Vietnamese commando never knew U.S. declared him dead

Back from the officially dead, Ha Van Son said Wednesday that during nearly 20 years in a North Vietnamese prison he never knew that the United States had declared him killed in action and stopped paying his salary to his family.

Kim Au

During an appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the former commando was shown a document that said, "This payment reflects full settlement of death gratuity and the United States government is hereby released from any future claims arising from this incident."

"This is my father's signature," he said, examining the single sheet of paper.

Son was one of about 500 commandos infiltrated into North Vietnam as part of a disastrous operation throughout the 1960s.

Many of the commandos were killed and nearly all the others were captured and put in prison. Nearly 200 survived and now live in the United States. They have filed suit in the U.S. Court of Claims in an effort to obtain $2,000 each for every year they spent in prison.

The government has asked for dismissal of the suit on the ground it involves a secret contract for a covert operation and therefore is unenforceable in U.S. courts.

However, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said he and other members of Congress who served in Vietnam are filing legislation authorizing the payment to the commandos. The Clinton administration supports the legislation.

"The United States owes these men a debt that can never be repaid," Kerry told the Intelligence Committee.

Kerry quoted a Pentagon memo written in 1969 that referred to the process of "declaring so many of them dead each month until we had written them all off and removed them from the monthly payrolls."

Sedgwick Tourison Jr., author of a book about the commandos, said that the deputy chief of South Vietnamese covert operations was a spy for the Hanoi government and alerted the communists each time a team was sent to North Vietnam.

Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam, asked why U.S. negotiators did not ask for release of the commandos during peace talks with the Vietnamese. The talks resulted in an agreement that eventually led to U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam and the reunification of the country under the Hanoi government.

"He was presumed dead," said retired Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub, who served two years as commander of the group that controlled the secret operation.

"Obviously, the criteria was lower for ARVN (South Vietnamese soldiers) than it was for U.S. soldiers," said Kerrey.

At first, Singlaub said that the U.S. had no obligation for the commandos because they were part of a South Vietnamese operation.

But under questioning by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the general conceded that Son was part of an operation controlled by Americans.

With Singlaub seated immediately to his left at the witness table, Son told the committee, "Some leaders didn't think about the men who fight for the freedom."

Sometimes struggling to make himself understood in English, Son said, "In 1967 after I was captured because two helicopters were shot down, when I was captured I believed the American government will take me out.

"You didn't think about what you do ... How can I tell you right now, I talk about my life with everybody and with senators because I think the United States of America is a good nation."

After his testimony, Son said in an interview that "my father received information from the Americans that I was killed in action."

"All the time I was in prison in North Vietnam my family was my father and my mother. (I believed they) received the money month by month. But in fact, no," he said.

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