IN 1973, as word of the Paris Peace talks reached an isolated prisoner-of-war camp deep in the jungle of North Vietnam, Huu Nguyen was ecstatic. As a covert agent for the United States Army in 1964, he'd been parachuted into enemy territory, captured, convicted of treason, beaten, thrown into solitary confinement for 11 months, then moved among hard-labor camps for the next seven years.
Finally, he thought, an end was in sight. But days went by, then weeks and months. Rumors spread that the American POWs had all been released.
''We didn't understand why we were still being held,'' he says through an interpreter at his Brooklyn home in New York.
Nguyen tried to find out. For his efforts, he was beaten and put in shackles for the next eight months. He then languished another 10 years in prison.
''Ultimately you're confronted with the fundamental fact that American military leaders deserted their own men and left an army behind in prisoner-of-war camps,'' says John Mattes, an attorney representing Nguyen and 281 other agents. ''The very worst nightmare that America had about Vietnam was true: We left our men behind.''
Their story is now emerging as yet another dark chapter in the Vietnam War. Nguyen is one of more than 500 Vietnamese nationals who were contracted first by the CIA and then the Defense Department to infiltrate North Vietnam, starting in 1961. They made up a secret army that was recruited, paid, then abandoned by the US government. They are now engaged in another battle: the fight for recognition.
Last April, a group of ex-commandos filed suit in the US Court of Federal Claims seeking recognition and $11 million in back pay. The Justice Department is fighting the suit, contending there is no record of any contract and no obligation to provide back pay.
''This case is treated like any other case,'' says John Erickson, trial attorney for the Justice Department. ''If there's an obligation, we pay. If we don't perceive one, we litigate. That's our obligation to the American people.''
Supporters of the commandos say there's a deeper motive behind the US government's refusal to acknowledge the secret warriors: fear of confirming the covert operation's failure and its role in escalating the war.
''This was the great secret that no one wanted to get out: We killed our friends, abandoned them, and lied to their wives about it,'' says Sedgwick (Wick) Tourison, a former defense-intelligence officer who has written about the former commandos.
His book, ''Secret Army, Secret War'' (Naval Institute Press, 1995), tells of the covert operations and is based on hundreds of documents declassified in 1992. He also interviewed dozens of former American and Vietnamese military officials, as well as many of the surviving commandos.
The story that emerges is a grim one. In 1961, the CIA began recruiting South Vietnamese nationals in what was dubbed Operation Plan 34-Alpha. Many, like Huu Nguyen, were from Roman Catholic families that migrated from the North during the mid-1950s to escape the encroaching Communist rule. The CIA trained them in reconnaissance, radio operations, sabotage, and psychological warfare. They were divided into teams and parachuted into North Vietnam.
''Between February 1961 and December 1963, the CIA lost over 200 agents,'' Mr. Tourison says. ''They all went into North Vietnam and never came back.'' In fact, many teams found North Vietnamese soldiers waiting for them on the ground in what were supposed to be secret, isolated jungle target areas.
Despite the program's evident failure, Tourison says, political pressure from then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara kept it alive. He reportedly convinced President Lyndon Johnson that this covert operation was the ''magic bullet'' that would persuade the North to ''rethink'' its plans to infiltrate the South. So the operation continued, although it was transferred from the CIA to the Defense Department.
As the losses continued to mount, Tourison says, so did the economic cost of the program. By 1966, it was becoming burdensome to pay the captured commandos' wives and families. Army officials devised a simple solution. According to secret testimony before the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1969, the Army simply told the commandos' families that they were dead.
''We reduced the number on the payroll gradually by declaring so many of them dead each month until we had written them all off and removed them from the monthly payroll,'' Marine Col. John Windsor testified in the documents that were declassified in 1992.
In another chapter, Tourison tells of the 13 teams sent into North Vietnam simply to ''get rid of them.'' US Army Col. Clyde Russell had taken over the program in 1964. He believed the Vietnamese agents he inherited were unreliable. So, according to the declassified documents, he sent 169 of them on what Tourison calls ''one-way missions'' to the North.
''The original assets we had in this effort were not capable of going anywhere, and we had to get rid of them,'' Colonel Russell testified. ''At the same time, we couldn't turn them loose in South Vietnam because they'd been briefed and rebriefed on operations in North Vietnam. Our solution was to put them in the North.'' He noted that he believed most had surrendered upon arriving in enemy territory.
In fact, according to Tourison, only one of the 13 teams surrendered. The rest fought and were killed in combat, executed, or taken prisoner.
''So those that Colonel Russell felt were such cowards, I think performed very well in the most hazardous missions of the Vietnam War,'' Tourison says.
This summer, an explanation appeared for the operation's dismal record. A former South Vietnamese lieutenant colonel admitted that he was a double agent. He had betrayed the details of each mission before it left the South. The North Vietnamese also took over the radio communications of six captured teams and used them to feed misinformation to the American intelligence agencies.
''They were used in a 10-year deception operation against the United States to make total, utter fools of us,'' Tourison says. ''People don't want to have that rubbed in their face.''
Mr. Erickson, the Justice Department's attorney, denies that.
''This case is about whether these individuals have a contract with the United States pursuant to which they are owed money,'' says Erickson. ''Not all this other stuff about who was forgotten.''
Erickson insists there is no declassified record of any contract with the 281 former commandos who are suing. But he also acknowledges that it was a covert operation and it is unlikely the commandos would have ''taped copies [of their contracts] to their sleeves'' before going on missions.
Mr. Mattes, the commandos' attorney, insists there are 53 boxes of classified documents in the National Archive that contain the commandos' payroll records and, he believes, their contracts. He also relies on the memories of former US Army officers who worked with the commandos.
''It seems to me that maybe the Justice Department is hiding behind semantics here,'' says Brig. Gen. George Gaspard (ret.), who took over the program in 1968. He remembers the agents signing contracts designating to whom to send their pay and, if necessary, their death benefits.
North Vietnam began releasing the the surviving commandos in the early 1980s. Like Huu Nguyen, many managed to come to the US because they already had family here. But at least 60 others were denied entry by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), in part because the Defense Department said there was no record that they had worked for the US.
Last spring, the US Ambassador to Thailand urged the State Department and the INS to reconsider their cases. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a former POW, added his voice to the commandos' cause. Since then, 32 have been cleared for emigration and, Mattes believes, the rest will soon follow.
The INS's recognition is the first step in bringing an end to the commandos' ordeal. It may also help bring a clearer understanding of the war, which might have been quite different, if Operation Plan 34-A had never begun.
On Aug. 1, 1964, a group of maritime commandos was in the Gulf of Tonkin running raids against the North Vietnamese. The next day, the North attacked the USS Maddox.
That assault, which was portrayed to the United States public as unprovoked, was used to justify a massive escalation of the war and, eventually, the death of 57,000 Americans.