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.

          "Okay, so American commanders in charge of this didn't get it, or they didn't want to get it: The secret army was a bust from the start," Tourison says of the whole program. "Captured agents, in prison and controlled by Hanoi, were sending back counterfeit messages. Nobody knew what was real and what was fake. So what does the U.S. military do? It sends in reinforcements, more fresh teams, more disposable Asian bodies. What they didn't know, or didn't care to know, was that there was a mole in the system alerting the North Vietnamese about the exact time and location of every drop. The border patrol practically rolled out the red carpet to greet these guys. It was a mess. And no one stopped it. We were just stumbling around, thinking we were smarter than these guys up north because they wore rubber sandals and pissed on the bark of a tree. We screwed up. And that screw-up, which was criminal and morally beyond the pale, is what made the war unwinnable: We were too busy screwing our own friends to win. Nguyen Cao Son spent 14 years hard time, maximum security, beaten, starved, because of that mistake."

          When I ask Son whether he'd been told by his American trainers what happened to previous Special Forces teams, he shakes his head. He turns to our interpreter and begins speaking rapidly in Vietnamese. He says, Henry Mai tells me, that many teams went before, but no one ever told him where they went. Or when they went. Or if they returned. He says that at Hoa Lo he did not see any other commando, only American pilots who were shot down. He says he would see them when the guards came and took him for interrogation. He says that later, in the worst years, he was with the other commandos--up to the end. He says it is a miracle he has survived this. Son shifts his position on the couch, causing the hem of his trousers to ride up his ankle and expose the old scars. "It is a miracle," he says then, in broken English. "A miracle for me to be alive. A miracle. I think it is a miracle."

          In 1970, Son was transferred from Hoa Lo to Camp #1, Pho Lu prison, in a northern province along the Chinese border. Within a year, nearly all the captured commandos were concentrated there and in two other state-controlled camps. By 1972 the Special Forces POW count at Pho Lu had swelled to 167. It was also in 1970 that, according to Tourison, all key documents surrounding the secret army--payroll records, death gratuity receipts, funding ledgers that decades later would implicate the U.S. government in a massive cover-up of the program--were gathered into boxes labeled TOP SECRET TIGER and stored in locked safes, where they were soon forgotten or alleged to have been destroyed. And with that, all evidence--the bodies of 456 commandos, and the paperwork to track them--vanished.

          Meanwhile, says Son, "the condition at Camp #1 was a terrible thing. To describe this, I can't do it. Then suddenly, I think in 1972, in the early spring, we began to get some food. And cigarettes. And good clothes. We had no newspaper or radio, but the Communists got us together for brainwashing. They said we would soon be released. This was like playing a game." Outside the prison, the war had come to a tentative standstill. Rumors of a permanent cease-fire started hitting the press and President Nixon, in that election year, issued the promise of a conditional American "withdrawal with honor" from Southeast Asia. In November, peace talks in Paris sketched out a cease-fire plan calling for the exchange and repatriation of all prisoners of war. Son believes that this agreement, signed into effect on January 27, 1973, was responsible for the improvement in conditions that soon took place at Pho Lu--the luxury of cigarettes, the cloth they were given to sew into clothing, the fattening up of starving prisoners.

          In the wake of the Paris Peace Accords, thousands of POWs changed hands and returned home. American prisoners held at Hoa Lo and other camps in the north were turned over to U.S. envoys at Hanoi and shipped out to the Philippines, the last of them on April 1, 1973. Many had been held in close quarters, even sharing cell blocks, with Special Forces agents. But if anyone reported those left behind to American negotiators, the reports were ignored. In April, a priority list of Americans and foreign nationals still unaccounted for was submitted to the North Vietnamese government. Not one commando's name showed up on that list, or on any subsequent list. Neither the South Vietnamese nor the U.S. government, who employed the Special Forces POWs and knew that most were still alive, ever bargained for their release.

          "During that time," Son says, "we waited and waited. I see now that I was betrayed. But then I didn't know. We expected to be free. We thought maybe they didn't reach an agreement yet. So we waited. And then we waited. And then we saw that this hope was gone." In June of that year, realizing that the priority list didn't include them, the Special Forces inmates organized a hunger strike that sent the prison security onto high alert. Back-up guards unleashed attack dogs into the barracks and beat the protesters into unconsciousness with their assault rifles. In a matter of days, some were shackled together into makeshift chain gangs and some were thrown into isolation cells. The strike leaders were interrogated and tortured. Soon after, the Hanoi regime ordered the prisoners at Pho Lu scattered into a series of camps still under construction--camps that would operate at maximum capacity, in secret, for the next 15 years.

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