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Win Last Battle
BACK FROM THE DEAD: Former South Vietnamese commandos (left to right) Sang Xuan Nguyen, Bui Quang Cat, Son Van Ha, and Hoc Van Mai, meet at Mai's San Jose home to discuss the U.S. Senate action granting the commandos $20 million in reparation payments. photo by Vu Van Loc
by Bert Eljera
Back in the summer of 1967, Son Van Ha was an adventurous 19-year-old South Vietnamese Army commando eager to do battle with the North Vietnamese Communists.
He was a member of an elite unit, called spy commandos, trained by the CIA to conduct intelligence and sabotage missions deep into North Vietnam.
On his first mission, however, Ha and his 10-man team, which included two American officers, were captured by the North Vietnamese while gathering information on enemy troop movements near the North Vietnam-Laos border.
For the next 20 years, Ha endured "barbaric" conditions at a North Vietnamese prison. But worst of all, he was declared dead, virtually forgotten by the U.S. government that financed his mission.
Ha was finally released from prison in 1987, 12 years after the Vietnam War ended. Lost, middle-aged, and his parents both dead, Ha wandered about in Ho Chi Minh City until arriving in the United States in 1994.
Now living in Atlanta, Ha, 48, is among 281 former commandos seeking compensation from the U.S. government, which had refused to acknowledge their existence throughout the Vietnam War and for years afterward.
But, a lawsuit in 1986 and recent declassified military documents have uncovered the "Lost Commandos." Last week, in a dramatic move, the U.S. Senate authorized a $20 million reparations program for the commandos.
Using words like "atrocity," "betrayal," and "indefensible" in describing the men's treatment by the U.S. government, the senators voted to provide lump-sum payments of up to $40,000, or $2,000 a year for every year the commando was in prison.
"This conduct [by U.S. government officials] seems to be totally indefensible," said Sen. Alan Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which conducted hearings on the commandos. "I have grave doubts that this money is enough. This conduct is criminal."
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a decorated Vietnam veteran, introduced legislation that would provide the reparation payments. His bill applies specifically to South Vietnamese commandos who infiltrated North Vietnam to gather intelligence and conduct sabotage missions.
Kerry's bill is attached as an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill of 1997, which President Clinton has promised to support. The House of Representatives has yet to approve the bill.
About half of the surviving commandos are already in the United States, said Ha, who was in San Jose last week to meet with former commandos living in the Bay Area. Although more than 80 are still in Vietnam, all commandos and the heirs of those who have died will be eligible for the reparation payments, according to Ha.
"It's not the money that we care about," said Ha, who is general secretary of the Vietnamese Community of Georgia, which assists Vietnamese refugees. "We were written off as dead, but we want the U.S. government to recognize us."
Moreover, Ha said they want the former commandos still in Vietnam and their families to be allowed to immigrate to the United States.
"It's the least the U.S. can do," said Ha, who testified before the U.S. Senate last week. "I'm 48, and I'm probably the youngest. The others are in their 50s and 60s, some in their 70s. We can't get our lives back, but we can regain our honor."
A former U.S. Army intelligence officer has been credited for bringing the plight of the former commandos to public attention in the United States.
Sedgwick Tourison, who served in Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand during the Vietnam War, came back in 1983 to work at the Pentagon as a civilian intelligence officer dealing with POWs and MIAs in Southeast Asia.
The reports of POW sightings led nowhere, but Tourison, who is married to a Vietnamese, kept receiving information about South Vietnamese commandos apparently abandoned after they were captured by the North Vietnamese.
In 1985, he met his first commando: Le Van Ngung, who was captured in 1967, had just arrived in Baltimore. Through Ngung, Tourison met other commandos.
"Neither Ngung nor I had any idea at the time what really happened," Tourison said in a telephone interview last week from his home in Crofton, Md., just outside Annapolis, where he now works as a master jeweler.
"It became a puzzle," he said. "The puzzle was partially solved in 1992 when a top secret history of the commando operations was declassified in a joint decision by the CIA, the defense department, and the department of state."
Tourison worked with the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Prisoners of War and Missing in Action from 1991 to 1993, allowing him the opportunity to review the secret commando program.
From the declassified military documents and interviews with the commandos, Tourison wrote a book, titled Secret Army, Secret War, which was published by the Naval Institute Press in 1995.
"It was obvious that these people should have been compensated and this was something the government has covered up for 30 years," Tourison said. "I believe there was a reason to go to court."
