Almost 26 years after directing the defense of An Loc and blocking an enemy offensive that gave Saigon a temporary reprieve, former South Vietnamese Army Gen. Nhut Van Tran was awarded the U.S. Legion of Merit on Saturday night for his role in this major battle of the Vietnam War.
Tran, 62, who was involved in some of the heaviest fighting near the end of the war, said he was surprised to learn that he would get the prestigious medal.
The original nominating papers were lost many years ago in the U.S. Army bureaucracy. The award was finally approved last month by acting Army Secretary Robert M. Walker after retired Army Lt. Gen. Walter F. Ulmer, who was an advisor and fought with Tran at An Loc, resubmitted Tran's name for the medal.
Ulmer said he recommended Tran for the award when he learned that Tran, who came to the United States in 1975, never received the recognition.
"It's quite an honor. I didn't know anything about this until a few days ago," said the retired Tran, who was awarded two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars and an Army Commendation Medal, all for bravery, during the war.
Tran received the medal from retired Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, at a scholarship fund-raiser aboard the Queen Mary.
"To have Gen. Westmoreland present the award to me, it's wonderful," said Tran, who lives in Santa Ana and is a leader in the Vietnamese American community. He was a brigadier general when South Vietnam fell to communist troops in 1975.
In April 1972, Tran was a colonel and Binh Long Province chief when three North Vietnamese Army divisions reinforced by tanks and artillery attacked An Loc, the provincial capital. The attack was part of a widespread communist onslaught that U.S. and South Vietnamese officials called "the Easter offensive" and Hanoi called Operation Nguyen Hue, after an 18th century king who united Vietnam.
Hanoi's goal was to destroy South Vietnam's armed forces in one massive offensive and unify the country under communist rule. The North Vietnamese overran numerous bases and cities throughout the country and surrounded An Loc, located about 45 miles northwest of Saigon.
South Vietnamese officials chose to make a stand at An Loc, which was besieged for about 40 days, so that the North Vietnamese Army could not march into Saigon.
At the beginning of the battle, Tran said that he commanded about 1,000 militiamen, who joined another 1,000 regular army troops from Vietnam's 5th Division to face 25,000 enemy troops.
"The communists' intention was to occupy An Loc and make it the capital of the National Liberation Front [the political arm of the Viet Cong] government. I told my troops that we had to stop the enemy at An Loc. There was much confusion all over [South] Vietnam," Tran said.
Ulmer was assigned as an advisor to the 5th Division but said he also worked closely with Tran.
"He was the perfect person to have in that situation, where we were besieged and surrounded. He was unshakable, always calm and cool," Ulmer said.
"[Tran] led by example and was one of the bravest soldiers I've ever known. He had a reputation for being a straight shooter, tough and courageous," he said.
According to the recommendation submitted by Ulmer for the Legion of Merit, Tran's heroism and leadership during the battle "were instrumental in securing the combined U.S.-Vietnamese success."
Ulmer said he witnessed Tran's heroism during an artillery attack when Tran drove a battered jeep during the shelling to try to rescue four American officers who were mortally wounded during the barrage.
"He was everywhere, on the battlefield and at his headquarters directing air strikes on the radio," Ulmer added.
The 1972 communist offensive occurred after most U.S. ground troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam. The battles that raged that year were a test of Washington's Vietnamization program, which required South Vietnam alone to do the ground fighting with U.S. air support.
It was American air power that turned the tide at An Loc, but the South Vietnamese showed that they could also battle it out with the North Vietnamese Army.
"An Loc showed the world that we Vietnamese could do the job with American air support. Vietnamization was working," said Tran.
But the United States curtailed air support for the South Vietnamese forces after signing the peace accords with Hanoi in 1973. Saigon fell in 1975 after South Vietnamese troops fought without the U.S. air support.