Former Commandos Win Compensation


A group of 300 former Vietnamese commandos who fought in a CIA-sponsored secret army during the 1960s and were left to languish in enemy prisons will receive $40,000 each from the U.S. government.

The legislation, part of the Defense Department budget approved by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton this week, seeks to compensate the commandos for the years they spent incarcerated and to atone for the conduct of former U.S. officials who left the soldiers behind.

Secret documents declassified earlier this year at the request of The Times showed that U.S. officials wrote off the commandos as dead even though they knew from various sources that many were alive in Vietnamese prisons.


The men were captured while taking part in Operation 34-Alpha, a CIA-sponsored program aimed at destabilizing Communist North Vietnam. Many of the soldiers were tortured while in prison for 15 to 20 years, and some never made it out.

The documents show that U.S. officials lied to the soldiers’ wives, paid them tiny “Death Gratuities” and washed their hands of the matter.

Vietnam began releasing them from prison in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and most have made their way to the United States. The largest group lives in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

Some former commandos in Southern California expressed bittersweet thanks for the payments, which they are expected to receive within 18 months. Relatives of those who have died since their release also will get the money.

Most said they did not care much for the funds, but were glad that their sufferings had finally been recognized.

“Money is not our main concern--it is nothing compared to what happened to us,” said Hoang Van Thai, 66, who spent 17 years in prison and lives in Westminster. “What really matters is the recognition. For the first time, the government concedes that we exist.”


The legislation compensating the commandos grew out of a Senate hearing earlier this year in which several senators expressed shock and revulsion at the conduct of former U.S. officials. The hearings were prompted by news reports of the commandos’ plight.

The legislation, buried deep in the Pentagon’s budget for the coming year, was sponsored by U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a decorated Vietnam veteran.

James Fetig, a White House spokesman, said he hoped the legislation would help heal some old wounds.

“We felt there was a moral obligation,” Fetig said. “These people were left behind. The U.S. promised to support them, and we want to make good on that promise--however belatedly.”

The legislation preempts a lawsuit the commandos had filed with the U.S. Claims Court in Washington. John Mattes, the attorney representing the commandos, said he would keep the claim active until all the commandos are paid.

“We consider the signing of this legislation to be the end of the CIA’s 30-year cover-up,” Mattes said. In the suit, the commandos were seeking $2,000 for each year they spent in prison. The CIA and the Pentagon were contesting the claim.


“The Department of Defense will actively be implementing these provisions,” Pentagon spokeswoman Susan Hansen said.

The commandos alleged that when they signed up for the missions in the early 1960s, they signed contracts with American officials guaranteeing that their families would continue to be paid if they were captured. The practice is standard with American soldiers taken prisoner in wartime.

The missions were a disaster. Few of the men ever returned safely, and many were killed. Many others were taken prisoner.

Recently declassified documents painted a disturbing picture of what happened next.

Intercepted enemy radio broadcasts showed that some of the commandos had been sent to prison after they were captured. A U.S. military study undertaken in 1970 showed that American officials believed many of the commandos were alive in prison.

Yet instead of getting the men out, U.S. officials declared them dead. Rosters released this year show “KIA” notations penciled in next to their names. KIA is military parlance for “Killed in Action.”

The documents also show that after a commando was declared dead, a one-time payment of a few hundred dollars, called a “Death Gratuity” was usually given to the commando’s family.


Many of the wives, now in Southern California, recalled a soldier informing them that their husband had been killed.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, who headed the unit that wrote off the commandos, told senators earlier this year that “we assumed” the commandos had been killed. Neither Singlaub nor other officials have been disciplined.

The legislation passed this week also provides compensation for a small group of commandos who fought in a similar operation called 35-Alpha.

Life has been harsh for many of the commandos since their release. Most bear scars from their captivity, when they were routinely beaten and shackled. Many are ill: Thai, for instance, has been found to have stomach cancer and has been told he has a year left to live.

The families of many of the commandos are still in Vietnam.

Au Duong Qui, who spent 16 years in prison, said vivid nightmares of his captivity often wake him at night.

“I’m still afraid,” said Qui, who lives in Westminster.

Tan Huu Nguyen was 19 when he volunteered for the secret army. He spent 17 years in prison. Nguyen recalled Thursday the feelings of many commandos when they realized they had been left behind.


“We always thought: ‘They will get us out,’ ” Nguyen said. “Then, after many years, we finally accepted that the Americans were not going to save us. It was very sad.”