The Washington File. 04 November 1999
(Survivor tells of torture carried out by "Cubans" in Hanoi) (3890)
Following is the text of the testimony of Captain Ray Vohden, U.S. Navy, retired, before a November 4 House International Relations Committee hearing on "The Cuba Program: Torturing of American POWs by Cuban Agents":
Testimony of Captain Ray Vohden, USN, Retired Survivor of the "Cuba Program" before the Committee on International Relations U.S. House of Representatives for a hearing on "The Cuba Program: Torturing of American POWs by Cuban Agents"
2172 Rayburn Building
My name is Ray Vohden. I retired from the Navy in 1986 as a Captain. I joined the Navy in 1953, was commissioned an Ensign, and won my wings in 1954. For the next ten years, I had various squadron and shipboard assignments. I was the senior man in the "Fidel Program" and the first man
to be tortured. I was also the fourth longest held POW in North Vietnam.
In August 1964, I was assigned to Attack Squadron 216 as the Operations Officer flying in the A4C Skyhawk off the USS Hancock. Our carrier was in the South China Sea in early 1965 when the war against North Vietnam began to escalate. On my fifth mission, I was shot down bombing a bridge in North
Vietnam. I broke both bones above the ankle when I landed. I was then taken to the camp known as the "Hanoi Hilton" where I was in complete solitary and was never moved off a wooden board for fourth months, except to go to the hospital for two hours one night to have a two-inch piece of
bone cut from my leg because it had become infected.
For the next two and a half years, I was moved from camp to camp until being sent to "the Zoo" in November 1965. Throughout this two and a half year period, I survived like the other POWs. I lived in a small room, by myself or with one or two men. I was tortured, forced, and/or
punished before I wrote my biography and my confession.
In the early part of September 1967, I was looking forward to the end of the war and my homecoming when, one night, I was taken to an interrogation. To my astonishment, the man sitting across from me was a Caucasian. One of the Vietnamese camp officers sat next to him. We talked about the war
for the next half-hour. He had an excellent command of English and appeared to be very knowledgeable about the U.S. and the war. Without question, his presence was almost earth shaking.
Several days later, I was moved to another room with Jack Bomar and another Air Force officer. They had both recently been shot down and had also talked to the Caucasian. One of us named him Fidel because we guessed he might be Cuban.
Individually, we met with him daily. The war was essentially the main topic. After several days, I concluded that I wanted no part of whatever he was up to. I decided to refuse cigarettes and be as unfriendly and as obnoxious as I could, in hopes that he would consider me unworthy for any
purpose he might have for me. He told me he didn't like my unfriendly attitude and that I would be sorry.
I was taken to Quiz early in the morning. The Elf, one of the other Vietnamese officers was there. The Elf asked me what orders did I give when I was in the Pool Hall. I told him none. He asked four or five more times. I said none. He left and came back with 6 or 7 guards. They forced me to get
on the floor. They put manacles on my wrists behind me and strapped my elbows together behind me. And for some undeterminable time, I suffered in the straps until he gave me a clue about what the order was. It was about throwing food away. I told him I gave the order.
Five minutes later, as they are taking the manacles and straps off, the door bursts open. In comes Fidel, ranting and raving like a madman, pointing his finger at me and telling me that I better have a good attitude now and do everything he says. I told him yes. He said when I give you a
cigarette and you don't smoke it, I will make you eat cigarettes until they come out of your ears. Then, he slapped me ten or fifteen times telling me I better do everything he says. I then had to write on a piece of notebook paper that I surrendered to the Vietnamese people and would do everything
they want me to do. He told me other things to write and then told me to sign it. Now he says; "Prove you will do everything I tell you to, eat the whole piece of paper." It was hard to chew and did not break up very well, but I managed to swallow it after almost gagging and throwing up.
