Sunday, December 9, 2012

Gen. Nguyen Van Toan Remembers the War

General Nguyen Van Toan. Commander of MR III.

I was commander of MR II during the Easter Offense. I was commander of the Second Division in Quang Ngai since 1966. And I commanded the division for six years, until 1972. I was also the Military region commander. Then I moved to MR II as commander of the corps and the region and then after that to MR III, that was my last position before the fall.
I was not optimistic in 1973 when I read the Paris Agreement. But also I was not defeatest. I just tried to do my job. And since I commanded a division for six years I had a lot of experience in commanding troops. Before that I commanded some armoured regiment, but most of my military life I was a field commander. And I was always in battle. And when I moved to the MR II in 1972, when all of the foreign troops began to withdraw. And that was the time of the summer offensive. And when I moved to MR II we had almost 2 American divisions, 2 Korean divisions and many supports from the allies. But when I moved there in a very hard situation, all of those troops were withdrawn.
Then they attacked Kontum. And they seized half of part of Binh Dinh province in 1972. With all of the troops there we could not push them back. That means that all of the allied troops were in support there. But when I went there I halted the Kontum advance. Then after I defeated the communists in the Kontum attack, I came back and saw that they had reoccupied the northern part of Binh Dinh province and found that everything was pacified. All without ground support from the allies. We did not have the troops to support us.
I considered that the NVA not to be good troops. When I moved there we were very weak. I had only two divisions in the corps, the 22nd and the 23rd. The 22nd was only half destroyed in the attack on Tun Kun north of Kontum on the border, half destroyed by the NVA. So in the north of Binh Dinh province we had only the 23rd division left.
We still had air support and naval support from the allies, but we did not have their ground troops.
But we had time to reorganize the 22nd division, the 23rd was very weak at that time also. But we stopped them and pushed them away. We reorganized the 22nd in two months and had them back in action.
I commanded the 2nd division in Quang Nai province for two years for two years.
That was the Southern province of I Corps.
I was not surprised to be relieved of command in MR II. The pressure from many sides can remove a field commander very easily in Vietnam. But the corps that I was relieved from, they accused me, they -- I mean the committees -- they tried to mount an opinion against me and told me that I wrecked the corps.
They accused me of many things. But mostly because the communists interfered in the government and made they accuse me. In my opinion General Phu's tactical abilities were very poor.
But you see in Vietnam the communists fight in many directions. They fight not only in front but also in back, and part of that fight is propaganda. And they used our news media as one of their weapons to fight their battles. And whoever hurt them badly on the battlefield, they attacked that man through the press. That is why they turned on me.
So I returned to the armoured branch after being relieved of command. I was the armoured corps officer, that was my original branch. So I was assigned from second division to commander of the armoured branch. And when the situation in II Corps was an emergency, they called me to take command there. After that they assigned me to III corps.
I commanded everywhere in the Third Corps. The city of Saigon was a special zone within the corps.
The third corps area went from Qui Nhon to Kontum along the north and then down to Phan Rang and then to Dalat then from Phuoc Long all the way down to Saigon. That is the third corps area. So Saigon is a part of the corps and they called it a special zone.
I expected them to attack from the Cambodia in the Third Corps area. When I came to III Corps, a few days before Tet, about November or December of 1974, that means three weeks before Tet. When I took over the area the situation was that they tried to move about ten separate batallions to surround Saigon area. They had already taken Phuoc Long and Bin Long. So they tried to seize Tay Ninh, then Long Khanh and then Gia Ray. If they could put a battery around Saigon and they took Tay Ninh, Long Khanh and Ba Ria, so how could people could get out from the Saigon area, then? It was very difficult.
But when I came in there, we had the situation that they had three divisions in the area. And if they attacked Saigon with those divisions theycould tie down all the troops there and then attack all the other provinces.
I had three divisions, 18th, 25th and the 5th. Most of those troops were tied down as a defense force. So I had no striking force. I had experience in the second division and the second corps, and so right away I regrouped those three divisions, and gave the outpost positions to the RF and the PF, with the intention that if they moved or advanced on Saigon I would attack them strongly with a force of a full division. Then I could eliminate the attacking force very quickly with my mobility. At that time I had no supply problem.
I also tried to harass them to not let them have time to organize and concentrate their forces in Tay Ninh. I pushed some troops to go over the border and harass them in Cambodia. I put some troops in other areas and harassed them wherever they were. In the Ben Cat area I moved troops up to the Binh Long area to try to harass them and to attract them out and then to destroy them by fire power or by any means that I could, so that they would not have time to regroup and organize their attack and so that they could not harass the Saigon area.
