Savage beatings bent captives to will of man dubbed `Fidel'
FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. -- Retired Air Force Col. Ed Hubbard says he holds no hate for ``Fidel, the Cuban government agent who viciously tortured him and 17 other U.S. prisoners of war in North Vietnam three decades ago.
Almost daily for one year, the man the POWs nicknamed Fidel whipped them with strips cut from rubber tires until their buttocks ``hung in shreds, and trussed them in ropes and wires to tear at limbs and cut into flesh.
Fidel was one of three Cubans sent to North Vietnam by Havana to deal with American POWs, in what became known as the Cuba Program.
He whipped and kicked one POW so fiercely in 1968 that the American went into a catatonic state and later died, in what a new book on U.S. POWs in Vietnam calls ``one of the most heinous and tragic atrocity cases.
Hubbard himself was beaten so brutally by ``Fidel'' during one 1967 interrogation session that fellow POW Jack Bomar recalled finding him afterward unconscious on a cell floor, ``a bleeding, broken, bruised mass.
Concealed for decades by official U.S. secrecy and the shadows of a war that many simply wanted to forget, the full story of Fidel and the so-called Cuba Program is finally becoming public.
Honor Bound, a book published in April with Department of Defense assistance, devotes 13 pages to the ``unusually intensive and prolonged operation that monopolized the [prison's] torture machinery for much of the year.''
A two-inch-thick stack of documents declassified by the Defense Department's Prisoner of War, Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) for a string of congressional hearings in 1996 provide extensive and gruesome details on the Cuba Program.
And a DPMO official has now reported that two North Vietnamese army colonels confirmed to him in 1992 that ``Fidel'' was indeed Cuban and had tortured American POWs -- but without Hanoi's official approval.
Some former POWs consider suing Cuba
``I've moved on with my life, said Hubbard, a motivational speaker living in Fort Walton Beach who uses his POW experiences to celebrate the human spirit. Then he smiles and adds: ``But if I see `Fidel' again, maybe I'd turn him over to Bomar.
He knows that Bomar has not forgotten the broken nose, broken cheek and busted eardrum he suffered in one particularly brutal beating by ``Fidel'' after he insulted Cuban-Argentine guerrilla Ernesto ``Che Guevara.
``I would kill him, said Bomar, another former Air Force colonel who, like his fellow POWs, was handpicked by ``Fidel and two Cuban ``good guy interrogators, ``Chico and ``Garcia, for what they dubbed the Cuba Program.
Some former POWs angry with the DPMO's handling of the Cuba case say they may even file suit against Havana, following the example set in Miami by relatives of three Brothers to the Rescue pilots killed by Cuban MiGs in 1996.
``I don't mind admitting it -- I want to harass the Vietnamese, said Mike Benge, a former POW who was not part of the Cuba Program but has long accused the DPMO of failing to properly investigate allegations that Chinese and Soviet officers interrogated U.S. POWs.
DPMO officials in Washington declined to comment to The Herald on ``Fidel,'' the Cuba Program or the many controversies surrounding the agency's handling of the case.
Sketchy versions of the story of ``Fidel'' appeared in a handful of U.S. publications from 1973, soon after Hanoi began freeing American POWs, until mid-1977, but the tale drew little attention.
Perhaps that was because most POWs obeyed Pentagon orders to keep quiet, to protect POWs who might remain in Vietnam, and perhaps because Fidel's identification as a Cuban was then only an unconfirmed allegation by the POWs.
But now the newly released DPMO documents, the book Honor Bound by Stuart Rochester and Frederick Kiley, and Herald interviews with Hubbard, Bomar and three other Fidel victims provide the fullest account yet of a significant chapter in the history of Vietnam-era POWS.
``This marked the first and only time that non-Vietnamese were overtly involved in the exploitation of American prisoners, said a 1975 U.S. Air Force analysis of the Cuba Program declassified in 1996.
