The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
June 1996
FEATURE
 
 

Harry Hue Tran
"Every Day I Live The American Dream"
 

BY E.L. DEVERAUX III

In the Spring 1992, the 30th United States Marines Corps Commandant, General Carl C. Mundy, presented a Vietnam veteran the Silver Star for Gallantry and the Bronze Star for Valor. With his wife, three daughters, and two friends from the war witnessing the ceremony, it was an honor for this veteran to receive recognition for his  bravery on the battlefield. 

Later that day, the veteran, family, and friends joined a well-known American famous for his love of military servicemen  and women, a comedian named Bob Hope. They were all distinguished guests for the Friday evening formal ceremony at "8th and I" in Washington, D.C. What made this event different was the first honored gentleman was not an American but former South Vietnamese Army lieutenant colonel Hue Ngoc Tran, affectionately known to his American friends as "Harry." This is his story.


A South Vietnamese Leader

Hue Ngoc Tran came from the imperial city of Hue, a son in a proud military family. His father had entered the Vietnamese Emperor's National Army in 1940, serving until he retired in 1954. Ironically, his father commanded the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry, which Hue Tran subse­quently would command 15 years later against the Vietcong and North Vietnamese.

Born on January 4, 1942, he followed his father's footsteps and enrolled in the military as an 18-year-old cadet after graduating from secondary school in Hue. In 1961, he was admitted to the South Vietnamese Military Academy at Dalat, graduating as a second lieutenant of Infantry in 1963. Hue Tran was assigned to the Vietnamese 1st Infantry Division operating in the northern provinces of South Vietnam.


Commanding The Hac Bao

Following a series of infantry fighting assign­ments, Hue Tran was selected to command the elite reaction force for the division. The all-volunteer Hac Bao company consisted of some 200 infantry soldiers. Known as Black Panthers, they possessed superior fighting skills, inspired leadership, and uncommon dedication to mission accomplishment. The Black Panthers were pitiless against the Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces throughout the 1st ARVN Infantry Division area of operations.

While commanding the Hac Bao, Hue Tran par­ticipated in many actions, including those with American units such as the 1st Marine Division, 3rd Marine Division, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), and the 101st Airborne Division throughout the I Corps tactical area of operations.


Fighting Alongside The Americans

Perhaps Captain Hue Tran's greatest moment fighting alongside Americans was in his home city during the Battle of Hue in Tet '68. United States Marine Corps (USMC) adviser Captain J.J. "Jim" Coolican spent four to five months with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd ARVN Infantry Regiment, before being selected to advise the Hac Bao. Coolican knew Hue Tran only by his positive reputation among the Vietnamese. "They still talked about him with respect as a battlefield leader," Coolican remembers. The selection of Coolican as the Hac Bao adviser would turn out to be a sound choice as the events in Hue City eventually proved.


Tet ‘68_Lunar New Year

For tactical and holiday reasons, the Hac Bao moved from its operations in and around the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Vietnams and was convoyed back to its home city of Hue. There, the soldiers could join their families in the celebration of the holiday. The Hac Bao would be the ARVN 1st Division's only combat element in and around the three-square-kilometer Citadel to assist the division headquarters staff and garrison troops if something happened. Their divi­sion commander was anticipating something could and had his combat units on alert along Highway One.

Coolican had left the Hac Bao in positions around the Citadel airfield to join with other Americans so he would not impose on their hospi­tality during Tet. Coolican then went to the Military Assistance Command (MACV) com­pound across the Perfume River from the Citadel. It took some time for Coolican to rejoin his Vietnamese unit after the North Vietnamese / Vietcong surprise attack.

During the early morning enemy attacks on January 31, 1968, two U.S. Marines who were left guarding the Citadel airfield were saved by the quick reaction of the Hac Bao. After first slowing the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 800th Battalion's attack, the Hac Bao fell back to the headquarters compound. There, the division staff was engaged in heavy fighting with the NVA 802nd Battalion. Joining in the defense of the headquarters, 1st ARVN Division, it was the addi­tion of this elite reaction force that saved the Division staff from being overrun. The Black Panther's quick reaction, bravery, tenacity, and ability to disrupt the detailed planning of the enemy attack against the Citadel gave time for the division commander to bring in reinforcements.

These included additional ARVN Army and Marine forces added to the Citadel battle; U.S. Marine and Army units were also brought into the fray in and around Hue. Sometime after the third or fourth day of fighting, Coolican was released from defending the MACV compound and was able to join Hue Tran and his unit.


The Imperial Palace

Around February 12, the Hac Bao and the U.S. 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (who, according to Coolican, were familiar with one another's fighting skills from a battle earlier in the year) were assigned to capture the Imperial Palace.

