The Strange Case of the Vietnamese
"Late Hero" Nguyen Van Be

SGM Herbert A. Friedman (Ret.)

Parts of this article have appeared with the author’s approval in an article entitled “When PSYWAR Went So Wrong” in the October 2012 issue of Vietnam.

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Nguyen Van Be reads a Hanoi Newspaper report on his Heroic Death

One of the most unusual psychological campaigns of the Vietnam War concerned the martyred hero Nguyen Van Be. Born in 1941 in Chau Thanh, he joined the guerrillas in 1961, and according to the legend, the young Viet Cong guerrilla was on a mission with his comrades on 30 May 1966 transporting explosives when they were attacked and Be was captured. Rather than submit, he chose to sacrifice himself and died a martyr’s death. The American and Vietnamese troops demanded that he instruct them on the workings of an unknown explosive mine. Be did so. He picked up the mine high over his head, and shouted:

Long live the National Front for Liberation. Down with American Imperialists.

He then smashed the mine against an armored vehicle, killing himself and 69 American and Vietnamese officers and soldiers.

For six months, the Lao Dong (Communist) Party told of his heroics in prose and song. Young men were urged to emulate the fallen hero. Be had been a model guerrilla. He had joined the People’s Youth League at an early age and later became a volunteer in the Liberation Army. There were poems, booklets, plays and radio broadcasts telling of Be’s death and sacrifice. The communists in the North even wrote an opera for Be. In addition, two statues were erected in his honor. The Viet Cong awarded him the posthumous title of "Indomitable Loyalty and Magnificent Bravery."

The Hanoi weekly newspaper Van Nghe, issue No 210, dated 5 May 1967, had a story titled, "The opera THREE TIMES HERO and those who work on it." The author Chuong Duong says that it is not a satisfactory opera but a good and realistic play. The reason is the limited number of documents available. The documents based on which he wrote this opera were information heard over the radio and news reports read in newspapers and magazines. Despite the scantiness of material available to him, he was so deeply motivated by the brilliant example of the doctrine of revolutionary heroism shown by Nguyen Van Be that he took up the pen to describe it. The article goes on to say:

The opera, "Three Times Hero" was written in a short time with the intention of extolling the extremely gallant spirit and especially the sagacity of the brave liberation soldier. While concentrating on the last moments of Nguyen Van Be's life, however, the author did not express the lonely fight of Nguyen Van Be against the enemy. Instead, he described the coordinated fight of the people and army of South Vietnam [this usually means the Viet Cong] in which Nguyen Van Be and the inhabitants of his native village are the prototypes.

Although it is a play with only 2 acts, all members of the Kim Phung troupe have prepared "Three Times Hero" with a fervent and enthusiastic spirit and a serious and solemn labor attitude. In comparison with several other renovated plays, the author and stage manager of "Three Times Hero" paid more attention to using the form of narration to increase its opera characteristic. Stage manager Ngoc Du boldly brought a chorus to the stage which was considered as a character who voiced the righteous cause of the revolutionary masses. During the entire representation, the chorus repeatedly appeared on the stage to contribute its voice to supporting and exhorting the heroic acts of Nguyen Van Be and the people of South Vietnam and concurrently to struggle against, condemn and subdue the US aggressors and their hirelings.

Stage manager Ngoc Chi also paid attention to the choreography. The parts describing the boats gliding on the canals and arroyos of Dong Thap Muoi, Nguyen Van Be soliloquizing over the mine that he held in his hands in front of the enemy's armored personnel carriers and Be exchanging ideas with the farmers. These were good ballads. The opera "Three Times Hero" has been performed 30 times. Recently due to an abundance of documents pertaining to Nguyen Van Be the artists had a chance to correct the necessary paragraphs and to emphasize the symbol and nature of the characters. The brilliant examples of the doctrine of revolutionary heroism such as shown by Nguyen Van Troi, Nguyen Van Be, Nguyen Viet Xuan etc... must be highly extolled. All these outstanding sons of our people must be described by better and higher works with far reaching ideas and perfect acts. 

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Nguyen Van Be holds a 10 kilo tank mine over his head
Drawing by Huy Toan

Quickly! I ask that one of you comrades bring me a detonator and insert it in this mine so that I can sacrifice my life in time!

Nguyen Van Be at the moment that he sacrificed his life

The detailed story appeared in the Hanoi newspaper Phu Loi of 30 May 1966:

...[Nguyen Van Be with] two cells of the transport unit were assigned with the mission to convey arms and ammunitions to the front. As they were approaching the Beo Canal of My An village, My An District in Kien-Giang Province, they were encircled by a convoy of 49 enemy armored cars.

Following a fierce fighting with the enemy, Nguyen Van Be was captured by them. Afterwards. He was subjected to the most savage torture, and yet they were unable to get anything from him. Finally, they took him along with the captured arms to My An District where they resumed the torture and forced him to explain the handling of various sorts of mines, which he had transported. Be pretended to comply with the order and set about a demonstration session. Suddenly, he seized a mine weighing 10 kilos and shouted: 'Long Live the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, down with the American Imperialists.' As he stated these words, he rushed like a thunderbolt at the nearest M-118 tank and banged the mine against it.

The explosion set off by the 10 kilos mine triggered a series of explosions as the pile of mines captured by the enemy were ignited and went off. By this act of heroism, Nguyen Van Be sacrificed himself but he had destroyed an M-118 tank and heavily damaged two M-113 tanks, killed and wounded 64 enemies, among them 12 Americans.

There is a slight problem with this news story. Nobody recalls an M118 tank in Vietnam. The Communists were probably referring to an M113 Armored personnel carrier.

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Vietnam Youth – November 1966

This Communist North Vietnamese magazine published in English and French features Nguyen Van Be in a three-page article starting on page nine entitled "Nguyen Van Be, a heroic Fighter of South Vietnam L.A.F."

Time Magazine of 17 March 1967 told the world of the Communist hero:

The greatest Communist folk hero to emerge from the Viet Nam war is a skinny teen-ager named Nguyen Van Be, who left his home in the Mekong Delta to join the Viet Cong. Van Be’s death is recorded in poem, song and story throughout North Viet Nam and among the Viet Cong. Prompted by Hanoi's radio and newspapers, North Vietnamese schoolchildren compare his deeds to “a thousand thunderbolts.” His picture, taken when he was a guerrilla, has become a pinup among the Viet Cong, who name squads after him and hold periods of silent meditation to gain strength from his example. The Viet Cong have awarded him a posthumous decoration for “indomitable loyalty resoluteness and sublime bravery,” and declared that he “has shaken an entire region of the country and terrorized the enemies.” Earlier this year, his deeds were celebrated at a gathering in Hanoi of an organization called, in the best Communist fashion, "The Anti-U.S. National Salvation Heroes and Emulation Combatants Congress."

Just what were the deeds that have made Nguyen Van Be such a hero? As the Communists tell it, he was crossing a canal in the upper delta one day last May in a sampan, together with eleven Viet Cong companions and a heavy load of ammunition, when the sampan was attacked by a squadron of U.S. and South Vietnamese amphibious armored carriers. Nguyen Van Be fought off the attackers for 30 minutes with his rifle and was taken prisoner, “covered with mud and blood,” only when his ammunition was gone and his companions were all dead. Pretending cooperation with his captors, he then managed to pick up a 20-lb. Claymore mine. Raising it over his head, he valiantly shouted, "Long live the National Liberation Front!" and dashed it against the armored carrier, killing 69 U.S. and South Vietnamese troops as well as himself.

The Hanoi newspaper Tien Phong published an article entitled "To follow the example set out by Nguyen Van Be." Some of the writer's comments were:

Today the newspaper Tien Phong begins to serialize the story of Nguyen Van Be…to be published as a boook in the near future. This makes us respect him more and strive to follow his example…He stated "We must use our Communist spirit in order to defeat the mechanical equipment of the enemy." Our epoch is an epoch of heroes. As Be has stated, "We cannot perform a major task is when we have a good opportunity we fail to exert the spirit of a hero."

The Viet Cong troops Study and Emulate Comrade Be

Viet Cong troops were encouraged to follow the example of Nguyen Be. A captured Viet Cong publication entitled Thoi Su dated November 1966 told of various military troops that were studying Be’s heroism in depth. Thoi Su” means “News,” in the sense of “news of the day,” or “current events.”

The Gi Rong and the Z groups enthusiastically study the glorious example set by Nguyen Be. The groups organized sessions to study in detail the great example of “unbending loyalty and bravery without comparison” set by Comrade Be...When facing the enemy, he showed his majesty, his braveness, his calmness and his wit. When they were on operations and close to the enemy they reminded each other, “We are fighting in Comrade Be’s Fatherland; we should do our best to be worthy of Be’s shining example….”

The mention of Gi Rong is interesting. Gi Rong is a Vietnamese mongrelization of the term Giron, which in turn is a mongrelization of the term Hiron, which is how the North Vietnamese refer to the battle of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. Hiron is the Cuban name for the beach where the Cuban exiles landed on 17 April 1961 to try to overthrow the Castro regime. Following the Vietnamese battle of Ap Bac on 2 January 1963, the Cuban government awarded the Viet Cong 261st Battalion their Hiron victory flag in honor of the battalion's success at Ap Bac. As a result, the 261st Battalion was given the honorary designation of the "Hiron" or "Giron" battalion. So, in the case of the news clipping above the Gi Rong unit refers to the VC 261st Battalion, also called the Ap Bac Battalion.

Another article in Thoi Su told more about the study of Be in an article entitled: Company X from the 2nd Military Region initiated a program to study the brilliant example set by Comrade Nguyen Van Be:

When the requirement to study Comrade Be’s example reached Company X, everyone was quite excited and enthusiastic. Old people as well as young people unanimously voiced their common opinion, “We should use the spirit of fighting to exterminate the enemies of Comrade Be to triumph over our stormy situation . We should study diligently the bright example set by Comrade Be….

On 21 May 1967, the Hanoi newspaper Tien Phong (Vanguard) mentioned Nguyen Be Again:

The Vietnamese Central Group Secretariat for all youth organizations has instructed: Conduct major theme study meetings on Nguyen Van Be to boost the offensive revolutionary morale, and carry out with resolution the Uncle’s instructions. From 30 May to 19 August 1967, a series of concentrated study meetings on Nguyen Van Be are to be conducted and action campaigns bearing the name of Nguyen Van Be are to be launched with the offensive revolutionary morale and the resolution to crush the American aggressors….

The Hanoi newspaper Nhan Dan commented on 11 May 1967:

The Vietnamese art and literature association has just started a creative campaign on Nguyen Van Be…A number of artists and writerss have already started the study and composition of their works….

Poems in honor of the Martyr Nguyen Van Be

In October 1966, Tran Nguyen Van wrote a poem about Nguyen Be:

The hero’s eyes were dark and enormous,
which reflected the emerald green of our Fatherland…
At the age of twenty you had seen,
Our beloved villages and hamlets suddenly turned into decaying ashes….

The Hanoi Weekly of 5 May 1967, issue 210, also printed a poem about Nguyen Van Be by the poet Duy Khan. The North Vietnamese Army publication Van Nghe Quan Doi quoted the poem in its 11 November 1996 issue. There are six very long stanzas, I will add just a bit of the more patriotic lines: 

Hark! people of the South! The mine he has set off,
has sent its power across the sky and it strikes thousands of outposts.
The planes, the ammunition depots, and ships.
Yes-this is the mighty force of his mine, he who fought day in-day out there - in the front lines, you stood.

And from the bullet splattered sound of your battles,
Nguyen Van Be, rose the great roar of your explosion.
An explosion that shattered those evil American night-flying crows…

We shall fight like you, oh sacred and immortal Nguyen Van Be.
We shall live like you, you who knows not how to retreat.
And every battle shall be fought as you fought it, forever.
We shall follow your shining example.