My shoulders and arms were still very painful but I was still able to use my crutches. I went back to the room I had come from, but Bomar and Duart were gone. They put me in leg irons and cuffs. For the next two weeks, I was beaten three of four times a day until I became demoralized and
depressed and started to lose my appetite. I finally gave up eating anything. The last time the guard picked up the full dishes and left, Fidel came in five minutes later carrying the food. He was yelling and screaming at me that I was trying to cheat him again and that if I did not eat, they would
hold me down and stuff the food down my throat. I tried to eat but jut could not. He screamed at me that he would kill me if I didn't eat. I had reached bottom. Tears streamed from my eyes. I didn't care if I lived or died. Fidel just stood there and watched. Without a word he left. Later that day,
I moved to another room. There were no more leg irons, cuffs or beatings.
A week later, the tactic shifted. Fidel had my meal brought to the interrogation room. He was playing some good Montavani music. He was friendlier now. Bomar, Duart and I eventually moved back together again. All had surrendered. The treatment improved. We got a few extra cigarettes each day. He
now br1999-11-04ought us tea in the morning and he brought us a chess set. He brought me a cigar to smoke. We told him we didn't want these things. Fidel responded that if we didn't use what he gave us, we would be very sorry. As time passed, we had to carve wooden spoons, toy trucks and cars. One
by one, more POWs joined us. All had been forced to surrender. We finally moved to a larger room when the number came to eight. We were able to go outside more often, dig a fishpond and made a fireplace.
At Quiz, Fidel talked about the war and about going home. He showed us pictures of fashion models in magazines. He talked about our wives and our families. We saw articles from Time and Newsweek magazine, especially anything that was anti war. He tried every argument in the book to convince us
that the U.S. was wrong in its war of aggression. Every day, he reminded us not to become reactionary or we would suffer; that what he had given us before was just a sample of what would come.
On a weekly basis, he would give us the opportunity to give our true feeling on the war. I always told him the same. I told him that the U.S. was right in the war and that I supported our President.
This new nicer strategy did not last long. It was intermittently combined with torture.
One morning in early March 1968, one of the camp officers came to the outside of our room and disconnected the wires to our speaker. This gave rise to all kinds of speculation. Later that day, we heard from the guys in another building who had heard the radio program, that the first three U.S.
prisoners had been released by the Vietnamese. The rest of the camp heard the radio that morning and the news of the release. I felt very relieved and proud of myself and the others who served with me in the Fidel program because, although I can't say for sure what the original purpose of Fidel's
presence was, I believe the way the program was run, that its purpose was to find someone who could be of value to the North Vietnamese if released. It was evident that they wanted to release some prisoners because they did.
Some found it hard to believe that Fidel expected us to adopt the enemy views on the war and talk about good treatment after we were tortured and forced to surrender. But, after getting to know Fidel, I could see how this was his goal and how he believed that he could make this happen.
After Fidel failed in having any of his group released, his program continued without any real purpose or meaning.
Two weeks later, I moved to another room with Paul Schultz. I rarely saw Fidel except on one or two occasions.
In the weeks before I moved, Fidel had been working with some other men. I suppose for the same reason that he had others join the program. But it appeared that one of the men, Earl Cobeil, was resisting Fidel to the maximum and, of course, Fidel was retaliating as well.
Several days after I moved, Earl Cobeil moved into the room next to mine with Don Waltman. Waltman said that Earl was all mixed up in his mind. He said that Earl accused him of being a Russian spy and would not eat or drink water because they were poisoned. Waltman could not get through to him.
He said that it was obvious that Earl had had the straps because his wrists were very swollen. However, Waltman suspected the straps did not have much effect on him because he was so thin and probably his elbows went together without any pain.
The following day, late in the morning Fidel came to my room with Grimsey who was the turnkey for the "Pig Sty" building and he gave me the word to move. I gathered up my gear and left the room. Fidel took me aside after I left the room and told me that Cobeil was trying to cheat him
and was faking." Fidel ordered me to get him squared away or I would get twice as much as Cobeil got. Grimsey opened the door to Waltman and Cobeil's room. They were both standing. Waltman bowed but Cobeil just stood there with a vacant stare in his eyes. He was barefooted, had on his long
clothes, which were filthy, covered with dirt and grimy dust. Fidel yelled at him a few times to get squared away but Cobeil just stood there motionless. I suggested to Fidel that the best thing to do at this time would be to get Cobeil a bath.
