By John Lowery in AIM:
Whatever one thinks of President Barack Obama’s overtures to Cuba and the accompanying prisoner exchange, an important consideration in need of immediate attention is an accounting of our servicemen captured in the Vietnam War and imprisoned in Cuban-operated POW camps. Of utmost importance is an accounting of the 17 American airmen captured in North Vietnam and then taken to Cuba for medical experiments in torture techniques.
Most Americans are unaware that Cuba was deeply involved in the Vietnam War. In fact they had an engineering battalion called the “Girón Brigade,” that was maintaining Route Nine, a major enemy supply line into South Vietnam. Their facilities included a POW camp and field hospital very near the DMZ, just inside North Vietnam. Meanwhile Cuban interrogators worked in Hanoi at a prison known as the Zoo. We know of these operations and some of what happened to our servicemen after so managed to survive and be repatriated in the winter of 1973, during Operation Homecoming.
Following his release Major Jack Bomar, a Zoo survivor, described the brutal beating of Captain Earl G. Cobeil, an F-105F electronics warfare officer, by Cuban Major Fernando Vecino Alegret, known by the POWs as “Fidel.” Regarding Captain Cobeil, Bomar related, “he was completely catatonic… His body was ripped and torn everywhere… Hell cuffs appeared almost to have severed his wrists… Slivers of bamboo were imbedded in his bloodied shins, he was bleeding from everywhere, terribly swollen, a dirty yellowish black and purple [countenance] from head to toe.”
In an effort to force Cobeil to talk “Fidel smashed a fist into the man’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 the man’s face. The prisoner did not react; he did not cry out or even blink an eye. Again and again, a dozen times, [Fidel] smashed the man’s face with the hose.”
Because of his grotesque physical condition Captain Cobeil was not repatriated but instead was listed as “died in captivity,” with his remains returned in 1974. (Miami Herald, August, 22 1999, and Benge, Michael D. “The Cuban Torture Program, Testimony before the House International Relations Committee, Chaired by the Honorable Benjamin A. Gilman, November 4, 1999.) Incredibly, Fidel’s torture of Major James Kasler is well known as he somehow managed to survive the Cuban’s torture.
Much less is known about our 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. (We also paid big money for the remains—delivered in stacks of green dollars to Hanoi aboard an AF C-141 from Travis AFB, California.) 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 never acknowledged nor accounted for and the prisoners simply disappeared.
If our honor code of “Duty, Honor, Country,” and our national policy of “No man left behind,” are more than meaningless slogans, then before our relations with Cuba can be normalized, their murderous leadership must account for our POWs—especially the 17 airmen taken to Cuba. The civilized world and American veterans demand it.
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