They say they are the lost patrols of America’s war in Vietnam: more than 50 Vietnamese commandos who worked in secret behind enemy lines for the CIA and the U.S. military.
The commandos and more than 400 of their fellow spies were captured and imprisoned in the 1960s, government records show. They survived for decades in forced-labor camps. Now they want to leave Vietnam, where they are reviled as traitors, and come to the United States.
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service does not believe their stories and has rejected their applications.
But recently declassified, 25-year-old Pentagon reports strongly support their claims. So does the man who was the Defense Intelligence Agency’s top analyst on prisoners of war in Vietnam. Now the U.S. ambassador in Thailand has taken up the lost commandos’ cause.
In a cable sent from Bangkok last month and distributed widely throughout the nation’s intelligence agencies, the ambassador, David F. Lambertson, said the former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, Sedgwick Tourison, has presented “specific and detailed information” showing that the Vietnamese commandos were “U.S. contract employees and that, prior to their capture, they were paid with appropriated U.S. government funds.”
Lambertson, who was a foreign service officer in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968, said the Immigration and Naturalization Service should reconsider its rejection of the pleas for refugee status. The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok has long handled Vietnamese immigration and refugee issues.
“We believe they qualify, based on their associations with U.S. policies and programs and serving long incarcerations,” said the cable from the ambassador.
It said the Vietnamese commandos were captured “while engaging in U.S.-directed missions to collect intelligence, conduct military and psychological operations, or to render assistance to downed American air crews.”
A spokesman for the INS said Thursday night that he was unable to answer any questions.
As the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon approaches, old wounds are being reopened for many Vietnamese. None will be more painful than the lost commandos’s story, said Tourison, chief of analysis of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s special office for POW-MIA affairs in the 1980s and a principal author of the final report of the Senate Select Committee on Prisoners of War/ Missing in Action in 1993.
“There is no doubt in my mind that these agents are who they claim to be, that they undertook the missions they say they did and that we, the United States government, have known their fates since the mid-1960s,” Tourison said in an interview. His book on the commandos, “Secret Army, Secret War,” will be published in August by Naval Institute Press.
The former investigative counsel for the Senate committee on prisoners of war, John Mattes, is preparing to file a suit in federal court seeking the captured commandos’ back pay.