A bath was so important in those days because it was so hot and when we missed a bath for a day or more the sweat and dust combined to form a thin layer of sticky, grimy dust all over the body. One day without a bath was bad enough but three days without a bath was unbearable. I hoped that a
bath might bring Cobeil to his senses. Fidel said okay, so Waltman, Cobeil and I went to bathe at the end of the building. As was customary, as soon as the door was closed behind us Waltman and I took off our clothes and started to wash. Right away, I noticed that Cobeil just stood there and stared.
I could not believe my eyes! Was it possible that a guy did not want to take a bath as filthy as he was? There was not much water that morning so Waltman and I just put water on our wash rag and rinsed our body off. I told Cobeil to go ahead and wash and that it would make him feel a lot better. All
of a sudden, he walked over to the spigot and started to drink from it. Again, I could not believe my eyes because everyone knew the water from the spigot was dirty and would make you sick. We told him to stop but he stopped only after he drank for 15 or 20 seconds. He just stood there and did not
say a word. Grimsey came to the shower room a few minutes later and took us back to our room. Cobeil was the same as when we left. Fidel was standing at the door. All three of us lined up and Waltman and I bowed but Cobeil just stood there again. I said, "Hey, Cobeil, bow." Nothing
happened. Suddenly, Grimsey raised his leg and pushed his foot against Cobeil's body and he went tumbling over towards the back of the room. Fidel yelled loudly at Cobeil to stop cheating him or he would teach him a lesson he would never forget. The door closed. We had received our meal before the
door closed so Waltman and I started to eat but Cobeil just sat on his bed, silently staring at the floor. I tried to talk to him and encourage him to eat but he would not. After eating, I talked to him some more and told him that if he was trying one of those tricks they sued in the Korean War,
like the story we had all heard about the POW who started barking every time the Koreans came, that kind of shit wasn't going to work with Fidel. After having seen Fidel for almost every day for six months, I knew that Fidel was going to get his way, far more than the N. Vietnamese. He was the most
egotistical man I had ever met. He was very tall, dark, good looking, filled with confidence in himself and above all he was not going to let the Vietnamese see him fall in any endeavor since he was a self proclaimed expert. I was convinced that there was no limit that he would take a man to get
what he wanted.
In addition, the difference between the Vietnamese and Fidel was that more or less once the Vietnamese got what they wanted they let up, at least for a while. Not so with Fidel. There wasn't a day that went by that there weren't threats and warnings to all of us. After seeing Cobeil in his
present condition, I knew that he had had more then his share of punishment and that if he was really tough and faking and in sound mind, eventually Fidel would get to him. Although it appeared that Cobeil was off his rocker, we did not know for certain whether he was or was not faking. I showed him
my crippled leg and told him who I was. I showed him pictures of my family, trying to convince him that I was an American prisoner and that I was trying to help him. After a few minutes of talking with him I felt as though I might have made a little progress. For the rest of the quiet hour Waltman
and I tried everything imaginable to get Cobeil to come down to earth. But we were unsuccessful.
Shortly after the gong sounded ending the quiet hour, Grimsey came to the door and gave Waltman the signal to get ready for quiz. Minutes later he returned and Waltman left. At one point, the same time Fidel came to the door and told me to come outside. Fidel asked me if Cobeil was squared away?
