They were the flotsam and jetsam of war, the losers who left home rather than treat with the conquerors - 144,758 of them by latest official count, refugees from Indochina now struggling with a new world..

They have moved to the United States, though they are not Americans yet, not even permanent residents here. "Parolee" is their official status - a vague term that scares many of the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who carry it. Some feel they are "on parole" in United States, potentially subject to involuntary return to the countries they chose to leave.

It was just two years ago yesterday that the Communists marched victoriously into Saigon.

In America they find that most people no longer care about Vietnam. This surprises the refugees; many wonder why the Americans seem so eager to forget the war and the country it was fought for. But then, many of the same Vietnamese were surprised just two years ago, when - in their view - the Americans allowed their side to lose the war.

Among the most surprised were the generals of the South Vietnamese army, many of whom now live in America, a dozen or so in the Washington area. A lot of them live unobtrusively, contact with their countrymen here.

Tran Van Don, a former South Vietnamese general and briefly the minister of defense in the last days of the Saigon regime, explained why some of his former colleagues lie low in America. His explanation came in an ancedote about a recent encounter in a Washington bank.

"The woman working there was Asian," Don recalled, "but she said to me, in English, 'Aren't you Mr. Don?' I said yes. Then, in Vietnamese, she asked me, 'Why did all our generals run away at the end'?"

Tran Van Don a leader of a coup against Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, an elegant, French-speaking officer who is now 59 years old, has a new career; he is the manager and part-owner of a French-Vietnamese restaurant called La Fregate on Florida Avenue in Washington.

He personally greets the clients, telling many of them the same story about La Fregate's history. It takes its name from a restaurant and hotel on the beach at Nhatrang in central Vietnam. The owner of the original Fregate in Vietnam is the chef at the new one here, Mme, Lam Thi Xanh.

Don is one of the successful refugees. Other generals can't find work. At least one minister of the South Vietnamese government is living on welfare, as are about one-third of the Indochinese refugees in the United States, counting those who hold jobs but receive supplementary benefits.

There is no simple way to measure the success of 145,000 Indochinese in America.

Social workers and government officials who are trying to help the Indochinese are not surprised that 35 per cent of them still need some kind of cash assistance. One federal official with refugee experience said that at a comparable stage, the rate among Cuban refugees in Florida was nearer 45 per cent.

One reason for the Indochinese refugees' relative success in adjusting to American society is that they do not represent a cross-section of Indochinese society. Most of the Vietnamese, the dominant group, are Catholics originally from North Vietnam who are fleeing the Communist rule for the second time. Also, nearly half are children.

As a group, the Indochinese, and particularly the Vietnamese, seem to be doing extraordinarily well, given the wrenching dislocations they have survived. Most are working, most are self-supporting, some are already prospering.

But few - except for the children - are being assimilated into the American mainstream, which probably isn't that surprising either. The barriers erected by race, culture and language that divide the Vietnamese from their adopted country are formidible.

The Rev. Tran Duy Nhat, a Catholic priest living in Alexandria, described the psychological tension within Vietnamese who are uncomfortable in America but who cannot imagine returning vietnam. Nhat counsels such people to make a choice and pursue it.

"You can't catch two fish with two hands," he says, quoting a Vietnamese proverb. In other words, the refugees here should use both hands to cope with their new lives in America.

That isn't easy. American habits and customs challenge Vietnamese traditions in painful ways, beginning at the starting point of Vietnamese life, the family. In their former lives Vietnamese took it for granted that the elderly would be venerated, that the entire extended family would live (and multiply) under one roof. All that has changed here.

"The old people have a confused position in the family now," saysLt. Col. Jean A. Sauvageot, an unusual American soldier who spent more than a decade in Vietnam and returned with a Vietnamese wife and her extended family. "They've become more of a burden - relegated to being baby-sitters, isolated, and without the comfort of their families or their contemporaries."

Children - the quickest to learn English and, in many cases, the tricks of American life - have become crucial members of the family. Parents often have to rely on them as guides and interpreters. In Vietnam, Sauvageot pointed out, parents liked to show off their children - and then dismiss them. Here the dismissing is often impossible.

The children's ability to move into American life is simultaneously a source of pride and concern - pride at their accomplishments, concern that they will lose their ties to Vietnam. And inevitably, they will. For example, Vu Thuy Hoang Duc, age 6, no longer realizes that Arlington, Va., is an entirely different place than Saigon.

Young adults have discovered that the extended family under one roof is not necessarily the ideal living arrangement. Some who originally feared living alone in their own apartments have found that privacy and independence can be fun - another source of alarm for their elders.

Life in America has also upset Vietnamese notions about social class. South Vietnam was an elaborately hierarchical society - whose members knew who their inferiors - and superiors - were.

In America the old hierarchy has collapsed to the consternation of some of its beneficiaries. But many simplier folk are delighted. When asked what he likes about America, for instance, a former noncommissioned officer of the South Vietnamese navy replied: "There is no gap between classes."

There has been a kind of class reversal," observed Dang Van Sung, a former newspaper publisher and senator in Saigon who is now a social worker in Orange County, California. "We have generals becoming dishwashers and former chauffeurs with good jobs."

Some generals aren't willing to be dishwashers, as Nguyen Be pointed out in a report he wrote after visiting refugees in California.

He was one of the Vietnam officials best known to Americans who participated in the war. He was the inventor of Saigon's answer to the Vietcong - the black-pajama-wearing "rural development cadre" meant to win villagers' allegiance to the government. He now works on the Department of Health, Education and Welfare's Indochina refugee task force.

Be pointed out that humbler Vietnamese often do better in America than they did in Vietnam, and they respond enthusiastically to the new opportunities here. But many from "the former upper class," Be observed, are depressed by their inability to find high-status employment in America. "Therefore, psychologically they must carve out a new position of 'superiority' by disdaining to work," Be said. And "this of course means staying on welfare."

