Wednesday, March 12, 2008
The Lost Commando
THE LOST COMMANDOS
Recruits of a Top-Secret U.S. Program Are Emerging Years Later From the Shadows of Vietnam
On that issue, the few who have taken up their cause, including two former U.S. Army commanders, believe that the U.S. government has a moral obligation to provide them some back pay and benefits and to speed the emigration of those who remain in Vietnam. But their efforts have not been successful. The United States, which has spent millions of dollars searching Southeast Asia for American prisoners of war and has yet to find one, has done very little to bring back the surviving Vietnamese agents it sent on dangerous missions. According to [Tourison], a former intelligence officer for the Department of Defense, the United States is too embarrassed to admit responsibility for one of the worst covert operations of the war. "The plan to infiltrate the north had long outlived its usefulness, and it was believed by the high command that the operations would not amount to much," he says. "In the end, it was a foolish waste of lives, and bad intelligence. It represented a major underestimation of the enemy, the kind of underestimation we made so many times in Vietnam."
That month, North Vietnamese torpedo boats reportedly attacked two U.S. destroyers in the much-disputed Gulf of Tonkin incident, which some critics say was a ruse used by the United States to escalate the war. President [Lyndon B. Johnson] called the Tonkin incident "unprovoked" aggression and ordered the bombing of North Vietnam-the first step in a massive buildup of U.S. forces. But in the months leading up to the incident, according to the official Navy history, 34A commandos had been conducting coastal raids in the area, raids that the North Vietnamese believed were coordinated by the U.S. destroyers.
Although [Guong Duc Vu] and other commandos have obtained welfare and food stamps after immigrating to the United States, efforts to secure veterans benefits or special priority for those still in refugee camps have failed. Whether they are more deserving than the hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers who have received no special help after being captured by the Communists is debatable. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs usually requires that someone serve in the U.S. armed forces to qualify for benefits. By special acts of Congress, however, Filipinos whose units were under U.S. commanders during World War II qualify for limited veterans benefits. Similarly, free medical services are available to former Polish and Czechoslovakian soldiers who fought on the Allies' side during World War I and II if they have lived in the United States for at least 10 years.
ON THE TRAIN RIDE FROM PRISON, NHI HUNG DINH SAW HIS COUNTRY for the first time in 18 years. He would never forget the view. Rubble, bombed-out buildings and craters scarred the landscape. Conditions were so squalid in Vinh, a major port in the panhandle of northern Vietnam, that he did not want to get off the train to stretch his legs. The people seemed listless, and Dinh spotted pickpockets among the waiting passengers. It was 1982, seven years after the end of the Vietnam War, but much of the city was still in ruin-the target of some of the conflict's heaviest naval and aerial bombardment.
His train headed south across the Demilitarized Zone, which once split Vietnam into two countries, and pulled into Hue. In 1968, the Viet Cong had ushered in Tet, the Asian lunar New Year, by turning this lovely old town of palaces and temples into a bloody battleground. Shell-pocked buildings still lined the streets, and Dinh saw Amerasian youths selling fruits, cookies and black market cigarettes. He wondered who would raise them. Their fathers, American GIs, had left long ago. It was the same all the way to Ho Chi Minh City, which Dinh had known as Saigon.
At the end of the 700-mile journey, he stood in disbelief outside his family's home in the peaceful seaside town of Vung Tau. It was 10 in the evening. More than 20 years before, he had left the house a cocky, hotheaded young man bolstered, he says, by an American military adviser's promise that he would be a hero. Now, Dinh was returning, middle-aged and in ill health. There would be no hero's welcome-no one was expecting him.
The two police officers who had escorted him from prison pounded on the door and announced Dinh's arrival. There was some commotion inside, and Dinh heard members of his family cursing. They refused to open the door. A brother-in-law flatly accused him of being an impostor. His 75-year-old mother was convinced he must be a ghost. "You're dead, son, go on your way, and I will pray for your soul," she said through the door.
There was no reason for her to think otherwise. Almost two decades before, South Vietnamese military officials had told her that Dinh had been killed during a mission. Where, they would not say. It was a secret. After that, the family received death benefits courtesy of the U.S. government. The lump sum amounted to a year of Dinh's pay-about $300.
