HOA HAO POLITICAL AND MILITARY FORCES 1947-1956
"The countryside and the countryside
alone can provide the broad areas
in which the revolutionaries can
maneuver freely ."
Following Huynh Phu So's disappearance in April 1947, the Hoa Hao suffered through an internal power struggle of some magnitude . Several men proclaimed themselves as the legitimate leaders of the sect and established themselves as local warlords usurping the functions of the designated lay leaders of Hoa Hao Buddhism and the Social Democratic Party . These emerging leaders recruited and trained an army of about 30,000 men, equipped the with Japanese, French, and U.S. weapons, took control of about half of the Mekong Delta and alternately fought each other and the Viet Minh for control of additional territory .
The French, recognizing the power of the Hoa Hao and not wishing to risk a confrontation concluded an agreement with them giving the sect a monopoly over all administrative offices within their territory . They further gave them the authority to levy transit taxes on canals and roads in the Trans-Bassac area, which meant giving them control over the marketing of all products moving through their area . The French also provided them with additional aid to equip and pay for 2,000 Hoa Hao soldiers . This agreement gave the rivals within the sect an even greater incentive for competition with each other since the local tax revenues were insufficient to support a military forces of the size each of these leaders had . These concessions, were made in order to get the Hoa Hao more active in the fight against the Viet Minh .
The first of four leaders to emerge during this period was Tran Van Soai who had assumed nominal command of the Hoa Hao military after the sect had split with the Viet Minh . An illiterate former worker on the Can Tho ferry, Soai relied heavily on his wife, Le Thi Gam, who had been a fruit vendor at the same ferry and who led the Hoa Hao Amazon Corps and headed Soai's intelligent unit . Although he was named an "honorary" Brigadier General in the French Army, Soai was soon chanlleged from within the sect since he was receiving the bulk of the French subsidies . One challenge came from Soai's former lieutenant, Lam Thanh Nguyen, who, dissatisfied with his share of the French aid, withdrew his support of Soai and began to attack French units and all river boats crossing his stronghold in Chau Doc Province . In response to pressure from the French, Soai indertook a series of unsuccessful military actions against his new rival in January 1948 . This gave Le Quang Vinh, (better known as Ba Cut) the third sect general the opportunity to enlarge his territory by attacking Soai . But this passed quickly and Ba Cut was soon allied once again with Soai, an indication of teh remarkable flexibility of his position . Le Quang Vinh took the alias Ba Cut because he was the second (Ba) son and had himself cut off the index finger of his right hand (his trigger finger) to show his opposition to French control in his country . In March 1948, after a Hoa Hao unit had murdered its French training cadres, the French attached a strong liason mission to Soai's headquarters and conducted an unsuccessful operation against Lam Thanh Nguyen, who nevertheless retained control in his area .
Nguyen Giac Ngo, the last leader to establish himself, had a strong spiritual attachment to the Hoa Hao faith . He served briefly as Hoa Hao supreme commander but thereafter remained neutral preferring not to get involved in the sect in-fighting . He established a pacified sub-sect called the Lying Down Hoa Hao in teh Cho Moi region of what is now the Hoa Hao stronghold of the An Giang Province, but in the end had to fight other Hoa Hao leaders to retain control of his area . So's father, Huong Ca Bo, who had assumed responsibility for the religious aspects of the sect in his son's absence, joined with Nguyen Giac Ngo in attempting to establish a stable and neutral organizational and doctrinal core in late 1948, but Ngo became preoccupied with defending his territory in Cho Moi agaisnt guerrilla attacks then being launched by Ba Cut and this effort failed .
Soai then tried to establish a Hoa Hao United Front but he abandoned these efforts when Nguyen Giac Ngo made a direct alliance with emperor Bao Dai who had been re-established by the French as head of the government. Interpreting this development as a threat to the principle of Hoa Hao territorial autonomy, Soai attempted to occupy Ngo's territory, ostensibly to keep it under Hoa Hao control but he failed in his efforts to take Ngo's area away from him .