At this point, the ARVN forces held the north­west wall, their headquarters (1st ARVN Division) complex, and were fighting to recapture the south­east wall. The enemy held the southeast and north­ east walls and were defending the National Liberation Front (enemy) flag flying over the Imperial Palace. This symbol of South Vietnamese sovereignty could only be taken by taking the southeast wall. This became the allied force's objective.

The U.S. Marines initially made their move toward the palace down a direct route, but by the end of the day, they had to return to the initial jump-off point because of severe casualties. It became clear not only to the 1/5 Marines but to the Hac Bao that to access the Imperial Palace, it would take house-to-house fighting. "For the next eight to ten days," recalls Coolican, "it was fierce fighting by both the Marines and the Hac Bao that would eventually lead to our arrival at the wall."

After almost 25 days of constant battle and the fighting almost over. Hue Tran, Coolican, and the Hac Bao reached the southeast wall. Supported by U.S. Marine fire blowing holes in the wall and U.S. gun ships raking the inside of the open area from the wall to the Imperial Palace, the Hac Bao made their move. Hue Tran and Coolican led the Black Panther assault across 200 feet of dangerous open ground into the palace, yelling, screaming, and fir­ing—reminiscent of an American Civil War battle charge with flags waving in a frontal attack. While the 1/5 Marines support was vital to the allied suc­cess in reaching the palace, the Hac Bao was given the honor of returning the South Vietnamese flag to its rightful place flying over the Imperial Palace.

It was for his fighting spirit, battlefield tactical skills, and personal leadership that Hue Tran was recommended for the highest award for valor which the U.S. government can grant to an allied soldier—the American Silver Star.

Hue Tran and his Hac Bao company had demon­strated on the battlefield its professionalism and commitment. He did so again with the U.S. 101st Airborne Division—he received a Bronze Star with Valor Device after Operation Lien Ket.


The 2nd Brigade 101st Airborne

In April 1968, the 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne under the command of Colonel John H. Cush was operating in the coastal lowlands of  Thua Thien Province. Cushman gained a positive reputation of working closely with both the South Vietnamese local government and military forces available in his brigade's area of operations. Through some innovative approaches, Cushman and his battalion commanders revitalized tactical cordon (or encirclement) night operations.

In his book After Tet, author Ronald H. Spector wrote: "At the end of April ... In Huong Tra District near Hue, at a bend in the Perfume River, two companies of the American 1/501st, the elite Black Panther company of the South Vietnamese First Division, and three platoons of Popular Forces trapped an entire North Vietnamese battalion in two villages, Phuoc Yen and Le Van Thuong."

Hue Tran brought with him six platoons Hac Bao, numbering some 150 soldiers. He informed the Americans early in the cordon operation that they were not up against a single NVA company but a battalion. When asked why, he replied, "They had been under fire from 12.7mm machine guns and 82mm mortars."

In the end, the tactics used were simple: The Airborne cordoned off the area to prevent to prevent the NVA from escaping while the Hac Bao attacked. Hue Tran positioned his men a good distance from a strong point around 2:00 p.m. the day of the attack, with a river to one side and a rice paddy in front.

Hue Tran recalls around 7:00 p.m., in a driving rainstorm, the Hac Bao moved forward and hit an enemy strong point. He likened the maneuver to "a pin sticking in an egg." They applied overwhelming firepower and maneuver against a single point and then spread out inside the strong point to further engage and destroy the enemy.

"For five nights the North Vietnamese struggled desperately to escape the noose, losing about 400 men before final resistance collapsed on May 3. The Americans and South Vietnamese captured 107 prisoners, the largest haul of the war to that point," Spector wrote. The joint effort between the Hac Bao and the U.S. Airborne was successful.


Command and Captivity

By 1969, Hue Tran was well known throughout the City of Hue as a fierce fighter and battlefield leader. He was selected to command the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Regiment ("Black Wolf"), head­quartered at Dong Ha just south of the Cau Viet River. Frequently rotated among the eastern-most DMZ fire bases occupied by the 1st ARVN Division, his battalion fought many small and medium battles across the DMZ front.

In 1970, Major David L. Wiseman, U.S. Marine Corps, became Hue Tran's adviser. Wiseman was the last of several Americans to fight alongside this brave and resourceful soldier. Wiseman recalls: "When I got to MACV in Hue, everyone warned me what a problem Harry was—his big head, how he hated advisers, if not all Americans, and how he expected advisers to go everywhere with him. Those of us who were any help to Harry found him fiercely protective of us (and our secure radio), particularly when he realized that we weren't going to sneak into Dong Ha every chance for American chow and hookers. Harry was a warrior and a devout family man—those of us who also were ... well, we got along fine. I can't remember such a quick bonding and immediate rapport ever in my life, before or since then."