Not knowing what else to do, Dinh continued to knock on the door and insist that he was who he said he was. "Soul nothing! He's home!" yelled one of the officers. Finally, the bolt slid back, and his mother realized that the man outside was indeed her son. She wept and collapsed in his arms. Dinh sank into a chair, too numb to speak. It had been so long.
Dinh had been a member of Team Romeo, a commando unit of 10 young Vietnamese, trained, paid and commanded by the U.S. government. For almost a decade, beginning in 1961, he and at least 700 men like him, by one estimate, were sent to wage guerrilla warfare in North Vietnam, first by the Central Intelligence Agency and later by the U.S. Army. Those who were not killed were captured and left to languish for decades in Communist prison camps. Now, the survivors are slowly emerging, bringing with them haunting questions about a top-secret operation that U.S. military leaders admit was a debacle and that might have helped trigger the United States' fateful decision in 1964 to dramatically escalate the Vietnam War.
According to the military, former intelligence officials, historians and the commandos themselves, these men were part of a highly classified operation-which came to be called Operation 34A by the military-that continued from 1961 to 1970 despite repeated failures and the doubts of U.S. leaders. Sedgwick Tourison, an investigator for the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs, says that since 1979, hundreds of the former agents and commandos have been released from prison. Many have made their way to the homes of astonished relatives in Vietnam who had been told years before that their loved ones had perished. Between 50 and 60 former commandos are thought to have fled Vietnam for the United States. The rest remain in Southeast Asian refugee camps or in Vietnam, where they are treated as second-class citizens.
Their actual numbers are hard to determine. Much of the documentation about the operations remains secret in military record centers, and what has been declassified provides only a glimpse of what happened to them. In an attempt to locate American MIAs in Vietnam, Tourison says that during the mid- to late 1980s he interviewed nearly all the former commandos living in the United States. From those and other interviews he estimates that 400 to 450 CIA and military operatives, out of a total of about 700, are still living. Dale Andrade, a historian for the government's Center for Military History in Washington, says his best estimate is that 200 to 300 men participated in the 34A part of the operation.
But if the numbers are open to question, the disastrous outcome is not. "It was not worth the effort at all, in my appraisal," retired U.S. Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. ground forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, says of the program. "It was just not productive. We grew skeptical of the teams and skeptical of the intelligence they produced. Not much was contributed to the war effort."
The cost of that failure has been borne by the commandos for years. Imprisoned for war crimes, they endured psychological torture, malnutrition, isolation and living conditions designed to break their spirits or kill them. In refugee camps, they watched as other South Vietnamese who had only spent a couple of years in re-education camps were allowed to emigrate long before they were. Those who came to the United States have had difficulty adapting to the culture. Some still eat only one small meal a day-their prison regimen is hard to shake-and many suffer from medical problems. A few have found meaningful work, but many now live on welfare or the generosity of friends, family or their former comrades. All have sacrificed their youth, and betrayal is a common word among them.
The United States did little, if anything, to seek the commandos' release from prison during the Paris peace talks in 1973 and has not given them veterans benefits for their service. "There is no question who we are," says Ngung Van Le, a former commando who spent almost 17 years in prison and immigrated to Baltimore in 1985. "We fought for our country, but from my standpoint, the United States must do more than just turn its back on us."
On that issue, the few who have taken up their cause, including two former U.S. Army commanders, believe that the U.S. government has a moral obligation to provide them some back pay and benefits and to speed the emigration of those who remain in Vietnam. But their efforts have not been successful. The United States, which has spent millions of dollars searching Southeast Asia for American prisoners of war and has yet to find one, has done very little to bring back the surviving Vietnamese agents it sent on dangerous missions. According to Tourison, a former intelligence officer for the Department of Defense, the United States is too embarrassed to admit responsibility for one of the worst covert operations of the war. "The plan to infiltrate the north had long outlived its usefulness, and it was believed by the high command that the operations would not amount to much," he says. "In the end, it was a foolish waste of lives, and bad intelligence. It represented a major underestimation of the enemy, the kind of underestimation we made so many times in Vietnam."
FEB. 4, 1967, WAS NGUNG VAN LE'S 23RD BIRTHDAY. THAT day, North Vietnamese soldiers surrounded Le's position and beat him with their rifle butts. It was just as well, he says. Torrential rain, a lack of food and fighting through dense jungle in a desperate run for the Laotian border had left the members of Team Hadley too tired to resist. Like so many other 34A missions before, the operation had gone badly. The enemy spotted Team Hadley's helicopters as the unit crossed into North Vietnam. Within 10 days, the North Vietnamese had captured the whole team.