While working with the Select Committee on POWs and MIAs, Tourison met John C. Mattes, a Miami lawyer and staff attorney of the committee.
When their services with the committee ended, Tourison and Mattes decided to work together on behalf of the commandos. Mattes filed a suit for reparations with the U.S. Claims Court in April 1995, and Tourison continued to contact former commandos in the United States, Vietnam, and other countries.
Tourison said that nearly 200 former commandos are living overseas: 190 in the U.S.; one in China; one in Denmark; one in Holland; three in Australia; and one in Thailand. There are 89 left in Vietnam.
In addition, he said he has located 93 widows and heirs of dead commandos. The North Vietnamese government announced in 1995 that they had captured or killed 463 commandos.
Tourison, who testified before the U.S. Senate last week, said that regardless of where the commandos or their heirs are living right now, they are all entitled to compensation.
"It's the right thing to do," Tourison said. "We lied to them."
Mattes said he is confident the U.S. Congress will approve the reparations program. If that happens, the suit with the U.S. Claims Court would be withdrawn.Otherwise, he will pursue the lawsuit, which he claims now has an excellent chance of being decided in his favor, following the Senate action and the release of recent declassified documents.
This month, the Pentagon has released employment records of the commandos, confirming that they were paid salaries and other benefits by the U.S. government, he said.
"The secret was preserved up through 1993," said Mattes, who now practices law in Miami. "The fundamental question for the court is: Will we acknowledge them and their place in history? To acknowledge them is to pay them."
The Pentagon, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the CIA have asked the U.S. Claims Court to dismiss the suit.
It was a similar claim for benefits by a former commando that brought the story of the Vietnamese commandos to public attention in the United States for the first time.
In 1986, Vu Duc Guong, who escaped from a Communist prison in 1980 and made his way to the United States, filed a claim for about $500,000 in back wages and interest with the U.S. Claims Court.
In addition, Guong sought $21 million in damages because the United States was obligated to repatriate him from a North Vietnamese prison and had failed to do so, according to his lawyer, Anthony J. Murray Jr. of Chicago.
But the U.S. Claims Court dismissed the suit, ruling that Goung had participated in an undercover operation sponsored by the U.S. government, and no action can be brought to enforce a secret contract.
The ruling was based on an 1875 U.S. Supreme Court decision that barred the estate of a spy for Abraham Lincoln from collecting payment for work performed during the Civil War.
"Both employer and agent must have understood that the lips of the other were to be forever sealed," the high court ruled.
But Mattes argues that the veil of secrecy has since been lifted because some of the Pentagon documents have been declassified and the fate of the commandos has been published in books and newspaper articles.
Mattes suggests that acknowledging the existence of the commandos would alter the widely accepted view that the U.S. escalated the war as a result of the Gulf of Tonkin incident on Aug. 2, 1964.
North Vietnamese patrol boats allegedly attacked the U.S. destroyer USS Maddox without provocation, leading to the congressional passage of the Tonkin Resolution that allowed then-President Lyndon Johnson to step up American involvement in Vietnam.
Declassified documents now show that South Vietnamese commandos operated in the area under the direction of the Americans.
"The U.S. always want to portray the Vietnam War as a war we were just assisting," Mattes said. "But I'm not here to say what caused what. I only represent the commandos, not interpret history. "I felt there was an injustice to look for [American] POWs and forget those who served with us just because they were Asian," he added.
One commando, Sang Xuan Nguyen, now 61, said he was captured by the North Vietnamese in December 1963, well before the Tonkin incident.
A 28-year-old South Vietnamese Army sergeant at the time, Nguyen said he volunteered for the commando unit because of the extra pay and the prestige of being a member of the elite force.
The commandos were paid three times the amount of ordinary South Vietnamese soldiers. They could wear any military uniform they wished, had no military ranks, and were granted privileges such as chauffeur-driven cars.
Nguyen said the training was secret and rigorous. He said he was trained as a communication expert for nine months before being dropped in North Vietnam as a member of a seven-man intelligence unit.
The unit was captured within a week before it could accomplish its mission, Nguyen said. "It looked like Hanoi knew what was going on," he said. "There was an information leak from the south."
His unit was taken to a local jail in Quang Binh Province, Nguyen said. A military court tried them as traitors, and each was sentenced to 20 years in jail.
Nguyen was released in 1983, but three members of his team died in prison. "It was terrible," Nguyen said through an interpreter. "For the first 10 years, we were never allowed outside for fear that we would escape."
