From the author I was imprisoned at the re-education camp in Long-Khanh province. In that camp, I was placed in the same D (squad) with First Lieutenant Huynh Van , attendant officer of Brigadier General Tran Van Hai, commander of the RVN 7th Infantry Division and the Dong Tam base. Gen. Hai also had been the commandant of the RVN Rangers and chief of the National Police. During those internment years, Lt. Hoa told me about “The last hours of Gen. Hai”.
Today, in observance the RVN Armed Forces Day 19th of June 1996. I would like to write about those last hours of Brigadier General Tran Van Hai, so we could have a deep thought and burn an incent stick in dedication to those “Heroes who dedicated their lives for the nation”. The story had been told seventeen years ago, therefore the time might not be exactly but the content is true. The personal pronounce “I” in this story is referred to First Lieutenant Hoa.
The Dong Tam base was an important base of the ARVN located in the city of MyTho , DinhTuong province. All transportation from the Mekong Delta (MR-IV) to Saigon city and vice versa must pass by the city of My Tho. Not as usual as before, the traffic had been crowded, people come and go out of the base everyday but not today... It was on the 30th of April 1975.
After following the commander to the last meeting with all of his subordinate officers at the Divisional Officers Club, I went back to my room in the bachelor officer quarter, to collect my personal belongings then waited for the new order from the General. Two hours ago, after receiving the order to surrender from president Duong Van Minh and waiting for “the other side” to come in for transferring the ownership of the base. The Brigadier General ordered all of his officers to come for a meeting. At the meeting, he thanked to all of the officers for their times serving under his leadership then said farewell to everyone. In his last order, he expected that everyone to return homes, to take care of their families and avoiding confrontations with “the other side”.
Gen. Hai called me to report to his office. When I stood in front of his desk, I felt something unusual. The commander did not raise his head to look at his subordinate. He sat still, probably thinking... Moment later, he gave me signal to sit down in front of his desk. Waiting for me to sit down firmly, he spoke slowly.
- I thank you for stand by me at this last hour. It is the destiny of our nation, nothing more could be done. As a soldier, we must obey the order from the superior absolutely!
Then the General asked me questions concerning my family. Finally, he opened a drawer underneath his desk and pulled out a small packet wrapped by old newspaper. He handed the packet to me and said.
- Early tomorrow morning, you can return to your family. Please give this packet to my mother and tell her that this is my gift for her. Tell her not to worry much about me. Now you can go back to your room and pack your personal belongings. From now until late evening, when I need, I will call. (Later I found out in that small packet, there was a sum of $70,000 in Vietnamese currency - worth probably less than 100 U.S. dollars - and some of his personal items).
I stood up, saluted the commander then went back to my place. I fell nervous, I got a feeling that something worse might happen to him. Waiting until past 6:00pm , the telephone did not ring, I could not stay calm. Then, I decided to run to the commander office...
The immense of the Dong Tam base had sunk into its deepest despair. As I approached closer to the commander office, my heart was beating heavier. The lights were still on as usual, but the cold air covered the scenes. I stopped at the door and listening... Still quiet! Got enough courage, I turned the door knob, open it slowly and walked in. The view inside shocked me, the commander still sat on his chair behind the desk, his head rested on the desk and motionless, an empty glass was also on the desk.Immediately, I call the medical battalion and the clinic of the division. At that time, there was a Major still there. I talked to the doctor about the commander’s condition and a few minutes later, the army doctor arrived in an ambulance jeep. We carried Gen. Hai to the clinic right away. At that time the General was in a coma. We tried hard to revive him for a while but the poison was already in his blood stream. The General’s life seemed hopelessly...
We worked in quiet, used a tower to wash the face for the General then put him lying down on a carrying cot (military) and saluted the General the last time. After covered the commander with a sheet, I ran back to pick up my belonging and decided to to go back to Saigon city immediately and to inform his family.
When I arrived Saigon city, I found out that Gen. Hai family, included his wife, children and his old mother, already ran to the Grall hospital seeking shelter (People probably felt safer in the hospital, especially the Grall because the French ran that hospital). After meeting General family, and told them about the General. His family decided to bring his body back to Saigon at all costs.
Early next morning, the General’s mother and me, one old lady one young man rented a car to go to Dong Tam base. We arrived at the base around and it was different from yesterday. A lot of people in the base, some came to look for sons, for husbands, etc... When our car arrived at the gate, a young VC stopped us for checking. As already prepared, the General’s mother stepped out, crying with the young VC.
- Dear son, I have a son drafted into the army. I heard that he died yesterday. Let me go in to find his body! Please be kind with me. The peace has all the sons came homes but not my son...
When we arrived at the hospital. It was dark, a rumor spread out that this hospital just had a funeral for Major General Pham Van Phu commander of the II-Corps. I was exhausted, stress and did not know where are my wife and my children.
After a quick processing, I stood quietly, not saluting the General as in military ceremony. It would be safer for the General’s family. They might have trouble if the communist found out. Finally, I had to leave the respectful commander. The tears ran down on my face but had to find my wife and my children...
One last thing , I would like to tell here, that a week before the 30th of April 1975 president Nguyen Van Thieu sent a helicopter to Dong Tam base to bring General Hai to Saigon, but he just simply refused the president’s offer.
When the situation became critical, the General allowed his wife and children moving back to Saigon city and finally he chose a heroic solution.
Trinh Van Ngan , Dallas 10/16/96
Translated by Hieu D. Vu