Told by South Vietnamese officials that Le was dead, his parents held a memorial service. But their son was alive hundreds of miles to the north, where he would spend 16 years in prison, convicted of espionage by the North Vietnamese government, then another six months in jail for trying to escape from Vietnam after his release from custody.
Incarceration in such prisons as Pho Lu, Thanh Tri and Phong Quang took its toll. Le was forced to do manual labor all day, eating little more than six ounces of grain cereal. "There was nothing to eat for breakfast. You might get a potato or a piece of turnip once in a while. The barley was hard to digest and hurt your intestines," Le says in Vietnamese. "In time, the slightest amount of work became excruciatingly painful."
Human waste filled the compound and barracks, where there was no running water. Visiting nurses often wore face masks, he says, because the stench permeated everything. Disease was rampant among the prisoners. Despite the horrors of his imprisonment, Le refused to be re-educated, although it might have meant being released. "I resisted and many, many times I was shackled and put in isolation." In 1973, when his captors refused to release him and other prisoners after the Paris peace talks, Le organized a hunger strike. He spent six months in solitary confinement and lost almost half his body weight of 135 pounds. But he survived. "What I could not do was sink down to the level of my captors," he says. "I had to maintain my own honor. If I did not, I would become no better than they were."
In 1976, almost 10 years after his capture, authorities allowed prisoners to write letters home, and Le's family learned that he was alive. "If it is true," his mother and father wrote back skeptically, "you will never believe how overjoyed we are." They asked Le to tell them things only they would know. In his return letter, he reminded them of things he did as a child. Convinced that he was their son, Le's parents took down the picture of him they had placed in a shrine at home for deceased relatives.
Le completed his prison term in 1982 and was paroled. After repeated attempts, he escaped to Malaysia in 1984 and spent a year in refugee camps before the United Nations helped him immigrate to the United States. "I know of four commandos who have been in refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia for almost two years," Le says. "They are not missing in action. It is very discouraging to know that no one really cares."
THE OPERATION REFERRED TO IN MILITARY PARLANCE AS "34 Alpha" originated in 1961 as a highly touted secret CIA program to organize armed resistance in North Vietnam. U.S. covert operations had actually begun there after the Geneva Conference in 1954, which divided the country into two nations. A handful of CIA operatives formed squads of anti-Communist Vietnamese to organize guerrillas, abduct and assassinate Communist officials, set up espionage networks and distribute propaganda. But the agents had difficulty eluding the Communist control structure, a tightly knit web of local cadres and informers that pervaded the country. Few of the CIA teams survived, and the effort ended in failure by the late 1950s.
According to a section on undercover activities in the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department's controversial account of the Vietnam War, the CIA renewed its covert operations several years later, when President John F. Kennedy called for a campaign of clandestine warfare in North Vietnam and Laos. Former CIA Director William E. Colby, then chief of the agency's Far Eastern division, started the new program in 1961.
Hung Quoc Tran was one of the first recruits. In the late 1950s, he quit his job as manager of the family jewelry store in Saigon. Channeled through the South Vietnamese military, Tran says, he eventually came under the tutelage of three American CIA officers. In 1961, Tran says, the CIA gave him the code name "Columbus." His orders were to recruit North Vietnamese citizens sympathetic to South Vietnam as spies and to deliver a series of secret messages to anti-Communists in Hanoi. A CIA trawler dropped him along the North Vietnamese coast in May, 1961, and Tran made his way to Hanoi posing as a student. He delivered the first message but the next evening he discovered he was being followed by North Vietnamese security. He was stunned they were on to him so quickly. He managed to drop off another letter to the rebels, but one day in June, police walked up to him on the street, arrested him and took him to Hoa Lo, later known as the Hanoi Hilton.
According to Colby, now 72 and still working as a lawyer in Washington, other agents were equally ineffective. The North Vietnamese captured almost all the operatives and penetrated the program with their own agents. According to recently declassified North Vietnamese records, 34 agents from 17 CIA teams were killed, and about 140 operatives were captured in 1963 alone. Many of those captured were coerced into working for the enemy; those who were not often ended up in showcase trials in Hanoi.
