I first met General Tran Van Tra in 1991 when in Ho Chi Minh City (pre-1975 Saigon) attending a conference on Vietnam's history. He spoke one day to our group of educators on the subject of the Tet Offensive.
After I returned to Richmond, I began study of Tra's life and roles in the war. My research first resulted in a conference paper in 1993 at Texas Tech University, now the location for a significant and growing Vietnam Archives. My first Vietnam War course soon followed this research. Unfortunately, Tra died before my second and third study trips to Vietnam (in 1997 and 1998); therefore I had no opportunity to interview him.
Born in 1918 in My Tho, a province south of Saigon (today's Ho Chi Minh City ) in the Mekong Delta, his father was a mason and patriot -- too poor to send him to school. Thus he has written: "I became a revolutionary." CIA records place his birth in central VN, and some sources say he came south from North Vietnam. During the Vietnam wars, he used several code names and our CIA records were found to be faulty in some details. Tra was also a private person not often willing to talk about his personal life and family even after the war.
Tra attended industrial school in Hue and then worked on Saigon railroads in his youth. In 1939 the French reported his arrest for subversive activities, resulting in a six-month prison term. He was back in prison 1944 and was freed during Ho Chi Minh's August Revolution (1945).
He was Viet Minh deputy commander in the war against the French and was trained in China (1949) and Moscow (1949). Between 1950-52 he commanded Special Area 7, which included Saigon and Cholon, the Chinese district in Saigon. His command post was in Bien Hoa north of Saigon.
He went to northern Vietnam in 1954, when he was Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap's deputy chief of staff. Then he received more military training in Moscow and Peking. By 1958 he was a one-star general and commanded the 330th North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Division. He returned to the south in 1964 as commander of liberation forces in the south. He trecked down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, using one of his many code names (Anh Tu, in honor of his brother). By this time he had been elected to the Vietnamese Communist Party Central Com (1960).
Tra later commanded Viet Cong forces in the B2 Theater comprising the lower half of South Vietnam. He was in charge of the Tet offensive into Saigon, and in 1973 he was the top Viet Cong official/diplomat involved with the prisoner exchanges following agreement on the Paris Peace Accords. In 1975 he took over in Saigon when the communist victory over South Vietnam was complete, and he continued to head the Military Management Committee in charge of Saigon for the next seven months.
His major leadership positions included chair of the Military Affairs Committee of the Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN), 1964-76, and minister of defense in the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam (PRG), 1969-1975.
Tran Van Tra died April 20, 1996. [See obituaries in The Times (London), April 27); the Washington Post and the New York Times.]
After the war, General Tran Van Tra published (1982) his five-volume memoir in Vietnamese; only the final volume has thus far appeared in English. His high praise for his own B-2 southern forces, as well as his honest and critical assessment of his communist superiors, brought government sanctions against him, and he briefly lived under certain restrictions. It was clear that Tra found disappointment in the results of victory for both himself and his nation. As he continued, however, to meet with scholars and remain critical of party leadership, his main focus was upon the Tet Offensive. He also worked with Vietnamese veterans who interacted with American veterans of the war.
The major source for this sketch is Dr. Ernest Bolt, "Tran Van Tra: Putting a Face on a Viet Cong Leader," a paper presented April 23, 1993, at the Vietnam Conference, the Center for the Study of the Vietnam Conflict, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas (31 pp. with notes).
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