Even after the war ended in 1975, he said they were placed in single cells and shackled. "It was terrible," he said. "The food was not fit for humans."
His family was told he was dead. His four children, including a daughter who was born after his capture in 1963, were all grown up when he returned 20 years later. His wife had remarried.
"I lost everything," said Nguyen, who arrived in the United States just last week and now lives with friends in San Jose.
Ha, Nguyen, and others like them were recruited to join a program dubbed "Operation Plan-34 Alpha," which the CIA began in 1961, according to the declassified documents.
Over the next decade, the CIA spent more than $100 million to train and send about 500 Vietnamese agents to infiltrate North Vietnam, but most ended up in prison camps.
One declassified report contains testimony before the Joint Chiefs of Staff in which those responsible for the plan knew the men were prisoners but decided to tell their families they were killed to reduce program costs.
"We reduced the number [on the payroll] gradually by declaring so many of them dead each month until we had written them off and removed them from the monthly payroll," Marine Col. John J. Windsor testified.
Ha said he himself was declared dead and his parents were paid, although he did not know how much.
"I saw the document with my father's signature on it that said he received my death benefits," said Ha, who was an only child. His parents are now both dead.
But what the Pentagon officials did not anticipate was for many former commandos, such as Ha, to survive the prison camps and make their way to the United States.
"These commandos are no longer young," Tourison said, adding that one commando now living in Stockton is 82 years old. "They cannot wait another 30 years. They need help now."
But some defense officials argue that providing back-pay to the Vietnamese commandos would set a bad precedent. This might open the door for other forces supported by the U.S. government, such as the Contras of Nicaragua and the Cubans in the Bay of Pigs, to seek compensation.
In his testimony before the U.S. Senate last week, retired Army Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub, who was a colonel in 1965 headed the defense department unit that wrote off the commandos, said the Vietnamese commandos are not entitled to compensation.
"They were recruited by the Vietnamese," Singlaub said. "We were less than a full partner in this particular operation."
Singlaub said the program was a failure from the start because a spy had infiltrated it and was sending information to the North Vietnamese.
But Mattes and Tourison insist that that was not an excuse to leave the commandos behind and not work for their release when the U.S. signed the agreement with North Vietnam ending the war in 1975.
"We knew exactly what happened to them," Mattes said. "And we lied to their families."
This "betrayal" is the hardest to accept, according to Hoc Van Mai, 55, who is also now a San Jose resident..
"We fought a secret war," said Mai, a logistical officer with the South Vietnamese Army when he joined the commandos in 1963. "We had no name, no fame, and when it was over, we were abandoned."
Mai spent 20 years in a Communist labor camp, escaped in 1982, but was arrested again after trying to organize opposition to the Vietnamese government.
After spending four more years in prison, he escaped again. In 1985, Mai joined the exodus of boat people leaving Vietnam. After one year at a refugee camp in the Philippines, he was admitted into the U.S.
For the past three years, he has been active in rallying support for the commandos. He joined in the class-action suit to force the U.S. government to recognize them.
"We have to raise the issue and tell our story," said Mai, who hosted the meeting last week with Ha and other commandos at his San Jose home.
But telling the story is still an emotional and gut-wrenching experience for most commandos. Many have refused to open up, even to their family members.
Bui Quang Cat, 56, who lives in San Jose with his wife and two children, still finds it difficult to describe the 17 years he spent in a Communist labor camp.
"He does not want his family to know the pain he endured in prison," said Phan Nguyen, a family friend.
With Nguyen interpreting, Bui said he was only 26 years old, a civilian employee of the South Vietnamese Information Ministry, when he was sent as a spy into North Vietnam in 1966. He was captured within a month, after the North Vietnamese were apparently tipped off about his mission.
"I don't mind that I was captured; it was war," Bui said. "But, at least our sacrifices should have been recognized."
For Ha, who now works as a forklift operator in Atlanta, the gung-ho spirit of his youth is all gone. The "barbaric Communist prison has seen to that.
He was captured just a few days after his team was dropped near Laos. His team leader, an American officer, was beaten to death while they were being transported to Hanoi.
Some members of his team were released back in 1973, but he stayed until 1987. Even after the war ended in 1975, he was shackled and kept in solitary confinement.
"If we fought for the honor of the United States, we should be recognized for that," Ha said. "That is the most important, more than the money."
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