The Hanoi weekly Van Nghe of 5 May 1967 also printed a poem about Be:

And from the bullet splattered sound of your battles,
Nguyen Van Be, rose the great roar of your explosion.
An explosion that shattered those evil night flying American crows,
For the bridges still stand – they live, swarming with traffic.

Another poem appeared in the Hanoi monthly magazine Van Nghe, May 1967, written by Nguyen Dinh. It consists of six very long stanzas so I will just quote a few lines from one stanza:

It is necessary to arrest those who won’t sell their souls.
It is necessary to fabricate photos, to collect false Be’s.
Millions of dollars, billions of leaflets. Ah! Such cheating.
Leaflets have been scattered all over the two parts of Vietnam.
The radio stations, all the publications, crow and crow:
“Nguyen Van Be is still living here! Nguyen Van Be surrendered.”
But the lying mouths have received thousands of blows…

A second poem, titled YOUR NAME appeared in Van Nghe, number 213. This poem has eight stanzas. I will just mention a few very propagandistic ones:  

The foe with pointing guns crowded in the yard. 
You stand in the middle with empty hands.
You suddenly become a high volcano sputtering out fire.
The enemy corpses fall around your feet...

How fine is the scene of the shattered foe.
And the mine that explodes proves your topmost wisdom!
0h, South Vietnam, the anti-Yankee front-line.
Once again glorifies with your name!

Your name, your name, Nguyen-Van-Be.
Has become the common name.
For each place where the Yankees are defeated.
All over the territory of Vietnam, the land of heroism.

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Nguyen Van Be reads about his alleged
exploits in the Liberation Army Newspaper

All this exploded in their face in February 1967. Nguyen Van Be was found alive and well in a Vietnamese prison camp. Be agreed to cooperate with the Government of Vietnam (GVN) and told the true story of his capture in a 13 March 1967 interview. He said that the battle lasted just a few minutes and he had never fired a shot. Instead, he dove into a canal in an attempt to escape, but was captured when a Vietnamese soldier grabbed him by the hair.

Time said:

Surrounded by the armored carriers, the overloaded sampan had immediately begun to list and overturned into the water. When one of their number had been killed, the Viet Cong squad jumped out of the sampan and fled to shore. Be also leaped into the water and was trying to hide himself under the surface when a South Vietnamese soldier grabbed him by the hair and pulled him out. He was the only one taken captive—and he had never got to fire a single shot.

In September 2013, I was contacted by Tuong Anh Nguyen, the son of Nguyen Cong Luan who ran the Chieu Hoi center in Thị Nghe, Vietnam, until 1969. This was one of the places that Nguyen Van Be was brought after his capture. When asked about Be, his father said that Be was imprisoned first, but when he was identified he was transferred to the center in Thá Nghe. The father took part in the interviewing of Be and helped with the operation to move his family to safety. Regarding Be, his comment was:

The boy was a handsome young man and very polite.

The opportunity to show that the enemy has brazenly lied seldom occurs in psychological operations. The Government of Vietnam and the Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) took full opportunity of the chance to strike at the communists, embarrass them, and destroy their credibility. According to Robert W. Chandler, War of Ideas – The U.S. Propaganda Campaign in Vietnam, A Westview Special Study, Boulder, CO, 1981:

By July 1967 JUSPAO had publicized the Be affair for Southern audiences through the production of more than thirty million leaflets, seven million cartoon leaflets, 465,000 posters, a special newspaper in 175,000 copies, 167,000 photographs, 10,000 song sheets, several motion pictures, and numerous radio and television programs featuring Be, his family, and his Hoi Chanh (Viet Cong who had returned to the GVN) friends.

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This Informal Picture of Be having quiet time with his
Younger brother was in the Don Rochlen Files

JUSPAO published a PSYOP Policy number 42 on 27 July 1967 entitled: Further Exploitation of the Nguyen Van Be Case. It has 9 pages of recommendations so I will just quote a tiny part of it here:

Hanoi and the Viet Cong continue to insist that Nguyen Van Be is a “martyred hero.” They have been seriously hurt by the Government of Vietnam/United States disclosure that the 21-year-old youth is still alive and never committed the act of bravery by which, the Communists say, he sacrificed himself and killed “sixty-nine American aggressors and puppet troops.” The purpose of this guidance is to review the facts of the Nguyen Van Be case, alert all recipients to Saigon plans for further exploitation, and provide instructions pertaining to local exploitation.

To counter the impact of Nguyen Van Be's reappearance, Hanoi and the VC began a two-part program: denunciation of the Government of Vietnam and United States for “a clumsy and stupid swindle” and step-up of the Be emulation campaign to such an extent that the dubious would be overwhelmed. The Hanoi daily Nhan Dan, followed on March 21st with the charge that the U.S. had created an imposter by resorting to “the Hollywood technique of selecting actors and the medical art of changing facial traits as applied in Hong Kong and Japan.”

JUSPAO, in cooperation with the Ministry of Information and Chieu Hoi and other GVN agencies, as appropriate, and with the assistance of the PSYOP directorate of MACV, will endeavor over the next few months to utilize Nguyen Van Be to further discredit the communist propaganda apparatus and to weaken their use of hero emulation as a means of inspiring young men in North Vietnam and in the VC-held areas of South Vietnam to become heroic fighters for the VC/NLF cause.

Numerous radio programs have been produced on the basis of taped interviews with Be, his family and his three Hoi Chanh friends. Be himself is being utilized regularly on radio. VTVN broadcasts English lessons using the NVB story. Press conferences and exhibits have been held, and much material has been furnished to the press…

Television appearances by Be and other personalities will be scheduled as developments warrant. Van Tac Vu teams will add the special Nguyen Van Be song and skit to their repertoire and will spread the word about him to rural audiences…A small Nguyen Van Be Task Force will be organized to coordinate all information and psyops actions related by Nguyen Van Be. It will be headed by Mr. D. H. Rochlen, Special Projects, JUSPAO Field Development Division.

The report goes on to mention 13 leaflets, posters, photo inserts, and a song sheet that were prepared for the Be campaign, for example: SP-1682 Leaflet, “A Hero is the one who has Courage to Return to the right Cause,” 150,000 for Vinh Long, IV Corps; SP-1682 Leaflet, "A Hero is the one who has Courage to Return to the right Cause," 150,000 for Vinh Long, IV Corps SP-1774 Poster, "Nguyen Van Be Reads about His Own Death," 164, 000 for nationwide distribution; SP-1775 Leaflet, title as above, 6,700,000 for nationwide distribution; SP-1846 "Dead Hero Rejoins His Family," 167, 000 for nationwide distribution, and the big ones, Leaflet Sp-2003 "Nguyen Van Be still alive? What do you think? 7,000,000 copies nationwide, and SP-2004 "Letter from Nguyen Van Be," 7,000,000 copies nationwide.

Other items under consideration: Leaflet, a statement from Be's mother, "I Ought to Know My Own Son," Leaflet, photo of Be with his old platoon leader, who came in as a Hoi Chanh with statement by platoon leader, Leaflet, photo of Be with two other Hoi Chanh who knew him when he was with the VC, three leaflets for limited distribution in the home area of Be, Poster, "How Can I Detonate This Mine?," Poster, "We Knew Too Much" (testimony from the three Hoi Chanh friends of Be), Photo inserts will be prepared within printing capabilities, utilizing any of the above-listed materials considered useful in this format. Additional tabloid newspapers may be produced, as justified by developments. Cuts (cliches) will be provided for us by provincial newspapers.

The radio will air frequent statements by Be. A weekly 5-minute report by Be will be produced. He will report on his experiences, developments, reactions, and quotes from the third country press. Materials will be aired by Vietnamese television, Voice of America, and Voice of Freedom.

Van Tac Vu teams will add the special Nguyen Van Be song and skit to their repertoire and will spread the word about Nguyen Van Be to rural audiences.

Three loudspeaker tapes, one by each of the three Hoi Chanh companions of Nguyen Van Be, have been produced in 60 copies each for distribution to the CORDS Assistant Province Representatives for PSYOP for local Vietnam Information Service use.

A small Nguyen Van Be Task Force will be organized to coordinate all information and PSYOP actions related to Nguyen Van Be. It will be headed by Mr. D. H. Rochlen, Special Projects, JUSPAO Field Development Division.

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Nguyen Van Be is interviewed at the JUSPAO radio studio by Contact Magazine Bureau Chief James Ridgeway in late 1966
James Ridgeway Collection – The Virtual Vietnam Archive – Texas Tech

The Time Magazine article ended with this comment:

This week the U.S. psychological-warfare team—to which Nguyen Van Be is indeed a hero—will begin distributing some 7,000,000 leaflets and 100,000 posters in both South and North Viet Nam showing Nguyen Van Be posing beside Communist newspapers headlining his fictitious martyrdom. More than one-third of the leaflets will be dropped over North Viet Nam, where the government recently erected a statue in downtown Hanoi showing Comrade Be holding his mine overhead at the precious instant of immortality.

I have a hand-written letter from a fellow member of the Viet Cong that says there is no way Nguyen Be could have exploded such a mine. I suspect this was meant to be made into a leaflet, but I have not seen such a leaflet. Some of the written message is:

Since I joined the National Liberation Front I have attacked several military vehicles of the South Vietnam government. I can guarantee all of you comrades that Be could not have exploded the mine as told by the Front. According to our weapons regulations, mines are not filled with explosives during transportation. Any engineer or Special Activities Unit or anyone who knows how to use a mine will tell you the same thing. I am very angry for having followed a phony hero….

JUSPAO published a four-page position paper telling of the significance of Be's capture. Some of the text is:

The Nguyen Van Be affair threatens the very heart of Hanoi's motivation indoctrination technique, The Hero Emulation program' the Be story was believed by millions. Such belief becomes a fulcrum of the revolution's fighting spirit. To suddenly discover that the fulcrum has no base on which to stand, that the hours and months of concentrated study and hero worship were for naught, represents far too great a danger to the system…

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The Truth about Nguyen Van Be Song Sheet
Leaflet SP-1964
Illustrated in Van Tac Vu Magazine, Issue No. 11.

This is the propaganda song meant to debunk the myth and legend of Nguyen Van Be. The music by Nguyen Van Long and the lyric by Nguyen Cong Luong. The literal title can be translated as “The effervescent truth about VC Heroes and the Hero Nguyen Van Be.” Some of the text is:

They know no better,
I'm still here
But the rumor was spread that I have died.
And with many embellishments to my life they added…
For the purpose of propaganda.

Thomas William Hoffer mentioned Nguyen Van Be in an article entitled "Nguyen Van Be as Propaganda Hero of the North and South Vietnamese Governments," published in The Southern Speech Communication Journal, Volume 40, 1974. He says:

A tabloid newspaper with the hero's name was produced and distributed nationwide. Culture-drama teams, groups of Vietnamese singers and dramatists touring the villages, carried with them 10,000 song sheets espousing 'The truth about Nguyen Van be.' Numerous radio programs featuring Be, his family, and three other defectors were broadcast over VTVN, the Vietnamese government owned and operated network. Plans were laid for a weekly five-minute radio report by Be, reporting his experiences, along with commentary on Vietnamese developments and reactions from the presses of other countries not directly involved in the conflict.

Among many leaflets printed, one featured Be's mother, with the caption, "I Ought to Know My Own Son." Be's three defector friends were captioned 'We Knew Too Much' in their leaflet testimonials. Special portable exhibits including photo-panels were produced for display at the provincial and district level. Loudspeaker tape recordings were produced for use on airborne helicopters hovering over the Vietnamese countryside.

When Sony Nguyen was about 10 years old in Vietnam, he heard Nguyen Van Be's voice on the radio almost daily. He told me in 2012 that Be's message was always the same:

I am Nguyen Van Be and the Government of North Vietnam claims I died a martyr, but I am still alive in South Vietnam.

