Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Cu



Colonel John B. Haseman is a Southeast Asia specialist, who spent more than 18 years in the region. He was in Vietnam (1967-1968) as a Captain with the 9th Infantry Division and later as a district-level advisor in the Mekong Delta (1971-1973). From July 1971 to June 1972, he was the Deputy District Advisor in Ham Long District. Then from June 1972 until February 1973, he was the Deputy District Advisor in Mo Cay District. From 1987 to 1990, he also served as the U.S. Defense and Army Attache in Rangoon, Burma. He had three separate assignments to Indonesia and was U.S. Defense and Army Attache in Jakarta from 1990 to 1994. In addition, the Colonel filled assignments in Thailand and South Korea.

His article concerning Colonel Nguyen Van Cu, the Mocay District Chief in Kien Hoa province is very well-written and down to earth. It appeared in Vietnam Magazine (in 1992). Mo Cay is famous for its coconut candy.

Colonel Haseman’s latest writing on Nguyen Van Kiet is in the December 2008 of Vietnam Magazine adding to more than 150 articles, book chapters, and book reviews for publications worldwide.

Nguyen Van Kiet is one of only two South Vietnamese who was awarded the Navy Cross for actions during the Vietnam War. Colonel William Charles Anderson (May 7, 1920-May 16, 2003) wrote a book about Mr. Kiet’s heroism. The book was later adapted into a 1988 movie named Bat*21. As of 2008, Mr. Kiet resides in the State of Washington.

Bat*21 was filmed in Sabah, Malaysia, directed by Pete Markle. The film stars Gene Hackman as Lt. Colonel Iceal E. “Gene” Hambleton, the downed navigator (EWO) officer, and Danny Glover as Captain Bartholomew Clark, an Air Force FAC pilot who files a Cessna Skymaster. The film is based on the real-life rescue of Lt. Colonel Hambleton by US Navy Seal Thomas R. Norris and team member Nguyen Van Kiet, a South Vietnamese SEAL.

The Navy Cross was awarded to Petty Officer Third Class Nguyen Van Kiet from the President of the United States with citation: For extraordinary heroism while serving with friendly forces engaged in armed conflict against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong communist aggressors in the Republic of Vietnam. On April 13, 1972, Petty Officer Kiet participated in an unprecedented recovery operation for a downed United States aviator behind enemy lines in Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam. He courageously volunteered to accompany a United States SEAL Advisor in an extremely hazardous attempt to reach the aviator , who was physically unable to move toward friendly positions. Using a sampan and traveling throughout the night, they silently made their way deep into enemy territory, past numerous major enemy positions, locating the pilot at dawn. Once, after being spotted by a North Vietnamese patrol, he calmly continued to keep the enemy confused as the small party successfully evaded the patrol. Later, they were suddenly taken under heavy machine gun fire. Thinking first of the pilot, he quickly pulled the sampan to safety behind a bank and camouflaged it while air strikes were called on the enemy position. Due to Petty Officer Kiet’s coolness under extremely dangerous conditions and his outstanding courage and professionalism, an American aviator was recovered after an eleven-day ordeal behind enemy lines. His self-discipline, personal courage, and dynamic fighting spirit were an inspiration to all; thereby reflecting great credit upon himself and the Naval Service.”

We would like to quote (reprined on pages 228-229 NEW WORLD ORDER AND MONOPOLY POWER****PUBLISHER VIET TIME****AUTHOR: NGUYEN KINH DOANH) from Captain Shelby L. Stanton’s letter to us dated February 24, 1992: “….History has now proven that the Republic of Vietnam and its people were fighting for the truly just cause of freedom and democracy from 1954-1975. The recent collapse of communism throughout much of the world has proved the righteousness of our mutual struggle. In this endeavor, our American soldiers – and advisors like myself – were honored to fight alongside your own valiant military ranks in battle. It is my hope that someday you and your countrymen as well as your descendants, will be restored to the positions of great honor that you richly deserve within Vietnam itself. This recognition is overdue now. The war division must be healed, property restored to its rightful owners and all Vietnamese forever welcome wherever they may choose to go – including the Vietnamese homeland as well as the United States. I have unbound admiration for the timeless martial qualities, virtue, pride, and sincerity of the Vietnamese people.”

