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.

          On the ninth day, maybe the 10th--he lost track in the heat--cover jets and a rescue helicopter started circling patterns over the hill, hoping to spot the party. But it seemed to him that every time the aircraft got close, the border patrol hunting Son's men down got closer. At night, they lit what flares they had left to signal their position, but the fires just gave them away and they had to move within minutes. "When there was still hope left," Son says, "we tried to save our strength. When we were hungry or thirsty, we cut banana trees that have juice inside and drank that. Then we put the trunk back, so the Communists couldn't track us. Also we dug in the ground for roots to eat. We survived like that, the way we were taught by the Americans."

          The team split in half, two heading in one direction, Son and the radio operator in the other. At 6:00 in the evening, on the 18th day on the ground, they were captured in an ambush. Son surrendered his AK-47, his Colt pistol, and the few supplies left in his pockets. The next day all four were transported to the capital and locked in two-man holding cells at the prison that came to be known as the Hanoi Hilton, or Hoa Lo, a phrase that in English means big oven. There, in the spring of 1968, after a three-hour trial that ended in a 20-year sentence, Son joined dozens of American POWs and other South Vietnamese commandos who'd been captured as far back as 1961. Two months later, the last of 52 Special Forces teams parachuted into North Vietnam and, upon its immediate capture, the secret army was terminated.

          On that day, over 400 commandos were stranded across the border. No one, even now, knows the exact number. Many had already died in detention, and their graves were never marked or found. In 1969, the Joint Chiefs of Staff commissioned an internal study that listed the fate of nearly every team inserted into the north. It reads like a litany: ATLAS, March '61, 2 KIA, 2 captured. DIDO, June '61, doubled, played (meaning captured and turned as double-agents operating their radios under Hanoi's control). EROS, June '62, doubled, played. EASY, August '63, reinforcement. LOTUS, May '64, captured, tried by NV. SCORPION, BUFFALO, BOONE, captured. HADLEY, January '67, could not locate.... The list also reads like an alarm sounding the program's absolute failure--one which the CIA, the Defense Department, and two American presidents did not heed.

          "Regardless of why it was done, continuing to toss bodies across the border is without a doubt the most callous disregard for human life that happened during the war," says Sedgwick Tourison, author of the 1995 book Secret Army, Secret War, which spells out in detail the only account of the Special Forces operations ever to be published. "The men in charge of this thing were the most morally corrupt group of individuals at the command level," he goes on. "My view is that if they'd only been dealing with American soldiers, they would have been court martialled. The fact that they later deserted these men and left them to die in some godforsaken hell hole only adds another dimension to the whole horror."

          Between 1961 and 1974, Tourison spent eight years in South Vietnam and Laos as the Army's chief interrogation officer, conducting hundreds of interview hours with North Vietnamese POWs in an effort to find out how Hanoi had broken the spy ring almost from day one and why the U.S. military continued a program so fundamentally flawed that those who ran it regarded it at times as laughable--a fatal joke on those who signed up for it. What he learned then, and later from retired U.S. intelligence leaders, is what he now calls "a hard lesson in cynicism, even for a man like me who has seen so much death come from war."

          The horrors of that lesson are in the details. Many of the early Special Forces teams were dropped in the wrong location, way off target, without medical supplies or adequate food, into populated areas, and into the hands of the waiting border patrols. After being "doubled and turned," nearly every imprisoned radio operator was made to send deceptive signals back to headquarters--"all's well, send instructions" or "bridge blown up, recruiting new agents"--none of them true, but in all creating the fictional impression of a network of free agents that the CIA and the Pentagon believed to be operating behind enemy lines. That belief, says Tourison, may have been a convenient justification to keep the secret army funded and its statistics optimistic, and later, to argue in favor of massive escalation after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. But other OPLAN 34-A policies were more bald in their purpose: In 1964 and 1965, 170 American-trained agents whom the U.S. commander in charge viewed as "dirty"--that is, unreliable as spies--were dropped over the border on what were privately intended to be suicide missions. Col. Clyde Russell later reported to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the move was successful, that he did in fact "get rid of them all" and replaced them with new, "cleaner" recruits. Of the 170, all were captured, imprisoned, or executed on the spot. The same fate awaited the "clean" recruits, among them Nguyen Cao Son, over the next three years.

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