LEFT FOR DEAD

Nguyen Cao Son and his fellow South Vietnamese soldiers were part of a secret U.S. spy commando force--so secret, in fact, that the American government turned its back and let him spend 14 years in North Vietnamese prison camps.

          his is the nightmare, according to the man who still dreams it. The cell is dark. No shadows. The air feels like ice. The cement floor is hard against his hip bones, which jut from his withered body. It hurts to cough. It hurts to move. He's been here for three years, in the same position--knees up against his chest, arms around his legs, head down, half squatting, half paralyzed, trying not to think. The iron shackles driven into his legs seem by now part of his own body. In time his skin has healed around the contraption. Once, sometimes twice a day, he leans over to eat a bowl of rice with his fingers. It tastes like nothing. He first has the nightmare while he is still living it, in the Quyet Tien prison camp in North Vietnam, in the spring of 1975. The Americans have gone home, or so the guard tells him. Saigon has fallen. The war is over.

          Two decades later, Nguyen Cao Son is sitting on the couch in his small St. Paul apartment, knees up against his chest, arms around his legs, head down, telling the nightmare of his imprisonment as a POW from 1968 until 1982. Fourteen years. When Son looks up, the afternoon light coming in through the west window causes him to squint. His voice shakes and stops. Henry Mai, the interpreter seated between us, casts around for words to make sense of the scene in a language Son barely speaks or follows. In this dream, Mai tells me, the prisoner is starving. He is being kept in what is known as the dark room. His memory of this time is not clear--he has what you might call black holes in his mind. What happens next? The guard comes. Son is in the corner, under a thin blanket, sleeping. Because his body has become so shrunken, so small for a man, the guard can't see its shape and calls for help, thinking the prisoner has escaped. When the other guard comes, the two pull off the blanket and find him there. They lift him up, but he is too weak even to stand. So he kneels.

          The prison we are talking about no longer exists, the way Alcatraz or Dachau no longer exist. True, remnants of the walls of Quyet Tien are still there, and the guard towers, the fences, the interrogation rooms--but the grounds are vacant, and the POWs who were kept there during and long after the war in Southeast Asia are gone now, dead or, like Son, living the time again in memory. His story is an extraordinary one, shared by nearly 500 of his fellow South Vietnamese who were recruited to carry out covert spy missions during the war--first, beginning in 1960, by the Central Intelligence Agency, and then, from early 1964 on, by Defense Department officers under direction of the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department, and the White House: men, shadow figures, who directed and trained the Special Forces teams that made commando raids into the north. Men whose names Son still doesn't know.

          The teams' purpose, spelled out in recently declassified documents at the National Archives in Washington, was to conduct the war's most top-secret operations across the 17th Parallel: sabotage, surveillance, psychological harassment, raids. Between 1961 and 1968, 456 of these commandos were sent on what were later understood to be one-way missions. Without exception, they were captured soon after they hit the ground, most of them to be tried in public on espionage charges in Hanoi and sentenced to death or imprisonment with hard labor. Nearly 400 of them actually survived up to 27 years in prison camps before being freed as late as 1988--15 years after the Paris Peace Accords, 13 years after the fall of Saigon. As Son found out soon after his release, no one in the American government, his employer, ever mentioned the Special Forces captives during the peace talks. Not once.

          Instead they were left behind, ignored and eventually forgotten, to endure solitary confinement, malnourishment, malaria, shackling, and frequent rounds of torture in an archipelago of North Vietnamese detention camps. Like Son, those who did live through it were finally freed to a world into which their country no longer existed. Some went back home to find that their parents had died years ago, their wives had remarried, and their children, in at least one commando's case, believed them to be ghosts.

          Others left by boat to refugee camps in Thailand or Malaysia, only to have their applications for asylum denied by U.S. immigration workers on the grounds that their stories weren't "credible," that "no prior association with the United States has been proved." The State Department, they were told, could supply no evidence of their military service, no proof that they were ever trained for any covert operations run by the American government before or during the war. Officially, they had been disappeared from history.

          What Son and his fellow commandos also learned was that soon after their trials, which were broadcast on Radio Hanoi and monitored by American agents in Saigon, they were routinely written off as dead in the military ledgers--an exercise one researcher recently called "U.S. officials at the highest levels abandoning their own soldiers by killing them off on paper." In fact, Washington knew that every single Special Forces team dropped into the north had been captured and that hundreds of soldiers were still alive. At a private hearing in 1969, the American officer in charge of secret operations in Saigon told the Joint Chiefs of Staff that "we reduced the number... gradually by declaring so many of them dead each month until we had written them off and removed them from the monthly payroll." In keeping with this policy, the commandos' families were paid what was called a "death gratuity," often amounting to little more than $200 and delivered with condolences from the U.S. military. Son's father carried a photograph of his son to a Buddhist temple in Saigon and left it there, on the altar, in memory of his dead.

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