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A hero of Vietnam finds victory in defeat

MAYPORT — If one healer can splint the American fracture left by the Vietnam War, a Vietnamese named Harry looked the part in a ceremony over the weekend at this U.S. Navy base.

"We won the war," said the former South Vietnamese army colonel, five times wounded and 13 years imprisoned by North Vietnam. "The Hanoi government knows China is going to attack Vietnam. So it must democratize and unify the country and be friends with America because the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

His name is Tran Ngoc Hue. U.S. Marines nicknamed him Harry nearly a half-century ago. It stuck to this day when he was honored aboard the Navy warship USS Hue City in a memorial of the 1968 Tet battle for Hue.

Harry was a hero there. But he was no victor in the war. As a South Vietnamese, he lost along with his departing American allies. Like Pickett's charge at Gettysburg, though, his transcendent gallantry in a lost cause offered both sides in a polarized America a unifying symbol of their kinship in courage.

Much as George F. Pickett lost his division charging the federal line on Cemetery Ridge, Harry lost his battalion attacking the North Vietnamese mass in Laos at Tchepone. They shot him and his men to pieces. He survived terrible wounds. His Hanoi captors offered him ease and release if he would turn coat. He refused out of honor and he paid the price: 13 years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, while America went home. He loves this country and lives here at last as a U.S. citizen.

Remembered in current history as one of the noblest combat leaders ever fielded by Saigon's often-corrupt army generals, Harry was just a South Vietnamese rookie second lieutenant when I went up the A Shau Valley into battle with his unit one December day in 1964. He was 22 and I was 41, reporting for the Atlanta Constitution on actions of the 21,000 military advisers the United States then had sent to South Vietnam.

Our lone Marine adviser loaded helicopters with Harry's elite South Vietnamese force, which came to be known as Hac Bao (Black Panthers). The adviser led us off the airstrip of the Citadel at Hue for the morning strike up the valley where Viet Cong had attacked overnight. This very brave U.S. Marine lieutenant who landed us in an instant firefight that day was John R. "Dutch" Schwartz. He lives in retirement now on Clearwater Beach. We came together to Mayport to hand Harry our old men's salute.

My yellowed Atlanta newspaper clipping from 1964 recalls that day I met Harry: "… we heard incoming bullets twang like a piano string and snick in the bushes. Second Lt. Tran Ngoc Hue, who was lying under a bush close by me, got up (to attack).

" 'No, Harry!' Schwartz yelled. Lt. Harry got down in the knee-high bushes again. Schwartz threw violet smoke grenades to mark our position. U.S. Army helicopter gunships swarmed in like hornets. Their six machine guns fired from behind us and tore the ground ahead. Their rockets went 'shung.' The fence row smoked.

"Lt. Schwartz stood up then with Harry and yelled 'Charge!'

"… Less than a hundred yards to our left front a man wearing the black shirt and gray shorts of the Viet Cong stood up in the bushes facing us. You could see his face. He was pointing a submachine gun at the advancing line of infantry and shooting a loud clatter of bullets. I hit the dirt very hard again. … Lt. Harry's platoon stood up there, shot the VC through the head and went on down the valley."

After more searching and fighting, the platoon sat down on the dike of a paddy to eat some lunch. I had none. Seeing this, "Lieutenant Hue came and sat beside me on the dike. Smiling, he gave me a piece of French bread with some sweetish, sausage-like meat in it. 'What is it?' I asked Schwartz, who also got a piece from Harry. 'I wouldn't want to ask,' the Marine said. We both ate.

"Harry, the lieutenant, finally said, 'You very courage.'

" 'You're wrong,' I said. 'I'm scared to death.'

" 'You civilian. You no must fight. You come anyway,' he said.

" 'I come one day. You come every day. You have the courage,' I said.

"He reached up and untied his bandanna of camouflage silk and handed it to me. 'You take,' he said.

"The only disposable gift I had was my flight jacket. It was too hot for it in the afternoon anyway. Harry received it gravely. He walked over and draped it on his pint-sized radio operator to carry for him."

Forty-five years later he wrote me from his home in Falls Church, Va., "After reading your letter, I know who you are, the reporter whom I presented my neckerchief right on the battlefield, and at the same time I received a souvenir from him — a sweater that kept me warm so many years after. It was a precious souvenir which I thought I would never hear or see the one who presented it to me. Thank God, it is hardly to believe, but happening."

Hardly believable, too, here in Florida I am looking again into the eyes of the once-young lieutenant Harry, now a scarred 68-year-old former colonel with three fingers shot off of one hand.

Historian Andrew Wiest tracks Harry's heroic biography in his authoritative book Vietnam's Forgotten Army, published in 2008 by New York University Press.

Harry always considered himself a Vietnamese nationalist committed to family and defense of country through a military tradition that had repelled Chinese encroachment on Vietnam for 1,000 years. He and his soldier-father alike resisted colonialism and Marxism as European ideas that threatened Vietnam's independence by force. He trusted America as seeking to help keep his part of his post-colonial nation independent after France withdrew and left his South partitioned and under threat of takeover by the Marxist North.

Childhood memories sharpened the edge of his conviction. In 1950 when he was 8, he saw Marxist Viet Minh guerrillas capture some soldiers of the colonialist government's army on patrol in his ancestral village of Ke Mon. He watched in horror as they stripped and tied the prisoners and, wasting no bullets, buried them alive. Then he saw French troops rush in and punish the village for being the site of the crime by burning houses of innocents. He saw two French soldiers enter his house, seize one of his young cousins and rape her. He neither forgot nor forgave.