When Fidel and Chico showed up around August 1967 at the POW camp known as ``The Zoo,'' a former French movie studio on the southwestern edge of Hanoi, it was clear to the 50 prisoners there that they were no ordinary visitors.
While the camp's North Vietnamese commandant rode a bicycle to work, Fidel arrived in a car chauffeured by a Hanoi army officer and always sat to the commandant's right, a position of honor, Bomar said.
Debriefed after they returned home, POWs held at The Zoo described Fidel as about six feet one inch tall, in his early 30s, muscular, ramrod-straight, swarthy and handsome enough to be compared to movie star Fernando Lamas.
They described Chico as more light-skinned, almost blond and in his 40s. He liked to play Spanish-sounding songs on the camp's organ, and often wore a beret with a visor, the type then popular in Cuba.
Both spoke good if accented English, but while Fidel had full command of American slang and even obscenities, Chico struggled with words like Piper Cub, pronouncing it ``peeper koob,'' according to excerpts from the debriefings.
Fidel interviewed POWs and soon selected Hubbard, Bomar and eight other Air Force and Navy pilots or navigators shot down over North Vietnam, segregating them in a block of four cells that the POWs nicknamed ``Stable.''
That, the POWs said, is when the torture began, after a few cursory questions -- such as whether they liked Mexican food -- apparently designed less to elicit intelligence information than to provide an excuse for beatings.
While Chico always played the ``good guy, Fidel was a savage torturer one day and a friend the next, a man who would ``hammer one POW, then play Frank Sinatra tapes and offer chewing gum to the next.
``Under different circumstances, Fidel might have been an interesting guy to talk to, former Zoo POW Allan Carpenter told The Herald. ``But I can't have anything but loathing for him.
Level of violence worsens
As days passed, Fidel notched up the torture. ``He loved direct hits to the face with the tire strips that the POWs came to call fan belts, one POW told his debriefer.
Fidel placed POWs awaiting interrogation in cells next to his torture room, to make sure they heard their predecessor's screams. He threw POWs he had just finished torturing with new roommates, so they saw the results.
``Fidel could get you squirming without even touching you, former Zoo POW Robert Daughtry told The Herald. A debriefer quoted one POW as saying, ``Anticipation of beatings became more of a threat than actual beatings. Nervous to the point of loosening of bowels when heard the key in the lock.
One by one, the POWs gave way before Fidel.
By Christmas 1967, all but one had been tortured into ``surrendering'' -- which meant any sign of submission that Fidel arbitrarily set, from bowing to a Vietnamese guard to accepting an unwanted cigarette or making written or tape-recorded statements that could be used by the North Vietnamese propaganda machine.
Some of the 10 were still beaten occasionally -- ``just a reminder, to keep us in line, Bomar said -- but they received better meals, more mail and more time in the sunlight, outside their dark and bug-infested cells.
A confident Fidel began to select a second group of 10 POWs in January 1968. One, aware of Fidel's reputation, ``surrendered'' swiftly. Two others won the POWs' admiration by engaging Fidel in conversations that averted torture.
But then Fidel ran into Jim Kasler, sent to The Zoo after withstanding tortures at another prison, and Earl Cobeil, a Navy F-105 pilot who acted crazy and may indeed have suffered a head injury when he was shot down.
Fidel's monthlong beatings of Kasler were ``among the worst sieges of torture any American withstood in Hanoi, the book Honor Bound said. Fidel flogged him ``until his buttocks, lower back and legs hung in shreds, and at the end he was in a semi-coma. He eventually recovered.
Worse still was the onslaught against Cobeil, accused by Fidel of faking his craziness to avoid torture. Bomar recalls Fidel angrily vowing to other POWs, ``I'm going to break this guy in a million pieces.
Bomar recalled that during one all-day torture session in May 1968, ``Fidel took a length of black rubber hose . . . and lashed it as hard as he could into the man's face. The prisoner did not react. He did not cry out or even blink.