Shelby L. Stanton is a prominent military historian. During the Vietnam War, he was an infantry officer and completed the Airborne, Ranger, and Special Officer courses. His six years on active military duty included service throughout Southeast Asia, where he earned the Vietnam service and campaign medals. He was also decorated for advisory duty in direct support of Cambodian operations. After being wounded in Laos, he was medically retired with the rank of captain.

The Captain received a B.A., M.Ed., and J.D. from Louisiana State University. In addition, he is the author of Rangers at War; Rise and Fall of an American Army; U.S. Ground Forces in Vietnam, 1965-1973; Vietnam Order of Battle; and Order of Battle, U.S. Army, World War II.

Now, let’s hear Colonel Haseman’s narration on the rise and fall of the Mo Cay district chief – courtesy of Vietnam Magazine (800) 829-3340:

Colonel Nguyen Van Cu was a maverick, a patriot and soldier who was willing to die for his beliefs.

By Colonel John B. Haseman

Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Cu

Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Cu, Army of the Republic of Vietnam, was a man who called forth-strong emotions from all who knew him. Vietnamese found him to be a good friend and a ruthless opponent. American advisers found him unpredictable, effective most of the time but seemingly immovable at others. Outspoken in a society that valued discretion, argumentative with superiors in a culture that valued hierarchy and status; breathtakingly courageous on the battlefield, Nguyen Van Cu was an enigma to all who knew him.

Above all else, however, he was a patriot who deeply loved his country and who believed in his people’s strength and dignity. He was a maverick. Nguyen Van Cu was the district chief of Mo Cay district, Kien Hoa province, I the northern part of the Mekong Delta. Mo Cay was only one of 254 districts in Vietnam, but it was a very special one. It was in Mo Cay that the Viet Cong movement was alleged to have had its beginnings in South Vietnam. It became legendary as a stronghold of Viet Cong military and political strength. As district chief in this area of shifting loyalties and radical history, Colonel Cu functioned as the top civilian and military official of some 72,000 people, with responsibilities ranging from tactical operations to school construction. It is difficult to govern a legend, and in the process Nguyen Van Cu became a legend himself.

Cu was born and raised in northern Vietnam and grew up in the turmoil of the Viet Minh revolt against the French. Following the 1954 Geneva Accords his family moved south, settling in coastal Binh Dinh province, a communist hotbed throughout the war period. During his 20-odd years of military service, he was separated from his family much of the time. Arrival of his wife and 10 children on visits to Mo Cay was a major event for him, an occasion of close family association not shared with outsiders. Although his quarters at the cramped district headquarters compound were hardly adequate for a family of 12, Cu always found room. Often he spoke of his hopes for a time of real peace so he and his family could stay together. A devoted father in the Vietnamese tradition, Cu used his every resource for his children and proudly talked of their accomplishments.

Cu’s intense patriotism made him an implacable foe of the Viet Cong. He vowed that he would never permit his family to live under Communist rule and swore to fight against the Communists as long as he lived. His aggressiveness made him ideal for Mo Cay. For years prior to his arrival, except for the district seat and a string of outposts between Mo Cay and the provincial capital of Ben Tre, the district had been effectively controlled by the Viet Cong. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, the Viet Cong entered and destroyed most of Mo Cay itself. They had effective control of the rich agricultural economy of the district, and travel to adjacent districts was impossible. It was to this almost hopeless situation that Cu came in 1968.

He had amazing success. Through sheer force of personality he slowly improved the local security situation. The prevalent attitude of apathy and defeat was replaced by an attitude of optimism. Aided initially by a young American captain who served as a district senior adviser, Cu reasserted friendly government strength for the first time in a decade. His accomplishments were awesome in scope and epic in their results.

