‘The Most Brilliant Commander': Ngo Quang Truong

By James H. Willbanks
10/15/2007 • Vietnam

Ngo Quang Truong died of cancer on January 22, 2007, in Fairfax, Virginia. Shortly after his death, the Virginia Legislature passed a Joint Resolution “Celebrating the Life of Ngo Quang Truong.” This singular honor for a man who came to this country in 1975 was clearly justified by the sacrifices that Truong made in defense of his South Vietnamese homeland and the exemplary life that he lived both before and after coming to his adopted country. He was considered one of the most honest and capable generals of the South Vietnamese army during the long war in Southeast Asia. General Bruce Palmer described him in his book The 25-Year War as a “tough, seasoned, fighting leader” and “probably the best field commander in South Vietnam.” General Creighton Abrams, who commanded American military operations in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972, told subordinates that he thought General Truong was capable of commanding an American division.

Truong was born on December 19, 1929, to a well-to-do family in the Mekong Delta province of Kien Hoa. After graduating from My Tho College, he attended the reserve officer school at Thu Duc, then received his commission as an infantry officer in the South Vietnamese Army in 1954. Truong went immediately to airborne school and spent the next 12 years in the elite airborne brigade, first assigned as commander of 1st Company, 5th Airborne Battalion.

He soon saw action in a 1955 operation to eliminate the Binh Xuyen river pirates who were vying with President Ngo Dinh Diem’s government for control of Saigon and the surrounding area. For his role in this operation, he was awarded a battlefield promotion to first lieutenant. In 1964, promoted to major and appointed commander of the 5th Airborne Battalion, he led a heliborne assault into the Do Xa Secret Zone in Minh Long district, Quang Ngai province, shattering the base area of the Viet Cong’s B-1 Front Headquarters. Meanwhile, Truong built a reputation as a charismatic leader who led from the front and took care of his soldiers.

The 5th Airborne Battalion, still under his command, conducted a helicopter assault in 1965 into the Hac Dich Secret Zone in the area of Ong Trinh Mountain in Phuoc Tuy (Ba Ria) province, the base area of the VC’s 7th Division. After two days of fighting during which his battalion inflicted heavy losses on two enemy regiments, Truong received a battlefield promotion to lieutenant colonel and was also awarded the National Defense Medal, Fourth Class.

After the Hac Dich battle, Truong was assigned as chief of staff of the Airborne Brigade and then became chief of staff of the Airborne Division in late 1965. As historian Dale Andradé points out, this noncombat position might have stagnated his career, but his reputation for bravery and fairness got him noticed by the top brass in Saigon. General Cao Van Vien, chief of the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff from 1965 to 1975, later described Truong as “one of the best commanders at every echelon the Airborne Division ever had.”

In 1966, when violent civil disorders broke out in central Vietnam, he was appointed acting commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Hue. Although Truong, a Buddhist, was uncomfortable commanding a unit charged with quelling demonstrations by Buddhists protesting military control of the government, he carried out his duties with professionalism, and Saigon made the appointment permanent. With his hands-on leadership, Truong quickly molded the division, which had a poor reputation prior to his arrival, into one of the best units in the South Vietnamese army. Lieutenant General Robert E. Cushman, commander of III Marine Amphibious Force in I Corps Tactical Zone, and his principal subordinate, Lt. Gen. Richard G. Stilwell, commander of XXIV Corps, both felt that because of Truong’s efforts, the ARVN 1st Division was “equal to any American unit.”

His American adviser at the time wrote that Truong was “dedicated, humble, imaginative and tactically sound.” And General William C. Westmoreland, commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, said that Truong “would rate high on any list of capable South Vietnamese leaders.”

In 1967 Truong’s units of the 1st Infantry Division attacked and destroyed the Viet Cong infrastructure and a large number of guerrilla forces of the Luong Co–Dong Xuyen–My Xa Front in Huong Tra district, Thua Thien province. After this, he was promoted to brigadier general.

During the Tet Offensive of 1968, General Truong commanded the 1st Division during some of the war’s bloodiest fighting in Hue. Two nights before the offensive began, Truong, at his headquarters in the old Imperial capital, sensed something amiss and put his troops on alert. When the night passed uneventfully, he dismissed his advisers but kept his troops ready.

The battle began at 0330 hours on January 31, 1968, with two battalions of the North Vietnamese Army’s 6th Regiment attacking the old Imperial capital and the 4th NVA Regiment attacking the U.S. MACV compound in the “New City” south of the Perfume River. General Truong, whose Hac Bao reaction company had managed to hold the division headquarters compound against the initial assault, immediately ordered his 3rd Regiment, then on an operation north of the city, to come to his relief. The regiment, reinforced by three ARVN airborne battalions, reached his headquarters in the Citadel’s northeast corner on the evening of January 31. The next day, Truong began an attack to retake the entire Citadel and clear the north bank of the river. At his request, U.S. Marines were committed to clear the south bank of the river.

