnam affect your strategic and operational planning?

Tra: We always thought there was a possibility that the U.S. Army would cross the border, so there was no fixed, secure place for us. We kept moving from one place to another. There was no such place as a sanctuary for us. We used all sorts of evasive procedures to lead U.S. forces away from us.

Interviewer’s note: Shortly after noon, the interpreter told me that the general’s next appointment was at 12:15. Although we had barely begun as far as I was concerned, it was clearly time to end the interview. After thanking Mr. Dzung for translating, I told General Tra how grateful I was that he had made himself available to answer my questions. He responded that we should speak again in the future, adding that it was only through asking and answering questions that we could better understand the war and find out what actually happened. He concluded by inviting me to visit Vietnam, saying that he would arrange for me to tour battlefields and to interview participants in the battles.

As things wound down, a funny thing happened. I asked the interpreter for his business card. Lacking one, he began to write his name and address on the back of one of mine. While he was doing this I pointed to a picture of Ho Chi Minh that I had given Tra and commented that it was a nice picture. To my surprise, Tra responded in English: ‘Yes, a nice picture. A very good picture. I like.’

The translator, who, after all, had been at his intensive work for more than an hour, responded unthinkingly to the call of duty and immediately began translating Tra’s English into Vietnamese for the person Tra was speaking to — me. Realizing what he was doing, he suddenly stopped. Tra and I looked at him, looked at each other, and we all laughed.

Before leaving, I let Tra know that many of us in the West had found his Vietnam: History of the Bulwark B-2 Theater, Vol. 5: Concluding the 30-Year War useful and that we looked forward to seeing the first four volumes. I told him then that Vol. 5 had been translated into English by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service and promised to send a copy, which I did in early 1991. Tra’s cryptic response was that they would be out’soon, but not very soon.’

Although one should always treat information derived from interviews with caution, I believe my conversation with Tra generated genuine insights into important historical questions. For example, while the Americans who observed the enemy campaign of late 1964 and the first half of 1965 concluded that the Communists intended to win the war then, it is clear from what Tra says that their aims were considerably less ambitious — ‘to defeat the most well-trained Saigon regime battalions and defend the liberated zones.’ Victory, they expected, would come later, after much more hard slogging. Also interesting is Tra’s claim that no difference of opinion existed between Hanoi and the B-2 Front over how to fight the war as the American intervention got underway. Both agreed to continue the main force, big-unit war preferred by the Front. The real point of contention seemed to be within the Front between the military and civilians. Tra’s comment on sanctuary, if true at least as regards North Vietnam, is interesting. It flies in the face of American conventional wisdom — namely that Washington’s known unwillingness to carry out cross-border operations allowed the Communists to thumb their noses at U.S. forces if, when withdrawing from combat, they could make it across the border into Cambodia, Laos or North Vietnam.

And the general’s blunt admission that the border battles in late 1967 and early 1968 at Song Be-Loc Ninh, Dak To and Khe Sanh were feints to draw American troops out of Saigon and other population centers prior to the Tet Offensive is worth noting, for the contribution it makes to the still unresolved question of NVA and VC motivation in those hinterland contests. Finally, Tra powerfully reinforced our belief that the Communists’ war strategy of attrition mirrored that of the United States at the time. Thus, General Tra’s formulation of Hanoi’s intentions in the war — ‘to fight a long time and cause heavy casualties’ and so make the Americans conclude that ‘the war was unwinnable’ — could have come directly from the American command in Saigon.

Postscript, December 2001: As is frequently the case in the Communist world, the most serious threat to Tra’s survival came from his own colleagues. When he published his Vietnam: History of the Bulwark B-2 Theater, Vol. 5: Concluding the 30-Year War in 1982, he straightforwardly argued that the Tet Offensive failed to achieve its objectives because leaders in Hanoi allowed their’subjective desires’ to blind them to Communist weaknesses and to American strengths. Given the constraints on freedom of expression in Vietnam, such an act may have been both brave and foolish. For a time, many who followed Vietnamese affairs feared that he would be severely punished — that he would perhaps receive a prison sentence, or even be executed. At the end of the day, however, what the Politburo actually did was considerably less harsh. It forced him to retire from government and placed him under house arrest for three years. Rehabilitated in 1985, he became in his last years a strong advocate for veterans’ causes. Tran Van Tra died on April 20, 1996, at age 77, after a long illness.

In the years between my interview with Tra in 1990 and the general’s death six years later, I was not able to take advantage of his kind offer to help me research the combat history of the war in Vietnam itself. That was a pity. In all historical research, but especially when the topic is military history, the broader the base of sources, the better and more complete the history will be.

The article was written by John M. Carland and originally published in the Decenber 2002 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

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