After a month of almost daily beatings, Bomar told his debriefer, Cobeil ``was bleeding everywhere, terribly swollen, a dirty, yellowish black-and-purple from head to toe.
Another POW's debriefing said Cobeil ``was beaten to the point where he was incapable of surrender. Was completely catatonic. He was later transferred out of The Zoo and is listed as having died in captivity.
By July 1968, Fidel appeared to have grown frustrated, flying into rages and beating POWs without apparent purpose. He was seen drunk around the camp, and complained of worsening liver problems.
Fidel, Chico and Garcia, also nicknamed ``Pancho,'' a fat, always sloppily dressed man in his mid-30s who had arrived at the camp around June, suddenly vanished in mid-August, never to be seen again by the POWs.
By the end of the Cuba Program, Fidel had tortured 18 of the 20 POWs selected for the Cuba Program. Two apparently were never beaten. All but Cobeil had ``submitted.''
A Vietnamese version of Cubans' presence cited
Fidel left behind a crucial question: What had been the goal of the Cuba Program?
DPMO analyst Robert Destatte, in an e-mail message written July 2, 1996, reported that he had received one answer from two Vietnamese colonels he interviewed in 1992 as part of his research.
``According to the Vietnamese, . . . the Cubans sent a team of three English-language instructors to provide instruction in basic English to [North Vietnamese army] personnel working with American prisoners, Destatte wrote.
``At the working level, the three Cubans persuaded their Vietnamese colleagues to allow them to demonstrate the effectiveness of Cuban interrogation techniques, he added. ``Information about the mistreatment eventually filtered up to the Vietnamese decision makers and they terminated the . . . program.
``The Vietnamese explanation is plausible and fully consistent with what we know about the conduct of the Cubans, concluded the note, leaked to the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel as it held several hearings on POW and missing-in-action issues in mid-1996.
Destatte presented the same argument to the committee in a closed-door session. But the DPMO's own Cuba Program expert, former POW Chip Beck, later told the committee in open session that it was ``professionally incompetent.
While Fidel and Chico did indeed run English classes for Vietnamese interrogators for a few months, Beck and Fidel's POW victims insist that the Cuba Program was clearly something more than a language class.
Goal of `total surrender'
Foremost among Fidel's goals, they say, was to break the POWs so fully that they would always do his bidding with little need for further torture, instead of the usual rounds of torture-surrender, torture-surrender.
``Fidel's aim was to convince us that absolute and total surrender was the only possible outcome. He told you that flat out in your first meeting, said Hubbard, a 29-year-old B-66 navigator when he was captured.
One POW debriefer wrote: ``Once the prisoner surrendered, he remained submissive, as the [torture] experience was so memorable and painful that he did not care to repeat it.
The book Honor Bound notes that unlike Vietnamese interrogators, the Cubans ``relied on more controlled and orchestrated mingling of physical torture and psychological pressures, suggesting that theirs was a more conscious experimental program with an emphasis as much on assessing the efficacy of tactics as on achieving results.
Some victims of the Cuba Program suspect it was also designed to select candidates for ``early release -- prisoners who could be counted on to make statements favorable to North Vietnam once freed.
Still others believe Fidel was searching for POWs who would agree to participate in a conference in Havana, which took place six weeks after he disappeared from The Zoo, on the U.S. ``genocidal war in Vietnam.
``He wanted a few tamed POWs he could bring to this propaganda extravaganza, former POW Benge said. Some of the ``confessions signed by POWs at The Zoo were in fact made public at the Havana conference, he added.
They didn't acknowledge any role as Castro agents
The other major question left unanswered when Fidel, Chico and Garcia walked out of The Zoo in 1968 was their real identity.
Long before Destatte's e-mail message confirmed they were Cubans, the POWs who suffered at their hands had concluded that they were agents of Fidel Castro's government, although the trio never admitted that directly.
Bomar, who came up with the nickname Fidel, recalled that a Vietnamese guard once referred to him as ``Cuba, and that Chico had once slipped and told a POW that ``Fidel'' used to pilot a small plane over Havana.