Speaking of Nguyen Van Be’s family, Monta L. Osborne was the Chief of Field Development Division in the Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) in Saigon in charge of the Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) program during the Vietnam War. His letters home tell of meeting the Be family:

Nguyen Van Be was perhaps our prize capture of the war. He had been played up by the North Vietnamese regime as one of the great heroes of the war and all of the young men of North Vietnam had been exhorted to emulate his heroism. Hanoi reported that he had been captured, but even during capture had blown up a U.S. tank before he was killed. As it developed, Nguyen Van Be had been captured and our people found him in a Government of Vietnam prisoner-of-war camp. We managed to extract him from the camp, used him as the author of many leaflets which we dropped over North Vietnam and the North Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam. In this output he discredited all that Hanoi had said about him. We arranged for him to meet the press and to appear on radio and TV.

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Don Rochlen with Nguyen Van Be
Rochlen seated at right. Be second from right.

One of my assistants, Don Rochlen, found that Nguyen Van Be’s family (father, mother, brothers and sisters) were living in an area where they could be captured by the Viet Cong, in retaliation for Be’s anti-Hanoi propaganda. Don proposed that he visit the contested area in which they were living, and with the help of a U.S. Army company enter the area and remove the family from their danger. We were able to gain approval for this project.

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The Family of Nguyen Van Be
His father looks very unhappy.
Is he scanning the crowd for possible Viet Cong assassins?

Don did manage to move the family from the dangerous area, placed them on a plane, and traveled with them to Saigon. On that evening I heard a station wagon drive up to my villa. There was Don, with the entire family. He reported that the arrangements he had made with the GVN officials to receive the Be family had fallen through. I offered to keep the family overnight, but insisted that they be moved the next day, since I was due to leave for Bangkok and then go, with my family on home leave. Here I was, with a family that was undoubtedly an important target for the Viet Cong, in my own domicile. I managed to bed them down, stayed up all night, and made several tours of the neighborhood to see whether there were any suspicious characters hanging around. The next morning I fed them (the father, mother and four children) on bacon and eggs. Don did manage, during the day, to get them removed to a safe haven.

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Don Rochlen in his JUSPAO Office
Notice the Nguyen Van Be poster at upper left

The Donald H. Rochlen who is mentioned above is an interesting character. He worked for the United States Information Agency, the Voice of America and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization at different times. In Vietnam, he rose to Chief, Special Projects, JUSPAO. Rochlen was apparently a "trouble-shooter" and usually worked with Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army defectors or prisoners-of-war. When he got a good one like Be he would plan a propaganda campaign:

We plan taped interviews – both short ones for PSYWAR plane use and longer ones for VTVN [Voice of Vietnam] and VOF [Voice of Freedom] use. We want photo coverage including hospital treatment scenes and hand written leaflets.

During the Be campaign, many people were interviewed looking for information about how Nguyen Be had been seen by his friends and neighbors. On 30 March 1967, Be's mother was interviewed. The interview is eleven pages long. I will just mention some high points:

We didn't want to see him go. He left us. We didn't like it but under the circumstances we were forced to yield. They [the Viet Cong] obliged my son to go. He didn't want to see his parents suffer. We were not filled with joy [when told of Be's heroic death]. Our son was dead, how could we be joyful? [After being told that the Hanoi newspaper Thoi Moi (New Times) said that in Be's honor the family had sharpened 120 bamboo sticks, dug 100 booby-traps and volunteered to pay more taxes then asked], I didn't sharpen any bamboo stick, I was very afflicted by my son's death. [The people in the village] had to study Nguyen Van Be every five or ten days. I also went to study with them when I had the time…. When asked if she ever received any aid from the Viet Cong while her son was away or allegedly dead she answered] We received no assistance at all. They didn’t give us money, rice or land. Nothing at all.

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Nguyen Van Be as a Celebrity

Here we see Be in a pair of fancy American sunglasses. A Vietnamese woman touches his arm. Is she fascinated to meet such a famous celebrity, or is she checking to see if he is really alive as the Americans say or a ghost as the Communists claim?

Another official document is this interview with Le Van My, who lived about 1,000 meters from Be. The interview is six pages long. I will just mention some high points:

[Because of fear of the Viet Cong] everyone has to say he is dead; no one dares say he is alive…Be's family was forced to make an anniversary celebration. [The people] know he is still alive, but they are forced to close their mouths, they cannot say anything, they have eyes and ears but they are like deaf and dumb, they look but they can't see anything. At the ceremony [when Be was brought back to his home hamlet on 21 April 1967] two or three people saw him, they knew well who he was, but they dared not look at him…theey are not free because they are still within the area under Cadre control….

The Communists retaliated against the American propaganda campaign. They simply ignored the Allied propaganda or claimed that it was all an American fabrication. Even though he was clearly alive, they celebrated the anniversary of his death. They continued to write newspaper articles, make films, erected a third statue and published another biography of his life. They simply ignored the fact that he was alive and continued telling their lie repeatedly, believing that if it were told often enough, the people would believe.

Eventually, a price was placed on the head of Nguyen Van Be by the Viet Cong. An undated July 20 report by Robert A. Erlandson in the Saigon Sun titled REDS OFFER $16,950 FOR 'DEAD HERO.' Said in part:

The saga of Nguyen Van Be, the Viet Cong "dead hero" who turned up alive, took a new turn as officials here learned this afternoon the Communists have offered $16,950 to anyone who "cancels" the ex-guerrilla. At the same time, the officials said, the Viet Cong have launched a massive reindoctrinating effort-especially in Be's home area in the Mekong Delta to enforce their assertion that Be martyred himself May 30, 1966. Four days ago, they issued a directive ordering immediate execution for anyone who says otherwise. Two people, an ex-Viet Minh leader who first delivered the news Be was alive and a Viet Cong propaganda commissar who mentioned it have already disappeared, the officials reported.

I should add here that the American propagandists also made movies about Nguyen Be. A U.S. Government memorandum dated 16 October 1967 says in part:

We are interested with connecting Be with well-known Viet Cong personalities. Such linkages not only substantiate Be, but also make it more difficult for the Communists to refute Be…So far we have made three films. The evaluation panel has seen two of the movies. The first movie was approved unanimously. The second film will have to be edited again. The third movie which includes Cu, Be, Be’s mother and Hoi Chanh friends is now being processed in Tokyo. Now we come to future films [the writer mentions two additional well-known Communist Hoi Chanhs that could be placed in a move with Be – Ba Hung (a former guerrilla advisor) and Nguyen Dinh Khoi (a Viet Cong journalist)].

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Communist Poster honoring Nguyen Van Be’s heroic action

Radio Hanoi attacked the disclosure that Nguyen Van Be was still alive in a program aired 16 March 1967. The title of the commentary was, "A Dirty Psychological Warfare Trick."

During the last few days, the psychological warfare organs of the Americans and their lackeys in Saigon employed every propaganda trick to invent a story of the appearance of Nguyen Van Be in their prison before they released the news that Nguyen Van Be had been arrested and is living safe in their claws, without being tortured. The Thieu-Ky clique's psychological warfare minister held a press conference during which a Nguyen Van Be appeared before journalists, who questioned him.

There is nothing new in this sensational farce. Any conjuring trick of the Americans and their lackeys is only a repetition of the ridiculous comedy they played when they invented the story of Tran Van Van's assassin, one-eyed man who professed to be a Viet Cong.

Taking this experience into account, this time they picked out an intact, good-looking man. They also taught him what to say. They plotted to use time to blur the hero's image so that they could easily deceive the public. But 10 months have not lessened the noise of the Nguyen Van Be bomb, but made it resound more.

Brother Be's image has been carved increasingly deeply into the hearts of millions of people. It is necessary to warn that their trick about hero Nguyen Van Be is an insolent offense to all the Vietnamese people. They dared offend an outstanding anti-US national salvation generation. Southern compatriots, south youths, and especially, liberation combatants, comrades of Hero Nguyen Van Be, will surely not forgive them. We will punish them severely.

The Lao Dong’s (Communist Party) newspaper Nhan Dan went so far as to claim, "It is not necessary to look for Be’s replacement in the bulky documents and files of the CIA. Zorthian (Director of JUSPAO) merely resorted to the Hollywood technique of selecting actors and the medical art of changing facial traits as applied in Hong Kong and Japan."

The Russian TASS news agency chirped in on 16 May 1967 and said in part:

The U.S. Psychological Service tried to pass off the Vietnamese hero, Nguyen Van Be, who died in the middle of last year, as alive and having defected to the Saigon Government’s side. The United States spent a million dollars; printing 29 million leaflets…They resolved to find an impostor who would pretend in public that he was Nguyen Van Be…The peasants were expected to recognize Nguyen Van Be under the threat of automatic weapons of 800 soldiers from the U.S. 9th Division and South Vietnamese troops and policemen.

In July 2016, an author writing a book with the prospective title: Raising Vietnamese: Shaping youth identities in North and South Vietnam during the war (1965-1975), asked for more data on the way the Communists attacked the “Be is alive” campaign. I sent her some short clippings from several sources:

Directive on the Commemoration of dead hero Nguyen Van Be's Anniversary:

Use concrete evidence to unmask the treacherous plots of the Americans and Thieu-Ky gang. Prove the truth of hero Nguyen Van Be's attack against the enemy at My An; and the tragic failure of the American attempt to send a fake Be to Kim Son before hundreds of witnessing eyes of the Kim Son inhabitants who all admitted that was a phony Be.

An unsigned intelligence document about the significance of Nguyen Van Be:

Reaction from Radio Hanoi and Liberation Radio was swift and violent. For revealing that Nguyen Van Be was in fact alive, the GVN was accused of "a dirty psychological warfare trick," "sheer knavery," and labeled "mean and insolent."

From Hanoi newspaper Nhan Dan, issue 4789, dated 21 May 1967:

The great campaign of counter-propaganda against the heroic example of Nguyen Van Be has been launched concurrently with operation Junction City...The battle ground was Kim Son village. As reported by the western news agencies, the force of "truth" consisted of 800 men from the 9th U.S. Infantry Division which conducted an operation under the cover of "Nguyen Van Be." This time the phony Nguyen Van Be would succeed in pacifying the genuine Nguyen Van Be.

Counter measures against the enemy's intent to spread distorted propaganda about hero Nguyen Van Be:

During these last few months the enemy has increasingly spread distorted information about hero Nguyen Van Be...Recently the Saigon Psywar Secretary of State set up a news conference at which gathered the Saigon local and foreign press correspondents, and there presented a young man they called Nguyen Van Be. They have devised the scheme of an interview with Nguyen Van Be by which they have spread their distorted propaganda in order to cheat public opinion.

Doc-Lap (Independence) April 1972.

The country-selling traitors Thieu and Ky recently invented a story that Nguyen Van Be is still alive and being detained by the so-called Republic of Vietnam Government....

Hanoi newspaper Thoi Moi, 4 April 1967

These last days, propaganda broadcasts from the Americans and their lackeys were continually spreading distorted news about the heroic achievements of the late celebrated Nguyen Van Be...During the day in the prison camp the public address system of the prison camp has loudly asked Nguyen Van Be to come and receive supplies sent by his family. The Americans and their lackeys wanted to give the captives the impression that Nguyen Van Be is still alive.

National Liberation Front Committee My Tho Province, No. 500, 20 April 1968.

Whereas Nguyen Van Anh is guilty of treason as an enemy lackey...spreading counter-propaganda by admitting that Nguyen Van Be is still alive...Nguyen Van Anh is hereby sentenced to the death penalty on the charge of being a traitorous Intelligence Informer...

As you can see, the Communists were horrified that their propaganda would be seen as a lie and made every effort to attack the American campaign as devious and false. There are more such documents, but I believe these are sufficient.

On 10 May 1967 the United States dropped another 16.5 million Nguyen Van Be leaflets over North Vietnam.

