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Pay Demand Sheds Light on ‘Lost Commandos’ of Secret Vietnam War

April 23, 1995

In 1959, the United States began a covert intelligence and sabotage campaign inside North Vietnam with young men recruited mostly in South Vietnam. In the next 10 years, many wound up as prisoners of war.

To help conceal the effort, U.S. officials eventually halted payment to the families of captured Vietnamese commandos, claiming they were dead, according to recently declassified documents.

Some of these POWs languished in prison for decades, then made their way to the United States only to discover the government they served refused to admit they exist.

Now a lawsuit to be filed in Washington on Monday is demanding that recognition in the form of back pay for 281 surviving commandos.

``We left them. Then we swept it under the rug,″ says Miami lawyer John Mattes, who’s filing the claim. ``Everyone hoped they would die off.″

The State Department has said it would help them obtain visas, but Mattes said the pleas for back pay _ amounting to only $2,000 a year each _ were ignored by the CIA and Defense Department. That led to the lawsuit.

Spokesmen for the two agencies did not return calls from The Associated Press.

Details of the operation _ so sensitive it was financed first by the CIA and then secretly through the Joint Chiefs of Staff _ have emerged from a recently declassified 1970 summary. The secret war was called OPLAN 34A under the CIA and changed to MACSOG (Military Assistance Command-Studies and Observations Group) when the military took over in 1964.

Beginning in 1959, long before the United States officially geared up for the Vietnam War, military authorities were recruiting Vietnamese citizens, many out of high school, for the secret operations.

Teams of commandos of up to 10 members were formed ``to execute special operations or unconventional warfare missions″ on enemy territory, according to the summary quoted in the lawsuit. Each team received a code name, such as Ares, Tellus or Swan.

Some sailed into North Vietnam in junks specially built to resemble native craft. Others parachuted from planes with special fuel tanks for long-range flights, or landed by helicopter.

``These aircraft operated all the way to vicinity of the NVN-Chinese border,″ according to the MACSOG summary.

But the results were disastrous. Not a single commando was recovered from North Vietnam, the summary says. The operation was finally terminated in 1969.

``It was a one-way street,″ Mattes said. ``Send in another team, send in another team, send in another team _ they never came out.″

Mai Van Hoc and Ngo Phong Hai, who now live in the San Jose, Calif., area, were typical. Their team was dropped close to the Chinese border to gather intelligence, but was quickly spotted. They radioed in some troop movements while calling for an immediate pickup. North Vietnamese troops arrived first.

Four commandos were killed in the firefight. One was executed later. Hai and Hoc were taken prisoner.

When they were finally released and reached the United States, they were stunned to hear from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service that no record of their wartime service existed.

``We had no name, no fame. We didn’t expect that,″ said Hoc. ``But when it was over, we were abandoned.″

Other commandos filing claims include frogmen teams engaged in sabotage on islands in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Their secret activities _ rather than unprovoked aggression _ apparently led to the North Vietnamese attack on the U.S. destroyer Maddox in the 1964 incident that sparked a massive U.S. escalation of the war.

``We believe that present OPLAN 34A activities are beginning to rattle Hanoi, and Maddox incident is directly related to their efforts to resist these activities,″ then U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk cabled at the time.

To downplay the secret war, the United States and its South Vietnamese allies decided to stop paying families of captured Vietnamese commandos the same $100 a month received by relatives of American POWs.

The release of the MACSOG documents has prompted some former commanders to say it’s time for the United States to take responsibility for the secret commandos.

Brig. Gen. George W. Gaspard Jr. is one. As a major, he commanded one section of the secret operations in 1967, flying teams into North Vietnam by helicopter.

He has written U.S. Ambassador David Lambertson in Thailand asking that 50 commandos still stuck in Vietnam be given visas to the United States. And he supports their efforts to obtain back pay.

He speaks, he said, on behalf of ``those of us who recruited, trained and placed these patriots in jeopardy during covert operations.″