I would have retaken the Phuoc Long province, but let me explain why we didn't. They attacked Tay Ninh, so I grouped almost all of two divisions, the 18 and the 23rd to defend Tay Ninh. Then I defeated their attack there. They attacked very strongly in Tay Ninh, but they could not break through and I pushed them back. During that attack I captured the plans that they were going to attack Long Khanh. So I moved the 18th division to Long Khanh to make a defense, and when they attacked I destroyed them there, too. They attacked in Long Khanh with four divisions, but I hit them while they were grouping for the attack, I hit them with cluster bomb units(CBUs)and before they could get completely underway. And I almost destroyed two of their divisions in the Long Khanh area. (Nui Ba Den -- black virgin mountain).
To use a CBU we needed authority from the DAO, because they kept the detonantors on those bombs. I don't know why. I requested, sent the request to the JGS, and then I know that the Americans controlled the detonators on those bombs. I don't know why. I didn't have time to find out. You see I was out on the battlefield.
I didn't really care about what people were worrying about politically in Saigon. I don't know if anyone worried that I might be part of a coup. I thought only about the military situation in the field. The president left me free to do my work and I think he knew that I was not making a coup since I always considered the country first. I didn't care about the government. I didn't want to control the government. I just did my job as a soldier. That is all I wanted to do. Nobody came to my headquarters and told me that they were going to make a coup. Of course they tried to visit me, General Tran Van Don and others, and I received them very respectably, but they knew that I never accepted the idea of a coup. You see a coup would not do anything good at that time. The enemy is attacking in front, I told them, and if we fall apart in the rear, that would destroy us in the front also. I also never worried about being removed from command after a coup or being assassinated. All of my efforts and all of my thoughts were in pushing the enemy out of my country.
My field headquarters at that time was a Bien Hoa.
I was not surprised when they attacked at Ban Me Thuot. And in my opinion they could attack anywhere, and wherever they concentrated their troops, I believed, we should destroy them there. But I don't know how General Phu did up there or what he was doing. Before I left the second corps, in October 1974, I prepared an operation, a big operation, corps size, because I knew that they were moving many men and materials on the Ho Chi Minh trail and they were concentrating supplies in the Phuoc Long and the Bin Long area. So I prepared an operation for ten months. From the beginning of 1974, I pushed the 23rd division to the Duc Co area where they had a concentration of more than one NVA division there. I planned to trap them there and destroy them by fire power or any means I can, then I got the 22nd division from Bin Dinh and bypass them and clear out the area along the border for two or three months. If I could realize that plan, then they could never realize the Ban Me Thout attack. So when I was relieved, I send my reconnaissance troops to the Duc Co area in the morning and in the afternoon they called me back to Saigon and relieved me. So they asked me if I had to express something to the relief commander. I explained to them that I was doing that operation and if we do not realize that operation then the Quan Duc and the Ban Me Thuot area should have another plan very soon. So they ordered me to explain that to General Phu and let him do that. But I don't think that he did that.
I am from Hue. There were some Fulro forces in MR II. They did not cooperate with us, and also they did not support the communist side. Maybe they knew of some communist movement in the area, but when they did they did not inform us.
They attacked the Saigon Tay Ninh area at the time that they attacked Ban Me Thout. It was almost quiet in Tay Ninh and Long Khahn. They tried to pin us down with some harassment. They attacked in Long Khanh but not very stronglly.
I think about two days before the order to withdraw from the highlands. We had meeting in the Independence Palace. And they informed us about the withdrawal and they asked us what our opinion was. But we had not studied anything and so could not give any opinion at all about it.
There were good aspects and bad aspects to it and since I did not have time to study it I could evaluate it.
Recently, I had withdrawn the 18th division from Long Khanh to Bien Hoa, and it was orderly and without disaster. If we really take care of details in a withdrawal, it is difficult operation, but if the commander watches the details it can be done. The 18th division withdrew from Long Khanh to Bien Hoa without a disaster. I redeployed nothing at that time. They had attacked at Long Khanh. And I thought they were strong this time. I tried to push the armor brigade from Bien Hoa to Long Khanh and I was blocking the road from Dalat to Saigon.
When they withdrew from from MR II and the communists move through there, they ordered me to take over Phan Rang and Phan Thiet. Two more provinces in II corps. And I had to move some troops there then. I had not time to meet with anyone else in this emergency.
I did not have time to communicate with any other corps commanders. My troops were not demoralized at that time. One thing you should know that when I still keep control of the troops, and when they move to II corps and they try to block about 15 divisions coming to attack them in III corps, every troop was in very good morale at that time. The armour and the other two divisions were still very high in spirits. We were still in control.
When troops showed up in Saigon from MR II I asked to use them and they said yes and they said they would take care of that.
When we fought in Tay Ninh and it became a little quiet I moved the 18th division back to Xuan Loc and organized the resistance there and we stopped them there. But finally they put almost four divisions against us and everything up North was abandoned and when they tried to put 15 divisions against us then I moved my troops from Xuan Loc to Bien Hoa trying to defend Saigon. I had the 5th division in Binh Duong and the 25th divisiion in Cu Chi. So I had a line of defense there. We still had good communications at that time.