On 21 May 1967, the Hanoi newspaper Tien Phong (Vanguard) featured a song entitled "Brother Be Goes Away – Youth Starts Out." The music and song were by An-Chung. The first two stanzas of the "proud march" is:

Echoes will be heard forever in the future about the deeds and name of Brother Be.
They will be sung clearly and aloud.
His name will soar up to the clouds and become a star.
They will kindle in their youthful hearts the feeling of pride.

Oh dear brother Nguyen-Van-Be! All your lifetime was filled with struggles for victory.
Indomitable, staunch, and gallant you have been topmost.
Here we are, young folks, eager to fight.
Hatred of the enemy has been boiling in our blood.
We want to live valiantly and die triumphantly!

On 25 May 1967, the Hanoi newspaper Tien Phong published a song by Huy Du honoring Be. The song was titled LET’S CARVE HIS NAME ON THE WALLS OF THE COMBAT TRENCHES. The song consists of two long stanzas. The lyrics are:

He who went South, passed by Dong Thap Muoi and met Kei O-Moi flowers, should know that spring is coning. Here, at this place, was born comrade Be, a gentle youngster, who launched himself into adventures when he was still very young, so, his heart became iron. But he was like a flower that reddened the sky and spread its perfume everywhere. This mind was bright. He and his people fought against the Americans. The country remembers the name of this valiant soldier. The road is long, so is the march. Let’s carve his name on the walls of the combat trenches.

On the bank of the Mekong River, there was a hero, around 20 years of age, like the spring of the country. How glorious he is now. His gentle country becomes more beautiful with his name. He was like an early sunbeam. His native land suddenly boiled up. On the beloved land, the explosion of his mine reverberated everywhere. Looking up at a shining star, I will remember forever the name of Nguyen Van Be. The road is long, so is the march. Let’s carve his name on the walls of the combat trenches.

Along the shore of the Mekong River, there rose a hero, just 20 he was.
Full of promise like spring coming to the countryside.
How glorious he is, this Nguyen Van Be.
His gentle countryside has become more beautiful because of him.

The Communists Celebrate the First Anniversary of Nguyen Van Be’s Alleged Death

As I said earlier, the Communist simply ignored the American leaflets and posters showing that Nguyen Be was alive. In 1967, they went to great pains to celebrate the first anniversary of his martyr’s death.

On 28 May 1967, the Hanoi newspaper Tien Phong honored the first anniversary of Nguyen Van Be’s heroic actions:

In preparation for the new program entitled “Follow the examples of Nguyen Van Be and Nguyen Viet Xuan; improve the revolutionary spirit of attack; and resolutely carry out the counsels of Uncle Ho” on the occasion of the first anniversary of hero Nguyen Van Be, the Central Group has coordinated with the Association of Musicians to emphasize the importance of promoting the writing of new songs using the subject of hero Nguyen Van Be.

The paper goes on to say that a musical play entitled “Three times a Hero” has been written, also a short play entitled “The Hero of Rach Gam” and a group of comedians had created a comedy show about Be. Two paintings of Be had been done by Vietnamese artists and they were in the process of producing an agitation propaganda poster. Two large statues of Be were being carved at the time of publication. 300,000 copies of the biography of Be were ready for sale. Finally, a number of short films and poems in his honor had been written.

On that same day the U.S. dropped 10 million Nguyen Van Be leaflets over North Vietnam.

On 30 May 1967, the Hanoi Newspaper Thu Do said:

With soaring emulative morale and desire to shoot down the 2,000th American aircraft, massive public rallies were held to commemorate the first anniversary of dead hero Nguyen Van Be’s sacrifice.

The same general message was read over Radio Hanoi that night.

In another article the newspaper spoke of 104 Nguyen Van Be sewing machines in a factory and an Nguyen Van Be natural fertilizer plant. An article in Tien Phong dated 28 May 1967 told of a military convoy heading south bearing the name of Comrade Be. Apparently the young hero’s name was everywhere.

On 30 May 1967, the newspaper Nhan Dan added:

One year ago today in the very heart of the provincial city of My An…The mine of Nguyen Van Be exploded like an angry thunderbolt. Just before that fateful blast came the clear shout, “Long live the National Liberation Front, Down the American Imperialists….”

That same day Radio Hanoi announced that in honor of the first anniversary of Be’s death the people of Vietnam had shot down four American aircraft and captured their pilots

A Communist document found in Long An Province on 31 May 1967 said in part:

30 May 1967 is the first anniversary of the death of hero Nguyen Van Be. In compliance with instructions from higher levels, it is advised that commemorative ceremonies be held throughout the province…

On 11 June 1967 Tien Phong mentioned a monument in honor of Nguyen Be. The newspaper said in part:

Overcoming the enemy’s rigid restrictions, in the Plain of Reeds where the incident took place, impressive ceremonies were held to honor the dead hero’s first anniversary. On the night of 30 May, the inhabitants of My-An erected a memorial monument right on the spot where dead hero Nguyen Be killed the enemy last year. It was two meters high, inscribed with the words “The country’s gratitude” with a photo of Be and the National Liberation Flag on top. Two signs in front of the monument said “Nguyen Van Be’s spirit lives forever” and “Loyal, indomitable and unusually brave.”

Another article in Tien Phong was entitled “Nguyen Van Be lives forever in my Heart.” In this article a soldier named Do Yen attached to a signal unit tells of wanting to volunteer to join a combat unit after reading of Be’s exploits. His comrades tell him that every job is important and he must follow the orders of his commissars just as Be had done. He ends:

The example of Comrade Be has helped me to see the truth of his glorious life. In know now that in the future, whatever task assigned me by the Party and the people and whatever the problems or risks, I’ll fulfill that task in an outstanding way. It is because comrade Be is with me and will live forever deep in my heart.

The Hanoi Daily of 4 April 1967 published an article entitled "A Too Crude PSYWAR Maneuver." It said in part:

They have conducted a sufficiently systematic sweep operation in the Kim Son Region (My Tho), the native land of hero Nguyen Van Be in order to capture some of the inhabitants. During the day in the prison camp the public address system loudly asked Nguyen Van Be to come and receive supplies sent by his family. The Americans and their lackeys wanted to give the captives the impression that Nguyen Van Be is still alive…

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A Death Warrant for Nguyen Van Be’s Cousin

The Viet Cong were angry enough about the campaign to prove that Nguyen Van Be was alive to actually sentence his cousin Nguyen Van Anh to death. They mention several alleged crimes, but I suspect the main one was “acknowledging that Nguyen Van Be is still alive.” The document says in part:

National Liberation Front for South Vietnam
NLF My Tho Province Committee
No. 500



Nguyen Van Anh, born 1 September … in ….Village is currently working for the enemy in Vinh Thanh Hamlet, Vinh Kim Village, Chau Thanh District, My Tho Province as a spy.

Based on the file and on the people’s criminal complaint that has been concerned, and based on the fact that Nguyen Van Anh’s motivation for conducting counter-revolutionary activities is clearly intentional;

Based on the NLF Committee’s policy order dated 15 October 1961 on detaining and suppressing spies, reactionaries, and ordinary criminals;

Based on the recommendations of the local population and the local Front organization that we must severely punish dangerous enemy thugs who owe many blood debts to the people.

Because Nguyen Van Anh has committed the crime of serving as an enemy lackey who has committed many crimes, such as surrendering to the enemy, beating members of local residents, helping to put out counter-propaganda acknowledging that Nguyen Van Be is still alive, and continuing to provide intelligence to the enemy;

Because Nguyen Van Anh has been warned many time both in writing, directly, and through his family but has refused to repent of his crimes;

Because we must protect the lives, the anti-American struggle movement, and the property of all classes of the local population,

The My Tho National Liberation Front Committee has decided as follows:

1. Nguyen Van Anh is hereby sentenced to death for the crime of serving as a criminal evil spy in Vinh Kim Village, Chau Thanh District, My Tho Province.

2. Method of Execution: He is to be executed on the spot and this sentence is to be distributed to the people and to his family to give them a clear picture of Nguyen Van Anh’s crimes and also as a warning to other enemy lackeys.

3. Our armed forces and paramilitary forces are responsible for carrying out this sentence and reporting back to the Province Front Committee.

An interesting captured Communist document explains to the Commissars how they are to counter the U.S. propaganda campaign:

Make everyone understand the enemy's wicked purposes. Make known their criminal distortions about all of our heroes generally speaking and particularly Nguyen Van Be. Reassert that the enemy-killing heroic accomplishments of Nguyen Van be are real…However, avoid talking much about Be's family in order to minimize the damage already done by the enemy in case they succeed in "buying over" Be's family.

In June 1967, U.S. Intelligence wrote a document reporting on the Communist media coverage of Nguyen Van Be. It stated that the Allied expose of the Nguyen Van Be myth was working. The VC then set a plan in motion to kill Be and discredit his true story. The report states:

As a result of the Republic of Vietnam propaganda program on the story of Nguyen Van Be, a Viet Cong hero, which exposes the Viet Cong conspiracy, the local Viet Cong feel uneasy and are afraid of the repercussions from that program. Therefore, the Viet Cong My Tho Provincial Executive Committee has ordered the assassination of Be while he is still in the Binh Tuong Reeducation Center. The My Tho Provincial Executive Committee also ordered F4, F5 and F6 (not further identified) to plan the project which will be used to counter the Republic of Vietnam’s propaganda along the following guidelines:

1. Continue to propagate the Nguyen Van Be story.

2. Organize a Commemoration Day on the Anniversary of Be’s exploits.

Much has been done by the Viet Cong to discredit the United States / Republic of Vietnam PSYOP program built around Nguyen Van Be as a martyred hero who died fighting the Americans. The fact that he had turned Hoi Chanh, cooperates with Allied Forces, has caused the Viet Cong much confusion and has hurt the credibility of their propaganda.

In an October 1967 Army Digest article entitled “Communist Propaganda in Vietnam,” Lieutenant Colonel N. J. Richardson mentions Nguyen Van Be. He says:

An alert Vietnamese policeman heard this tale and had seen Be's picture on Viet Cong propaganda. A Viet Cong prisoner in the local jail, he noted, answered Be's description. Investigation disclosed that it was in fact Be, who knew nothing about his heroic exploits as told by the Communists...South Vietnamese information specialists have brought Be's true story to the attention of the world. Meanwhile, the Communists still try to convince the Vietnamese people that he is a hero and dead. Indicative of their desperation, the Communists have recently put a price on Nguyen Van Be's head, with the offer of a reward to the person who murders him.

So how would the Communists revere the name of Comrade Be and attack the Allied story of his being alive? Here are some newspaper stories from Hanoi.

A 28 May Hanoi newspaper article is entitled “Let’s follow the Example of Nguyen Van Be.”

A 30 May 1967 article in the Hanoi newspaper Lao Dong is entitled “Nguyen Van Be’s Spirit will live forever!”  Some of the inspirational text is:

Nguyen Van Be, fighter of the transportation service…fell into the enemy’s claws and paws. Stripped of all his weapons, he continued his offensive, calmly lured the enemy into the depth of the battle and suddenly launched his counter-attack. Hugging a mine, he rushed into the core of the enemy troops, thus causing sky-tearing explosions. On the spot he killed 69 foes, destroying scores of armored vehicles. He earned the at the same time three honors: “Victorious Hero,” “U.S.-Destroying Hero” and “Anti-Tank Hero.”

One of my favorite Hanoi articles was published in the Hanoi weekly Van Nghe dated 5 May 1967 and entitled “The Rach Gam Area and our Hero Nguyen Van Be.” It mentions the American “lies” and says in part:

The propagandists of the puppet regime begin to sing in a whining female voice…It would appear that the enemy’s psywar specialists have a surplus of American milk and flour which they use to feed a number of call girls…When their mouths are itching to speak they sing a few songs which are completely out of tune and with a voice full of narcotics which might belong to a prostitute…And then their wailing, maudlin voice goes on like this: “Dear friends, that fellow Nguyen Van Be you celebrate as a hero is still alive! He’s never fought the Americans or anyone else!” And following that, tons of leaflets bearing the picture of Nguyen Van Be still alive are being dropped daily…A friend of mine handed me a leaflet he had picked up. A faint smile passed over his lips…Finally he said, “Oh, how I miss him. If only he were still alive among us.”

