BANGKOK, Thailand — Le Ngoc Diep sat on a hard bench at the refugee reception center in Bangkok's international airport Thursday, a small paper flag in his hand.
It was the Stars and Stripes, and Diep had never seen it before. It was the flag his father had fought for, but Diep knew nothing of him, just that "he was an army man."
Diep is 22, and his dark skin and curly black hair are evidence that his father was a black American, one of those who served in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, before the big U.S. buildup began.
The evidence was sufficient for the young man to be certified an Amerasian by U.S. and Vietnamese officials, and on Thursday he joined 65 other Amerasians on the first step of a journey to America under a newly revived refugee program.
William A. Brown, the U.S. ambassador here, welcomed the arrivals, some in Western dress, others in Vietnamese garb, all wearing a name tag.
"This is going to be a very exciting New Year," the ambassador said.
The Amerasian airlift consisted of four flights from Ho Chi Minh City--Saigon, it used to be called--that brought the 66 Amerasians, 91 accompanying family members and 226 other Vietnamese refugees bound for placement in the United States.
It was the largest single day's departure of Amerasians in more than a year, according to Elizabeth Berube, deputy director of the Orderly Departure Program. From Oct. 1, 1986, to Sept. 30, 1987, only 97 Amerasians left Vietnam as the program faltered amid disputes between Washington and Hanoi.
The Orderly Departure Program, which involves Amerasians and other Vietnamese refugees as well, was revived last summer. Interviewing of applicants, which had been blocked by the Vietnamese side in January, 1986, was resumed in September under a streamlined format that sends officials of the U.S. State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service into Ho Chi Minh City to conduct interviews formerly done by third parties.
"This is faster," Berube said. "This way you're not working from a file. You have the people directly in front of you."
The Amerasians are easily identified by their coloring and facial features, but the problem in the past has been screening Vietnamese who claim to be related to the Amerasians--mothers, grandparents and stepbrothers and stepsisters. Under the new system, Berube said, "you look, you see if they act like a family unit."
Dent Being Made
The renewed effort on refugees, which accompanied improved U.S.-Vietnamese relations on the issue of American servicemen missing in action and other humanitarian concerns, has begun to make a dent in the hundreds of thousands of case files that once filled 500 four-drawer cabinets in the Orderly Departure Program's Bangkok offices.
Since 1979, when the program was set up under United Nations auspices to provide an alternative to the harrowing flight of Vietnamese refugees by sea, about 130,000 Vietnamese have been resettled in Western countries, nearly half of them in the United States.
Those accepted by the United States include more than 3,800 Amerasians and 5,000 members of their families. Estimates of how many of the Amerasians remain in Vietnam range from 8,000 to 16,000.
"Nobody has a handle on it," Berube said, "least of all the Vietnamese."
The Reagan Administration has said it will accept all the Amerasians left behind by U.S. servicemen and civilians who served in the Vietnam War. Few are expected to be reunited with their fathers. Rarely does the mother have any documentation of the father's identity, usually just a remembered name or branch of the service, sometimes a photo.
Many of those who arrived in Bangkok on Thursday were abandoned as children and raised in foster homes. Pham Hung Huy, 15, whose Caucasian features probably made him a social outcast in Vietnam, sat nervously beside his mother, Pham Thi Tri. They alone of the family had chosen to go to America. The father, she said, was a man named Cooper. Whatever she knew of him a decade and a half ago, she knew nothing more now.
Huynh Thi Nguyet, a pretty, 21-year-old Amerasian and now a mother herself, knew even less. She said her father, her child's grandfather, was named Louie.
Diep, whose calm brown eyes could not hide his anxiety about the future, knew only that he, like the others, will soon leave Bangkok for the Philippines, where they will spend up to six months at a refugee center in Bataan province learning English and American customs. There sponsors will be arranged, usually families or religious organizations, to provide a home in the United States.
It will be a long trip. In Diep's lap, beside the U.S. flag, lay a copy of a book entitled "This is America," a history and description of his new home. It was in English, and Diep could not read a word of it.