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For 12 years, a diminutive South Vietnamese Army officer named Cau Le was in almost continuous combat against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. As a platoon leader, company, battalion and finally regimental commander, Le was decorated for bravery 28 times— including South Vietnam’s Medal of Honor equivalent—and is among a handful of foreign soldiers ever to be awarded the U.S. Silver Star and Bronze Star medals. No American soldier comes close to Le’s time-in-combat record. Captured at the close of the war, this giant of soldiering was then imprisoned for the next 13 years, an unenviable record that far surpasses the duration of any American held in captivity during the Vietnam War.

Born in French Indochina in 1941, Le began his military training as a very young student at the Vietnamese Junior Military Academy in the late 1940s. He graduated in 1963 from South Vietnam’s version of West Point, the Vietnamese Military Academy in Da Lat.

Le’s first assignment was as a platoon leader with the ARVN 23rd Infantry Division, fighting Viet Cong in the Central Highlands. Le said that he believed “defeating the VC would not be a difficult matter,” since his soldiers were “brave, diligent, persistent and patriotic.” But as he discovered in the winter of 1965, when North Vietnamese Army units attacked his company in Phu Yen Province, winning the war would not be an easy task. Over the next decade, Le would face the VC and NVA in dozens of battles and engagements.

Although he was small in stature at 5 foot 4, 120 pounds, as a company commander he was always at the forefront of the action with his unit, and he always stayed in the thick of the fighting.

During the 1968 Tet Offensive, Le served as the executive officer of the 3rd Battalion, 47th Regiment, ARVN 22nd Division deployed outside the coastal city of Tuy Hoa. After a VC main force battalion and elements of the NVA 95th Regiment occupied the city, it took several days of hard fighting for Le’s battalion to drive the enemy out of the city.

Promoted to major, Le was in command of the 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry on June 5, 1969, when they attacked a strongly held Viet Cong position. During the four-hour battle, Le repeatedly exposed himself to intense mortar, machine gun and rocket grenade fire to stay in the best position for directing the attack. As a result of his actions, 53 enemy were killed. Le’s American advisers nominated him for the Bronze Star Medal with “V” Device for valor—which was approved and awarded to him.

Nearly three years later, at the start of the April 1972 Easter Offensive, Le was executive officer of the 47th Regiment at Dak To II in Kontum Province. The 22nd Division commander, realizing that the regiment’s 2nd Battalion was about to be overrun by the enemy, sent Le to take control of the situation and reorganize the defensive forces.

Le loaded his backpack and took a helicopter out to the battalion headquarters positioned atop a ridge. The battalion had been severely mauled in nonstop combat since early April and had more than 40 wounded soldiers yet to be evacuated.

“I ordered an emergency meeting,” Le said, “and I listened carefully to the reports of all leaders from all levels from squad to company. I could sense that they were worried so much that their morale was at stake. How could I encourage them to stay and fight?”

Le’s solution was to immediately call in artillery fire on the surrounding enemy positions and order his subordinate leaders to consolidate their soldiers in well-constructed bunkers rather than poorly dug individual foxholes. Le then admitted to his squad and company leaders that he, too, was afraid of death and assured them it was normal to have such fears. But, Le explained to them, leaders “must set a good example by conquering those fears.”

Le’s battalion held its ground, and the enemy bypassed them to hit other targets. But his success with the 2nd battalion was bittersweet, as both his regimental and division headquarters were overrun on April 24 and both their commanders killed, along with Lt. Col. Robert W. Brownlee Jr., a senior district adviser assigned to the 47th. The ARVN II Corps commander, General Ngo Du, radioed Le and informed him that his two superiors were dead—and that he was now a lieutenant colonel and the commander of the 47th Regiment. He was 31 years old.

Two months later, on June 25, 1972, Le was tasked with providing security for traffic on Highway 19 from Qui Nhon on the east coast to Pleiku in the Central Highlands. When a convoy en route to Pleiku was ambushed by Viet Cong with 82mm recoilless rifles and small arms, Le immediately directed two of his infantry companies to attack. Using a UH-1H Iroquois helicopter as an airborne command post, he directed AH-1G Cobra gunship fire on the enemy.

Le’s Huey was repeatedly hit by small-arms fire, finally causing it to make a crash landing just west of the ambush site. Le was unhurt and his aggressive spirit undiminished. According to U.S. Army accounts, Le “moved toward the enemy to take command of the attacking forces… enroute, he rallied a disorganized Popular Force militia platoon and formed them into an effective fighting force.”

As Le moved forward, he and his American adviser, Lt. Col. George Higgins, came under intense mortar fire and were forced to withdraw. Using his adviser’s radio, however, Le continued to direct the attack until the enemy was driven off into the jungle. Within a couple of hours, the convoy continued on to Pleiku as planned. For this extraordinary heroism in action, Le was awarded the American Silver Star.

Three years later, a month before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Le stepped on a land mine in a rice paddy, the blast shattering his right ankle. Despite his pleas to his troopers for them to leave him behind, for a time they carried him with them in a hammock. With the enemy closing in, they were finally forced to abandon Le in a swamp. Before he was captured by VC guerrillas, and in accordance with ARVN regulations, which assumed that captured ARVN officers would be summarily executed, Le removed all insignia of rank. He also managed not to reveal his status as an officer when questioned—so his captors believed he was a sergeant.

A few days later, Le’s true identity was revealed by some ARVN soldiers, but, for whatever reason, the VC chose not to execute him. Still, many years of darkness and suffering lay ahead. For the next 13 years, Le languished in a Communist reeducation camp deep in the jungle in Quang Nam Province.

Although not physically tortured during his imprisonment, Le was psychologically abused and repeatedly threatened with death. Five of his 13 years as a POW were spent in what Le came to call a “hell cell”—a small solitary confinement box that had no direct lighting, running water or ventilation. He says he kept his sanity by “singing all day long.” Frequently close to starvation, at one point he was so hungry he caught and ate a rat.

While he was imprisoned, Le’s wife supported their five children by working as a nurse. She was only permitted to visit him once a year, and then for only 15 minutes. Le did not see his children until he was released in February 1988.

Once he was freed, Le and his family immigrated to the United States. During the next two decades, he lived quietly with his wife Kieu Van in Philadelphia, where he worked in the District Attorney’s office assisting Asian crime victims until his retirement in 2007.

When Le applied for U.S. citizenship, he requested that his original Silver Star and Bronze Star medals, which had been lost during the war and his imprisonment, be reissued to him. In 1996, shortly after becoming a U.S. citizen, Le received his two American decorations in a ceremony in Philadelphia.

Of his experience with Americans in uniform, Le says: “I was proud to fight alongside the Americans. We were brothers in arms against a common enemy.”


Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here