Cuba in Vietnam
The extent of military contributions by communist Cuba and its communist dictator, Fidel Castro, to the North Vietnamese effort during the Vietnam War, is a murky matter that remains officially unresolved. Then and now, neither the communist governments of Vietnam nor Cuba have divulged any information on this matter, while maintaining a cloud of secrecy around their cooperative efforts. But there is no question that at the very least, there was a sizable contingent of Cuban military advisors present in North Vietnam during the war.
Several reports indicate that Cuban fighter pilots were even flying MIGs in aerial combat with American pilots over North Vietnam. One American advisor flying in a Sikorsky H-34 helicopter even used an M-79 grenade launcher to shoot down a Cuban flying a biplane in Northern Laos. This was the same kind of plane used in the attack against Lima Site 85 – the top-secret base in Laos providing guidance for American planes in the bombing of North Vietnam.
Among these Cuban advisors was a large contingent of several thousand combat engineers called the “Giron Brigade,” that was maintaining Route Nine (better known as the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”), the supply line running from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam. The contingent was so large, Cuba established a consulate in the jungle to support them. Engineers from this same unit were building the airport in Grenada when American forces overran it, and they suffered 84 casualties and 638 captured, small consolation for what they are reported to have inflicted on U.S. Forces in Vietnam.
A large number of American personnel serving in both Vietnam and Laos were either captured or killed along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and in all likelihood, many by the Cubans. One National Security Agency Signet report states that 18 American POWs were detained at the Phom Thong Camp in Laos, where they were closely guarded by Soviet and Cuban personnel, with Vietnamese soldiers outside the camp.
The most alarming and horrendous of Cuba’s involvements in the war in Vietnam was the torturing of American POWs, some of whom died from their beatings. The full extent of what happened became clear after a number of the POWs who returned home in Feb. 1973 told others what they had seen or heard in what became known as the “Cuban Program,” which was the name given by its victims to the separation of 19 American POWs from the Vietnamese POW system and their subsequent interrogation and torture by a small group of Caucasians who spoke English with an apparent Spanish accent, had an excellent knowledge of Central America, and at least one seemed to have spent some time in the southeastern United States.
The “Cuban Program” was initiated around August 1967 at the Cu Loc POW camp known as “The Zoo,” a former French movie studio on the southwestern edge of Hanoi. The American POWs gave their Cuban torturers the names “Fidel,” “Chico,” “Pancho” and “Garcia” The Vietnamese camp commander was given the name “The Lump” because of a fatty tumor growth in the middle of his forehead. He and various other Vietnamese cadre were often present during the brutal torture sessions administered by the Cubans. According to POW debriefing reports, “The Lump” told a group of POWs that the “Cuban Program” was a Hanoi University Psychological Study.
“Fidel,” the Cuban leader of the “Cuban Program” was described in debriefing reports as a “professional interrogator” According to an expert on Cuba, “Fidel’s” profile fits that of Cuban Dr. Miguel Angel Bustamente-O’Leary, President of the Cuban Medical Association. Bustamente is said to be an expert at extracting confessions through torture, and he was compared to the infamous Nazi, Dr. Joseph Mengele.
According to the same expert, “Chico’s” profile fits that of Maj. Fernando Vecino Alegret, and it was stated in two intelligence reports that his “un-Cuban appearance” caused speculation that he was actually a Soviet Bloc officer (possibly Czech) in a Cuban uniform.
“Fidel” and “Chico” weren’t the only Cubans who were involved with American POWs. As part of their propaganda program, Dr. Fernando Barral, a Spanish-born psychologist, interviewed Lt. John Sidney McCain Jr. (later U.S. Senator) for an article published in Cuba’s house-organ Granma on January 24, 1970. Barral was a card-carrying communist Internationale residing in Cuba and traveling on a Cuban passport.
Several other documents confirm that CIA analysts identified two Cuban military attaches, Eduardo Morjon Esteves (who reportedly served under diplomatic cover as a brigadier general at the United Nations in New York in 1977-78 with no attempt being made to either arrest or expel him), and Luis Perez Jaen, who respectively had backgrounds that seemed to correspond with information on Fidel and Chico, as supplied by returning POWs. However, unless the Cubans were overconfident, it is highly unlikely that those who participated in the “Cuban Program” would have used their actual names when serving in a professional capacity, since it is standard practice in undercover intelligence operations to use new identities.
Following his release, Maj. Jack Bomar, a Zoo survivor, described the brutal beating of Capt. Earl G. Cobeil, an F-105F EWO (Electronics Warfare Officer), by Cuban Maj. Fernando Vecino Alegret, known by the POWs as “Chico”: The sight of Cobeil stunned Bomar, he stood transfixed, trying to make himself believe that human beings could so batter another human being. The man could barely walk; he shuffled slowly, painfully. His clothes were torn to shreds. He was bleeding everywhere, terribly swollen, and a dirty, yellowish black and purple from head to toe. The man’s head was down; he made no attempt to look at anyone. He had been through much more than the day’s beatings.