A young Vietnamese mother from a well-to-do Saigon family applied recently for a job as a salad girl in the Washington Hilton Hotel. Waiting to be interviewed, she struck up a conversation with another Vietnamese woman in the employment office. Both had been referred there by an Arlington County job counselor, but only the young mother wanted the job.

The second Vietnamese woman had been a lawyer in Saigon, and announced disdainfully that she had no intention of working in a hotel restaurant. She even tried to persuade the yound mother to reject that kind of work as being beneath her. The lawyer had come to the interview merely to satisfy her job counselor, so she could continue getting cash benefits from Arlington County.

Some from "the former upper class" have maintained their status with money they took out of Vietnam. Tran Thien Khiem, for many years prime minister in the government of Nguyen Van Thieu, is said by many sources to be a wealthy man, dividing his time between America and Europe. (Thieu himself is living comfortably outside of London.)

Gen. Cao Van Vien, former chief of the South Vietnamese general staff and the husband of one of South Vietnam's wealthiest women, is also living comfortably in suburban Virginia.

Vien is one of five generals and other high-ranking officers who are being paid under a Pentagon contract to give their war recollections to the Army's official historian. According to several sources, they are getting up to $1,500 a month from Flow General, Inc., a private research firm that has a $1 million, 3-year contract with the Pentagon to assemble Vietnamese war recollections.

(This contract infuriates many old Vietnam hands, and many of the refugees too, who see it as another Pentagon miscalculation about the Vietnamese. "What do they think they're going to get from all those generals," asked one Vietnamese-speaking scholar, "the truth? That's laughable.")

Standard of living is a subject that engages much refugee energy, and many Vietnamese say they live better in America than they ever could at home. But below the excitement over cars and material possessions there is deep uneasiness.

The Venerable Giac Duc, a Buddhist monk now living in Washington, touched on one aspect of the unease. "The Vietnamese live by religious and moral standards, not legal ones," he said in an interview. "But here they enter a very organized society, where business is business and there is no sentimental element . . ."

Many Vietnamese say their biggest problem is to explain to themselves why they are here, when friends and relatives are still in Vietnam, now living under the Communist rule they feared and fled from. They feel guilty.

Guilt has produced wild claims of plans to return to Vietnam to fight in an underground resistance, which some Vietnamese-language newspapers in America have claimed really exists. (The State Department says there is no serious resistance to the new Vietnamese government.) Other refugees have responded to their inner turmoil by becoming ardent supporters of the Hanoi regime.

Scapegoating among the Vietnamese in common. Sauvageot attended a meeting of one association of Vietnamese refugees where members of the audience got up one after another to blame another person on the crowd, or another South Vietnamese leader, or the United States, for the "loss" of Vietnam.

Finally one woman got up and said, let's simply agree that three people are to blame: Nguyen Van Thieu, Tran Thien Khiem and Cao Van Vien. Let's blame it all on them, and let the rest of us be friends and cooperate.

The most pressing issue in the Indochinese-American community today is "family reunification," or how those here can reunite with relatives who have escaped Indochina but are stuck elsewhere, or are still in their native countries.

This raises the difficult legal and political issues that still surround the Indochina refugees, two years after most of them arrived.

Because they are not citizens or even permanent residents, the Indochinese here have no right to bring relatives to this country to join them. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to convert the refugees' status from "parolee" to permanent resident, leading to citizenship in five years.

This issue has had virtually no publicity, but is desperately important to the refugees. Apart from the uncertainty that comes with being called a parolee, there are substantial practical costs. Vietnamese in California, for example, must pay "out of state" tuition for their children in the state university system, because California won't consider a parolee a permanent resident. Parolees cannot join the armed forces, or hold a government job.

House and Senate committees plan tentatively to hold hearings on legislation to change the refugees' status sometime this spring.

Congress must also decide whether to continue the federal assistance program for Vietnamese refugees, now scheduled to expire on Sept. 30. By then the federal government will have spent more than $550 million helping the refugees, much of it given to the voluntary agencies which helped to settle them.

There are controversies about how well that money has been spent, and a lot of the refugees believe that money meant for them was diverted to other purposes. Officials involved in various refugee programs grant that mistakes were made and money wasted. But they also say that more is needed to prevent serious social problems in the next few years and particularly to provide language and vocational training.

California and other states with large concentrations of Indochinese refugees are lobbying for an extension of the program that reimburses the states for the costs of welfare and other assistance to the refugees. Congressional sources say the fate of this idea will depend almost entirely on the Carter administration, which has not yet taken a position on it.

Another problem that remains to be dealt with is the continuing stream of refugees coming out of Indochina. There are about 80,000 of them now in camps in Thailand, according to State Department figures, plus several thousand more scattered around Asia. The United States in admitting several hundred persons a month under a "boat case" program for those who leave Vietnam by boat, but there is no provision for admitting the others.

France is currently much more generous, quietly admitting about 1,000 Indochinese a month. According to State Department estimates there may be 10,000 refugees in camps in Thailand who would qualify for admission under the criteria used in earlier "parolees" - that they worked for the U.S. government in Indochina, or have close relatives already in the United States.

No loud voice has been raised in support of these people. The congressional hawks who supported the wars in Indochina most vociferously have not translated that position into support for the refugees from those wars. A few of the doves have spoken out, but only a few.

"You're seeing a dying issue," said one diplomat who has been trying to attract more attention to the refugee question. "When you try to talk about the refugees you're telling people they have to think about the war again. That's what makes the selling job so difficult."

NEXT: Settling In

Washington Post library assistant Vu Thuy Hoang, who worked for The Post in Saigon from 1966 until 1973, assisted in reporting this article.