U.S. left Vietnam agents for dead Some commandos survived in North, want their back pay

June 09, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Newly declassified government documents prove that the United States, after sending hundreds of Vietnamese commandos into North Vietnam during the 1960s, deliberately declared them dead, lied to their wives and then buried their story under a shroud of secrecy.

Nearly 200 of those secret agents survived capture, torture and prison and are alive in the United States. They are asking the government for back pay -- $2,000 a year, without interest, for their prison time -- and help in getting 88 fellow commandos out of Vietnam.

The documents, stamped "secret" or "top secret," were declassified Wednesday. They show how the United States, after training the commandos and sending them into North Vietnam on sabotage missions, literally wrote the men off, scratching their names one by one from a classified payroll on a regular basis. One document lists 13 of the commandos as dead. Ten of the 13 are alive today.

Other documents greatly exaggerated reports of the deaths of a commando team code-named Scorpion. Radio Hanoi announced -- and the CIA recorded -- that Scorpion's members were captured alive in June 1964. Nonetheless, the U.S. military declared them dead, paid their wives or families a death gratuity of about $4,000 and tried to forget about them.

Commando's point of view

"They didn't want to remember us, because we represent the failure of the United States in Vietnam," said Dang Cong Trinh, the team's deputy commander, who was among those written off as dead. Dang, 52, who survived 15 years of physical and mental torture in prison, now lives near Los Angeles.

The financial records of the doomed covert operation to infiltrate North Vietnam -- known as OPLAN 34-A, launched in 1961 by the CIA and taken over in 1964 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- were declassified at the request of a lawyer, John Mattes, who is seeking $11 million in back pay for the nearly 300 commandos who are alive.

Justice Department, Army and CIA lawyers opposing the request for back pay have called the documents irrelevant.

They argued in a federal claims court Thursday that the request could be rejected because secret contracts for covert operations were unenforceable.

Their legal basis is an 1875 Supreme Court decision, Totten vs. United States, which denied the estate of a Union spy back pay for his Civil War espionage. The court said, "Both employer and agent must have understood that the lips of the other were to be forever sealed."

Senator supports cause

If a contract with the commandos is unenforceable, the breach of faith is unconscionable, said Sen. John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran.

The Massachusetts Democrat said he would ask the Senate Armed Services Committee to find $11 million in the Pentagon's budget for the back pay. "Somewhere out there, there's a golf course that can be sacrificed for principle," he said.

Four years ago, Kerry led a Senate committee that looked into the persistent belief that U.S. soldiers are still being held as prisoners of war in Vietnam. The committee began to uncover the long-buried story of the Vietnamese commandos.

"Those who sent these men on a one-way trip are scared to death of these documents," said Sedgwick Tourison, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who worked for the committee, as did Mattes, the lawyer for the commandos. "If we had done this to Americans, these colonels would have gone to jail."

The military had a range of reasons and rationalizations for its action, some less sensible than others, said Tourison, who wrote a book on the affair, "Secret Army, Secret War." (Naval Institute Press, 1995).

"One, we had fools running our covert operations" in Vietnam in the early 1960s, he said. "Two, we knew they had been captured, and they'd get their money if they ever came back, so if they were declared killed in action, it was no big deal. Three, we needed money for cross-border operations into Laos -- so they killed off people to save money."

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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