Newly declassified documents that the Pentagon has been fighting to keep secret suggest that the U.S. government wrote off as dead scores of South Vietnamese commandos who fought in a CIA-sponsored clandestine army, even though many of the soldiers were believed to be alive in Communist prisons.
Many of the commandos now live in Southern California, and served long prison terms in North Vietnamese prisons. The documents seem to buttress their contention that the U.S. government left them to languish in prison when the United States arranged for the release of U.S. and other POWs at the conclusion of the war.
The commandos, in a case now pending in U.S. Claims Court in Washington, are demanding $11 million in back pay that they say the U.S. military guaranteed their families if they were captured.
The documents, contained in 53 boxes in the National Archives, show that several commandos were declared dead and that their families were given about $200 at the time of their supposed deaths. Yet other documents show that the military and CIA had information that many of the commandos in fact were not dead and had been captured alive and sentenced to long prison terms.
"The U.S. government killed these men off," said John Mattes, a former counsel to the Senate Select Committee on POW and MIA Affairs who is now the commandos' lawyer. "They were left behind to rot in prison."
Lawyers for the U.S. government have declined to comment on the case, and the U.S. is refusing to pay the commandos' claim. The lawyers have cited a Civil War-era case holding that contracts with secret agents are unenforceable in court.
Of the 281 commandos Mattes is representing in the lawsuit, he said he has so far identified about 60, including a dozen or so in Los Angeles and Orange counties, who were once declared dead and are now living in the United States. Many of the commandos were released from prison in the late 1970s and early '80s and gradually immigrated to the United States over a decade or more.
Mattes is continuing his review of the documents to see how many more of his clients fall into this category.
The commandos were part of a secret operation, called 34-Alpha, that was launched by the CIA in the early 1960s, during the first years of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Under U.S. military direction, about 500 commandos parachuted or waded ashore in North Vietnam to stir up local resistance, sabotage military targets and gather intelligence. Many were captured; many others were killed.
The commandos' claim has attracted the support of several notable Vietnam veterans, including retired Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. troops in Vietnam through much of the 1960s.
Last week, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a decorated Vietnam veteran, said he planned to introduce a bill in Congress to compensate the former commandos, who are asking for $2,000 for each year they spent in prison, the amount they say they were promised.
"It's a matter of conscience and common sense," Kerry's spokesman, Michael Meehan, said.
The documents released last week show that the United States declared dead or missing several commandos who later turned up alive. The death records are among the 200,000 or so pages of records released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from the commandos' lawyers and The Times.
Many of the documents are marked "Death Gratuity," and record small payments made to family members.
When matched with other U.S. documents, they suggest that the United States had reason to believe that some of the commandos it had declared dead people were alive.
Nguyen Van Ke said he was recruited onto a 34-Alpha team in 1962. He and five other members of his squad, called Atilla, parachuted into the mountains of Nghe An Province in North Vietnam on April 25, 1964.
Documents released last week in Washington show that Nguyen was declared dead or missing in 1965. The documents show that his wife, Nguyen Thi Luu, received a death benefit of about $200.
Yet other documents indicate that the United States had evidence that Nguyen Van Ke was alive.
A 1970 report undertaken by the Defense Department to account for the teams lists Team Atilla as "captured soon after landing."
And transcripts of a 1964 Radio Hanoi broadcast report Nguyen as captured, arrested and tried.
Nguyen, now 63, lives in La Puente. He says he was captured shortly after landing and that he was tried by a North Vietnamese court for treason. He was imprisoned for 13 years.
Released in 1977, and under house arrest until 1981, Nguyen reunited with his family in Vietnam, and they emigrated to the United States two months ago.
"My wife thought I was dead," Nguyen said in an interview at his home Saturday. "We were tortured often in prison: They kicked us, beat us and put us in a dark room for long periods."
Nguyen said he suffers recurrent nightmares from his years in prison.
"I gave my life for the operation," Nguyen said. "Why did America forget us?"