I did not expect Thieu to resign on April 21st, yet still it did not surprise me, since anything can happen. General Minh did not contact me when he came into power. General Vinh Loc came into power on the Joint General STaff. But on the 29th I was in the front of the Hau Nghai area, then about 5 or 6 o clock I flew back to my headquarters. And I received a call from Vinh Loc and he told me to try to resist one more day. At that time I moved my headquarters. They fired artillery into my headquarters in Bien Hoa at that time, so that time I moved my headquarters to Saigon area, where the headquarters of the armored branch that I commanded at that time was located. So I moved my headquarters there. And when I came back in the afternoon I received a call from Vinh Loc telling me to try to resist some more. And when Duong Van Minh took over the country, Vinh Loc came in there and I thought that we had some coordination in the government. So I ordered my troops to resist, to make a line of resistance around Saigon, and when the attack became too strong to withdraw across the Saigon River and blow up every bridge across the river and then to resist from within the city. But when I came back that afternoon I received a call and I asked "What are you doing now." He said that he had replaced General Vien. And when Vinh Loc and some others took over the command, I thought we would have some cooperation and more resistance. I thought that our troops would have more time now. If they decided to stay they could stay and if they decided to go they could go. But I didn't accept the decision to stop fighting. I tried to fly out on one of my boats, the ship, I ordered the ship to stay near Vung Tau and if they had much difficulty I would fly there and try to reorganize a command. But in the afternoon and I flew out there and I could not get contact with the ship. And the seventh fleet and they told me in the air that I should just follow the directions and they would receive us. So I flew to the 7th fleet at that time, then overnight Minh declared that we should surrender. I left on the 29th.
When I left I did not think I would be leaving the country for good. I tried to find my ship and to open communications with my men again. This was Vietnamese boat.
I had a general Tung and a Chief of Staff behind me. My family had moved out on the 28th of April. The Americans did not insist that I leave, but they helped my family move. General Tung is still in a prison camp in Vietnam. Le Minh Dao is still in a prison camp in Vietnam. I landed on the Midway.
I was thinking that on the Midway it would be a temproary stay. Until the end our troops were very much in control. But one thing that I did not know, if they wanted to make a deception or what, but when I flew over to command the troops, they had some airplane flew under my helicopter. About a week before that they told me that it was a Mig, but I don't think it was a MIG, but I don't think so because if they saw us they would have attacked. So I flew back and I asked what those planes were and they said that they were the planes that flew over to photograph the VC troops. And also I received orders to prepare the zone for two Marine divisions to land, in Vung Tau. So I put a request in to put some B52s on the concentrated communist troops. If we had received support at that time all 15 divisions of the communist troops would have been destroyed easily at that time.
General Duong I believe had some assurance that the B52s would not attack or he would not have left his troops in the open. But clearly if we had received support we would have destroyed them all.
When I landed on the Midway they requested that I give them my weapon and I did. I didn't think that the war was over yet at that time, but when on the 30th General Minh surrendered, then I knew that it was over.
Some day I will go back to Vietnam. I will go back. As a soldier. The government in Vietnam will collapse some day and we will help it collapse.
They said I was corrupt. But really I dont care what they say. Fighting with the communist troops was enough problem for me. Even they accuse me of anything, but I don't know. There was always someone they attacked in the back who hit them on the front.
I grew up in Hue. I went to the Dalat Academy in 1950. I came out as a second lieutenant. At that time I transferred from the French to a Vietnamese unit, but it was commanded by the French at that time. When the Geneva Agreement was signed I was in Pleiku in the Central Highlands.
I commanded the armored force in 1963 and my force attacked President Diem at that time. After the coup they forced me out of the inner circle so I was moved to I Corps and was never part of the government.
Thieu was one of my instructors when I was in the Dalat Academy. He was a second lieutenant at the time and I was a student. I was the second division commander during Lam Son 719, I took care of the south part of I Corps, but I sent some of my troops there for reinforcements.
There are many reasons why we lost the war. But the main reason is that the Americans -- our allies -- abandoned us. The support of the Russians and the Chinese was consistent. We were supported by the Americans, they were supported by the Chinese and the Russians, and so we could not resist them any more.
The North Vietnamese were good soldiers. Good soldiers. But we were better. The country was hurt by three things: military, politics and economic. Like a chair with three legs. And if one leg was cut off, then the chair falls down. The economic leg was cut off in Vietnam by the Americans.
I am not a brutal man. I was never a brutal man. I pulled my pistol but never on a prisoner. I pulled my pistol out on my field commanders when they did not follow an order. They worried too much about the enemy. And I pulled out my pistol and told them that if you do not move in five more minutes I will shoot you. And so they moved.
I went to the US in 1958 to Fort Knox for armor training and the second time in 1961 for the counterinsurgency and in Fort Bragg.