I told him that in my honest opinion Cobeil was not cheating, that he indeed was not at all rational and if he continued working Cobeil over he would never make it. I said that Cobeil was out of his mind and there was nothing I could do. I was hopeful that he would believe me about Cobeil. He
listened carefully as I talked for several minutes and I thought I might have convinced him that what I was saying was true but after several more minutes he accused me of trying to help Cobeil cheat him. I insisted that I was not and that there was nothing I could do to help Cobeil. The door was
closed, locked and bolted. I think there had been some mutual respect between Fidel and me and hoped by what I said that he would let up on Cobeil. I started to talk to Cobeil again. I had been talking for less than a few minutes when all of a sudden Fidel jumped up in the window holding the bars
and screamed out in his loud fierce: voice, "I caught you", I caught you cheating me." I was completely surprised, because Cobeil had not said a word or changed a bit. Seconds later the door slammed open, Fidel said "Ah, I caught you both lying". He screamed at me "Get
out, get out." As soon as I got outside of the room Fidel told me to go and stand at the end of the building. Since there were four guards standing outside the room where Cobeil was, he left the door to the room open and then left with Cedric who was a turnkey for one of the other buildings. A
few minutes later Fidel returned with what looked like a fan belt of a car but cut so it was like a whip. As Fidel passed by he looked at me with a glaze in his eyes of an enraged mad man. He was breathing heavy and he told me if I made one sound or moved one inch of my body that I would get twice
as much as what Cobeil was going to get. He appeared shaking as though nervous. Fidel said "He's trying to cheat me, he's trying to cheat me, I'll show you, I'll show him, I'll make him so happy to surrender and bow when I finish with him, he'll come crying to me on his knees begging me to let
him surrender." By now there were about seven or eight guards standing in front of the door of Cobeil's room. Fidel went in with Grimsey and Cedric at his side. I could hear the thud of the belt falling on Cobeil's body again and again as Fidel screamed "you son of a beech, you fooker, you
are cheating me", I will show you, I will show you". I guess he was hit around twenty or thirty times. I could just imagine Fidel almost twice the size of Cobeil, twice as healthy and strong and frail Cobeil from whom I heard not a sound. I almost threw up each time I heard the fan belt
hit Earl's body.
It was hard to listen as I did to Fidel beating Cobeil, a frail, diminutive little man, his wrists swollen three times the normal size, hair disarranged, clothes filthy rotten dirty, a vacant stare in his eyes, already pushed by torture beyond the limit from which he might have a chance to
regain his sanity. It had been far easier for me to endure the straps then to have to go through this.
The guards all stood around talking loudly, laughing and yelling in Vietnamese. When I saw Fidel with the fan belt I was surprised because up to that time I had never heard of anyone getting hit like that. Slaps, punches, straps, manacles, ropes, yes. But Fidel was going to show the Vietnamese a
I was scared to death while all this was going on because as angry as Fidel had been with me when I surrendered I had never seen the blood curdling look in his eyes or the emotion that surrounded him at this time. As I stood there on my crutches, my heart and mind overflowed with emotion. It was
the most sickening feeling to hear what was going on and know there was not anything I could do about it. I said to myself, "give up Earl, do what the bastard wants. I thought for a short time that I should go to Earl's room and try to help him but realized that if I did he would have gotten
five times what he was
getting now and I would have gotten ten times as much for interfering.
Fidel was in the room for about five minutes. Still yelling and shouting at Cobeil. A guard approached me with a big happy smile on his face. I knew why he was happy. The little bastards were always ready to see and enjoy an American get worked over.
That was the last day I saw Cobeil.
It may have been out of frustration that Fidel treated Cobeil as he did. In retrospect, I believe the Vietnamese made a big mistake with Fidel because Cobeil's death is the only one that I know of while in captivity that was totally inexcusable resulting from brutality and blatant disregard of
human life. There were others who died in captivity for various reasons but there was always some excuse because I believe their basic policy was not to torture to death. Men were tortured to death by mistake. They tortured to obtain military information or a political statement, they punished us
for breaking their rules, some more than others, but rarely, if ever, tortured indefinitely just for the sake of torture. Eventually they always let up on a guy regardless how bad they might have disliked him. However, Fidel unmercifully beat a mentally defenseless, sick man to death and he, as well
as the North Vietnamese Communists, must bear full responsibility for that act.
We will never know for certain why Fidel came to North Vietnam but one thing I can say with some degree of certainty is that as a result of the Code of Conduct and basic guidance provided by Lt. Col. Risner and Cdr. Denton that those who had been tortured before, took their turn again and those
who had done dumb things before came to realize they were dumb things and now had become part of the prisoner system.
There have been considerable efforts to locate Fidel in Cuba but without success. I have often wondered what we would do if we found him. Try him as a war criminal? No mention was ever made to try the North Vietnamese leaders as criminals. Thus, I question whether trying to locate Fidel would be
a wasted effort. Maybe this hearing and the interest shown by Congressman Gilman and Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen to investigate will mean that some justice will be served.
(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State)