Book aims to right wrong done to U.S. allies Secret commandos of Vietnam War given their due

September 19, 1995|By Shirley Leung | Shirley Leung,SUN STAFF

To Sedgwick Tourison, his book about a secret army of commandos in the Vietnam War is an attempt "to correct a grievous wrong 32 years ago."

"It's a story we've covered up for so long. It had to be told," said the 54-year-old Crofton author, who was an interrogator during the war and later an analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). It's not easy, but it's all documented."

Mr. Tourison's book, "Secret Army, Secret War," hit regional book stores this month. The 389-page book, published by the Naval Institute Press, is an exhaustive account of the Central Intelligence Agency's attempt to train South Vietnamese commandos to infiltrate North Vietnam. The effort, called Operation Plan 34-Alpha, failed miserably. Of the 541 agents, 463 were killed, captured or turned into double agents.

The book breaks new ground because it is the first one focused on the Vietnamese commandos, said Dale Andrade, a Vietnam War historian at the Center For Military History in Washington.

Mr. Tourison began work on the book in 1989 at the urging of a former commando he had interviewed while doing research for the DIA.

Mr. Tourison recalled that Le Van Ngung said to him over lunch in Baltimore, "You know what we went through in this operation. Why don't you write a book?"

Mr. Tourison, who is fluent in Vietnamese, had just left his job with the federal agency and was helping his wife, Ping, run a jewelry store in Annapolis. He already had written one book on interrogation in South Vietnam, "Talking with Victor Charlie," and had met former commandos through his work at the DIA.

He began tracking down about 290 surviving agents -- many of whom had been captured or been double agents -- and interviewed nearly half of them. He also interviewed Army and CIA officers and bolstered their accounts with recently declassified government documents about the operation.

In 1961, the Pentagon began recruiting young men through Roman Catholic clergymen in Vietnam, training them and sending them north. By 1968, nearly all of the commandos had been lost. Their families were told they had died.

"They knew too much . . . so we had to get rid of them," Mr. Tourison said. "We sent them to North Vietnam with no real mission. We tried to kill our own friends."

Mr. Tourison blames U.S. leaders for the disastrous operation and for the war.

"We failed to ask the tough questions -- if an all-out war was necessary. And, having failed to consider that, failed to work on alternatives," he said. "Our national leaders failed."

The book is just part of Mr. Tourison's efforts to tell the story of the Vietnamese commandos. In April, he helped the commandos bring a class action suit against the U.S. government in an effort to gain compensation for their work decades ago.

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