News your connection to The Boston Globe

Ngo Quang Truong; called key S. Vietnamese general

WASHINGTON -- Ngo Quang Truong, who was considered one of the most honest and capable generals of the South Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, died of cancer Monday at Inova Fairfax (Va.) Hospital. He was 77.

Creighton Abrams, who commanded American military operations in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972, told subordinates that General Truong was capable of commanding an American division. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. , who served in Vietnam, said in his 1992 autobiography, "It Doesn't Take a Hero," that General Truong was "the most brilliant tactical commander I'd ever known."

"Simply by visualizing the terrain and drawing on his experience fighting the enemy for 15 years, Truong showed an uncanny ability to predict what they were going to do," Schwarzkopf wrote.

General Truong held the heart of Hue against the North Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive of 1968, in what is often regarded as one of the longest, bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. He returned there in May 1972 to command the northern military region. His return calmed the panicked refugees and allowed him to regroup the troops who fled Quang Tri.

Three years later, as the North Vietnamese drove south toward ultimate victory, General Truong was ordered to evacuate all the military personnel from the tactical zone around Da Nang.

"This Herculean task failed, but Truong should not bear the blame for failure in such a difficult situation," the 1996 Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War said.

Under barrage by North Vietnamese shells, his troops fell apart and abandoned their posts. General Truong swam to a ship off the coast of the city and reestablished his headquarters as Da Nang fell. General Truong, flown to Saigon, was hospitalized for a reported nervous breakdown. A US Army officer who had worked closely with him heard what happened, tracked General Truong down, and arranged for his family to leave on an American vessel as Saigon fell.

The general's family split up: His wife and older son made it to Fort Chaffee, Ark.; his daughters and middle son fled with a State Department employee to Seattle; and his youngest son, a 4-year-old who spoke no English, was at Camp Pendleton, Calif., for several weeks before his identity was established.

General Truong moved to Northern Virginia that year and wrote military history books. He became a US citizen in 1983 and was a computer analyst for the Association of American Railroads. He worked there for about a decade, until he retired in 1994.

Ngo Quang Truong was born to a well-to-do family in the Mekong River Delta. Following the Vietnamese practice, his family name was Ngo and his first name was Truong, but Americans routinely called Vietnamese by their military title and first name, which is why he was so widely known as General Truong.

Commissioned into the army in 1954, he spent the next dozen years in the elite airborne brigade and in 1966 became commander of the First Infantry Division in Hue. He left to take charge of the region that encompasses the Mekong Delta in 1971.

"He did not look like my idea of a military genius: only five feet seven, in his mid-forties, very skinny, with hunched shoulders and a head that seemed too big for his body," Schwarzkopf wrote. "His face was pinched and intense, not at all handsome, and there was always a cigarette hanging from his lips. Yet he was revered by his officers and troops -- and feared by those North Vietnamese commanders who knew of his ability."

Unlike other generals who had grown rich as they ascended the ranks, Truong led a Spartan, ascetic life. Retired US Army Lieutenant John Cushman, who became his close friend after working with him, said that General Truong didn't own a suit and that his wife kept pigs behind his modest quarters in the military compound where they lived.

Two nights before the Tet offensive, Cushman said, General Truong sensed something would happen and put his troops on alert. When the first night passed quietly, General Truong dismissed his advisers but kept his troops ready, Cushman said. That night brought the attack and several weeks of fighting.

"He survived with the enemy all around him," Cushman said. "They never took his command post."