In this confused situation and as the northern Indo-China war against the Viet Minh continued, the French became increasingly sensitive to disorder in the south especially when those responsible were receiving French aid . In an attempt to reduce intra-sect rivalries the French in late 1950 began to allot certain territories to particular leaders. This arrangement perhaps helped to reduced some clashes among Hoa Hao military leaders but it did not make the Hoa Hao a unified force . The general organization of the area was : (figure 3)
1. General Tran Van Soai's force controlled what is present day Phong Dinh,
Sa Dec and Vinh Long Province with his headquarters at Can Tho . Soai had an
estimated 10,000 troops .
2. General Lam Thanh Nguyen controlled Chau Doc and parts of present day An Giang Province with his headquarters at Chau Phu . Nguyen's strength was approximately 5,000 soldiers .
3. General Ba Cut (Le Quang Vinh) controlled Kien Giang and part of An Giang Province, with his headquarters at Thot Not, Ba Cut had the largest force estimated at 13,000 but probably much larger .
4. General Nguyen Giac Ngo controlled parts of Kien Phong and An Giang Province with his headquarters at Cho Moi . Ngo's small force was estimated at 2,000 .
As mentioned, So's social Democratic Party remained moribund after his death, primarily because the environment offered little hope for party unity . While the party reportedly joined the Front for the National Unification of the Entire Nation, which was formed in Nanking, China, on February 17, 1949, by a miscellany of groups that included the VNQDD and the Cao Dai, one can not determine who represent the party at this meeting and what, if anything, he represented . One can safely assume that the internal disunity of the sect made participation in any co-ordinated national activity beyond the capacity of any component of the Hoa Hao .
The same could be said of the other nationalist movements that exist in Viet Nam throughout this period and into the early fifties . While non-aggression pacts were drawn between some of these movements, they meant little as differing concepts on the future of Viet Nam and conflicting ambitions precluded any cooperation between them . This non-involvement changed slightly as the shift in leadership from Bao Dai to Ngo Dinh Diem took place and following a few border clashes between the sects but since the support and strenghth of the sects came from their local areas these few episodes of confrontation meant little .
After the Geneva accords were signed in 1954 and with Bao Dai safely tucked away in France, Diem who was still acting in the capacity of Bao Dai's representative, attempted to remove the military threat of the various sects by incorporation their units into the National Forces . This policy was stoutly resisted by all of the sects having military forces and a confrontation was averted only after Diem suffered a reduction in foreign aid that forced him to reduce the size of his army .
Diem's efforts to consolidate his tenuous control over the country at the expense (as they perceived it) of the various sects arroused their hostility and once again force them into a loose coalition . The principle sects involved were the Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, (a religious, military, political sect similar to the Hoa Hao) and the Binh Xuyen . As pointed out, the Binh Xuyen were originally river pirates who had expanded their power to control all of the traffic in vice in Cholon, and who raided and taxed the peasants in and around Saigon. They were correctly referred to as the Viet Nam Mafia . The extent of their control can be fully appreciated by the knowledge that the Binh Xuyen had "purchased" the job of Chief of Police of Saigon for 1.2 million dollars from Bao Dai and Diem after assuming office, had been unable to remove the incumbent by political power alone .
The sects and their loose organization entitled the United Front, gave Diem several ultimatums on how to run the government incorrectly assuming that he did not have the military strenghth to enforce his decisions . But their threats dissolved as fighting between Diem and the Binh Xuyen broke out in Saigon in April 1955 . Although the fight in Saigon was touch and go, Diem eventually won and forced the remaining Binh Xuyen out of the city .
The confusion in Saigon can hardly be described in words . Various groups and sects were fighting each other and/or Diem's government . Diem could not even get his ministers to their offices to assist his in running the government because of fear and special interest . To further complicate the situation, Bao Dai, who was in France but still retained the honorary title of Emperor, summoned Diem to France and tried to name a successor to him . Diem, of course, refused to acknowledge either order and gave his attention to rebuilding a government and concluding the campaign against the Binh Xuyen . Temporary truces arranged by the remaining French and the Americans did little to stop the fighting and certainly did not hinder the final elimination of the Binh Xuyen .
With the Binh Xuyen out of the way, Diem turned his attention to the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao . To fragment the coalition of warlords, Diem reportedly spent 12 million dollars on bribes to some two hundred and forty-six sect commanders . This brought the Cao Dai and one of the Hoa Hao generals under Diem's control, but still left a sizeable fighting force armed and ready to fight in the Mekong Delta - the Hoa Hao Army .
