Major General Phạm Văn Phú

On 9 March 1975, I accompanied my counterpart, a South Vietnamese general, on a trip to I Corps and II Corps, the northern half of South Vietnam. During a courtesy call with the commander of II Corps, Major General Phạm Văn Phú, things turned sour. The general I was traveling with and the II Corps intelligence staff chief tried to persuade General Phú that Ban Mê Thuột, in Darlac province to the south, would be the first target of the Communist campaign in the highlands. Intercept of North Vietnamese communications made that clear. The II Corps Commander was unpersuaded. He doubted that the North Vietnamese were preparing to strike, and if they were, II Corps headquarters would be the logical focus of the offensive. After all, he was the most important man in the highlands, and he was at II Corps headquarters in Pleiku.

I described the confrontation that I witnessed that day in the scene quoted below from Last of the Annamese. General Tri is the fictionalized version of General Phú.

Smoke blurred the features of the room. Cigarettes, two of them still burning, littered the deck. The snakelike man behind the desk, a lit cigarette in hand, gave no indication that he knew eight people were standing before him. He went on reading, smiling at the document in his hands. Without looking up he made a single sound, and the officers sat in a row of chairs facing the desk. Chuck hurriedly joined them. The adjutant served tea.

Chuck squinted through the smoke at the man reading. His fatigue’s name tag read TRI, and his shoulders bore the two stars of a major general. The slant of his egg-shaped bald head drew the eye to his mouth, the lips closed, the corners turned up. Something about his smile activated the tingle low in Chuck’s spine. It was a sardonic smile, a sneer.

Tri raised his eyes and said, “Thanh.” Thanh stood at attention, his eyes downcast, and spoke several sentences. Then he turned to Chuck. “Mister Griffin, I introduce you to General Tri.” Chuck jumped to his feet.

Tri fixed Chuck in his gaze. “I am honored to meet you, Mister Griffin.”

Chuck started to answer, but Tri shifted back to Thanh and went on speaking. He gestured to Chuck to sit, tossed away his cigarette, and lit another.

Throughout the exchange, the smile never left Tri’s face. Maybe it was less an expression than a facial feature. His eyes remained half closed, as though in disdain for the colonel in front of him. His speech, marked by viperous hisses, cut through the smoke.

Chuck’s weariness, aggravated by the smarting of his eyes, lulled him . . . . A bark from Tri jarred him awake. The general was glaring at Thanh. Liem stood and spoke quietly, his eyes averted. Thanh’s voice, pitched low, repeated Liem’s words. He looked directly into Tri’s eyes, his gestures calm, and pointed to the large II Corps map on the wall. Liem moved to it and waved circles around Ban Mê Thuột, in Darlac Province, directly south of Pleiku. The smile left Tri’s face for the first time. He directed half a dozen sentences at Thanh with undisguised hostility. The interview was over.

End of quote. Even though General Phú didn’t believe the forecast that the North Vietnamese would launch their offensive in the highlands with Ban Mê Thuột as the first objective, Ban Mê Thuột fell days later, followed by the rest of the northern half of South Vietnam. General Phú escaped to Saigon. He committed suicide there on 30 April when the North Vietnamese took the city.

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