Despite the difficulties, U.S. leaders reorganized the operation a third time and continued it under the aegis of the military. In January, 1964, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff officially began 34A, a more ambitious program of covert operations in North Vietnam. Missions were cleared by the secret 303 Committee, headed by National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy and staffed with senior CIA, Pentagon and State Department officials. Day-to-day operations were taken away from the CIA and delegated to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, Studies and Observation Group, a branch of the U.S. Army that oversaw all types of covert activity.
According to the official history of the U.S. Navy, the groundwork for turning such covert operations over to the military had been laid on Nov. 20, 1963, when Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara ordered a program for large-scale, covert actions against North Vietnam. At the time, Colby says, he tried to warn U.S. commanders that the operation would not work. He noted the CIA's failures in Vietnam and argued that similar CIA operations in China and Korea in the late 1940s and early 1950s had not been effective. "It was my contention (that we should) phase it down," Colby says. "But the military brass wanted to continue. They had a can-do attitude."
Garbed in black pajamas and camouflage and armed with Swedish submachine guns, pistols and grenades, individual agents and teams were to infiltrate the north by helicopter or small boat. As in the previous CIA missions, recruits were mostly natives of North Vietnam, young men, full of bravado and eager to do something for their country. Once they were trained, military records show, the United States sent them into North Vietnam to organize resistance, raid naval installations, monitor the movement of enemy supplies and troops and blow up bridges and power plants. Teams were assigned to missions lasting a few days to years. According to the Pentagon Papers, McNamara, in a December, 1963, memo to President Lyndon B. Johnson, called the proposal for Operation 34A an "excellent job . . . presenting a wide variety of . . . operations against North Vietnam." U.S. Army Gens. Earl Wheeler and Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed. By June, 1964, however, the first indications of failure surfaced when, according to the official history of the Navy, a series of raids along the North Vietnamese coast produced little except considerable dissatisfaction from ranking commanders: U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge said it "might be good training, but we're certainly having no effect on Hanoi." Westmoreland, who eventually became the army's chief of staff, expressed his doubts by July, 1964. Finally, in August, McNamara himself became worried.
That month, North Vietnamese torpedo boats reportedly attacked two U.S. destroyers in the much-disputed Gulf of Tonkin incident, which some critics say was a ruse used by the United States to escalate the war. President Johnson called the Tonkin incident "unprovoked" aggression and ordered the bombing of North Vietnam-the first step in a massive buildup of U.S. forces. But in the months leading up to the incident, according to the official Navy history, 34A commandos had been conducting coastal raids in the area, raids that the North Vietnamese believed were coordinated by the U.S. destroyers.
Despite the indications that 34A was failing, the operation continued as the Vietnam War broadened and American troops poured into the country. Westmoreland says he was briefed from time to time on the operation, but it became a low priority because his attention was directed toward the buildup of U.S. forces. Some of the program's more immediate commanders, such as Col. Donald Blackburn, now a retired general living in Florida, say that they, too, had doubts but continued to send in teams. Blackburn also says he changed the role of some teams to reconnaissance missions that lasted no more than a week.
By 1968, the last 34A team had been sent into North Vietnam; according to Tourison it was dropped by mistake on top of an enemy anti-aircraft installation. Two years later, the teams had all been killed or captured, or were working for the enemy. "The Vietnamese were helpful and brave, but it just did not work," Colby says. "I tried to turn it off after a year or two. Yet, the military wanted to make a fresh start. I don't think they were very effective. But in war, you try everything you can."
SINCE HIS YOUTH IN NORTH VIETNAM, NHI HUNG DINH says, he wanted to avenge his father and other political dissidents who had been forced to flee to South Vietnam because of political persecution by the Communists. His anti-Marxist fervor, he recalls, attracted the attention of a Catholic priest who helped recruit him for covert operations when he was 18.
"I liked the glamorous side of espionage," Dinh, who once fancied himself as a Humphrey Bogart, says in Vietnamese. "I saw it was different from what other people did. I thought the military would be too ordinary, but this would allow traveling here and there, and you'd always be able to have a gun on you."
Sitting in his cramped Huntington Beach apartment recently, Dinh remembers the assurances his American military advisers gave him during training. " `Everywhere you are, there we will be,' " he quotes them as saying. "We didn't see them anywhere."