On February 4, the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, reinforced by the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, began fighting house-to-house to drive the enemy from the area. By February 9, the south bank had been cleared. When the ARVN 1st Division attack north of the river stalled on February 12, the division was reinforced by two Vietnamese marine battalions. Truong also asked for U.S. assistance, and the U.S. 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, was committed to the fight. Together, the U.S Marines and South Vietnamese soldiers and marines fought house to house to force the enemy out of the area. On March 2, 1968, the battle of Hue was officially at an end. More than 50 percent of the city had been either damaged or destroyed. ARVN and Republic of Vietnam Marine Corps casualties included 384 killed and 1,830 wounded; the U.S. Marines suffered 142 killed and 857 wounded. The U.S. Army suffered 74 killed and 507 wounded in fighting outside the city.

As usual, Truong had performed magnificently, directing his troops in a calm but charismatic fashion. Lieutenant General Cushman, who became his close friend after working with him, described Truong’s performance during the battle: “He survived with the enemy all around him. They never took his command post, but they took the rest of the Citadel.”

After Tet, Truong was given a special promotion to the rank of major general. In August 1970, he was assigned to command IV Corps headquartered at Can Tho in the Mekong Delta (Military Region 4). In June 1971, he was promoted to lieutenant general.

As commander of the ARVN forces in the Mekong Delta, Truong’s strategy was to establish a system of outposts along the Cambodian border to interdict movement of Communist troops and supplies into the area, while his three assigned divisions broke into regimental-sized combined arms task forces and conducted operations to find and destroy enemy forces in their traditional strongholds located throughout the region. The scrupulously honest Truong meanwhile launched a campaign against “ghost” and “ornamental” soldiers, deserters and draft-dodgers in the IV Corps zone. He also increased the capability of the Regional Forces and Popular Forces in his area, making them an integral part of the defensive plan for the security of the Mekong Delta.

On March 30, 1972, the North Vietnamese launched their “Easter Offensive.” The attacking force included 14 infantry divisions and 26 separate regiments, with more than 120,000 troops and about 1,200 tanks and other armored vehicles. The main NVA objectives were Quang Tri in the north, Kontum in the Central Highlands and An Loc farther south in Military Region III.

The attack began at noon on Good Friday, with heavy artillery strikes on all the firebases in the I Corps area south of the demilitarized zone. The next day, three divisions from the North Vietnamese B-5 Front struck the string of ARVN firebases just south of the DMZ, which were manned by the green ARVN 3rd Division. The South Vietnamese troops, outnumbered 3-to-1, fell back as the North Viet­namese pushed south. As firebase after firebase fell to the 40,000 NVA, Quang Tri Combat Base was threatened and ultimately evacuated in the face of the attack. In the bitter fighting, the ARVN 3rd Division was shattered and ceased to exist as a viable fighting force.

On May 1, 1972, Communist troops captured Quang Tri City, the first provincial capital to fall during their offensive. This gave the North Vietnamese control of the surrounding province, and they continued the attack to the south.

Realizing the dire circumstances, President Nguyen Van Thieu relieved I Corps commander Lt. Gen. Hoang Xuan Lam, who had been unable to stop the North Vietnamese advance, and ordered General Truong to assume command of I Corps. Truong left his IV Corps headquarters at Can Tho and arrived in Da Nang on May 3. Historian Lewis Sorley later wrote that the effects of the change in command were “electric.” Truong’s arrival helped calm the situation, and his mere presence gave new hope to the South Vietnamese forces in I Corps.

General Truong quickly took command, broadcasting an order that all military deserters who did not return to their units within 24 hours would be shot on sight. He went on television and promised that he would hold Hue and turn back the Communists. He put together a hand-picked staff and then moved his headquarters to Hue, which was beset by panic in the face of the continued North Vietnamese onslaught. Stabilizing the situation, he devised a comprehensive defense in depth to halt the NVA advance. At the same time, he initiated a program to refit and retrain the South Vietnamese units that had been so badly battered in the retreat from Quang Tri. Using new equipment provided by the United States, he put these units back together and gave them an accelerated training program.

By mid-May, the Hue defenses had been solidified, the situation had stabilized and the refurbished units were ready. Truong launched a counteroffensive with three divisions to retake lost ground, with the help of U.S. firepower, including strikes by B-52 bombers; close air support by Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps fighter-bombers; Army attack helicopters; and naval gunfire provided by the U.S. Seventh Fleet. It was a deliberate and slow process, but Truong’s forces routed six NVA divisions to retake Quang Tri on September 16. Many of the firebases along the DMZ were recaptured, and by the end of October the situation in I Corps had stabilized. With the recapture of Quang Tri and the ARVN steadfastness at Kontum and An Loc, the heart went out of the North Vietnamese offensive. Truong had completely turned the disastrous situation around in I Corps by the sheer force of his personal leadership.

