The Tiger Lady
18 July 2005
Her exploits were legendary, even in the war torn region of South East Asia. She marched and fought with one of the most respected military units in Vietnam: the South Vietnamese 44th Ranger Battalion-"The Black Tigers".
Madame Ho Thi Que, or "The Tiger Lady", had earned her reputation the hard way, and her fame had spread throughout South Vietnam.
Her husband, Major Le Van Dan – the commander of the 44th Rangers-was also a warrior. He had been awarded almost every South Vietnamese military medal that was issued. His 44th Ranger Battalion had been awarded the US Presidential Unit Citation – the first South Vietnamese unit to be so honoured.
It was during the beginning of the American troop build-up in an unconventional war that would take thousands of American lives before it drew to a close. It was a war where American advisors fought side-by-side with their Vietnamese counterparts, often dying in the process. It was a war where the field advisor spent as much time trying to understand the nature of the people, their culture and his own existence, than he did his mission of containing Communist insurgency.
It was a war in which stories would emerge of great warriors and their performances on the field of battle; some apocryphal, some true. The story of the Tiger Lady was just such a story, a courageous and remarkable woman and soldier.
In 1965 the South Vietnamese people were shocked when they heard the news that Madame Ho Thi Que had been shot and killed by her husband, Major Le Van Dan. Major Dan was quickly arrested and jailed in connection with the death of his wife. On 5th May 1966, after a quick trial, he was sentence to serve one year in prison for the 'murder.'
In court he had testified that Madame Que had attacked him with a knife when she had found him with a younger woman in the tiny village of Vi Thanh, a village often used by the 44th Ranger Battalion as a forward support base during their operations in the U Minh Forest.
He claimed to have shot her in self-defence, stating, “her jealousy was as fierce as her courage in combat.” The prosecutor had countered that the Major hated his wife and had killed her because he though her jealousy had ruined his career.
Other ranking South Vietnamese officers believed that Dan was distraught over the fact that he had been replaced as battalion commander of the 44th after the unit had suffered a disastrous defeat after being ambushed by two Viet Cong
battalions. The rangers had lost 58 KIA and over 70 wounded, including all of the American advisors attached to the battalion. Shortly afterwards, while a full investigation was underway, he had been quietly transferred to a lesser position as a security officer in another area of operations.
There was a general consensus among many of his fellow officers that the Saigon government had been looking for an excuse to relieve Major Dan. A great deal of resentment had arisen against him because of the many heralded victories of the 44th Ranger Battalion, the reputation of the Tiger Lady, and his own personal success. Like his wife, Le Van Dan was a colourful figure. He had led his rangers on many successful combat operations, which made his fellow commanders pale in comparison. Wearing his maroon beret in place of a helmet, and armed only with a .38 calibre revolver, he was an inspiration to his men. He carried a lacquered swagger stick, which he used with dramatic flair in the heat of battle to exhort his rangers in the attack. But his success was not enough to protect him from petty jealousies of his fellow officers.
After the trial, Dan stated, “I accept the verdict. It was inevitable.” He showed no remorse for the death of his wife and long time companion.
Known as 'Big Sister' by the Vietnamese rangers who fought by her side, they remembered her for both her temper and her kindness. Many ranger had felt her wrath when she caught them stealing a chicken or looting a village's belongings. She often reverted to swearing, shouting and sometimes even slapping the culprit to drive her point home. But at other times, her compassion and understanding were the soothing balm that comforted a wounded or dying soldier. She felt a deep sense of responsibility for all her ranger brothers.
Caring for the wounded on the battlefield, or approaching stubborn government bureaucrats to insure that a dead ranger's family received the benefits due to them, as much a part of her personality as the open hate she harboured for the enemy. She would not hesitate to lend or give money to the wives and families of wounded or slain rangers to tide them over during their period of grief. She felt their pain, sometimes shaving her head in a sign of mourning. She attended the customary burials conducted for the dead, and through her mask of grief watchers stated that they could see her determination to settle the score. She set the standards for morale and esprit de corps in the unit during her service with the rangers, and her reputation became legendary and inspired the rangers until the cease-fire in 1975.
After her death in mid December 1965, one of her daughters came to Soc Trang (the home base of the 44th Ranger Battalion at the time), trying to collect some of the debts owed to her mother by a number of the rangers. The family was having a difficult time making ends meet with the mother gone, and the father in jail.
Little is known of the Tiger Lady's childhood except that she lived for a time in the Imperial City of Hue. In the war against the French, she served as an intelligence agent for the Viet Minh until the later part of 1953, just prior to the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu
. During this period she met and married her husband, Le Van Dan. When the two of them saw that the Communists were taking over the Viet Minh, and that they were determined to rule the nation, the couple left the movement.
Within a year, Dan had joined the Vietnamese Army. Madame Que joined, too, rising to the rank of master sergeant during the remainder of the colonial period.
But her legend was built on her deeds on the battlefield with the Biet Dong Quan (Rangers) in the early sixties. She was often seen at the height of battle, moving forward under intense enemy fire to aid wounded rangers. The Tiger Lady led by example, almost always up front with the lead company. She often charged headlong across open rice paddies with the assaulting rangers, inspiring them to victory. Her courage and sincerity were never questioned. She stalked the battlefield armed only with a pearl handled Colt .45, wearing a helmet with black and yellow stripes and the black tiger head – the symbol of the 44th Vietnamese Ranger Battalion.
The Viet Cong knew her well. Stories were told that they had named her "Madame Death". It was reputation well earned and richly deserved, for she could be as dangerous as any combat soldier. She had seen war as few Americans would ever see it. She wore numerous medals testifying to her courage and her prowess in combat. Just a few months prior to her death, she had survived a ferocious battle with a guerrilla estimated at a thousand strong. An American advisor was killed in that fight and another severely wounded. She came out without a scratch.
The mystique and legend of the Tiger Lady continued to grow long after her untimely death. She was a warrior bigger than life and a heroine of unparalleled magnitude. Among the rangers and ranger advisors who served with her, her memory will never die.
This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. VietnamGear.com has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.
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