Years Later, a Suicide Appears Tied to a Campaign of Terror
American and South Vietnamese flags fly during a commemoration for the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, in Westminster, Calif., on April 30, 2015. (Matt Masin/The Orange County Register via AP)
The official explanation is simple.
On a March morning in 1988, Pham Dang Cuong had stopped his car on an elevated highway not far from Houston’s shimmering downtown office towers. Then the 47-year-old Vietnamese refugee jumped.
The impact crushed his skull, killing him.
At the morgue, the county medical examiner documented Cuong’s injuries in a brief four-page report and quickly ruled the death a suicide. And with that, case ML88–1700 was closed.
For nearly three decades the true circumstances of Cuong’s demise have largely remained shrouded, discussed in whispers by his friends and confidants. His widow, Pham Trang, has spent the past 28 years “trying to figure out what happened.”
Cuong’s family, remembers Trang, now 73, told her not to ask too many questions about the tragedy. “They said, ‘We can’t protect you.’”
The reality is that Cuong’s death might well have been connected to a string of terrorist incidents that tore through the Vietnamese-American community during the 1980s, a grisly crime wave that stretched from one coast to the other, killing at least seven people. Most of the attacks targeted the emerging Vietnamese-American press.
Cuong was likely one of the casualties.
After training at a U.S. flight school in Florida, Cuong spent the Vietnam War stationed at a base outside of Saigon, flying sorties for the South Vietnamese air force; his plane was the F–5 fighter, a sleek Northrop-built jet equipped with missiles, two machine gun cannons, and engines capable of speeds of more than 900 miles per hour.
When Communist forces seized control of South Vietnam in 1975, Cuong, a lieutenant colonel, left the country by boat, making his way to the U.S. and eventually settling in Houston.
He found a job as a machinist and moved his family into a small brick house not far from Bellaire Boulevard, a commercial strip dotted with Vietnamese restaurants and coffee shops.
During the 1980s, Cuong reconnected with old friends from his days in the service. He joined an association of former airmen and began working on behalf of the association’s quarterly magazine, Ly Tuong or Ideal.
Staffed by volunteers and mailed out to former South Vietnamese air force members around the world, Ideal featured mostly first-person aviation tales and remembrances of the war.
Then in early 1988 the magazine received a lengthy essay by a Dallas man named Dao Vu Anh Hung. It was clear to the six members of Ideal’s editorial team, which included Cuong, that the piece would be controversial; still, after much discussion and a vote, the team decided to run it.
Hung’s essay ripped into the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, a militant organization focused on toppling the Communist government in Hanoi through guerilla struggle. The Front, or Mat Tran, as it was known in Vietnamese, had established a camp in the forests of Thailand and built a small army of a few hundred soldiers, most recruited from refugee camps. But the group publicly boasted of much grander achievements, claiming to have a fighting force of 10,000 troops operating from a secret base located within the borders of Vietnam. The outlandish claims paid financial dividends: federal agents came to believe the group was pulling in millions of dollars in donations from supporters, as well as revenue from a chain of pho restaurants and other businesses, FBI documents show.
For many in the Vietnamese diaspora, the Front, which maintained a headquarters in San Jose, California, and local chapters across the U.S., was a noxious outfit. They saw it as sort of paramilitary cult led by a handful of messianic and manipulative aging war heroes.
Hung had been an early and devoted member of the group. Now his essay – framed as an open letter to a top Front leader – challenged the Front with the zeal of a true believer turned apostate. He said the organization was constructed on a foundation of “deceit” and “tricks and lies” and “duplicity.”
Perhaps most damaging, he went after Front officials for allegedly embezzling donations made to the group, accusing them of “keeping the load of money people donated to the Resistance through all these years.”
These were dangerous words.
Since the early 1980s, the Front’s critics had faced violent reprisals. In 1982, the publisher of a Vietnamese-language newspaper in Orange County was physically attacked twice after running articles challenging the Front. Days later, in Houston, Nguyen Dam Phong, was shot seven times with a .45 caliber handgun; the attack left him lying dead in the driveway of his suburban home. As the publisher of a bi-weekly newspaper called Freedom, Dam Phong was one of the most prominent opponents of the Front, and his assassination had been preceded by a series of threats from Front members demanding that he stop publishing articles criticizing the organization.
