WATCHING THE conversation between Vietnam's prime minister and President Bush last week, I couldn't help remembering my late father, Pham Van Hoa. Among the discussion between the two former adversaries is the possibility of bringing Vietnamese military officers to the United States to learn about our culture, strategies, and values.
But shouldn't we host officers of the Iraqi Army first?
It wouldn't be the first time Vietnamese military personnel arrived on these shores. In 1957 my father had landed in Texas for flight training with the US Air Force. He was among the first groups of military officers to arrive from South Vietnam. After the French departed Indochina, the United States took over the advisory role to help the South Vietnamese combat a growing insurgency. Five allied officers from Cuba were in my father's class.
For nearly 30 years I wondered about the fate of the foreign pilots of class 59-E. I had a hunch they didn't fare much better than my father, who was incarcerated for more than a decade in prison camps after the US Congress turned its back on South Vietnam. Two of my father's Vietnamese classmates died in the war; the other two joined him in prison.
I finally tracked down the Cubans.
Upon completion of flight training in 1959, my father and his peers returned to Vietnam to take part in their brewing civil war while the Cuban pilots faced their own conflict. Fidel Castro had risen to power so the Cuban fliers fled to Florida. Two years later, a CIA-sponsored group of American and Cuban pilots flew in the Bay of Pigs invasion to support Brigade 2506, made up of some 1,500 Cuban exiles. One of the American pilots was Thomas ''Pete" Ray, an Alabama Air National Guard pilot fully trained on the World War II-era B-26 twin-engine bomber. The CIA could only locate a handful of the B-26s for the Cuban pilots to fly, and it was Ray's job to train them. (Class 59-E was trained on a similar plane.)
Three Cuban pilots from class 59-E took part in the fiasco, and one died -- Crispin L. Garcia. He left behind his young wife, Nora, and son, Frank, in Miami. Ray and the American pilots were only supposed to train the anti-Castro Cubans, but ended up flying on the third and final day of the operation when some of the Cuban pilots became exhausted. Ray was shot down and eventually executed. The CIA covered up his death while Castro kept his body for 18 years.
According to his daughter, Janet Ray Weininger, the Kennedy administration didn't provide much help or any financial compensation. The mission was a political disaster and an embarrassment to the United States. Finally, in 1979, Weininger was able to retrieve Ray's frozen body from the Castro government, and he was finally laid to rest with proper recognition. Garcia's fate would take much longer to uncover.
A few years after Ray's story surfaced in Miami's Little Havana, Frank Garcia approached Janet Weininger for help in locating his father's wreckage. They learned that his plane had crashed in Nicaragua, at another secret CIA base, after a bombing mission over Cuba. He had encountered devastating thunderstorms the night he returned. The CIA and the State Department finally relented, and in 1998, Garcia's remains and those of his co-pilot, Juan de Mata Gonzalez, were finally brought back for proper burial as well.
When I called Frank Gracia last year, he told me that his mother had spoken about her husband befriending a Vietnamese classmate while training in Texas. I wondered if he had been my father. Crispin Garcia and my father did their duty for their countries and they trusted their ally, the United States. Pete Ray believed in his country too. In the end they were betrayed; their families were deceived.
Now talk of exiting the war in Iraq has increased. What will happen to the Iraqis who believed in us? Will we let them down too?
Quang X. Pham is a former Marine pilot and author of ''A Sense of Duty: My Father, My American Journey."