[Reader's comment on April 12: Hello Larry,

General Toan is very accurate and gives an overview that paints a view of the outside influence involved in impacting leadership roles - there were times that political influence placed high rank officers into commands that were the least qualified - and record of past failures -- General Toan was an exception - competent capable and experienced -- His chronology of the last days reveals some issues that advisers knew but the political (US) interference changed the promised schedule of incremental departure to-- just go now -- taking logistical and
tac Air out all at once -- all of a sudden artillery rounds were rationed - what could they do -- the support people saw the hand writing first. So did the field advisers - It was a war that ran out on promised plans that both sides agreed to -- politics had their way and - we left them (Vn) -- Politicians are not to be trusted. Most news organizations SELL news - so they edit what will not
sell. Lawyers and News Organization deal with the bottom line -- (most of them) ---Thanks for sharing -- If you get a chance to interview General Tran Quoc Lich - He was my counterpart - he was a great commander who took care of his men and their families -- He trained them right and treated them like soldiers - they all knew what was going on -- General Toan would know how to get in touch with him - He would be 77 years young --we're the same age. Although 13 years in solitary confinement made many changes in his person.]

1 comment:

lam nguyen said...

I believed what gen. Dao and Kho6i said: Toan ordered them keep fighting then fled.
Thieu had used Toan in order to protect himself.
Both Toan and Thieu betrayed their soldiers.