What was in 1968 a Viet Cong district became by 1971 a district of strong governmental presence with renewed economic vigor and aggressive military forces. New bridges opened up areas closed to traffic for years. Produce flowed to markets, and the district town was rebuilt from the ashes. (It was Mo Cay, not Ben Tre, that was the subject of the epic quotation of the Tet Offensive: “We had to destroy the town in order to save it.”) Officials at higher levels, both Vietnamese and American, attributed the success in Mo Cay to Cu’s force and influence. He bullied, commanded, connived, cajoled, yelled, whispered and politicked, and in so doing, achieved results of heroic proportions. His methods of operation were unorthodox even in Vietnam. Cu combined stubbornness with genuine knowledge of his district’s needs, and with single-minded purpose he set out to accomplish his goals.

Cu presented a real challenge to his American advisers. He was a man of great ability, vision and depth. He was also ethnocentric to a high degree, a tremendous egotist and a leader who established his own order of priorities. As a result, the counterpart relationship between Cu and his advisers was a stormy one that ranged from close cooperation to open conflict. Cu never hesitated to disagree with his advisers, his fellow district chiefs or his superiors. His ability to get things done despite this constant series of confrontations won him the secret admiration of his peers even when he was using assets originally scheduled for use elsewhere in the province. Cu held firm views on the relative roles of the district chief and the American advisory team assigned to assist him, and often his views conflicted with the official line laid down by his superiors.

Cu had tremendous respect for American military might and technical know how, and he was deeply appreciative of America’s economic assistance to the people of his rural district. But he could not abide what he considered to be the Americans’ woeful lack of insight into the nature of the conflict in Vietnam and their failure to understand the Vietnamese culture in waging war. He was an expert on communism and guerilla warfare, and he viewed the American policy as naively preoccupied with machines and computers. He felt Americans were foolish and naïve in their ignorance of the realities of guerrilla warfare. He felt strongly that the war should be fought as a Vietnamese war, not as an American war, and he vigorously pursued his own concepts of fighting in Mo Cay district.

Cu was also bitter at what he considered to be a lack of understanding and sincerity on the part of most Americans in Vietnam. He felt contempt for officers who came to Vietnam to get their tickets punched and move on in their careers. As a Vietnamese fighting for the life of is country, he believed too many Americans were in Vietnam only for personal advancement.

Despite all the controversy about his methods, there was little question about his ability. Cu’s leadership was often spectacular, and he controlled his military forces with an iron hand. He was the equal of any American commander, but he lacked the extensive modern training and equipment available to American forces. He became frustrated when he could not accomplish a task because of a lack of troops or tactical assets, and reflected his frustration by deliberately ignoring his advisers or defying his superiors.

For their part, angry advisers accused Cu of indecisiveness, lack of interest, and corruption. There was truth on both sides, yet the tragedy of the growing rift between Cu and the Americans was the lack of understanding for the two completely different viewpoints involved. The impasse was a cultural gap, and an issue of grave concern for the continued ability of the government in Mo Cay to resist the enemy.

Into this badly deteriorating situation came a remarkable American officer as the new district senior adviser to Mo Cay. Major George B. (Byron) Reed was a prematurely gray Carolinian with a wealth of prior advisory experience. He rapidly developed a remarkable counterpart relationship with Cu. A student of Vietnamese history and culture, the American major was able to discuss these subjects intelligently, and the two men used their mutual love of history and philosophy to cement their association into firm respect and friendship. While history and philosophy seem unusual subjects for the battlefield, the discussions rescued on adviser-commander relationship that was in danger of complete collapse.

Cu spent hours with his new adviser, discussing long into the night on subjects Vietnamese, interspersed with the more prosaic topics of tactical operations and strategic plans for civilian pacification. An Oriental philosopher and intellectual, Cu delighted in comparing the Vietnamese and American cultures. He had visited the United States and was pleased to find a friend with whom he could converse on the vagaries between East and West.

For his part, the American took advantage of the opportunity to plant ideas in Cu’s mind for future consideration. In these highly unusual circumstances, it was an opportunity for communication that had been sorely missed. The unorthodox system worked. Resources allocated to Mo Cay were put to good use. Cu planned and built new bridges, markets and schools. Well –trained military forces attested to his tactical ability with a series of small but significant victories. Cu’s previous attitude of obstructionism and bitterness disappeared. He still chose local officials because of their personal loyalty rather than ability, but he had an acute sense of popular moods and he knew what the people of Mo Cay needed most.