Dinh's first mission as a 34A commando was on Nov. 19, 1965. It was his last. Team Romeo's choppers flew into North Vietnam. The plan was to stay two years, conducting reconnaissance and sabotage. Instead, the commandos were lost in the jungle for six weeks after being dropped off at the wrong place. Border defense forces finally ambushed the team the first week of January, 1966.
Romeo's members were first sent to prison in Quang Binh, where each commando was put into an underground cell. "A grave for the living," Dinh calls the cells. After nine months, he was transferred to another prison in Thanh Tri near Hanoi and spent a year in solitary confinement. A daily bowl of rice barely kept him alive. On the day of his release in 1982, authorities gave him 20 dong, worth about 2 cents. He says he spent it all on noodle soup at the first food stand he came to. The peddler dished out the portion into a tub instead of a bowl. There was so much, he says, he asked his police escorts to help him eat it.
When he returned home, he found not only his family waiting, but also his fiancee, Bay Nguyen. "His mother told me that he had died," Nguyen says. "But I continued to think that he was still alive." On their wedding night, six months later, she learned for the first time what he had been through. She cried over the scars his shackles had deeply etched around his wrists and ankles. "He told us about how they had stomped on his stomach and about how everyone had open sores from lice in the camps," she says. "There are still scars all over his body."
By 1990, Dinh had managed to get himself and his family to the United States under a U.S. resettlement program for political prisoners, but not before he served three more years for trying to escape from Vietnam. Dinh, 54, and his family now live with another Vietnamese family in a $450-a-month two-bedroom apartment. They get $770 a month in welfare and food stamps. He shares his bed with his wife and their two sons, Anh Hong, 6, and Quan Hong, 4. Dinh, whose injuries left him with chronic fatigue and an inability to concentrate, cannot work.
"Now, I think that I as an individual was so insignificant," he says. "The Americans abandoned an entire government, (so) what am I? I just want people to understand it wasn't as if I was sweet-talked into this. I went into North Vietnam because of my country. Now, I can only live from day to day."
A year after Dinh was captured, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. John K. Singlaub, then a colonel, assumed command of the unit that oversaw 34A missions. Singlaub, who later funneled arms to the Nicaraguan Contras and remains an anti-Communist activist in Alexandria, Va., says that a short while after he took command he became convinced that most of his teams in North Vietnam had been "rolled up by Communist security." In many cases, radio operators were broken under torture and forced to act as double agents. They lured other 34A teams into ambushes and repeatedly ordered airdrops of U.S. equipment the North Vietnamese could use. Retired U.S. Army Col. Fred Caristo, who helped run 34A missions as a captain, remembers one radioman ordering 30 pistols and silencers, 200 cartons of Salem cigarettes, 20 Seiko watches and dozens of pairs of paratrooper boots. "I mean we're talking about some real goodies," says Caristo, who now lives in Woodbridge, Va.
The operation soon emphasized ferreting out double agents and team members who worked for the enemy. Supplies were booby-trapped and teams were lured into position for airstrikes. Yet, in a still-classified report, Singlaub says now, he concluded that the Communist network of informers made it extremely difficult to establish covert operations. "It was not completely futile," Singlaub says, "but from the standpoint of achieving its original goals it was. It was compromised to the extent that it could not achieve those goals."
In retrospect, Dale Andrade, who had some expertise in covert operations during the Vietnam War, contends that U.S. leaders did not take the operation seriously enough. "What makes the tragedy greater," he says, "is that we relied on an operation like this, when we could not think of anything better to do. To the Vietnamese it was very patriotic. But when you read the Pentagon Papers, it is clear that our leaders didn't think it would work very well. The South Vietnamese didn't realize the doubts the Americans had. In that sense, it is tragic."
THE CAPTURED CIA AND 34A COMMANDOS ENDED UP IN RE-EDUCAtion camps and prisons ranging from the infamous Hanoi Hilton to squalid facilities of barbed wire and thatched huts in the countryside. Dinh and Le say they saw scores of 34A commandos and CIA operatives in prison, and many of them died of malnutrition, dysentery, malaria and tropical parasites. Prisoners deemed incorrigible were put into isolation cells for months.