1970 was a year of small battles against a deter­mined enemy in and around the DMZ. Again, Wiseman remembers: "Our beat was Firebases Sarge, Fuller (Dong Ha Mountain), Khe Gio Bridge, Leatherneck Square (all the bases near Con Thien, including those overlooking the big NVA flag at the DMZ). We were six weeks out and one week back at Dong Ha."

In Saigon, however, a plan was developed to have the South Vietnamese invade Laos to disrupt further enemy reinforcements and resupply down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This operation included massive amounts of American helicopter, artillery, and logistical support, but no advisers. "We did a few local operations until we moved out to Khe Sahn for the big Lam Son 719 push into Laos. All advisers were ordered not to accompany their units during Lam Son 719. Since many of us objected to that and were fiercely loyal," remembers Wiseman, "we were also advised we would be court-mar­tialed if we did." This was a South Vietnamese bat­tle to fight and win. Hue Tran was confident that the training and leadership of his battalion would result in defeat of the NVA during the many battles that were soon to come.


Lam Son 719

Lam Son 719 (February 8, 1971, to March 24, 1971), the "Black Wolf battalion was brought into the battlefield from positions along the DMZ about two weeks after the initial ARVN invasion. The battalion fought at Landing Zones (LZ's) Hope, Sophia, and Sophia Two, steadily moving toward its objective, a key logistical supply base in the Ho Chi Minh Trail system, the Laotian town of Tchepone. The battalion fought hard against over­whelming odds almost from the day it was insert­ed into the battle. Frequently, U.S. Army aviation would provide lift support—something that Hue Tran still looks back on with pleasant and not so pleasant memories of the sheer terror experienced when they landed in an enemy-defended "hot" LZ.

On March 8, 1971, Hue Tran's battalion, along with a sister battalion, captured the symbolic but enemy-unoccupied Tchepone. The South Vietnamese government declared it had succeeded in its mission, and the planned withdrawal from Laos began. By March 20, 1971, the 2/2 ARVN Infantry was part of the fighting rear guard pro­tecting the withdrawal of the ARVN forces at LZ Delta One, some 40 kilometers (24 miles) from Tchepone, near the South Vietnamese border. At Tchepone, Hue Tran was again promoted for val­orous service with notification coming over the tactical radio net; the fighting was intense, and he waived off his commander's aircraft.

The following day, March 21, 1971, Hue Tran was captured by the North Vietnamese following hand-to-hand fighting during an ambush. "But [by then] they were into drinking their own urine ... and pretty subdued with half Harry's fingers blown off." Hue Tran had been severely wounded in the left hand, losing parts of four fingers. It was his fifth wound as a result of combat against the VC and NVA. Eight years after being commissioned, Hue Tran was now a lieutenant colonel in captivi­ty; he was 29 years old.


Captivity

Hue Tran's nearly 13 years in captivity far exceeded that of being a cadet at Dalat and service with the 1st ARVN Infantry Division. Held in Prisoner of War (POW) camps until 1984, Hue Tran suffered but survived, unlike the estimated quarter million South Vietnamese who died being "re-educated" in North Vietnamese camps. His belief in a divine spirit, his personal strength of character, and thoughts of his family sustained him throughout his ordeal.

Following his capture, "The NVA allowed all the officers captured to say a few words over the AM station just north of the DMZ ... Harry simply told Cam that he was okay and to take good care of his three babies," remembers Wiseman. Hue Tran was then moved to Hanoi, arriving on April 11,1971.

His first POW camp was the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," home to some well-known American POWs, including Arizona's U.S. Senator John McCain, then a Navy lieutenant commander. Hue Tran pointed out that while McCain was also a prisoner, he was kept in a different part of the compound. Neither South Vietnamese nor American prisoners had the chance to meet. While in Hanoi, his communist captors tried to convert Hue Tran to fight on their side. His relative youth, fighting record, and his proven battlefield leadership skills were qualities sought by the North Vietnamese. Many of their battlefield leaders had been killed or captured during the previous three years of heavy fighting; after all, his captors argued, he would be on the winning side if he survived.

Hue Tran's greatest challenge was his well-known love for coffee and cigarettes (he no longer smokes). His captors tried to tempt him with these pleasures during the four to five months he spent in Hanoi. They were not successful, and his long ordeal as a prisoner of war continued.

During the "False Truce" of 1973, his wife Cam, now with three daughters to raise, traveled to the Quang Tri River prisoner exchange. She hoped that Hue Tran would be released. It was not so, and the two years of captivity lasted thirteen.


