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Nationalist in the Viet Nam Wars

Memoirs of a Victim Turned Soldier

Nguyen Công Luan

Publication Year: 2012

This extraordinary memoir tells the story of one man's experience of the wars of Viet Nam from the time he was old enough to be aware of war in the 1940s until his departure for America 15 years after the collapse of South Viet Nam in 1975. Nguyen Cong Luan was born and raised in small villages near Ha Noi. He grew up knowing war at the hands of the Japanese, the French, and the Viet Minh. Living with wars of conquest, colonialism, and revolution led him finally to move south and take up the cause of the Republic of Viet Nam, exchanging a life of victimhood for one of a soldier. His stories of village life in the north are every bit as compelling as his stories of combat and the tragedies of war. This honest and impassioned account is filled with the everyday heroism of the common people of his generation.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Title Page, Frontispiece, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

As it was being fought, the Việt Nam War was the most thoroughly documented and recorded war in history. It is, therefore, especially ironic that more than thirty-five years after the fall of Sài Gòn, Việt Nam remains one of the most misunderstood of all American wars, shrouded in a fog of misconceptions, bogus myths, and distorted facts. One of the most cherished of those many false beliefs centers on what was supposed to have been the complete operational ineptness and combat ineffectiveness...

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pp. xiii-xiv

In my early childhood, “war” was one among the first abstract words I learned before I could have the least perception of its meaning. It was when World War II began. When I was a little older, I saw how war brought death and destruction when American bombers attacked some Japanese installations near my hometown. But it was the wars in my country after 1945 that resulted in the greatest disasters to my people....

A Note on Vietnamese Names

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pp. xv-xvi


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1 A Morning of Horror

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pp. 3-10

It was a cool summer morning in 1951 in my home village, a small and insignificant place on the Red River delta, some sixty miles south of Hà Nội, in the north of Việt Nam. Under the bright sunlight and the cloudless blue sky, the green paddy in front of my grandma’s house looked so fresh and peaceful. It would have been much more beautiful if there had not been war in my country....

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2 My Early Years and Education

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pp. 11-24

I was born into a lower-middle-class family in 1937, not long before Japan waged war against China, beginning with the Marco Polo Bridge crisis in Beijing, which my father used to refer to when talking about my birth.
My grandparents had not been rich farmers when they married in 1884, having nothing more than a small wooden house and a few acres of farmland. My great-grandfather was poor, but he managed to send my grandfather to...

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3 1945: The Year of Drastic Events

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pp. 25-44

The winter of 1944 was the coldest in many decades in the Red River delta, my grandma said. Temperatures dropped to a little above zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) as a bitter north wind brought death to some old people in the villages near mine. The winter harvest was the greatest failure in a century, according to the old villagers. Rice production at some villages was less than 30 percent of a normal crop in many fields, my uncle told my father. Panicles of rice...

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4 On the Way to War

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pp. 45-52

The new government of the Democratic Republic of Việt Nam was officially founded after the general election on January 4, 1946. Nguyễn Hải Thần became vice president to Hồ Chí Minh in the first so-called coalition government. Other nationalist leaders were appointed ministers, such as the famous writer Nguyễn Tường Tam, pen name Nhất Linh, of the Việt Quốc, as minister of...


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pp. 53-54

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5 Take Up Arms!

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pp. 55-61

When a company-sized unit of French soldiers arrived in Nam Định City not long after the March 6 agreement, the city population was nervous but not in a panic. Neither side concealed its hostility. However, there were no organized firefights. Every week, newspapers reported sporadic exchanges of fire by small units in the three largest cities of North Việt Nam (Hà Nội, Hải Phòng, and Nam Định). But the joint control teams quickly halted them....

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6 My Dark Years in War Begin

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pp. 62-76

In January 1948, my family and many villagers moved to a village about three miles to the south. My school moved to a pagoda just a mile away, so I could continue fifth grade. My father continued his jobs in the Liên Việt and as the village chairman in exile. Although he performed his duty well, sometimes he was summoned to the district Public Security Agency to answer questions concerning his suspected anticommunist activities. His job in the Liên Việt led...

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7 Between Hammer and Anvil

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pp. 77-87

In 1945, the Việt Minh established several prison camps and named them Trại Sản Xuất (production camps). In 1954 they were renamed Trại Cải Tạo (reeducation camps).
In February 1949, my father was moved to Camp 5 in Thanh Hóa province. It was the most notorious prison camp in all of the areas under Việt Minh control. It still exists today. It was also known as Camp Lý Bá Sơ, named after its chief jailer. Hồ Chí Minh himself selected Lý Bá Sơ and other jailers....

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8 The Shaky Peace

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pp. 88-103

In December 1949, the French Army launched a large-scale operation in the southern area of my province. While foot soldiers penetrated the Việt Minh sanctuary further toward the seashore, the French river force sent its boats patrolling the main rivers and attacked the Việt Minh from the rear.
My mother, my first cousin, and I decided to go back to our village. We hired a man to take us up the small river on his sampan. At a high price, he accepted....