He perceived no selfish American interest in exploiting his country. He welcomed U.S. advice and help to his Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Advisers like Marine Lt. Schwartz had been training ARVN units in counterinsurgency civic action as well as small unit combat so as to help the people they were defending.

But to Harry's and many Americans' growing dismay, as U.S. combat forces began their massive intervention, U.S. generals began shaping the ARVN into American-style units trained primarily for large unit combat. Increasingly the ARVN's countryside militiamen of regional and popular forces were shunted aside when they were most needed to counter Viet Cong guerrillas in the hamlets and paddies. Careless American firepower heightened peasant alienation as American combat units essentially took over fighting the ARVN's war.

Harry always hoped honest and able generals like his own 1st ARVN Division commander, Gen. Ngo Quang Truong, would come to power and justify the patriotism of their troops. But in Saigon a succession of corrupt, conniving and inept generals ultimately destroyed hope for a South Vietnamese government fit to rule. So the disciplined formations of Hanoi's Marxist nationalists finally broke the American will and the ARVN's ranks and won the war.

Still, even wounded and captured, Harry determined he would not break. By his reckoning duty, honor, country required the payment he met: 13 years in prison, then 8 years under government watch, which amounted to a house arrest that made him unemployable in Saigon. His wife, Cam, eked out a family living as a home nurse. Unflagging efforts led by one of Harry's wartime Marine advisers, David L. Wiseman, gained him entry into a new life in America in 1991.

He found work with the Navy Federal Credit Union in Washington and took the oath in 1997 along with his wife and three daughters as American citizens. The daughters are graduates of the University of Maryland and married. Cam died in 2009. Harry mourns and blesses her and their mother country in his soldier's prayers.

This is the third time Harry, by special invitation, has attended one of the 19 memorial observances put on by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps in remembrance of the Battle of Hue. The Americans and the ARVN fought together for the whole month of February 1968 to take back Vietnam's imperial capital from North Vietnamese army battalions that invaded it in their Tet lunar new year attack.

U.S. Marines beat back the invaders from the southern half of the city south of the Perfume River where the American headquarters stood and sent the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines north of the river to help Harry and Gen. Truong's 1st ARVN division retake the Citadel. The walled and moated Citadel with its 3 square miles of houses packed around the emperors' palace contained half the area of Hue city. All of it would have fallen into North Vietnamese hands if Harry's Hac Bao rapid reaction company had not held on to Truong's division headquarters inside the Citadel. His counterattacks bought time for the division's outlying battalions and the U.S. Marines to fight their way into the enemy-occupied Citadel and commence driving the North Vietnamese out.

"The battle lasted 25 days and nights," Harry recalls now. "We fought in the streets, walls to walls, corners to corners, trenches to trenches. The battle was so ardent, bloody, the weather was so bad. But finally we won, we got them. The Hac Bao had 250 soldiers and officers at the beginning. We had lost almost 200 when the battle was ended."

In retaking Hue, U.S. Marines counted their losses at 142 killed and 857 wounded. They fixed ARVN losses at 384 killed and 1,800 wounded. They estimated North Vietnamese dead at 5,000. The retreating enemy executed nearly 3,000 civilians before leaving the city.

While Harry's own worst ordeals lay in the years ahead, the historian Wiest wrote that he would forever be defined by his actions defending Hue, for which U.S. Gen. Creighton Abrams awarded him the U.S. Silver Star for gallantry. "Col. Hue stood unquestioned and universally admired, every inch the hero even by the exacting standards of the U.S. Marines," Wiest said.

Now I am standing with Harry and John Schwartz on Saturday afternoon in the wardroom of the guided missile cruiser USS Hue City looking at framed exhibits displayed in the only American warship yet named for a Vietnam War battle. A striped yellow flag of the Republic of South Vietnam is there, alongside a red-starred flag of the North Vietnamese victors. Then, unexpectedly, Harry spots it on the wall — his Silver Star medal framed with a metal plaque identifying its recipient as Lt. Col. Tran Ngoc Hue who commanded the Hac Bao company in the Battle of Hue City.

"You're famous!" our petty officer guide exclaimed. She wrung his hand and thanked him.

Harry had spoken Friday along with U.S. Marine veterans of Hue during a symposium at the base chapel. He's a big man for a Vietnamese, almost 6 feet tall and husky at 68.

He was so pleased by our reunion that he repeatedly reached for my hand and held it, Vietnamese fashion, in his huge rough paw during our long conversations.

"We won the war because Hanoi has no choice now but to reach for a life buoy against the Chinese threat. That means it must transform the country and make it one country with a free market and a democratic system, not a dictatorship," he said. "China has always wanted Vietnam's resources. Now they are getting very big and will be reaching for its offshore oil unless my homeland is transformed and allies itself with America. While I was still in North Vietnam's prison the Chinese attacked in 1979 and I cheered to see them repulsed.

"I am probably not yet welcomed in my homeland, but Americans are welcomed there. And you will notice American warships needing repairs can dock again at Cam Ranh Bay. This is the way my homeland must go. Look at Israel, surrounded and outnumbered, but very strong because her people are free to choose their government and her government is seen to be a friend of America.

"South Korea stays free because of its democracy and its mills and its food production and its friendship with America.

"My homeland must go this same way," Harry said.

"So I am sure of it. We won the war."

Pultizer Prize winner Eugene Patterson became editor and president of the St. Petersburg Times in 1972 and led the Times Publishing Co. until his retirement in 1988.

A hero of Vietnam finds victory in defeat 09/19/10 [Last modified: Monday, September 20, 2010 7:18am]
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