Pham Van Dong; Army General In Vietnam Praised for Bravery

Gen. Dong, 89, had lived in Arlington County.
Gen. Dong, 89, had lived in Arlington County.
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008

Pham Van Dong, 89, a major general in the South Vietnamese army and the military governor of Saigon when the city fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975, died Nov. 26 of congestive heart failure at his home in Philadelphia. He was a former Arlington County resident.

Gen. Dong fought with the French against Japan during World War II and later served as a lieutenant colonel in the French army. He was one of the few soldiers in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam who had been a French officer.

"He was a very brave and capable man," said Neil Sheehan, a reporter for United Press International during the Vietnam War and the author of "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam" (1988). "American advisers regarded him as the most professional officer in the ARVN."

Sheehan said that he and fellow reporter David Halberstam of the New York Times relied on Gen. Dong as a valuable source of information, not only about military strategy and why the Viet Cong were winning but also about the internecine maneuverings within the ARVN itself. He was willing to talk to reporters, discreetly, even though it put him at risk of arrest, or worse.

Gen. Dong "was one of our most helpful informants," Sheehan wrote in "A Bright Shining Lie." "He obtained statistics we needed and details of how the Viet Cong were creating their new big battalions through a general at Joint General Staff headquarters who had been one of his subordinates in the North during the French war. I spent an evening at his house transcribing the information."

Pham Van Dong, who bore the same name as the prime minister of North Vietnam, was born in Son Tay, Vietnam, and grew up in Hanoi. Family members going back several generations had been teachers in the imperial court, and Gen. Dong also planned to be a teacher. He enrolled in the Ecole Normale d'Instituteurs but dropped out in 1938 and enlisted in the French colonial army. He became the first Vietnamese officer to command French troops.

A member of Vietnam's Nung ethnic minority, a group with a Gurkha-like reputation as fierce fighters, he later commanded the 3rd Field Division, made up entirely of Nung soldiers.

From 1950 to 1952, he served in various field commanding-officer positions and participated in a number of major battles and campaigns against communist forces in northern Vietnam. In 1952, as a lieutenant colonel, he commanded the 2nd Mobile Group. A year later, he was appointed commanding officer of the Bui Chu subzone and commander of light infantry and artillery forces of northern Vietnam.

As the war in Indochina peaked, he was appointed commander of the Quang Yen Military Academy and in 1954 redeployed the academy and all its personnel to southern Vietnam. After the Geneva Convention partitioned Vietnam, he moved south with his family.

In 1959, then-Col. Dong -- who as a young man had taught himself English -- attended the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Returning to Vietnam, he was appointed deputy commander of South Vietnam's III Corps.

After the 1963 coup d'etat that toppled the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, he was appointed commander of the 7th Division. He then served briefly as military attache to the Republic of China (Taiwan). When he returned, he was made brigadier general and then major general, and served as military governor of Saigon-Gia Dinh and commander of the Special Capital Zone.

"He was regarded by American advisers as an equal. That was very unusual," said Sheehan, who also recalled that Gen. Dong would put the American advisers to work when they were with him in the field.

When Saigon fell, Gen. Dong and his family were able to leave the country on a C-130 military transport that took them to Guam.

"He was devastated," said his son, Hiep Pham. "He felt he betrayed his men. I think it was a sensation he carried through his whole life."

With Sheehan as their sponsor, the Dong family eventually settled in Arlington County, where Gen. Dong bought a secondhand car, insisted that family members eat American food and worked to get them acclimated to their new life. He occasionally served as a translator for the Defense Department before retiring in the early 1980s. He moved to Philadelphia in 1998 after the death of his first wife, Le Thi Li, in 1992.

Survivors include his wife of 10 years, My-Lan Trinh, of Philadelphia; five children from his first marriage, his son, of Montgomery Village, and Misha Hung Pham of Falls Church, Mickey Bich-Ha Pham of Fairfax County and Pam Bich-Hang and Bic Bich-Hai Pham, both of San Diego; three stepdaughters from his second marriage; a brother and sister; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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