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9 Bloodier Battles

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pp. 104-124

In 1952, after only two years under the nationalist government, the peaceful period in my village area came to an end when the Việt Minh took control. I was still able to come back to visit my grandma and my uncle during the daytime when there was no military operation, and the Việt Minh guerrillas were still friendly to me.
The Việt Minh returned to the region with more weapons, especially new antitank recoilless rifles and bazookas. Ferro-concrete bunkers were no longer safe shelters for soldiers in forts and barracks. Armored cars and tanks lost their...

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10 The Geneva Accords

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pp. 125-140

One night in February 1954, the Việt Minh forces made a bold attack deep inside Nam Định City. They infiltrated the city by several routes. Some disguised themselves as pilgrims joining the annual religious procession to get into the suburban neighborhoods.
At midnight, they opened fire on a security patrol and attacked an outpost in the suburban area to lure French reinforcements out of the city into their ambush....

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11 The Year of Changes

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pp. 141-148

When the Reverend Hoàng Quỳnh, a Catholic priest and ardent anticommunist activist, founded a new regiment with the name Bắc Tiến (Advance to the North), my group was ordered by the Việt Quốc leaders to join it as a part-time psychological operations team. The regiment included ethnic North Vietnamese soldiers who had deserted from nationalist army units. Most of them were Catholics, rallying...


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12 To Be a Soldier

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pp. 151-165

As my father had been a public servant and had died in the communist prison camp, and I was my mother’s only son, I was exempted by conscription law from the military draft. If I had applied for a scholarship abroad, I would have been on the priority list. My mother and my aunt hated the idea that I would be in the military. They wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer....

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13 Progress and Signs of Instability

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pp. 166-174

In 1957, South Việt Nam was at peace. Anyone could see economic progress not only on the streets but also in the hamlets, with better houses and clothes. I used to visit friends in villages, in some cases in remote areas where the only way to go was on foot. Security was of little concern. After crushing all hostile armed sect groups and integrating the friendly ones into the national army, the government imposed its control in the immense Mekong Delta, which quickly recovered its...

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14 Mounting Pressure

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pp. 175-199

The war started in 1955, when communist guerrillas began a new program of terror and propaganda in remote areas of the country. The war reached a new phase in 1959, when the communist regime took a more aggressive course of action against the South. The South was following a war policy of defense. In the first few years after the 1954 Geneva Accords, Vietnamese nationalists, especially those from the refugee community, often talked about the liberation of the North. But by the late 1950s, few of them still fostered such a dream....

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15 The Limited War

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pp. 200-232

In his first year as president of the United States, John F. Kennedy brought a lot of hope to the South Vietnamese anticommunists. These feelings were so strong that some Vietnamese began having concerns about the elections, which could remove Kennedy from power.
In early 1962, the Military Advisory and Assistance Group (MAAG) was transformed into the Military Assistance Command in Việt Nam (MACV)....

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16 The Year of the (Crippled) Dragon

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pp. 233-260

My family and I were all Buddhists. When I was thirteen, I lived more than a year in a Catholic household when I boarded with my teacher. Although I was not converted, I often joined in the prayers of the family in the evenings and before dawn. Sometimes I went to church with the children. Many friends and remote relatives of mine were Catholics. So I felt no great difference between followers of the two religions and me. At my young age, I believed in something...

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17 On the Down Slope

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pp. 261-279

Bad news from battles around the country appeared in newspapers almost every day. The North Việt Nam Army moved its soldiers into South Việt Nam in battalion and regimental size. Intelligence reports confirmed that several NVA regular divisions were already present in the South.
In December 1964, the first NVA division appeared in the territory of my Twenty-second Division after moving on truck or by foot on the Long Mountain...

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18 Hearts and Minds

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pp. 280-295

After the Ngô Đình Diệm regime was overthrown in November 1963, the political situation in South Việt Nam was deteriorating seriously. Under the power of military generals, the consecutive governments headed by civilian politicians were replaced by coup attempts. Sài Gòn was in chaos. After President Ngô Đình Diệm was slain, no political leader of his caliber could restore the central power that could answer the critical situation of a country just delivered from a dictatorship. The danger of war was rising high....

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19 Sài Gòn Commando

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pp. 296-316

My new assignment was to serve as chief of the Organization Study Section, somewhat similar to a G-3 plus a part of G-1 at division level, of the newly established General Political Warfare Department (GPWD). It was one of the three general departments directly under the Joint General Staff. The others were the General Training Department and the General Logistics Department....


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20 The Tet Offensive

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pp. 319-341

The last days of January 1968 marked a communist large-scale campaign against South Việt Nam that turned the war in an unexpected direction. The communist supreme command named the campaign “General Offensive and General Uprising.” It was launched on January 29, 1968. It was Tết’s Eve, the first day of the Lunar New Year, the Year of the Monkey. So it was generally known as the “1968 Tết Offensive.”...