``Fidel'' spoke knowledgeably about Cuba's sugar crops and Che Guevara, and a POW once found a lapel pin in the shape of Cuba on the floor of a prison bathroom.
More intriguing are hints that Fidel may have lived in the United States for a significant period.
His command of American slang and swear words was almost native-born, and his knowledge of U.S. cars up to 1956 models, especially Fords, was astounding, said Bomar, who raced stock cars before he was sent to Vietnam.
Fidel seemed to have personal knowledge of many cities in the southeastern United States, from Miami to the Carolinas, Hubbard said, and knew enough about U.S. paratrooper terminology and tactics to make many POWs suspect he had attended a U.S. Army course at Fort Benning, Ga.
No solid identification
Based on such slim evidence, U.S. intelligence agencies launched an intensive campaign in 1973 to try to identify Fidel and his cohorts. An Air Force report dated June 14, 1973, lists some of the efforts:
The National Security Agency produced the names of all Cubans known to have traveled to North Vietnam in the 1960s. POWs were shown ``the entire CIA photographic holdings of Cuban personalities. The Defense Intelligence Agency checked the list of pre-Castro Cuban military officers who received U.S. military training.
But the searches proved fruitless, even after some of the POWs were sent to police and military artists, who sketched eight portraits of Fidel alone, based on the POWs' descriptions.
Hubbard said he and two other POW investigators spent a week in Miami in early 1974, trolling Little Havana restaurants and bars for any exiles who might have heard anything about Cubans in Vietnam.
An FBI agent visited Hubbard in 1979 to show him a half-dozen surveillance photographs of a Cuban Education Ministry official who had just toured Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and returned to Havana.
``If you replaced some hair and took 20 to 25 pounds off, it very easily could have been this guy, Hubbard told The Herald.
Hubbard could not recall the man's name, but documents declassified by the DPMO identified the visitor as Fernando Vecino Alegret, today Cuba's minister of higher education. A military specialist in anti-aircraft defenses in the 1960s, he is known to have visited North Vietnam around 1967.
DPMO documents declassified for the 1996 congressional hearings noted that there had been several other ``possible and ``unconfirmed identifications of Fidel, although none amounted to more than passing mentions.
Speculation on names
An Air Force intelligence report in 1973 mentioned ``Cacillio Moss or ``Moller. A 1976 Defense Intelligence Agency report mentioned ``Luis Perez Jaen. A congressional report in 1992 referred to ``Eduardo Morejon Estevez or ``Morjon Esievez.
Benge believes it might be Raul Valdez Vivo, Cuba's ambassador to North Vietnam in the 1960s and author of a 1990 book about Cuba's involvement in the Vietnam War, The Great Secret: Cubans on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The book makes no mention of torturing American POWs.
``I'm not sure it's him, but if he's not, he must know who it was, said Benge, a civilian U.S. Agency for International Development employee captured in South Vietnam who spent five years as a POW, including 27 months in solitary confinement.
``Some people have forgotten these atrocities. Some want to forget, said Benge, now an AID employee in Washington still battling the CIA, DPMO and DIA to declassify more documents on the Cuba Program. ``I don't forget.
Bomar would also like to find Fidel, if not for revenge, at least to end his flashbacks to Hanoi, circa 1967.
``I wake up at night and I am in a situation back there,'' he said. ``Sometimes I am trying to bail out of my airplane, or sometimes it might be Fidel there, waiting to hammer me.
DPMO investigator Chip Beck put it another way in an e-mail to Destatte just days before he left the DPMO in 1996 and went public with complaints that the agency was concealing reports of Cuban, Chinese and Soviet involvement in POW tortures.
``The Cubans have never been adequately held to task, Beck
wrote. ``As long as we remain, I hate to say it, but, smug in our
opinion that we know all that happened, we will continue to fool
ourselves at the same time as the intelligence apparatus of these
countries continue to fool us.
Copyright 1999 Miami Herald