The situation in the Delta in mid - 1955 sounds very familiar to the millions of Americans who came there ten to twenty years later . Government forces had withdrawn into defensive position round key areas, government troops had to move in convoys with escorts, and ambushes were an ever present threat . In this environment, fighting erupted in Can Tho City on 23 May 1955 between government troops and Hoa Hao soldiers . Although only a short fight, as fights go, it signaled the start of Diem's campaign against the Hoa Hao Army . A campaign that was to last just over one year and finally bring an end to viable warlord rule in South Viet Nam .
CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE HOA HAO ARMY
The campaign against the Hoa Hao Army actually consisted of three separate campaigns:
Dinh Tien Hoang Phase I : 23 May - 12 August 1955
Dinh Tien Hoang Phase II : 29 September - 31 December 1955
Nguyen Hue 1 : January - 31 May 1956
DINH TIEN HOANG I
When Diem launched Operation Dinh Tien Hoang Phase I he did so to open the lines of communication to Can Tho from Saigon and from Can Tho to Long Xuyen and Chau Doc . (figure 4) These roads had been closed by road blocks and ambushes set up by Hoa Hao Generals Soai, Nguyen, and Ba Cut .. The second objective after the roads were under government control was to attack the headquarters of the three generals and destroy their divisions .
As mentioned previously, prior to the government operations against the Hoa Hao, General Ngo and his small force of perhaps 2,000 men decided not to fight but to throw in with Diem . It has never been established how much this cost Diem but probably was a very considerable sum in U.S. dollars . General Ngo, whose force was given the name
DINH TIEN HOANG CAMPAIGN
MAY - AUGUST 1955
the Lying Down Hoa Hao because if its pacified attitude, did not fight and overtly contributed nothing to the stand of the other three Hoa Hao forces .
The attacks to open the lines of communication were successful and in following phases succeeded in flushing General Soai and Ba Cut from their headquarters areas . General Soai's forces fought a delaying action to the north and succeeded in loosing their attackers in the Plain Reeds in Kien Phong and Kien Tuong Provinces . During this delay Hoa Hao forces did cause some significant casualties against Government troops without themselves becoming decisively engaged .
At first General Ba Cut's forces fought essentially as Soai's but after the initial contacts they withdrew to the north and west and part of them doubled back on Thot Not and the Government Forces creating confusion and causing many government casualties . The Government Forces were ill-prepared to fight a war against guerrilla forces . They carried too much equipment and had great difficulty in resupplying themselves. On the other hand Ba Cut lived off the land and fought a hit and run, ambush, mine and nobody trap war that was amazingly similar (and just as effective) as that of the Viet Minh . Governments troops consisting by this time of about one division pusued Ba Cut's forces through some exceptionally hard and dangerous terrain to the Gulf of Thailand and forced them to disperse into smaller guerrilla units . Government units then established several outposts in cental Kien Giang Province and withrew the bulk of their force to An Giang Province . In An Giang they continued their attack north into Chau Doc Province and along more conventional lines to destroy General Nguyen's force of an estimated 5,000 troops . As government tropps closed in on General Nguyen's headquarters at Chau Doc he decided the fight was not worth the effort and sued for peace . Terms were agreed upon and Nguyen's forces were disbanded and he swore allegiance to Diem .
Dinh Tien Hoang I ended with the forces of General Nguyen and Ngo in the Diem camp and allied with him against the other Hoa Hao factions . The allegiance was more in work than deed and only a few (if any) of the Nguyen and Ngo forces participated in further government campaigns gainst the Hoa Hao Army . That left only the Soai and Ba Cut forces to be contended with .
At the conclusion of this campaign Soai's forces were dispersed in small bands north of Can Tho, through the Plain of Reeds and into Cambodia . Ba Cut's forces were operating as guerrilla forces through out the western Delta and north into Cambodia . Both generals and their forces were extremely adept at conducting guerrilla warfare and in subsequent operations cause government forces to pay a high price for victory . Government sources quote their casualties during Dinh Tien Hoang I as 550 and Hoa Hao casualties as 702 plus some 2,000 who turned themselves in to government troops .