In July 1967, the Lao Dong Party offered a two million-piaster reward to any patriot who would assassinate the fake Nguyen Van Be. They also stated that any member of his family or neighbor who claimed that Be was alive would be killed on the spot.

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Nguyen Van Be Military Postage Stamp

Nguyen Van Be appeared on several North Vietnamese stamps including a 15 February 1971 military stamp that depicted him attacking an American tank. 

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The Nguyen Van Be Photograph Used for the Military Stamp

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Be Military Stamp on Envelope

The philatelic researcher Robert Munshower sends a used envelope bearing the Be military stamp from his personal collection. He says:

The use of this military stamp is quite rare. There is also a civilian issue that is different in that it is denominated and bears the normal Dan chu Cong Hoa Viet Nam inscription. This letter was sent using the return code HT 201 203 JA 01 which is known to be the military post at Ba Vi, North Vietnam. 

The Americans continued to disseminate leaflets and other propaganda each year on 30 May, the date that Be was allegedly killed. It was all in vain. The Communists had succeeded in making most Vietnamese people believe that the real Be was dead and the current Be was an imposter. This is one of the very few cases where the lie was more powerful that the truth.

Hoffer adds:

While the North Vietnamese were denouncing the newly discovered Be in the South, the Vietnamese and their American counterparts formed a special Nguyen Be Task Force to exploit their discovery in roughly two phases. What later became the 'Nguyen Van Be Campaign,' consisted of an identification phase and an exploitation phase. For the first five months following the March 1967 press conference, Vietnamese propagandists aided by JUSPAO 'psywarriors,' were to simply identify Be in the minds of the target audiences. The exploitation phase occurred over a longer time with the propaganda thrust on Be's statements about the communist emulation system, his analysis of current communist propaganda, and his participation in various staged events.

The Americans were not unanimous in thinking that the Be campaign should be continued. The Director of the US Military AssistanceCommand, Vietnam Psychological Operations Directorate (MACPD) said:

The plan for further exploitaton of Nguyen Van Be appears quite ambitious and thorough: however, it is not without risks. It should be noted, for example, that one of the effects of our expose of the Nguyen Van Be lie has been to stimulate the Communists to step up the Be emulation campaign, which is not to our advantage.

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A Propaganda meeting at the Alleged Village of Nguyen Van Be

Notice the table in front with the loudspeakers and the helicopters in the background. As soon as the choppers left, the activities to disown the Be legend would begin. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the wrong village.

John R. Campbell, a civilian psychological warfare advisor in Vietnam from 1965 to 1967 points out that some errors occurred in the American campaign in Are we Winning? Are they Winning: A Civilian Advisor’s Reflections on Wartime Vietnam, Author House, 2004:

Then there was the big propaganda coup coordinated by every conceivable allied agency to take advantage of that fact that we discovered we had captured, sometime earlier, a simple VC cadre who turned out to be the same person who had been elevated to a folk hero status by Communist propaganda. As he was missing in action and presumed dead, they had fictionalized his self-sacrificing demise for the cause. A day-long operation was mounted including plenty of military security and helicopters to descend unannounced into his home village, in a VC-dominated area, to present him as a living lie to his fellow villagers while we fed them, entertained them, and gave them medical attention. To our chagrin, it turned out not to be his home village, though the peasants there recognized his name and fame. Next day we went back to our files to find out where we had gone wrong. The files concerning him, including posters, printed songs, maps, stories, etc., which were kept in an office just a few steps from mine, were completely cleaned out.

When I asked Campbell exactly what he meant by that statement, he said:

My statement was meant to emphasize that someone in our own organization was a Viet Cong operative that cleaned out all our documentation on Nguyen Van Be.

Nelson Voke was a member of the 6th PSYOP Battalion and also recalls the fiasco at the alleged Nguyen Van Be village. He says:

We were at a meeting at JUSPAO when we got the story about Be being found.  I can remember Zorthian’s “Number Two” being very enthusiastic: “We’ll never let them forget this!” JUSPAO planned a big celebration “Be returns to his village.” There would be a welcoming banner over the entrance to the village, his mother would be greeted and honored, and all this would be observed and covered by the media. We knew about this at Battalion, and that a National Police force was sent out well in advance to secure the area. After the event, I happened across a U.S. reporter who asked if I had heard what happened. I told him “No.” “Well,” he said, “they flew two planeloads of us out there and we followed Be and party into the village.  The villagers didn’t seem excited about Be’s return, so I asked one if he didn’t know who Be was?” “Yes, that’s Nguyen Van Be. He’s from that village over there.”   (Whoops, wrong village!). Anyway, the reporter was less than happy and said it was the last time he’d respond to a JUSPAO invite.

Ex-PSYOP Trooper Mervyn Edwin Roberts III, PhD, mentions the Be fiasco in: Let the Dogs Bark: The Psychological War in Vietnam, 1960-1968, forthcoming from the University Press of Kansas, 2018:

In the ongoing propaganda battle that became known as the Hero Be affair, Peter Arnett reported the story as a psychological defeat for the South. Journalists, unaware of the reason, were sent to Be’s village before noon on 21 April to cover his arrival. “The homecoming of the ‘dead’ Vietcong hero was elaborately staged today except for the final detail,” according to Arnett. “I am glad to be home amongst you,” Be told puzzled villagers. Asked how many of the villagers he recognized, “None,” he responded. Arnett wrote, “The covey of psychological warfare specialists, both American and Vietnamese, began looking concerned. Hero Be actually lived in another hamlet nearly 2.5 miles away. The psychological warfare officials suggested the mistake was made by hero Be himself. They said he had never before seen a map.” Nonetheless, he had shown himself to be alive, hardly the defeat Arnett described.

To counter the U.S. and Republic of Vietnam scheme in the Be affair, the Viet Cong turned to violence. The Front kidnapped several men who admitted knowing that Be was alive and put others on wanted lists. Some were reportedly killed for saying he was alive.

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Don North with Vietnamese cameraman Ngia near Da Nang.

Don North was hired as a staff correspondent for ABC radio and TV News following several years of freelance photojournalism in Vietnam. He was one of the members of the press that took part in the propaganda junket to the village of Kim Son on April 21, 1967. He told me:

The Army filled two “Huey” helicopters with about thirty journalists from Saigon, which included all three networks and the major newswires and newspapers. We were already familiar with the Nguyen Van Be story since he and his family had been presented to journalists at the so-called “Five O'clock Follies;” the daily news briefings.

Earlier that day four companies of the United States 9th Infantry Division had landed to secure Kim Son Village along with the Regional Forces stationed in and around the village. Loads of rice and gifts were brought in and distributed. There was a band and strolling musicians. A big attraction was a tent where Army medics extracted bad teeth and gave out medicine. A large crowd of villagers assembled around a makeshift stage and Nguyen Van Be was brought out with his family. He was greeted with puzzled stares. The Government Planning Director of PSYOP tried to generate enthusiasm for the miraculous return of Be, but nobody recognized him. Be had been taken to the right village but his own Hamlet was more than three kilometers away. One old man recognized Be as coming from another Hamlet. In rural areas like this there is little contact or transportation between Hamlets. The Army considered moving the troops to secure the correct Hamlet but it was too late in the day to mount a new operation.

I  wrote a script about this operation and sent it back to the United States along with film. I called the story “Psywar Goof.” I sent background notes for Peter Jennings to read. Some of my comments were:

This is the largest assault on a Viet Cong village by the Free world press in Vietnam. The hoped for objective – a major psychological warfare victory for the government.

We've been brought to Kim Son village to witness the return of Nguyen Van Be, the dead hero of the Viet Cong who turned out to be very much alive in a government prison camp.

No more furious psychological warfare battle has ever raged around one man. Nguyen Van Be (pronounced Bay) is a national hero in North Vietnam and in Viet Cong areas of the South. The Communists said he had detonated a Claymore mine held in his hand, killing himself and 69 government troops. But the Government discovered they had the legendary BE Viet Cong hero in a prison camp. He was brought before the Press last month to expose the Viet Cong propaganda idolizing Be. The communists countered with a challenge ...."if Be is really still alive why not bring him to Kim Son village so his family and friends can see him with their own eyes?” Be's mother met him in prison and confirmed that her son was indeed alive. Delighted by the change to further exploit this propaganda gold mine it was decided to take Be to his village hamlet for a surprise reunion with his friends and relatives.

In a lightning move four companies of the U.S. 9th Infantry Division landed to surround Kim Son village. Regional Forces secured the hamlet itself. And shadowy intelligence agents mingled with the villagers to foil possible Viet Cong assassination attempts against Be.

The operation was expertly planned and carried out. To sweeten the propaganda message loads of rice and gifts were delivered. A US Army Medical team treated the sick and gave out medicine.

Finally the star of the show arrived with his family, but he was greeted by puzzled, unfriendly glares. Bewildered eyes flashed between Be and the villagers.

The Director of the Government’s Psywar Planning tried to generate some enthusiasm for Be and the miracle of his return. Only one villager said he recognized Be. But Be didn’t recognize him or anyone else in the Hamlet. Confusion! It was the wrong Hamlet. Be had been taken to the right village but his own hamlet was three kilometers away. Vietnamese villages like Kim Son consist of dozens of hamlets and in the simple life of rural Vietnam you rarely know people in the next hamlet.

Although this hamlet was held by the allies for a few hours while the futile charade was carried out, there’s little doubt where the loyalties of most of the villagers lie. Some of these men are undoubtably Viet Cong agents. Even if the villagers had recognized Be it could have meant Viet Cong punishment for those who admit it.

Wave Goodbye for the photographers, Be is told. The villagers have a last laugh…and go back to work. Be goes back to the safety of prison. American and Vietnamese Psywarriors go back to their maps and planning boards having lost face by a mistake of geography and the lack of prior checking. In Psywar you can never afford to be wrong about anything.

It was a bold psychological warfare move to bring Nguyen Van Be to this village still effectively controlled by the Viet Cong. But like any military slip-up and the battle was lost.

THIS WAS NOT A STORY THAT INTERESTED U.S. NEWS AGENCIES. They wanted war stories about American troops in combat. I don't think my story was ever broadcast in the United States on television. However, the film should still be on file at the ABC News headquarters in New York City. 

William Lloyd Stearman, head the North Vietnamese Affairs Division of JUSPAO (Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office), mentions the operation in An American Adventure: From Early Aviation through Three Wars to the White House, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2012. He says in part:

In all the JUSPAO meetings I attended, I rarely heard any discussion of why we were doing anything. It was almost always about how we were doing it. There were some exceptions, notably Don Rochlen, a maverick type with a real talent for bringing off public relations coups. I best remember his discovering that one of the leading Viet Cong martyrs was actually still alive. He organized an Army operation to bring him back to his home village to demonstrate he hadn’t died heroically after all. It certainly did help to discredit the VC.

Unfortunately, Stearman fails to realize that this attempt to bring Nguyen Van Be home was not a success.

Don Rochlen briefs General Westmoreland

We are not sure exactly where this briefing took place, but surely Westmoreland had questions about some psychological operations campaign and Rochlen was the person who could tell him what the plan was or how it was coming along. Perhaps an explanation of what went wrong with the Nguyen Van Be visit to his family home?

Don Rochlen did not talk much about his operations. He was security conscious. But he did keep notes on little scraps of paper. Some are on the Be operation. Here are some hand-written comments:

21 April 1967. On the night that Be was taken to the wrong part of the village, the Viet Cong held a meeting. They explained that Be was a phony, and that the man who said that he recognized him was not from the village and that the campaign collapsed completely. There were about 25 people at the meeting. They were addressed by a Northerner.

