Vietnam Veterans for Factual History

Facts not myths

Cuban War Crimes Against American POWs During the Vietnam War*

By Mike Benge

Cuban officials, under diplomatic cover in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, brutally tortured and killed American POWs whom they beat senseless in a research program "sanctioned by the North Vietnamese." United States Air Force. June 1975. Special Exploitation Program for SEASIA PWs, 1967-1968. Rep. No. A10-2, Series: 700/JP-1. This was dubbed the "Cuba Program" by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the CIA, and it involved 19 American POWs (some reposts state 20). Recent declassified secret CIA and DOD intelligence documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal the extent of Cuba's involvement with American POWs captured in Vietnam. A Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report states that "The objective of the interrogators was to obtain the total submission of the prisoners…" CIA Memorandum From: Deputy Director for Operations For: Director, Defense Intelligence Agency. dated 28 Jan (illegible). Subj: Identification of "Fidel", Cuban Interrogator of U.S. Prisoners of War in North Vietnam.

According to former POW Air Force Colonel Donald "Digger" Odell, "two POWs left behind in the camp were 'broken' but alive when he and other prisoners were released [1973 Operation Homecoming]. … They were too severely tortured by Cuban interrogators" to be released. The Vietnamese didn't want the world to see what they had done to them." The Washington Times. Oct. 21, 1992. Ex-POW describes "broken" cellmates left in Indochina. Washington, DC{/footnote>}

POWs released during "Operation Homecoming" in 1973 "were told not to talk about third-country interrogations. …. This thing is very sensitive with all kinds of diplomatic ramifications." The Washington Star. April 3, 1973. POWs Tortured by "Fidel". Washington. DC. Hence, the torture and murder of American POWs by the Cubans was swept under the rug by the U.S. Government.

The "Cuban Program"

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.

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The Last Battle of the Vietnam War: Mayaguez Incident

Two weeks after the fall of Saigon, on May 12, 1975, Khmer Rouge in an American-made PCF Swift gunboat seized the U.S. merchant ship SS Mayaguez and its crew in Cambodian waters. After the U.S. withdrawal from Viet Nam and the abandonment of the three countries of former Indochina, a number of conservative politicians and intellectuals in the United States had begun to question America’s “credibility” in the international field, suggesting that this would encourage enemies around the world to challenge America with seeming impunity. The Cambodian seizure of the Mayaguez appeared to be just such a challenge. President Gerald Ford denounced the seizure as an "act of piracy" and demanded immediate release of the ship.

President Ford, goaded by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, believed that the ship’s seizure provided an opportunity for the United States “to prove that others will be worse off if they tackle us, and not that they can return to the status quo. It is not enough to get the ship’s release.” One Pentagon official told Newsweek at the time, “Henry Kissinger was determined to give the Khmer Rouge a bloody nose.” This in a way would be comparable to baseball’s traditional contemptuous gesture of kicking dirt on the umpire’s shoes after he had said, “You’re out of here!” They also wanted to avoid a repeat of the embarrassing Pueblo incident of 1968, where failure to promptly use military force to halt the capture of the U.S. intelligence ship by North Korea led to an eleven-month hostage situation.

On instructions from the President, Kissinger tried to send a message to the Chinese Liaison Office in Washington demanding the immediate release of Mayaguez and her crew; however, it was refused. Kissinger then instructed George H. W. Bush, head of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing, to deliver the note to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and to pass on an oral message that “The Government of the United States demands the immediate release of the vessel and of the full crew. If that release does not immediately take place, the authorities in Phnom Penh will be responsible for the consequences.”

The SS Mayaguez

The SS Mayaguez, owned by Sea-Land Service Inc., was the first all-container U.S. flag ship in foreign trade. Beginning in 1965, the SS Mayaguez sailed a regular route for Sea-Land Services in support of American forces in Southeast Asia: Hong Kong -- Sattahip, Thailand -- Singapore. On May 7, 1975, about a week after the fall of Saigon, the Mayaguez left Hong Kong on a routine voyage carrying 107 containers of routine cargo, 77 containers of government and military cargo, and 90 empty containers -- all insured for $5 million. The exact contents of the 77 containers have never been disclosed, but the Mayaguez had loaded containers from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon just nine days before the fall of Saigon. There was speculation that some may have contained arms and ammunition. Nevertheless, during the entire incident the Khmer Rouge did not search the containers.