DINH TIEN HOANG II
Dinh Tien Hoang II was started initially to relieve two government battalions surrounded and under siege by Ba Cut's forces north of Rach Gia on the Gulf of Thailand . It was expanded, however, to include attacks on Soai's forces along the Mekong and Bassac Rivers and into the Plain of Reeds north of Can Tho . The government employed the equivalent of one infantry division and one airbone brigade in these attacks . As had been the case of Dinh Tien Hoang I, although government troops fought much better this time, they were not successful in isolating and destroying Soai and Ba Cut .
Although the government outposts that were isolated by Hoa Hao forces were relieved, it ws really at the sufferance of the Hoa Hao as they avoided the set piece battles of the type that had proved so ineffective for the French . (figure 5)
Casualties on both sides during the campaign were not significant in respect to the overall strength of both government and Hoa Hao forces, but, since they came in only a few sharp encounters, were fairly high . The Hoa Hao suffered 624 casualties and the government forces 421 . It must be realized that records of these battles are very sketchy on both sides and their validity is difficult to judge . The end result was anything but a clear victory for government forces and the primary cause, which was recognized by Diem, was insufficient troops and inadequate leadership to get the job done .
DINH TIEN HOANG CAMPAIGN
SEPTEMBER - DECEMBER 1955
NGUYEN HUE CAMPAIGN
Diem, recognizing the weakness of his first two campaigns against the Hoa Hao, called out his heavy artillery for this final phase of his neutralization plan . He place Major General Duong Van Minh (Big Minh of 1963 Coup fame) in command of a four division force with supporting weapons and told him to get the job done . Minh divided the Delta into two war zones, Western and Dong Tap, and into several sub-zones each commanded by a senior officer . He established his headquarters at Long Xuyen City in An Giang Province which was in the very midst of Hoa Hao country and deployed his forces for the fight . (figure 6)
An interesting event took place just prior to the first engament between government and Hoa Hao forces . The Viet Minh made strong overtures to General Soai to combine forces and destroy the government forces . In spite of the marvelous accomodation of Soai and his absolute corruptibility when offered a good deal, he declined, probably with some strong assistance by his associates .
A second interesting event also happened during the preliminary phase of Nguyen Hue . General Ngo, the Hoa Hao Commander who had defected to Diem prior to Dinh Tien Hoang I, agreed to move his "Army" the Nguyen Trung Truc Regiment, to the banks of the Mekong River West of Cao Lanh to prevent Soai's escape from the Plain of Reeds . (Nguyen Trung Truc was a General who was killed leading Delta forces in an abortive attempt to overthrow the French in 1875.) There is not record of a battle between Ngo and Soai . There is however, ample evidence that the troops of Ngo and General Nguyen from Chou Doc provided medical aid, food, and other supplies to both Soai's and Ba Cut's forces during the campaign . Thus, although Diem had on paper defeated half of the Hoa Hao Army, much of that defeated half continued to supply the remaining fighting elements .
NGUYEN HUE CAMPAIGN
JANUARY - MAY 1956
The fighting agaisnt Soai went well although government troops suffered heavy mine and booby trap casualties . Government forces employing river assault bombs, sampans, and almost anything else that would float went into the Plain of Reeds and its supporting canals and flushed Soai's troops while cutting of retreat routes into Cambodia . This was a slow and tedious process but by early January 1956 Soai realized he could not continue to fight forever and, through several intermediaries, talks were arranged to capitulate his force and rally to the government cause . Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Tho, whose credentials were prefect for the job since he was a Hoa Hao, was in the Government as Ambassador at Large for Diem, was from Long Xuyen City and personally knew General Soai, made the arrangements for Soai's surrender . Hostilities ceased on 17 February 1956 and the formal capitulation ceremony took place on 7 March1956 at Soai's old headquarters area near Can Tho .