He also seemed to feel that the Viet Cong might consider the village guilty and might be worrying about the safety of the people that lived there. You can see these are just random thoughts he jotted down.

There may be a “mopping up” operation so all troops must be in “alert status.” Doubt if booby traps are set up. About 40 families in My Hoa. 120 people (adults) plus 70 children [190 people]. Only 15 go to market each morning. No electricity. There is a 3-member education team, Hai Iu, Tam, and Nga (all men).

Rochen Points at a Disguised Viet Cong Hole and Underground Meeting Place

We know very little about this picture. Apparently, a Viet Cong “spider hole” was found and it was discovered that it led to a tunnel and cave that served as a hospital and meeting place. At some point Rochlen goes down the hole and investigates.

In another note, he apparently had talked to Nguyen Be and several of the local people, heard rumors and is seeking more information. I find it interesting how his mind works. He goes over everything he was told (and unfortunately, we don’t see that side of the conversation) and now wants to know more:

Ask Be if he ever gave a pen to a girl, if so, who? 20 females from transportation unit? Who was the nurse of the unit? Held a ceremony in a cave, tunnel? Describe ceremony. Who is the old man Mr. Tu? Did you ever meet Mr. Nguyen Sang? Who was the companion that makes pictures and makes engravings?

With Colonel Grinder. I was soaking wet having just come out of the hole. This was the “elevator shaft entrance where the wounded Viet Cong were lowered into the tunnel on stretchers through an opening about 7.5 x 3-feet, and the hole was 15 feet deep to a tunnel entrance below.

This farcical operation was mentioned in the North Vietnamese April 1967 newspaper Doc-Lap (Independence). The author puts his own spin on the story and says in part;

The country-selling traitors Thieu and Ky recently invented a story that Nguyen Van Be was still alive…Recently they swept and raided Kim Son village, native place of dead hero Nguyen Van Be…What a painful experience for them. All Kim-Son inhabitants immediately unmasked the impostor and those who invented the stupid story…That was a big cheat!

The first casualty of war is truth.
Rudyard Kipling

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The Late Hero Nguyen Van Be Reads About His Own Death

JUSPAO Leaflet # 66

The North Vietnamese Affairs Office of the Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) in Saigon produced a leaflet coded "66." That number shows that The Allies disseminated the leaflet in the north during the time that the United States was bombing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The operations, named "Fact Sheet" and "Frantic Goat" took place from 1965 to 1968.

The front of the leaflet bears the text:

A very strange story indeed. According to the Communists, Nguyen Van Be died a glorious death in the service of the cause. Supposedly, after the Army of Vietnam (ARVN) forces captured him, he detonated a mine killing himself and 69 Americans and Government of Vietnam troops. The Communist newspapers, Radio Hanoi and Liberation Radio printed and broadcast glowing accounts of his heroic death. Poets and musicians wrote and sang of his exploits. The government built a statue in his honor. However, as you can plainly see on the other side, he is very much alive. He is shown reading about his own death in the Hanoi newspaper Tien-phong of 7 December 1966. The Communists say he chose a hero's death. He says that he never fired a shot and did not even think about exploding a mine.

The back of the leaflet bears the text :

The 'Late Hero' Nguyen Van Be reads about his own death and depicts Be reading the newspaper account.

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The 7th PSYOP Group Veritas of 21 April 1967
Notice the picture at lower left of the Nguyen Van Be Leaflet

The North Vietnamese Affairs Division mentioned this leaflet in their Weekly Report, April 16 to 22:

The leaflet on Nguyen van Be continues to be an irritant to the North Vietnamese. An editorial in the 14 April issue of Tien Phong Daily from Hanoi which was received here this week states in part: “We all want to now, more about this young hero who represents a shining example, a proud expression of our generation, a source of fear and terror for the enemy who sought all dirty means to distort the spirit of his immortal war deed.” The same issue of this paper featured a large picture of be on the front page along with the first chapter of a book telling his “life history.” This leaflet was dropped over Hanoi on April 10.

The Weekly Report May 13 to 19 adds:

9,600,000 copies of leaflet number 66 which tells of Nguyen van Be were dropped over the area between the DMZ and Dong Hoi on May 17.

The Saigon Post of 8 September 1967 mentions the Be leaflet:

12 Million leaflets rain over the North. Five different leaflets were dropped. One leaflet pictured Viet Cong Martyr Nguyen Van Be reading a report of his death: 800,000 copies dropped between the area north Vinh and Phu Qui…The leaflet unmasked the Communist’s deceitful propaganda because in reality, Be was still alive in South Vietnam and had presented himself several times before the press and addressed people on television.

Truth is the best PSYOP.
Colonel Fred Walker, United States Special Operations Command.

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JUSPAO Leaflet # 131 (Front)

Another leaflet dropped on the North later is coded "131." Text on the front is:

Nguyen Van Be and Platoon Leader Nho. This photo, take in Saigon in July 1968, shows (on left) Tran Huy Nho, of Viet Yen, Ha Bac, leader of Platoon 1-C2, 2nd Battalion, Quyet Thang Regiment, who rallied to the national cause at Gia Dinh, near Saigon, 18 June 1968. Platoon leader Nho and 54 NVA soldiers who rallied at the same time have addressed a letter to President Ho expressing sorrow that they had been misled by Lao Dong propaganda and stating that, in reality, the South is free, independent and more prosperous than the North. Platoon leader Nho was surprised to find that Nguyen Van Be, with whom he is shown chatting, is alive and well and a supporter of the national cause. Nho now understands that Lao Dong propagandists invented the story of Be's martyrdom for the purpose of encouraging other soldiers to sacrifice themselves.

A photo of Be and Nho is at the left of the leaflet.

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JUSPA0 Leaflet # 131 (Back)

The back of the leaflet depicts Be showing a group of Vietnamese the newspaper that told of his heroic death. The text is:

Nguyen Van Be Exposes Lao Dong Propaganda. Two years ago Lao Dong propagandists were seeking ways to encourage young men to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the Party. Believing Nguyen Van Be had been killed at the Cai Beo Canal, they invented s story saying that he had been captured, tortured, and had killed himself and 69 allied soldiers by exploding a detonator against an armored vehicle. Even when it was revealed that be was alive and their story false, they insisted he was dead to cover their embarrassment. Nguyen Van Be is shown in the photo exposing the Lao Dong lie to some members of the Quyet Thang Regiment who rallied near Saigon on 18 June 1968.

Actually, in military psychological operations (PsyOps), there is no game-playing. Truth is of the utmost importance to achieving the mission.

362nd PSYOP Company

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JUSPAO Leaflet # 1775

JUSPAO developed leaflet 1775 in February 1967. It measures 5 x 7 inches. The front of the leaflet shows Nguyen Van Be holding the Hanoi Tien Phong newspaper that depicts him in almost the same pose. The text is:

The 'Late Hero' Nguyen Van Be reads about his own death.

The back is all text:

A very strange story indeed. According to the Communists, Nguyen Van Be died a glorious death in the service of the cause. Supposedly, after ARVN forces captured him he detonated a mine killing himself and 69 Americans and GVN troops. Glowing accounts of his death were printed in communist newspapers and read over Radio Hanoi and Liberation Radio. Many poems and songs were written about his exploits. A statue was even built in his honor. However, as can be plainly seen, Be is very much alive. He is shown reading about his own death in the Hanoi newspaper Tien-phong. The Communists say he chose a hero's death. Be says that he never fired a shot and did not even think about exploding a mine.

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JUSPAO Leaflet 1846

Once again in this leaflet we see Be holding the Hanoi newspaper. The text on this leaflet is:

The “Hero” Reads About His Own Death

The “hero” is seen reading an article about his own death. Many communist newspapers loudly proclaimed that Nguyen Van Be was dead. However, the “Hero” was still alive and well. He is shown reading a 17 February 1966 article in Hanoi's Tien Phong newspaper describing his death. Similar articles were published in other Hanoi and NLF newspapers along with poems and songs written to glorify the story of this “hero.” When he heard people describe his acts of heroism, Be was very surprised because he had not done any of the things that were described in the article.

PSYOP messages must remain truthful to maintain credibility; however, the impact on the target audience is only limited by the imagination of the PSYOP specialist, the staff, and the commander.

Headquarters, Department of the Army, FM 33-1-1, Psychological Operations, May 1994

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JUSPAO Leaflet 2018

The front of this leaflet depicts Nguyen Van be giving a speech to former Viet Cong members and later talking to them. The back is all text. Seven million copies of this leaflet were printed on 11 July 1967 and distributed nationally. The text on the front is:

The "late hero" Nguyen Van Be comes back to meet former Liberation soldiers to tell them the true story of his "Sacrifice."

The text on the back is:

On March 31, 1967, at the National Chieu Hoi Center in Saigon, Nguyen Van Be fully told his own story of how he was captured. He spoke to some 300 Hoi Chanh who had to study Nguyen Van Be's bright example before they chose to return to the government side. Following his talk, Nguyen Van Be answered all questions put to him by the Hoi Chanhs. His meeting with them lasted nearly three hours. Before Nguyen Van Be left the center, crowds of Hoi Chanh came forward to personally greet and shake hands with the man whom the Communists have honored as their "dead hero."

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Martyr-Hero Be Meets Again His Old Comrades

JUSPAO Leaflet # SP-2138

JUSPAO leaflet SP-2138 prepared in July 1967 depicts Nguyen Van Be meeting with his former comrades. The text reads in part:

On July 15 1967, Nguyen Van Be met again his old comrades who had served the same length of time with him in the Liberation Front.... Be is holding a copy of the Tieng Phong Newspaper, which published his story in Hanoi....

The party can make a newspaper hero, but it cannot admit a mistake. If you are really interested in reading closely, you can see the size of their error.

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  JUSPAO Leaflet # 2233

JUSPAO leaflet 2233, prepared in October 1967, is also about Nguyen Van Be. It is 5 x 7 inches in size. The front of the leaflet depicts Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Huynh Cu meeting Nguyen Van Be. The text is:

Revolutionary heroism is a propaganda trick says LTC Huynh Cu, who trained 3000 National Liberation Front officers and noncommissioned officers. LTC Huynh Cu, former Chief of the Viet Cong Training Section, Military Region Five, who returned to the Government of the Republic of Vietnam on 24 March 1967 at Son-Trung camp, Son Tinh district, Quang Ngai province. Seeing Nguyen Van Be on 4 August, he related to him all the tricks of the Liberation Front of the South is using with his name, his home village and his unit to cheat the other young men. Nguyen Van Be burst out laughing when hearing LTC Huynh Cu tell him about his marvelous death.

The back of the leaflet depicts LTC Cu writing a letter:

As a military man who served with Communist cadres more than twenty years, I know well how they have to manipulate all of us to achieve their objectives. The only reality for them is that which will serve their interests. When I was training director for MR 5 I heard the story of Be's heroism. I doubted the story. However, I knew the importance of making men die for the cause so I kept quiet. After returning to the government I met Be and found that he had done nothing but let himself be captured. No heroics, no slogan shouting, no nothing. Now that the government has revealed this, the Communists must shout his heroism all the louder. Do you know why? Be is a victim, not a heroic soldier! The Communists are trying to make victims of us all. I feel it is my duty to save my comrades from emulating such false heroics.

Credible and verifiable facts whether favorable or not, are the backbone
of the leaflet message because they demand attention

Psychological Operations Field Manual No.33-1" published in August 1979 by Department of the Army Headquarters in Washington DC.