Peace At Last

On his release in 1984, Hue Tran faced another test of courage. He was a recognized figure in Hue and the surrounding areas because of his fighting skills during many battles around that key city. The realistic possibility of him or his family being killed by a former member of the Vietcong as retribution for some past battle was very real.

His choices were limited, so he began an anonymous life in Saigon. It took some time before Hue Tran was able to bring his family together—he never lost faith that he and his family would survive. He went to work doing anything to support his family. While he was living poverty in Saigon, another person who had faith in him had begun to search.

"I was told," Dave wrote, "by [an RVN] Army general in 1976, that Harry had died in prison. But it just didn't add up. They would have had to kill him ... he wouldn't die." While living in Northern Virginia in the late 1980s, Dave found the photos he had taken of Harry on November 7, 1970. He and his wife, Betty, began to search the large local Vietnamese community around Washington, D.C., in hopes that someone would recognize Harry's picture and confirm if his friend was alive or dead. Someone did.     ,

By 1990, both Lieutenant Colonel and Mrs. Wiseman had almost given up hope. However, while attending a dinner meeting of the Families of Vietnam War Refugees in Falls Church, Cam's cousin (who had come to the United States in 1989) gave the first accurate report that Harry was alive and living in Saigon. "[Her] cousin was trembling when he told me Harry was alive," recalls Dave. At that point, Dave began writing to Harry in Saigon, sending $100 a month to help support the family. Dave's next mission was to get the family out of Vietnam and to the United States.

With assistance from an U.S. State Department program "to extricate former incorrigible prisoners," Dave Wiseman finally made the right con­nections to assist his old friend. "When living in house arrest in Saigon after he was finally released from prison, one thing Harry was given to do was to extract the little bit of gold and other precious metal from old U.S. tactical radios. In fact, when we were looking for a trade to list for him when we began immigration, we listed goldsmith.' "

Dave looked to return Harry's honor. Dave personally searched MACV military archives in the Washington area for copies of Hue Tran's awards and recommendations. The awarding of his medals for valor by the Marine Corps commandant at the Headquarters, USMC, and being one of the honored guests at "8th and I" that evening speak volumes about Hue Tran's heroism and the respect of his American friends.

Through Dave, Harry was also reunited with other American advisers who knew and respected this remarkable man. "We paid for a couple of months' rent, filled the apartment with as much furniture, food, and utensils as we could. Harry then took over financially with everyone working two jobs and going to school. … “Dave remembers.


"Every Day I Live The American Dream"

In September 1994, Harry, with Cam and their three beautiful daughters, moved into their own row house in Falls Church, Virginia. It came complete with mortgage and a diversity of neighbors. When honored guests dine at their house, the fam­ily brings out the dinner china given to them by Dave Wiseman. Dave still likes to sit on the floor to eat with them just as he did so many years ago in Vietnam under much different circumstances. When asked why, he replied: "Harry was one of the real positive influences of my life. He was bigger than life in the field ... probably anywhere."

The daughters are all either enrolled in a local community college or continuing their education for a four-year degree in computer sciences. Cam has survived serious health problems and continues to work full-time. Harry excels in giving his family a chance to live the American Dream with a house, three cars, and the opportunity to achieve on individual effort and merit. They also buy a lottery ticket each week, hoping to be able to win so they can bring his two sisters who live in poverty in Hue to the United States.

In July 1995, Ngoc Hue Tran was presented the gift of becoming a Life Associate of VVA. Affiliated with VVA Chapter 392 in Portland, Oregon, Hue Tran joins former advisers Jim Coolican, Dave Wiseman, and Ned Devereaux on their membership roster.

The entire family will take its oath of citizen­ship in the United States sometime in November, just after the Marine Corps birthday and Veterans Day. They each count the days until that moment. Hue Tran will celebrate his 55th birthday as an American citizen.

When Dave Wiseman calls just to see how the family is doing, Harry simply answers, "Every day I live the American Dream." Dave knows all is well.

E.L. "Ned" Devereaux III is president of the Oregon State Council of WA. He and Harry Hue Tran met while Devereaux was serving as an adviser to the South Vietnamese 3rd Squadron, llth Cavalry Regiment, attached to the 2/2 "Black Wolf" battalion in 1970.

Editor's Note: Keith William Nolan 's two books, Battle For Hue: Tet 1968 and Into Laos: The Story of Dewey Canyon II/Lam Son 719 as well as Eric Hammel's Fire In The Streets: The Battle for Hue, Tet 1968, are excellent secondary sources to understand more about the two criti­cal battles addressed in this profile.

   

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