Three down and one to go, but that one was tougher, wilier, and more dedicated than the other three put together . General Le Quang Vinh (Ba Cut) called the "war-drunk Hoa Hao" by Joseph Alsop, was a commander as well trained and motivated (for whatever reasons) as any Viet Minh or Viet Cong General . With Ba Cut were thousands of Hoa Hao, equipped, armed, and ready to fight . Ba Cut's task organization for the fight against Minh's Government forces numbered 29 units from Infantry Regiment to Military Police Company . Not mentioned is General Ba Cut's concubine and her unit of the Hoa Hao Amazon Cops who contributed significantly to the campaign along the Cambodia border near Chou Doc . Dennis Bloodworth reported from there in 1956 - "In an isolated house on the rain-soaked border of Cambodia and Viet Nam I once met under conditions of uncomfortable secrecy a beautiful tigress in peasant pajamas devoid of makeup but possessed of a pair of slim, carefully manicured hands whose short-cut nails would not snag on the safety catch of a machine pistol . Her voice was soft and warm, but as she dilated upon the unholiness of the Diem Government she began biting off the ends of her words with a vicious snap and her eyes lit up with sombre hatred . She was "Madame Ba Cut", the wife of the last fanatical general of the Hoa Hao sect who continued to fight a guerrilla war against the Saigon regime after all other rebels had been crushed or corrupted, and she was reputed to be a more efficient terrorist than her husband ." Tran Thi Hoa is almost twenty years older now, and she is an elected representative to the Lower House in Saigon from the Social Democratice Party but when she speaks, as she ofteen does at Hoa Hao gatherings, she still speaks with the same fire and firmness she must have demonstrated to Bloodworth in 1956 .
Based on some fairly accurate intelligence, General Minh's Western War Zone Task Force conducded several well executed operations against Ba Cut . When contact was made the fighting was sharp but not of long duration, after which the Hoa Hao Forces would disengage to fight another day in another place . Hoa Hao forces during this time, executed a classic ambush against one of the Minh Task Forces . They captured a government town, disemboweled the officer in charge and withdrew setting up an ambush on the most direct route to the town . When government troops consisting of one infantry battalion moved toward the town and into the ambush zone they took eight-four casualties and lost 85 weapons in the first few moments of the contact . This same scenario was being repeated in 1973 as U.S. involvement in Viet Nam came to an end . General Minh's force did execute one very difficult operation with great precision and impressive results . One battalion conducted at 15 kilometer night operation against one of Ba Cut's units with such precision that just as dawn was breaking the tropps arrived at their objective area (where Ba Cut's troops were asleep) and conducted their attack causing heavy casualties in the Hoa Hao unit .
During the months of Nguyen Hue hundreds of operations were conducted with contacts occuring only about half of the time . They did, however, keep Ba Cut off balance and constantly on the move and did succeed in wearing down his troops . This continued for almost five months while the Diem Government attempted to negotiate a cease-fire with Ba Cut and put an end to the fighting . The man who on several occasions was sent by Diem to accomplish this difficult task was non other than Mr. Nguyen Ngo Tho who had been so successful in earlier negotiations with General Ngo and Soai . This time, however, Tho was unsuccessful in achieving a capitulation and only succeeded in geting a list of "demands on the government" from Ba Cut for his surrender . These demands would, in effect, legalize the Hoa Hao Army (under Ba Cut) equip two divisions with latest equipment, give them most of the Mekong Delta and allow them to fight the Viet Minh as they wished . Many other demands were made but they were so out of reason that they had no chance for acceptance in Saigon .
After the breakdown in negotiations General Minh lauched a full scale surprise attack in the area thought occupied by Ba Cut's headquarters . Their intelligence was excellent (some say an informer betrayed Ba Cut) and on the 13th of April 1956 the old soldier Le Quang Vinh, alias Ba Cut, was captured near Long Xuyen City . It has been speculated that over the years that he was so tired from the years of fighting that he just quit . It has also been reported that he was captured during a negotiation session with one of Diem's representatives . Probably neither is correct, he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and was too dependent on h is security forces and his local intelligence organization both of which failed him at the same time .
The end of the Ba Cut story is fitting . After a life time of war, violence, and intrigue he was court martialed in Can Tho city and on the 13th of July 1956 he was beheaded in public at the direction of the court and with the approval of President Ngo Dinh Diem . Ba Cut's demise effectively ended all Hoa Hao opposition in the Delta and on the 31st of May 1956 the Nguyen Hue Campaign was officially declared over .
With the successful completion of operations against the Hoa Hao, Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu sealed the book on the fighting against the sects and with it they sealed their chance for the establishment of a viable government based on popular support in South Viet Nam .