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JUSPAO Leaflet # 2243

JUSPAO also developed leaflet 2243 in October 1967. It is very similar to 2233. It is also 5 x 7 inches in size. It depicts the same photograph of LTC Cu and Nguyen Van Be as is shown in the earlier leaflet on the front. PSYOP records indicate that 5 million copies of this leaflet were printed and forwarded to Da Nang, Nha Trang, Pleiku, Bien Hoa and Can Tho. Text on the front is:

Now that you are still living, you have created a big problem' LTC Huynh Cu tells dead martyr Nguyen Van Be. Here, LTC Huynh Cu, former Chief of the Viet Cong Training Section, Military Region Five, meets Nguyen Van Be who the communists claim is a dead hero. LTC Cu returned to the Government of the Republic of Vietnam on 24 March 1967 at Son-Trung Post, Son-Trinh district, Quang Ngai province. He met Nguyen Van Be in Saigon where they discussed the communist story of Be's heroic death while blowing up ARVN and American soldiers with a mine. Cu told Be at the time: Believe me, next time the Viet Cong will have to look for a death certificate when they want to honor somebody as a hero. Do you know why they persist in denying their mistake?

The back of the leaflet depicts LTC Cu writing a letter. Although the picture was probably taken the same time as the one used in 2233, the pose is slightly different. The text is:

Why must the communists lie about the living Nguyen Van Be? LTC Cu tells Nguyen Van Be at their meeting in Saigon on 4 August 1967: Having made a major hero out of you, the Viet Cong must now deny that you live. They must say that you are a bogus Be, a creature of fiction created by the Americans. They have built a major propaganda campaign on you and now that you are alive, the fact of your existence may destroy and refute an entire set of arguments.

I have copious files of data on these leaflets and I seldom add technical information so as not to bore the reader. I think I will add some additional information here so you can see that we know a lot about these drops. According to my files the leaflet is called “LTC Cu and Nguyen Van Be” and 5,000,000 copies were ordered by the 6th PSYOP Battalion in November 1967 to be printed by the 7th PSYOP Group on Okinawa designated priority 1 cargo. They were to be sent to Da Nang (2,500,000), Nha Trang (500,000) Pleiku (500,000), Ben Hoa (1,000,000) and Can To (500,000).

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Nguyen Van Be meets Lieutenant Colonel Huynh Cu

There must have been some problems with the way the Cu letter was originally written. A “request for evaluation” dated 13 October 1967 has a comment by Research Psychologist L. A. Newberry that says:

Last paragraph of Vietnamese text on side one makes no sense. A revised paragraph has been written and is attached. Please use revision.

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An early version of the Be-Cu leaflet undergoing Editing

Although the leaflet shows Cu writing the letter by hand, other documents I have seen imply that the text was written by Americans with the aid of psychologists and translators and Cu was photographed just copying the text. I find numerous documents showing that words and sentences were changed, different photographs recommended, some changes to the text and even the changing of specific words. It is clear that a great amount of thought went into these Be-Cu leaflets and it is not the random writing of a Hoi Chanh. For instance, four American officials are involved in evaluating a Be-Cu product and one of the comments is:

On change (of a grammatical nature) has been made in explanatory text…It was recommended that “tiet lo” be changed to “vach tran” (i.e. “to uncover”)…

There are three such changes and comments in this document, so it becomes clear that although the text was allegedly written by the Vietnamese defectors, it was certainly suggested and honed by the Americans.

I have another document that I do not believe has been used on a leaflet, or at least I have not seen that leaflet. The top of the document says, "former Viet Cong Lieutenant Colonel Huynh Cu, head of the training section of the military region V talking to Nguyen Van Be."

Directly below that, someone has written the comments, "When did Cu rally and where did he say this about revolutionary heroism?" The next comment says. "Photo of Cu and Be." This was clearly the beginning of a design for a new leaflet. Then we see the text of the leaflet:

Lieutenant Colonel Cu tells Be:

I have had 23 years of party membership. I understand so well the technique of creating heroes for the party. Before my return to the government side, I might also say to my cadres under me, that they ought to try to emulate your heroic bright example. But for cadres of my rank, none of them were so stupid to emulate the so-called example of "Dead hero Nugyen Van Be" at all. We wanted to stay alive.

It was amusing to hear that when you were ambushed, you were smart enough and brave enough to hide three sampans fully loaded with ammunition. Later we hear that you could use a mine without a detonator to blast the enemies. Based on what I know, regulations forbid equipping mines with detonators during transportation.

If that wasn"t ridiculous enough, we hear you attempted a surprise attack while shouting long propaganda slogans.  Well, only guys who are blind, stupid, and who thirst for honors could believe the so-called "Dead hero."

A second document has the handwritten Vietnamese-language page attached. This could be the other side of the perspective leaflet we show above. This one also has “Photo of Cu and Be” at the top. Directly below there is a long text message:

Alive "Dead Hero" Nguyen Van Be and former Viet Cong Colonel Huynh Cu, officer in charge of training services of military region V, are reasoning together. Cu laughingly says:

"Even Uncle Ho cannot surpass you. Though you were supposedly attacking your enemies by surprise, the communist would have us believe that you had the time to shout a long propaganda slogan. How typical of the communists…and how funny. The communists always put a little slogan in every story, don’t they? They would have us believe that the only person who could react to such a long slogan would be the communist witness who naturally must escape to tell the story. Well, I suppose we must give them credit for dreaming this thing up, but they really tried too hard on this one, didn’t they? Imagine shouting a slogan while attempting to blow up an M.113. How laughable! What will they think up next?"

I can see why this leaflet might not have been approved. It ridicules the Communist Party of North Vietnam and makes them look both silly and stupid. It also implies that cadres lie and might be cowards. It is generally considered a bad idea to attack and insult the enemy. It is better to just quote what they say and let the reader decide if the target was smart or stupid. 

The 1968 booklet Communicating with Vietnamese Through Leaflets, Field Development Division, Office of Plans and Policy, JUSPAO, says about this very matter of writing testimonials:

The Hoi Chanh should write his own leaflet…The Hoi Chanh should sign his testimonial. A food, clear photo of the author should be included…Do not write the testimonial for the Hoi Chanh. A version written by a U.S. PSYOP officer or a Chieu Hoi cadre man probably will be recognized as bogus. It is permissible to suggest themes to the returnees, but the language must be his own. The best approach is for the Hoi Chanh to address his letter specifically to his former unit and address some of his former comrades by name.

The entire mental conditioning of NVA troops, pursued through political indoctrination sessions, the three-man cell system and constant exhortation by the cadre, aims at achieving automatic responses reflecting the communist party view of word issues. This rote learning becomes a powerful cohesive element. It can be chipped at only by repeated discoveries that what has been studied and accepted as gospel truth does not accord with visible facts in the soldier's personal experience.

JUSPAO PSYOP POLICY No. 59 -The NVA Soldier in South Vietnam as a Target dated 20 February 1968

JUSPAO next produced three consecutive leaflets on the theme of Nguyen Van Be. They are coded 2003, 2004, and 2005.

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JUSPAO Leaflet 2003

Leaflet 2003 depicts Nguyen Van Be along with his family on the front. The back shows the familiar image of Nguyen Van Be reading of his heroic death in the Hanoi newspaper Tien Phong. The text on the front is:


The text on the back is:

Why does The National Liberation Front stubbornly continue to say that Nguyen Van Be sacrificed his life when he burst a mine in order to kill 69 people on 30 May 1966?

In the above picture, Nguyen Van Be is holding the Vanguard Newspaper that was published in Hanoi. Nguyen Van Be's portrait is featured in this newspaper, but he has the name "Hero Nguyen Van Be." The truth is very clear. Everyone can see that Nguyen Van Be is still alive. So, why does the National Liberation Front keep saying that Nguyen Van Be is dead? Do all the people understand why the National Liberation Front does this?

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JUSPAO Leaflet 2004

Leaflet 2004 depicts Nguyen Van Be reading of his heroic death in the Hanoi newspaper Tien Phong. Below the photo is a hand written letter signed by Be. The back of the leaflet shows Be and his entire family looking at newspaper reports of his heroic death. The text of the letter is:

Kien Phong, 15 April 1967

To all my compatriots throughout the country: My name is Nguyen Van Be. I am the son of Mr. Nguyen Van Hieu and Mrs. Le Thi Ba of Kim Son Village, Long Dinh District, Dinh Tuong Province. I was previously assigned to Unit 860 x 16, a transportation unit of the Central Cochin China Region [Military Region 8, also called T-2]. I was captured on 30 May 1966 at the Ca Beo Canal, My Quy Village in Kien Phong Province. Previously the Front said that I had jumped into an M-113 armored personnel carrier clutching an explosive charge to my chest and called me "Martyr Nguyen Van Be," but that is not correct. I am still alive and living in South Vietnam. My compatriots, I implore you not to study me to follow my example.

I am informing all my compatriots throughout our country of this so that there is no misunderstanding of me.

Nguyen Van Be

The text on the back is:

Here, Nguyen Van Be unites with his family. As everyone can clearly see, Nguyen Van Be is as strong and alive as he was before. However, the cadres of the National Liberation Front have forbidden anyone from saying that Nguyen Van be is still alive.

So, what do you think?

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JUSPAO Leaflet # 2005

JUSPAO leaflet 2005 is a 5 x 8 inch leaflet developed in June 1967 that depicts Nguyen Van Be at home with his family. The picture on the front of this leaflet is identical to 2003, except that the text is below the image instead of above.  The text on the front is:

Why is the Liberation Front afraid to let people speak the truth? Nguyen Van Be is alive, well, and shown here with his family. As anyone can see, Nguyen Van Be did not sacrifice himself. Why are you not permitted to speak the truth?

The back of the leaflet is all text:

To the people living in the area of Kim Son Village. Have courage. In your hearts, you know the truth, Nguyen Van Be lives. His family knows he lives. Everyone knows he lives. Yes, even the front cadre who forbid you to speak the truth. Even they know he is alive. You can see the truth in the eyes of the cadre. Why do you think the front must continue to say that Nguyen Van Be is dead? Have courage; nothing can change the truth in your heart.

The key is always to tell the truth, and never promise something we cannot deliver. Once we have credibility, then we have an effective message that will win over propaganda and stories told by other factions. 310th PSYOP Company, Bamian, Afghanistan.

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JUSPAO Poster # 1774

JUSPAO also prepared a number of posters showing Nguyen Van Be. One is coded 1774, developed February 1967, and measures 17 x 22 inches in size. 50,000 copies of this poster were printed. There are three photographs on the poster. One shows Be holding a newspaper featuring his picture (the same photo used on several leaflets), another shows Be in profile and the third shows a statue of Be. The text is:



For many months, the communist newspapers in both North and South Vietnam have been telling everyone the fantastic story about the supreme sacrifice of the 'hero' Nguyen Van Be. Communist youth throughout Vietnam have been urged to emulate him. According to the communist story Be was captured on 30 May 1966 after fighting like a tiger to defend the arms and ammunition he was helping to transport along a canal near My An. Supposedly he was later forced to explain how a new mine worked, and seizing the opportunity he exploded it with his own hands against an armored vehicle. The communists claimed that be gladly gave his life for the cause and killed 69 Americans and ARVN troops. A heroic act indeed!

This photograph of a statue built in honor of the 'late hero' was published on the front page of the Hanoi newspaper Van Nghe on 6 January 1967. It is supposed to show Be at the moment he sacrificed his life.

But, read what Mr. Be has to say: 'We were convoying ammunition along a canal in the My An district. When I heard the Government of Vietnam shots, I plunged into the canal. I was captured after I jumped into the water. I never did any of the things they say I did. Why would the Front say such things?' Look at this: Here is the 'dead hero' alive and well. He is reading about his own death in the important Hanoi newspaper Tien Phong that carried the fantastic story on the front of the 7 December 1966 issue. Similar stories were broadcast over Radio Hanoi and Liberation Radio, and many poems and songs were written about the 'late hero' Nguyen Van Be.

