US deserted Vietnamese commandos

Newly declassified documents detail how the US military washed its hands of several hundred Vietnamese commandos it sent on a series of abortive sabotage missons in the early years of the Vietnam War. The documents, which the Pentagon fought to keep secret, show that the US literally scratched the names of the men from its payroll lists, stopping payments to families despite evidence showing many were alive in North Vietnamese prisons.

Senator John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, said this week his country should now pay what it owed to nearly 300 surviving commandos. They have brought a law suit seeking back pay of just $2,000 a year, without interest, from the mid-1960s. "It's the wrong thing to deny them the honour they deserve," Senator Kerry said. "This is an important matter of both conscience and common sense for the country. We paid our prisoners, and these men were working for us."

The release of the documents caps a long struggle by the Vietnamese and their American supporters to force the US Government to accept them as living proof of Oplan 34-Alpha, a covert operation launched in 1961. Most now live in the US. But lawyers defending the law suit for the Pentagon insisted as late as last week that secret contracts for covert operations are unenforceable, based on an 1875 Supreme Court ruling which denied back pay to a spy in the American Civil War.

Senator Kerry said he would seek bipartisan support to find $11 million in the US defense budget to meet the commandos' claims. "Somewhere out there, there's a golf course that can be sacrificed for principle," he said.

Oplan 34-A was initiated by William Colby, then the Central Intelligence Agency's Saigon station chief, who later rose to CIA director and died earlier this year. Vietnamese who had fled the communist North were trained in espionage and sabotage and sent back aboard junks, in parachute drops, and coast landings. A secret report on the operation later described their experience as "a one-way street with no hope of return". It appeared almost all were rapidly captured or killed.

US officials rapidly became suspicious that teams were "turned", working for the North Vietnamese to feed false intelligence back to their operators. But trials of others, and their 30-year sentences, were broadcast on Radio Hanoi. In 1964 the US military's Special Operations Group took the operation over from the CIA. It was then that senior officers began going through the list of the missing, the documents suggest, declaring a number of them dead each month. The treatment of the commandos is in striking contrast to the almost obsessive US search for its own men listed as prisoners of war or missing in action.

John Mattes, the Florida attorney representing 281 commandos, says he has compiled a list of about 60 who were once declared dead. "Widows" received death benefits of as little as $200.

As late as 1995, the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service tried to block refugee status for a group of more than 50 of the commandos, who were commonly tortured, served long jail sentences, and lived as pariahs in Vietnam after their release.

Nguyen van Ke was parachuted into a mountainous region of North Vietnam in 1964. He was listed in Defence Department records as captured soon after landing. Now 63 he lives like many of the refugees in Southern California. He told the Los Angeles Times in an interview of 13 years in a Vietnamese jail including torture, beatings, and bouts of solitary confinement. He was reunited with his family on his release in1977, but only managed to reach the US two months ago. "I gave my life for the operation," he said. "Why did America forget us?"

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