His body was ripped and torn everywhere: “hell-cuffs” (which are applied to cut off circulation during what is known as the “Vietnamese rope trick,” where the arms are repeatedly cinched up behind the POW’s back until the elbows are forced together, then if the excruciating pain of applying the “hell-cuffs” don’t achieve the desired result, the arms are rotated upward further until the shoulders dislocate) appeared to have nearly severed his wrists; strap marks still wound around his arms all the way to the shoulders; slivers of bamboo were embedded in his bloodied shins; and there were what appeared to be tread marks from water hose beatings across his chest, back and legs.
As Cobeil related to Bomar, during the beating Fidel had smashed a fist into Cobeil’s face, driving him against the wall. Then he was brought to the center of the room and made to get down onto his knees. Screaming in rage, Fidel took a length of rubber hose from a guard and lashed it as hard as he could into Cobeil’s face. Cobeil did not react; he did not cry out or even blink an eye. Again and again, a dozen times, Fidel smashed his face with the hose. Because he was so grotesquely mangled, Capt. Cobeil was never repatriated alive, but instead was listed as “died in captivity” His remains were returned in 1974.
Air Force ace Maj. James Kasler was also tortured for days on end during June 1968. “Fidel” beat Kasler across the buttocks with a large truck fan belt until “he tore my rear end to shreds.” For one three-day period, Kasler was beaten with the fan belt every hour from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and kept awake at night. “My mouth was so bruised that I could not open my teeth for five days.” After one beating, Kasler’s buttocks, lower back, and legs hung in shreds. The skin had been entirely whipped away and the area was a bluish, purplish, greenish mass of bloody raw meat.
Much less is known about 17 captured airmen taken to Cuba for “experimentation in torture techniques” They were held in Havana’s Los Maristas, a secret Cuban prison run by Castro’s G-2 Intelligence service. A few were held in the Mazorra (Psychiatric) Hospital and served as human guinea pigs used to develop improved methods of extracting information through “torture and drugs to induce American prisoners to cooperate”
After being shot down in April of 1972, U.S. Navy F-4 pilot, Lt. Clemmie McKinney, an African-American, was imprisoned near the Cuban compound called Work Site Five. His capture occurred while then-Cuban president Fidel Castro was visiting the nearby Cuban field hospital. Although listed as killed in the crash by DOD, his photograph standing with Castro was later published in a classified CIA document.
More than 13 years later, on August 14, 1985, the North Vietnamese returned Lt. McKinney’s remains, reporting that he died in November 1972. However, a U.S, Army forensic anthropologist established the “time of death as not earlier than 1975 and probably several years later” The report speculated that he had been a guest at Havana’s Los Maristas prison, with his remains returned to Vietnam for repatriation. Unfortunately, our servicemen held in the Cuban POW camp near Work Site Five (Cong Truong Five), along with those in two other Cuban run camps were neither acknowledged nor accounted for, and the prisoners simply disappeared forever.
Conspicuously absent from the Operation Homecoming release in 1973 were POWs suffering from severe war wounds (amputees) and mental illnesses, leading analysts to believe these were among those permanently imprisoned in North Vietnam and Cuba, for ongoing experimentation and collaboration efforts after being broken by torture, drugs, and brainwashing.
The matter of the known prisoners of war held by Vietnam and Cuba whose remains have never been returned has been a major issue for their families. If our honor code of “Duty, Honor, Country,” and our national policy of “No man left behind,” are more than meaningless slogans, Cuba’s murderous leadership must account for our POWs – especially the 17 airmen taken to Cuba. The civilized world and American veterans demand it, and their families deserve it.
There are those still working tirelessly toward finding a resolution to our missing heroes. On March 28, 2016, Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Department of Defense to obtain records about American POWs who may have been held captive by Cuban government or military forces on the island of Cuba.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Judicial Watch v. U.S. Department of Defense, No. 1:16-CV-00151).
This suit was filed after the Defense Department failed to comply with a June 1, 2015, FOIA request seeking “Any and all records depicting the names, service branch, ranks, Military Occupational Specialty, and dates and locations of capture of all American servicemen believed to have been held captive by Cuban government or military forces on the island of Cuba since 1960.”
Responding to the suit, the Department of Defense initially claimed to have no responsive records.
(Sources: Miami Herald, August 22, 1999, and testimony by Michael D. Benge, before the House International Relations Committee, Chaired by the Honorable Benjamin A. Gilman, on November 4, 1999)
When I reported to the 5th Special Forces headquarters in Nha Trang in Nov, 1967, I was sent to get a Glama goblin shot. While waiting in the room for the medic to arrive, I noticed a movable hospital curtain. Curious, I looked behind the curtain and saw two bodies wearing non-described uniforms laying on gurneys. Both were dark-skinned with long black hair. When the medic came in, I asked about the bodies. He told me a Special Forces recon team operating in Laos near the Ho Chi Ming trail got into a firefight resulting in them killing some NVA and the two whose bodies were on the gurneys. Realizing the two were not Vietnamese, they gathered them up and carried them through the jungle to a place where they made an emergency extraction. The medic said the general consensus was the two were Cubans. He added that Russian soldiers were also helping the North Vietnamese as one of their bodies had also been recovered by a recon team a couple of months before.