The crisis began on the afternoon of May 12, 1975, as the Mayaguez en route to Sattahip, Thailand, was allegedly sailing in a regular shipping lane in the Gulf of Siam about 60 miles from the coast of Cambodia, and about 8 miles from the Poulo Wai Islands.

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A Book Excerpt From Mike Benge

Vietnam? Where and the hell is that?

I was just finishing my first year at Oregon State College and living as a fledgling pledge at Delta Chi Fraternity. Pledges such as myself had to follow strict dress code for different days of the week: suits - ties, slacks - sports coats - ties, slacks - dress shirts - ties, and casual, while serving dinner to the members four days a week (members had the same dress code rules). However, on Friday night (aka hell night), everyone (members and pledges) was allowed to dress super casual (some took it to the extreme such as jockstraps and “wife-beater” under-shirts; or not), and dinner was no holds barred. The presence of upperclassmen was usually low, for a great share of them were out and about doing their thing. It was an unusually hot that night for that time of the year, and the very informal dinner erupted into a water fight launched by four of us pledges; and after we had expended our supply of our water balloons, we took it outside to the lawn. There, we had set up an ambush for the few members that remained with some buckets of water, and I had commandeered a water hose to ward off an attack by the upperclassmen. By that time, both sides were soaked and covered with mud from what used to be a lawn which had turned into a swamp when someone shouted “Time out!” All at once, for some strange reason, everyone stopped in place, remaining stark-still, and there was a pause of deadly silence. Then we could hear a short-wave radio broadcast blaring from an open window on the second floor. Someone turned the radio up, and we could hear some kind of an on-site news report with a real-time battle in the background with the thunder of bombs, artillery explosions, and other dins of war.

Điện Biên Phủ

The broadcast highlighted the heroic actions of Geneviève de Galardc, a nurse and officer in the French medical service, one of 15 French female nurses who had been tending the wounded on the multiple med-evac flights out of Điện Biên Phủ but became stranded when her assigned plane was being repaired on the runway. The runway, the plane, and the airport had been all destroyed by intense anti-aircraft and artillery fire. Geneviève had been dubbed l'ange de ofĐiện Biên Phủ (the Angel of Dien Bien Phu)1 by the press and other media in Hanoi, although in the camp, she was known simply as Geneviève. At the time she was the sole “French” woman there2 and continued tending the wounded in the field hospital until the last. After a two-month siege, the garrison was overrun on May 7, 1954. The coup de grâce came when an all-out human-wave attack was launched against the remaining 3,000 French units by over 25,000 communist Việt Minh. The last words of the radio broadcaster were, "The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!" 3  “This is ‘…’ reporting from Điện Biên Phủ, in Northwestern Vietnam; it’s May 7, 1954!” It was a broadcast of the fall of Điện Biên Phủ -- the last bastion of the colonial French forces in Indochina, lost to the communist Vietminh and Chinese. 

The four of us who had been listening to the broadcast, almost in unison, cried out, Vietnam! Where in the hell is that? I then said I know whose radio we were listening to; it was my friend Serge’s. Let’s go, so we can find out from him where Vietnam is and took off for the second floor. Serge was sitting at his desk with a geography book in his hand when we showed up dripping wet with muddy shoes. Much to his chagrin, he invited us in, and after ensuring my hands were clean and dry, he handed it to me, already bookmarked to the section on Vietnam. Serge was a STRACK-brevet-captain in the army’s ROTC program.4 I thanked him, and we read the section on Vietnam and its location, and we got educated – it was the first time any of us had heard of it or that it was one of three countries of the French Colony of Indochina. The next day, I went to the school library to see if they had any books on Vietnam. They had none on hand; however, the librarian said if I came back in a couple of days, she might be able to find one or two that she could obtain on-loan from another library. Unfortunately, the one she had for me was written by a guy who had been on an official three-week whirl-wind tour of Indochina with five days with boots on the ground in each country in French Indochina – Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.5

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