Psychological Operations soldiers use persuasion to influence perceptions and encourage desired behavior. The cornerstone of PSYOP is truth, credibly presented to convince a given audience to cease resistance or take actions favorable to friendly forces.

U. S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command Missions and Functions.

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JUSPAO Poster # 1983

A second poster depicting the same photograph of Nguyen Van Be holding a newspaper showing his picture was developed by JUSPAO in June 1967. The poster is 17 x 22 inches in size and printed in two colors. The code is 1983. The text is:


The man whom the Lao Dong Party of the North and the National Liberation Front of the South proclaim as a dead hero is in fact very much alive. However, the Front still insists that he is dead, and urges all youth to emulate his example. Yet, here is Nguyen Van Be holding the newspaper that describes him as the 'late hero' who sacrificed his life. Why does the Lao Dong Party and the National Liberation Front make up such a strange story? What do you think?

Besides leaflets, JUSPAO also produced a number of short radio and loudspeaker tapes that told the story of Nguyen Van Be. Tape number 113 was eight minutes long and entitled "Cousin of Nguyen Van Be." A synopsis of the text follows:

A tape statement by Nguyen Van Ba, former platoon leader, political officer, and cousin of Nguyen Van Be. In this message, Ba (a Hoi Chanh) reminisces about classes he conducted for the members of Nguyen Van Be's unit to inspire then to emulate Be. Upon learning that Be was alive he realized the hoax that had been perpetrated by the Viet Cong. He also compares living under Viet Cong control as opposed to Government of Vietnam control, and speaks of the Chieu Hoi program urging his former comrades to rally to the just cause.

Tape number 114 is entitled "Friend of Nguyen Van Be." This is an 11-minute tape. A synopsis of the text follows:

A tape statement by Nguyen Van Tho, former National Liberation Front sabotage expert who knew Nguyen Van Be. This (a Hoi Chanh) reminisces about former hardships shared with his friends in the 322 x 12 unit. He recalls classes conducted on dead hero Nguyen Van Be and then states Be is alive and he has seen him with his own eyes. He also emphatically states that in a technical sense of the word it would have been impossible for Be to have exploded the mine against the armored personnel carrier as the National Liberation Front has described the event. He then requests that his friends meet him on the path to rally.

Tape number 115 is entitled "Squad leader from Nguyen Van Be's Company." This is a longer 11-minute tape. A synopsis of the text follows:

Tape statement by Le Van Hue, squad leader from the same transportation company as Nguyen Van Be. Hue states that he has rallied to the just national cause and is living a happy life. He compares his happy life with the hardships he suffered in the Viet Cong ranks. He also exposes the lies told by the National Liberation Front, which promised land and assistance to fighters in the Front. He discussed the Chieu Hoi program, and insures his former compatriots that if they rally they will receive good treatment. Hue assures his friends that Be is alive and well, that he has seen Be, that he had been captured and not killed, as stated by the Front. He urges his former comrades to rally to the just cause.

Tape number 120 is only 35 seconds long. It is entitled "Nguyen Van Be." The text is:

Dear Fellow Citizens, I am Nguyen Van Be. I am the son of Mr. Nguyen Van Hue and Mrs. Le Thi Ba from Kim Son village, Long Binh district, Dinh Tuong province. I am a former member of Unit 860 x 16, a transportation unit in the central area of the South. On 30 May 1966, I was captured while on a mission on the Cai Beo canal, My Quy village, Kien Phong province. For some time the Front has proclaimed that I sacrificed my life by exploding a mine against an M-113 troop carrier, and have honored me with the title of 'dead hero' Nguyen Van Be. However, I want you all to know that the story is not true, because here I am, right now. I am still alive. I am alive and living here in the South. I ask you not to emulate my example of 'sacrifice.' I am telling you all about this so that you will know the truth.

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The Original Tape 120 Script

Looking through JUSPAO files I noticed this very short typed script. I searched to see if this was from a leaflet, poster or tape. This is the script used on tape 120.

Perhaps we should take a moment and look at the responsibilities of the Transportation Platoon as explained by Le Van Hue, a friend of Be from the same unit who later defected to the National Government.

We transported weapons, ammunition, land mines, water mines and Bangalores to our units in Central Vietnam. A sampan can carry about 300 kilograms of supply. We usually had from three to five sampans each trip. One platoon can transport about two tons of supplies. We got the supplies in Cambodia in Soai Rieng province. There were two piers there. They were brought by buffalo carts that could carry about 900 kilograms and we placed them in the sampans. We made three trips a month.

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Nguyen Van Be Invalid Veteran Pay Book?

Robert Munshower discovered this Invalid Veteran pay book in the name of Nguyen Van Be while researching his history. I must state here that we are not sure this is the same individual, the name is not uncommon in Vietnam and this could be another young Viet Cong soldier with the same name as the revolutionary “hero.” Nguyen Van Be is an extremely popular name for Vietnamese males, especially those who are born in rural areas. However, his military record and time of injury match up fairly well with the Communist propaganda story of Be. Although we are not 100% positive that this is THE Nguyen Van Be, I believe we must depict portions of the book.

The Nguyen Van Be in this booklet was born November 1945 at Binh My Village, Hoc Mon District, Gia Dinh Province, and enlisted 14 February 1962. His rank when injured was Corporal (Deputy Squad leader) in unit C2D4E2F9. His was wounded in combat at Xa Cat, Binh Long. He spent 3 months and 3 days in a Viet Cong hospital, and was considered 35% disabled, Class 2, with a monthly stipend of 39 dong.

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1971 reunion of Senior Viet Cong Defectors at Ben Tre, South Vietnam

Nguyen Van Be is at the bottom right in white shirt and sunglasses. Captain Bob Turner of the Joint United States Public Affairs Office is above him in blue checkered shirt leaning against the wall. The man in the center with blue pants is Don Rochlen, a psychological Operations Advisor of the United States Information Agency and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization who worked with JUSPAO.

Credibility is a condition of persuasion. Before you can make a man do what you say, you must make him believe what you say. A necessary condition for gaining his credence is that you do not permit him to catch you in lies. Hence, the constraint upon all propagandists to accurate reporting of matters which are subject to verification by the audience…Propaganda, to be effective, must be not only factually true, but credible.

Sykewar, Daniel Lerner, George W. Stewart, NY., 1949.

This story of PSYOP intrigue is interesting because it seems to defy all the laws and logic of psychological operations. We have shown over and over again that the rules of PSYOP demand that (except in the cases of a disinformation campaign) the text of the propaganda message be truthful and credible. Yet, in the case of Nguyen Van Be the communists were shown to be liars. Repeatedly the Allied leaflets and posters pointed out that the communists had lied to the people. The result should have been a complete loss in credibility by the Vietnamese in communist propaganda. However, the old adage about the "big Lie" seems to have worked in the enemy's favor in this case.

Concept Drawings

It is rare that we get to see the early concept drawings for a propaganda campaign. I have about a half-dozen drawings that were considered for this campaign and I depict two of them here.

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You Bet I am Alive

The first is overly simple and silly and it is clear why this was never made into a leaflet. Nguyen Be is depicted semi-buried in the ground holding a sign saying “You bet I am alive.” This was not good propaganda.

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How did it Happen?

The concept is much more thought-out and very similar to a number of leaflets that were printed. It uses the vignette of Nguyen Be holding the newspaper reporting his death that is found on many of the printed and disseminated leaflets.

…The magnitude of a lie always contains a certain factor of credibility, since the great masses of the people in the very bottom of their hearts tend to be corrupted rather than consciously and purposely evil, and that, therefore, in view of the primitive simplicity of their minds they more easily fall a victim to a big lie than to a little one, since they themselves lie in little things, but would be ashamed of lies that were too big.

Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler.

Hanoi and the National Liberation Front controlled what their people heard and read. They spent several hours each day in the indoctrination of their troops. Every time the Allies pointed out the lie, the cadre counterattacked. They said that the GVN and the Americans were the liars, and that the fake Be was a figment of their imagination, an actor treated with plastic surgery who just pretended to be their dead hero. This would appear to be a case where the truth did not conquer. The big lie seems to have reigned supreme.

A lie told often enough becomes the truth.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

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Nguyen Van Be and his brother Ba

This is one of the oldest pictures I have seen of Be, taken just a few years before the fall of South Vietnam. The year is 1971 and Be is with his brother Ba, who is a member of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Ba is wearing an Armor qualification patch above his name tag and is believed to have been a member of their 3th Cavalry Squadron, equipped with M113 armored personnel carriers (APCs). What is Ba thinking?

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Nguyen Van Be Junior High School
Ho Chi Minh, City in Happier Days

What may be the most interesting aspect of this story is that experts who have traveled to Vietnam can find very few streets that bear the name of the alleged hero, Nguyen Van Be. One resident told me "No Nguyen Van Be Street here in Ho Chi Minh City that I know of but my Vietnamese map site finds one in Vinh Long and also one near Ban Me Thout in Dak Lak Province." In 2019 I was told that there was still a Nguyen Van Be street in the town of Quy Nhon in Binh Dinh province. The writer continues "Why they still keep his name for the street is quite beyond me." The communists honored all of their military heroes with streets and buildings named or renamed for them. It may be that even as they lied and propagandized their own people with tales of Be’s heroism, they secretly fumed at having been duped and waited for the first opportunity to erase him and make him a "non-person" in the best Communist tradition. One source claims that as late as 1975 Be’s name was still being placed on a street and a secondary school in the town of Long Khanh, but shortly afterwards the school's name was changed. Sony Nguyen told me in 2012 that some of the streets had been changed only recently. It is possible that in some parts of Vietnam, the ability to use the Internet and perhaps read this article alerted some local mayors to the fact that Be was not the hero they believe him to be. It is shocking that it took them 40 years to learn the truth. Curiously, Don North also looked for such a street in Vietnam. He and I regularly corresponded so I suspect he used this article as a source. He said years after I wrote this article in 2012:

Ironically, today there is not a single street or building in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City still named after the alleged hero Nguyen Van Be. Efforts to determine the ultimate fate of Be by this reporter have yet to turn up a clue. It may be that even as they lied and misled their own people, the North Vietnamese psychological warriors were secretly embarrassed by their own mistakes in the Be affair and—in the best Communist tradition—welcomed the first opportunity to erase him.

We don't know much about Be's later life. We do not know if he was just absorbed into the new Communist state or sent to a re-education camp. According to the Vietnam Wikipedia Encyclopedia, Nguyen Van Be lived to well after the war and finally died on 24 March 2002.

This article is just a brief look at the Nguyen Van Be campaign carried by JUSPAO against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. We have selected and depicted a few leaflets that were particularly interesting. If any of our readers have additional leaflets that they think should be included in this article, they are encouraged to send them to the author. You are invited to write to the author with comments or questions at


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Ngo Van Bay

Ten years after I wrote this article I found an old copy of the CORDs booklet The Story of the Kit Carson Scouts. It tells of an occurrence on 1 July 1966, when a Viet Cong Squad Leader names Ngo Van Bay walked into the HQ of the 9th Marine Regiment. He had served two years as a Main Force Guerrilla. He was interrogated and then should have been sent to a Chieu Hoi Center. He was big, forceful, and a born leader and apparently impressed the Marines.

Intelligence discovered that the VC had told the people of his home hamlet Cam Van, that Bay had been captured, tortured and killed by the Marines. They were spreading the story around the surrounding hamlets. Bay agreed to go with the Marines to his hamlet to tell the truth of his defection. They brought along a loudspeaker and he told the people that the Viet Cong had lied and he had been treated well by the Marines. He said that they could be trusted. He walked among the people, handed out cigarettes and let them touch him and his new clothes to see that he was real.

This operation was so successful that Bay was never sent to a Chieu Hoi Center. Instead, he became the very first Kit Carson Scout in October 1966, and was assigned to the 1st Marines in the Da Nang area. The Scouts later became very famous and were used by the Marines for the rest of the war.