Colonel Cu’s hatred of the Vietnamese Communists made him an intense foe of a negotiated settlement with the Viet Cong. When his adviser once asked him what he would do if a cease-fire plan came in effect, Cu replied with characteristic candor: “The Viet Cong will never really cease their fire, and neither will I. I will fight them until I die.” This fervor, expressed months before the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, was a graphic illustration of the feelings of the fighters in this war.

Nguyen Van Cu viewed death on the battlefield as the sole reason he would stop fighting. An animist as well as a Buddhist (as are most Vietnamese), Cu believed that he would return to fight his enemies in another life. He often referred to events far in the future with the phrase “when I return,” invoking the deeply rooted Vietnamese belief in reincarnation. Such reasoning by a modern, well-educated engineer officer is hard for the Western mind to accept, but it plays a major role in understanding Nguyen Van Cu.

Because of his belief that he would return to fight again after death, Cu was absolutely fearless on the battlefield. He strolled along almost casually on tactical operations as if daring the enemy to fire. On one occasion he led an operation through a heavily booby-trapped enemy base area without casualties; on another operation he took the point on a night march, disregarding the danger of mines, booby traps, and enemy snipers. Of such performances are legends made.

During the 1972 North Vietnamese offensive, Mo Cay district was hard hit. Seven enemy battalions were ravaging the district, and Cu was everywhere, rallying his outnumbered troops to beat back a continuous series of major attacks. At the height of the offensive, provincial forces mounted a major operation in Mo Cay district but placed a province staff officer in command of the forces. Pride and vanity wounded, Cu planned his own parallel operation without consulting the province chief. Ostensibly a small operation to reconstitute an outpost overrun by enemy forces, Cu’s plan was, in reality, a major operation against a full-strength North Vietnamese battalion. It was foolish mistake, undertaken in a fit of pique.

Colonel Cu insisted on leading the operation himself instead of remaining at his command post, a tactical error of major proportions and a step his American adviser and friend urged him no tot take. Stung by the presence of troops not under his command and aching for combat, Cu disregarded the advice and continued on in the field. But the enemy had intelligence sources, too, and was waiting for Colonel Cu. The jungle erupted in the violence of a major ambush. Fearlessly marching erect, Cu urged his men through the ambush zone, helping wounded men to safety and directing fire on the battlefield. It was an incredibly brave performance. Major Reed later described it succinctly as “sheer John Wayne.” Friendly forces carried the fight to the numerically stronger enemy forces and extricated themselves from a bad tactical situation.

But Nguyen Van Cu had tempted fate once too often. An enemy rocket explored in the midst of the command group, and the “Maverick of Mo Cay” was killed instantly. A valorous company commander and the painfully wounded Reed (he later received the last Silver Star Medal awarded for ground combat in Vietnam) brought the stunned forces out of the trap.

The death of a legend is hard to accept. Nguyen Van Cu was indeed a maverick. His views often conflicted with those of his superiors, his peers and his advisers. He spoke his mind as he saw fit and expressed himself forcefully in a quiet-voiced society. Cu was proud of his country and its heritage and was determined to defend them. He was Vietnamese, proud of his patriotism, his people and his culture. He was determined that no enemy would subvert them and no friend would disregard them. He loved his country with great fervor, and his flaws were those on the side of his love. He was a man of great contradictions and of misunderstood values, but one who stood up for his beliefs. When the moment of reckoning arrived, he died fighting to preserve those things in which he believed most. No man can do more.

John B. Haseman

Nguyen Kinh Doanh is a journalist and a California Highway Patrol Certified Reporter. In addition, being a real estate agent and tax consultant, his articles on taxes, travel, beauty contests, and selected subjects have appeared in numerous Vietnamese and English periodicals.

His website launched two and a half years ago has over 326,000 visits from many countries in the world.

Some favorite articles he wrote in the website: Bill Gates, Bruce Lee’s Last Dream, Twice Beauty Queen: Bich Tram, All The Time Headlines, Sam Wells And Conspiracy Theory, Four Days In Cambodia, Five Days In Hue, Da Nang….

Mr. Doanh can be reached at:

CELLULAR (213) 361-7929





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