August 23, 1999

Cuban interrogators tortured U.S. POWs in Vietnam, files show

Associated Press Published in The Orlando Sentinel on August 23, 1999.

FORT WALTON BEACH -- Jack Bomar still has nightmares about the beatings administered by "Fidel," a Cuban government agent in North Vietnam who tortured him and 17 other U.S. prisoners of war some three decades ago.

"I wake up at night and I am in a situation back there," the retired Air Force colonel said. "Sometimes I am trying to bail out of my airplane, or sometimes it might be Fidel there, waiting to hammer me."

Recently declassified Defense Department documents say three Cubans were sent to North Vietnam by Cuba to deal with U.S. POWs in what became known as the Cuba Program.

Now, some former POWs are thinking of suing the Cuban government for reparations, The Miami Herald reported Sunday.

"Some people have forgotten these atrocities. I don't forget," said Mike Benge, who spent five years as a POW but was not part of the Cuba Program. He now works for the U.S. Agency for International Development and is seeking more declassification of Cuba Program documents.

Concealed for decades, details of the Cuba Program slowly are becoming public. Documents declassified by the Defense Department's Prisoner of War, Missing Personnel Office, or DPMO, for congressional hearings in 1996 provide many details.

"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 among declassified documents.

A DPMO official also says two North Vietnamese army colonels confirmed to him in 1992 that "Fidel" was indeed Cuban and had tortured U.S. POWs -- without Hanoi's official approval.

Almost daily for one year, the man the POWs named after Castro whipped them with strips cut from rubber tires that they called "fan belts." One POW was beaten so fiercely over a month in 1968 that the American went into a catatonic state and later died.

The worst torture may have been suffered by Earl Cobeil, a Navy F-105 pilot who acted crazy and may have suffered a head injury when he was shot down. Cobeil was accused by Fidel of faking his craziness to avoid torture.

Bomar recalled one all-day session in May 1968 in which Fidel "took a length of black rubber hose . . . and lashed it as hard as he could into the man's face."

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."

Cobeil later was transferred out and is listed as having died in captivity.

Fidel and his associates suddenly vanished in August 1968.

"Information about the mistreatment eventually filtered up to the Vietnamese decision makers and they terminated" the program, DPMO analyst Robert Destatte wrote in an e-mail message.

Less forthcoming has been the identity of Fidel and the others.

Hubbard told the newspaper that Fidel seemed to have personal knowledge of many cities in the southeastern United States, from Miami to the Carolinas. He also apparently 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.

[Posted 08/23/1999 0:32 AM EST]

© 1999