In 1975 Truong faced his greatest challenge. The ARVN defenses in the Central Highlands collapsed in the face of a new North Vietnamese offensive. President Thieu ordered Truong to defend Hue to the death, and the general set about to strengthen the city’s defenses, preparing to make a stand there. However, a weeklong debate with Thieu and his senior military staff followed, highlighted by accusations, conflicting orders and impossible suggestions. During these discussions, Truong was told to abandon Hue, even though he was certain that it was still defensible. As he prepared to execute his latest order, it was countermanded at the last minute and he was ordered to hold Hue at all costs. As one observer told a Time magazine correspondent: “It was like a yo-yo. First, Thieu gave the order to pull back and defend Da Nang. Then he countermanded it and ordered that Hue be held. Then he changed his mind again and told the troops to withdraw.”

Confusion reigned. Truong did not receive his new orders well, but he tried to follow them the best he could. Nevertheless, the withdrawal from Hue became a disaster that rivaled the one in the Central Highlands in scope. Under shelling by heavy artillery, Truong’s forces fell apart. Because of the conflicting orders, lack of preparation and collapse of morale, the evacuation turned into a fiasco. Poor leadership in many units, the disintegration of unit integrity and concern over family members quickly led to panic and total chaos.

The situation in Da Nang was just as bad. As the city was shelled by artillery from two North Vietnamese divisions, Truong tried to direct an evacuation by sea. But pandemonium ensued, as panicked civilians and soldiers alike tried to escape to the south by any means possible. Da Nang fell to the Communists on March 30. In the process of abandoning a city of 3 million people, four regular divisions disintegrated, including the ARVN’s most elite: the 1st Infantry Division and the Marine Division.

Truong, who had desperately wanted to hold the line at Hue, was put in an untenable position by Thieu’s orders and counterorders. As Da Nang fell, he and his corps staff swam through the surf to the rescuing fleet of South Vietnamese boats. Truong was devastated by the loss of his forces, particularly his beloved ARVN 1st Division. Upon arriving in Saigon, he was reportedly hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. A U.S. Army officer who had worked closely with Truong heard what happened, tracked him down and arranged for his family to leave on an American ship as Saigon fell to the Communists.

The general’s family was split up for some time: His wife and older son made it to Fort Chaffee, Ark.; his daughters and middle son fled with a State Department employee to Seattle; and his youngest son, a 4-year-old who spoke no English, was at Camp Pendleton, Calif., for several weeks before his identity was established.

After reuniting, Truong and his family moved to Falls Church, Va. Once settled there, he wrote several historical studies on the Vietnam War for the U.S. Army Center of Military History. In 1983, the same year that he became a U.S. citizen, he moved to Springfield, Va. He worked as a computer analyst for the Association of American Railroads for 10 years until he retired in 1994.

Despite the outcome of the war in I Corps and the subsequent fall of South Vietnam, Truong’s reputation survived intact. General Norman Schwarzkopf called General Truong “the most brilliant tactical commander I have ever known” in his 1992 autobiography. “Simply by visualizing the terrain and drawing on his experience fighting the enemy for fifteen years,” he wrote, “Truong showed an uncanny ability to predict what they were going to do.”

Schwarzkopf added: “He did not look like my idea of a military genius: only five feet seven…very skinny, with hunched shoulders and a head that seemed too big for his body….His face was pinched and intense…and there was always a cigarette hanging from his lips. Yet he was revered by his officers and troops—and feared by those North Vietnamese commanders who knew of his ability.”

Unlike some South Vietnamese generals who had grown rich as they ascended the ranks, Truong was impeccably honest and, according to a close friend, led a “spartan and ascetic” life. Lieutenant General Cushman recalled that the general didn’t own a suit, and that his wife kept pigs behind his modest quarters in the military compound in Can Tho. As Cushman further described Truong, “He was imaginative and always looked for ways to improve his troops’ living conditions and family life.”

A humble man, Truong was an unselfish individual devoted to his profession. He was fiercely loyal to his subordinates, and was known for taking care of his soldiers, often flying through heavy fire to stand with them in the rain and mud during enemy attacks. He treated everyone the same and did not play favorites. There is a story that he refused to respond to a request to give his nephew a noncombat assignment, only to have the nephew later die in battle.

By all accounts, General Truong was an outstanding officer who deserved the remarkable reputation that he enjoyed among both South Vietnamese soldiers and American military officers. Ngo Quang Truong dedicated his life to his nation, and in the end, as General Palmer said, he “deserved a better fate” than watching it go down in defeat. May this warrior who always did his duty rest in peace.

Professor James H. Willbanks is the chairman of the Military History Department at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College. He earned a Silver Star as a U.S. adviser at the Battle of An Loc. For further reading, see: A Better War, by Lewis Sorley; and Abandoning Vietnam, by James H. Willbanks.

This article was written by James H. Willbanks and originally published in the December 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Vietnam magazine today!

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