The intimidation drove at least one writer to quit the paper. “They said they would kill us,” recalled Nguyen Ngoc Phach. “They didn’t want us writing about the Front.”
Over the course of the decade the body count climbed.
In California, an activist and writer who condemned the Front in print barely survived an assassination attempt that left bullet holes in his head. In a Vietnamese-American enclave in Virginia, two staffers at a magazine opposed to the Front were murdered in less than a year.
Last November, ProPublica and FRONTLINE jointly produced Terror in Little Saigon, a film and print collaboration. FBI documents obtained by ProPublica and FRONTLINE and used in that collaboration detailed more than two dozen violent crimes and terror offenses potentially linked to the Front. The bureau, stymied by a paucity of hard evidence, closed its investigation during the 1990s. To this day the federal government has not prosecuted anyone for any of the assassinations or attempted murders.
Cuong’s encounter with the Front came midstream in this torrent of violence.
In the days after the essay had run, his disposition turned gloomy. Cuong had always been quiet – during the war he’d rarely shared tales from the cockpit with his family – but now he was nearly silent. And his skin looked pallid, ashen. His wife Trang was worried.
“He went to see a doctor. The doctor said he was depressed,” she recalled.
But Trang didn’t know what had propelled him into that dark place – and she had few opportunities to figure it out. Cuong had taken a job as a security guard for Aramco, a Saudi-based oil company with facilities scattered around Houston. He worked nights.
Trang, meanwhile, worked two day jobs. The couple, who were raising three children, barely saw each other.
“He didn’t tell me anything before he died,” Trang said.
Across town, Dang Van Au knew exactly what Cuong was going through.
A former C–130 cargo plane pilot, Au was the pugnacious editor of Ideal. He and Cuong had been friends since their days in Vietnam.
Cuong told Au he was disturbed by malicious rumors that had begun circulating through the Vietnamese-American community. According to the gossip, Cuong and his colleagues at Ideal were members of a Communist sleeper cell who had published the essay as part of a nefarious plot orchestrated by the Hanoi government.
According to Au at one point someone broke into Trang and Cuong’s house looking for evidence of the plot.
Another old air force colleague said the intruder discovered a routine letter sent to Cuong from a sister back in Vietnam and used it claim that Cuong was in league with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. “They condemned him as a Communist,” said Nguyen Tien Thanh, a former fighter pilot and lieutenant commander. “It wasn’t true. I knew him well.”
Trang says she wasn’t aware of these incidents at the time – perhaps because Cuong was trying to shield her from the ugliness – but she eventually came to the suspect the Front had been harassing her husband.
“He was worried and upset,” remembered Au, who is now 76 and favors crisp business shirts and slacks. “I said, ‘Don’t be scared Cuong, they can’t do anything to you.’ But he was worried about his reputation. He hated being labeled a Communist.”
To understand the gravity of the slur, you have to recall the calamitous circumstances that brought hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees to the U.S. during the 1970s and ’80s. Most of those refugees had been citizens of South Vietnam – formally the Republic of Vietnam – and vast numbers of them were jailed and tortured by the Communist government established by Ho Chi Minh, while nearly all lost friends and family members in the fighting against the Viet Cong and other Communist forces.
Predictably, this tragic history cast a long shadow. In the Vietnamese-American community, a person who was labeled a Communist might well be treated as a pariah and shunned by his or her peers. As historian Roy Vu writes, even today, decades after the end of the Cold War, “political red-baiting and intolerance for those who do not espouse rigid anticommunist views” are widespread within the diaspora.
In recent years Houston politician Al Hoang sued a Vietnamese-language magazine for calling him a Communist in print; an Orange County newspaper in Little Saigon successfully sued a rival publication on similar grounds; and the Washington state Supreme Court ruled on a case in which one Vietnamese-American man portrayed another as a Communist agent in the ethnic press and on social media.
After Ideal published the controversial essay, Front representatives contacted Au. He says they demanded that he turn over all remaining copies of Ideal to them to be destroyed. He refused. He hadn’t made the perilous journey to America only to be censored by his fellow refugees.