But in late 1972, as the Paris peace talks convened, clothing and food improved for the captured commandos. Word spread among them that all prisoners of war would be released under the emerging treaty. On Jan. 27, 1973, the cease-fire agreement was signed by the United States, South Vietnam and North Vietnam, calling for the return of prisoners of war within 60 days. Although almost 600 U.S. POWs were released, the commandos-some of whom had been in the same prisons as the Americans-were not. In protest, scores of them staged a series of hunger strikes that were mercilessly broken up by prison guards armed with clubs and dogs.
At the negotiating table in Paris, the United States might not have been in any position to ask for the release of the commandos. "How could you ask for them?" Andrade asks. "These were not supposed to be United States teams, and you would not want to disclose your collusion in a secret operation. Even if we were involved in the training and the missions, it was (South Vietnamese) President Nguyen Van Thieu's job to ask for them."
Apparently, the South Vietnamese leader was prepared to ask but did not. According to a former South Vietnamese army colonel now living in Orange County who asked that his name not be used, a list of more than 100 captured South Vietnamese commandos and operatives was supposed to be discussed during the talks. The colonel said that he had participated in preparations for the Paris peace talks and knew of the list of POWs. Thieu, he says, ordered it stricken from the discussions, fearing that the commandos would organize an uprising against his government upon their return. Thieu's whereabouts are unknown.
Tourison, who is writing a book on the commandos, says there is strong evidence that the United States knew the commandos were alive yet did not negotiate for their release. Trials of many of the men were written about by North Vietnamese newspapers or broadcast on their radio networks, he says. Caristo, too, recalls that there were broadcasts about surviving commandos after their families had been paid death benefits. But to his knowledge, he says, the surviving families were never told of the news. "Our intelligence operation failed, and we lied to their families, " Tourison says. "When we had a chance to get them out, we did not take it."
John Madison, now a retired U.S. Army colonel, who headed a U.S. delegation sent to Vietnam to assure the return of American prisoners of war, says he does not recall that the commandos were ever mentioned to him nor was his delegation instructed to inquire about them. The responsibility, he says, rested with the South Vietnamese government, but he does not recall the South Vietnamese talking about them either. Retired U.S. Army Col. Harry G. Summers Jr., a member of the same delegation, says the commandos should have been repatriated under the peace treaty's broad language related to prisoners of war. "They should have been included, but I am not sure their names were brought up by us or anyone else," says Summers, now editor of Vietnam magazine. "Trying them for war crimes or espionage could have been a way the North Vietnamese were able to hang on to them. If anyone is to blame, they are."
SEVEN YEARS AFTER THE Paris peace talks, Guong Duc Vu, now 54, was among the first commandos to escape from prison and make it to the United States. For 10 years, he has lived with his wife, mother and three children in a roach-infested, two-room flat in Chicago that is bare except for a bed salvaged from the garbage and a shelf of religious icons.
Vu was a member of a commando team sent on raids along the North Vietnamese coast. His first three missions had to be aborted. On his fourth and final raid in March, 1964, Vu was captured after his team could not find the patrol craft it was supposed to sink. "We were trying to find another target when some other boats came into view," Vu recalls. "Their guns opened fire. One of our men was killed and another was hit." After a month on the run, he and another team member were captured while they were trying to walk back to South Vietnam.
For 16 years, Vu lived in a filthy thatched prison hut and supplemented his daily ration of barley with snakes, cockroaches and mice. When that wasn't enough, he cinched banana leaves around his midsection to relieve the hunger pangs.
Vu says that in 1980 he was transferred to another camp, where prisoners occasionally received temporary passes to visit relatives. After one furlough, Vu did not return, becoming a fugitive and risking a longer prison term. He joined the exodus of more than a million Vietnamese who left the impoverished nation by boat or dangerous overland routes to reach U.N. refugee camps. Some drowned as overcrowded vessels capsized in heavy seas. Others simply vanished on jungle trails.
"Over there, life had nowhere to go. Here we have freedom," says Vu, speaking in Vietnamese. "My family was reunited only because of God. I never believed we would be back together."
He and his family have tried to be optimistic. He no longer faces the risk of recapture, the prospect of more years in prison or the stigma of an espionage conviction that would keep him from getting work in Vietnam. But lately they have had a string of misfortune. Vu was laid off from his job as a carpenter a few months ago, and his youngest son is a hemophiliac. "We're so weary of everything now," Vu says. "We just want to be left in peace to live day to day."