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21 Defeat on the Home Front

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pp. 342-377

From 1962 to 1975, there were nearly 160,000 communist troops who reported to the South Vietnamese side for Chiêu Hồi. Of these, 15,000 were from regular North Việt Nam units. They included one senior colonel, four lieutenant colonels, about ten majors, three dozen captains, hundreds of lieutenants, a few members of the provincial Party Standing Committees (equal in rank to lieutenant colonel), two capable engineers graduated from Eastern European universities,...

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22 The New Phase

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pp. 378-396

The communists had the upper hand in espionage on RVN government and military installations. A spy scandal broke out in the last months of 1969. A high-ranking RVN government official, Huỳnh Văn Trọng, was arrested and charged as a spy. He was accused of working for the communist side ever since 1954. Two Chiêu Hồi Ministry employees were detained because of their personal associations with him. One of the two was working as chief of training in...

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23 The Fiery Summer

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pp. 397-414

Richard Nixon’s visit to Red China in 1972 was the most important event of the time. The new relations of the two adversaries apparently worried both North and South Việt Nam.
In Sài Gòn, we officers were greatly concerned about the Nixon-Mao meeting, from the state dinner to welcome the Americans with maotai wine to the joint communiqué in which for the first time the Beijing leaders called South...

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24 Hope Draining

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pp. 415-437

One day in December 1972, an air raid of several B-52s began bombing many targets in North Việt Nam. Unlike tactical air raids that were aimed at small targets, B-52 bombings couldn’t avoid killing civilians. I had experienced bombing since I was ten years old. I knew how the civilians in North Việt Nam were feeling under the thundering and highly destructive firepower raining down on them....

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25 America 1974–75

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pp. 438-450

From 1968 to 1972, I devoted an hour or two every week to studying aspects of life in North Việt Nam. In the first year serving the Chiêu Hồi program, I realized that much of what we had known about North Việt Nam was wrong. There were some Vietnamese scholars who were specialists on the Vietnamese communists, but without sufficient support, their works were not published and propagated appropriately. Besides, their studies were mostly concerned with...

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26 The End

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pp. 451-466

When I stepped out of the plane at the Air America terminal in Tân Sơn Nhất, the Vietnamese girl who checked the manifest asked me, “Why do you come back? Đà Lạt fell last night.” I said nothing, because it might have taken a few hours to explain what I was thinking to one who had never been a soldier.
I didn’t go on leave traditionally given to those just coming back from schooling abroad and went on to work at the GPWD. That was one of the longest months in...


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27 Prisoner

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pp. 469-516

What we were waiting for came at last. On June 9, the communist military governor of Sài Gòn announced his decision to call all former RVN field grade officers and ranking civil servants, including elected legislative officials, to report for “reeducation.” Everyone knew the rhetoric meant “incarceration” or, to be more exact, “incarceration in a concentration camp.” The ARVN NCOs and enlisted men in the Sài Gòn area had been ordered to attend the three-day reeducation...

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28 Release

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pp. 517-542

On January 10, 1982, while I was waiting for the escape information—time, place, and password—I was informed that I was on the list of eighty-eight prisoners to be released on January 21. That was far beyond my expectation.
In January 11, the release decision was read at Annex C large yard. My name was about the tenth on the list. To my surprise, the name of the Special Forces captain was called near the end of the list. He was stunned and shocked, staggering...


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pp. 543-544

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29 On the Viet Nam War

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pp. 545-559

The war from 1945 to 1954 was initially a war of independence when Vietnamese patriots of all dispositions were fighting to liberate their nation from French domination. The Việt Nam Communist Party’s campaign to eradicate political opposition drove the anticommunist Vietnamese patriots to the other side. So the war of resistance became mingled with the communists’ long-range scheme to consolidate...

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30 Ever in My Memory

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pp. 560-574

I entered second grade after the long summer vacation of 1943.
My teacher, Mr. Kinh, was a devout Buddhist and a severe educator. He seldom smiled, or to be more exact, he sometimes smiled with his fellow teachers but almost never with his pupils. Moreover, he did not talk much, using gestures instead of voice whenever possible....


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pp. 575-586


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pp. 587-598

About The Author

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p. 599-599

E-ISBN-13: 9780253005489
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253356871

Page Count: 616
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Nguyễn, Công Luận, 1937-.
  • Vietnam (Republic). Quân lực -- Officers -- Biography.
  • Political prisoners -- Vietnam -- Biography.
  • Political refugees -- Vietnam -- Biography.
  • Indochinese War, 1946-1954 -- Personal narratives, Vietnamese.
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Personal narratives, Vietnamese.
  • Vietnam -- History -- 1945-1975.
  • Vietnam -- History -- 1975-.
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