Cuong wasn’t the only the person who came under attack. Threatening callers had made it a habit of calling the president of the air force association over and over at night as he tried to sleep. The author of the essay, Hung, got threats as well, according to Au.
Au says he received more than a hundred calls. Some of the callers promised to harm his family. “They said they knew where my wife was working,” he remembered. “They said they knew what school my kid was attending. They used dirty words.”
He assumed the calls were coming from Front members, but, in those pre-caller ID days he couldn’t be sure; the domestic terror campaign, Au thought, certainly seemed to fit with what he’d heard about the organization’s iron fist M.O.
Since then, new details about the Front’s viciousness have emerged. Do Bach Tho was a devoted Front soldier, joining the organization’s guerrilla army in 1982 after escaping from Vietnam. In a recent interview, Tho said he witnessed the execution of two of his fellow fighters at Front’s base in Thailand. Front commanders ordered the executions after the men committed minor infractions of Front rules, he said. One of the victims, Tho recalled, was killed for stealing sugar and coffee from an officer’s tent.
“I didn’t agree with the punishment,” he said. The men were tied to trees and shot 18 times each.
FBI documents recently obtained by ProPublica under the Freedom of Information Act tell a similar tale. A Front defector contacted FBI agents in Hawaii in 1986 after leaving the base. Front leaders, the man said, had ordered the murder of soldiers deemed to be disloyal, as well as the assassination of two Vietnamese-American journalists.
It’s not clear whether the FBI followed up on the information.
When the Front’s military ambitions failed, it recast itself as a non-violent pro-democracy group called Viet Tan, which continues to operate today. Current Viet Tan officials have vigorously disputed any links to the killing and intimidation of members of the press in the U.S.
The organization did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
As controversy over the essay intensified, the crew at Ideal felt increasingly isolated. Few within the Vietnamese-American community offered any public expression of support for the magazine; outside of the diaspora few journalists were even aware of the conflict.
Front leaders sent a letter to the air force association suggesting the magazine had been infiltrated by “spies and henchmen” acting on behalf of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
With the dispute escalating, Au couldn’t help but notice that his friends had begun to avoid him. “All the airmen stayed away from me,” he remembered. Then Cuong jumped from the overpass.
In a brief report, an investigator with the Harris County Medical Examiner’s office wrote that Cuong was distraught about being “labeled a Communist.” Since he had “fought with the United States in Viet Nam it was very depressing to be called a Communist. There was no other reason for the depression and no other notes or reasons for the suicide were known.” It seems the local authorities didn’t realize he’d been subjected to an apparent campaign of harassment and intimidation.
While FBI agents investigated a long string of crimes linked to the Front, the bureau didn’t spend much time looking into the threats to Ideal, according to bureau documents and interviews with former agents.
As the initial shock of Cuong’s death dissipated, Au walked away from Ideal. He was seething with anger – furious with the Front and its leaders, and bitter that so few people had rallied to the magazine’s defense. He was also unhappy with his old friend. “I was so upset with him for killing himself,” said Au. “We are soldiers. We have to fight.”
At the funeral one of Cuong’s air force buddies read a poem in Vietnamese. One line stands out: You left behind confusion and despair.
That confusion and despair enveloped Trang. “It was very hard after my husband died.” She went into a sort of seclusion. “I didn’t know who was a friend and who was not. I had to protect my children. I didn’t keep in touch with anyone.”
Eventually, Trang left Texas behind, rebuilding her life some 1,500 miles away in Southern California.
But last month you could find her back in Houston on a warm spring day as the thick, moisture-laden air rolled in off the gulf. Trang was visiting Cuong’s grave. It had been exactly 28 years since doctors at Ben Taub Hospital pronounced her husband dead.
For Trang, the case still wasn’t closed.
A note on names: We’ve tried to render names as the people in the story prefer. Vietnamese names are generally given in the Vietnamese fashion: family name first, middle, and given name. For example, Pham Dang Cuong. Vietnamese Americans who typically prefer ordering their names in the opposite way are referred to in that manner.