Although Vu and other commandos have obtained welfare and food stamps after immigrating to the United States, efforts to secure veterans benefits or special priority for those still in refugee camps have failed. Whether they are more deserving than the hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers who have received no special help after being captured by the Communists is debatable. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs usually requires that someone serve in the U.S. armed forces to qualify for benefits. By special acts of Congress, however, Filipinos whose units were under U.S. commanders during World War II qualify for limited veterans benefits. Similarly, free medical services are available to former Polish and Czechoslovakian soldiers who fought on the Allies' side during World War I and II if they have lived in the United States for at least 10 years.
Changing the qualifications for veterans benefits is a complicated process, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Exceptions can only be made by act of Congress. "It is quite an effort to get things done. In the case of these Vietnamese, they probably aren't qualified for benefits under the current rules," says spokesman William Layer. "Just because our military used segments of a native population for operations, doesn't necessarily qualify them for anything."
But some of the former commandos believe that they should receive benefits because they were trained, controlled and paid by the U.S. government. "Some of these guys spent more than 20 years behind bars. They certainly deserve something for their efforts," Caristo says.
Singlaub looked into the possibility of compensation, but, he says, the government was unable to rationalize helping the commandos unless the same benefits were extended to all former South Vietnamese soldiers in the United States.
"The explanation was that they are in the same position as regular South Vietnamese soldiers," Singlaub says.
"At one time we looked for benefits for these guys, but people want to forget the war," Caristo says. "They are more interested in U.S. MIAs and normalization of relations with Vietnam."
Tourison estimates that as many as 200 commandos have applied to come to the United States through U.S. refugee programs but only three or four have gotten through despite the fact that they spent much more time in prison under harsher conditions than any captured officer from the Republic of Vietnam's defeated army.
"We have been obligated in the past to help U.S. employees whether or not they were American citizens. We have done more for people who have done less for us than these men," Tourison says. "These guys have paid a price that few American prisoners of war have ever paid."
What is being done on their behalf usually takes place on an individual basis outside the realm of government. Commandos lend each other money or pool their resources to fly a family to the United States from Vietnam. Occasionally, Ngung Van Le and others have informed the United Nations of former commandos who have made it to refugee camps. Supporters, like Tourison, have written letters to help them get jobs or welfare benefits.
In 1987, Tourison wrote the state of California to attempt to get $700 a month in disability payments for Tan Van Nguyen, a 34A commando who now lives in San Jose. Nguyen was captured in 1965 and ended up serving almost 20 years of a life sentence. He participated in one of the 1973 hunger strikes and suffered broken bones and crippling internal injuries before he lapsed into unconsciousness for three days. He is unable to work.
Most commandos have tried, however, to make it on their own, reconciled to the fact that not much will be done for them. In 1984, Hung Quoc Tran finally made it to the United States, where his autobiography "Thep Den" ("Black Steel"), written under the pen name Binh Chi Dang, became popular in the Vietnamese immigrant community. A U.S. official, Tran says, questioned him about American POWs who might still be alive in Vietnam. When Tran asked what was being done for the commandos, the official said that they were not the United States' responsibility.
"Before the man left," Tran says, "he gave me a business card and said to contact him if ever I needed help getting a job. I never called him. We don't want to ask for any more help. We survived the prisons, and we can survive here."
Ngung Van Le, now 47, earns a living hand-engraving silver and pewter in Baltimore. Since he came to the United States, he has spent hundreds of hours telling the Defense Department about the Vietnamese prison system. Officials asked if there are American prisoners of war still in Vietnam. Le says he did not see any after the Paris peace accords.
Le, like many of the former commandos, remains a kind of prisoner. He would like to get married, but he has no prospects. Though he used to get carsick when he first came to the United States, his only pride and joy, he says, is a new Toyota Corolla. Home is a tidy basement room rented from a Vietnamese family. On top of the TV is an old photograph of Team Hadley taken a few days before the unit was dropped into North Vietnam. The kitchen is a hot plate, and his few possessions all fit into the 9-by-12-foot space. Ulcers and intestinal problems caused by the prison diet limit Le to one small meal a day.
"There is probably a certain similarity," he says quietly, "to what I have been used to."mandos