Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Michael D. Benge, a former POW in North Vietnam (1968-1973).
FP: Mr. Benge, welcome to Frontpage Interview. It is an honor to speak with you today.
Benge: Hi Jamie. Thank you for this opportunity.
FP: I want to talk today about the terrifying and tragic experience of American POWS and how many of them were left behind. But before we do that, let’s talk a little bit about you.
Tell us what your status was in Vietnam during the war and how you were captured.
Benge: I was the Senior American Civilian Advisor for CORDS (Combined Operations for Rural Development Support - now termed Nation Building) with the United States Agency for International Development in Ban Me Thuot (BMT), Darlac Provice, Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Among my many duties was to support and ensure protection for approximately 75 American civilians and military personnel working in our program. The military personnel included a civic action team and a medical assistance team of some 35 persons at the local hospital.
During TET of January 1968, much of BMT was over-run by a battalion of North Vietnamese. I went around to gather up the people that I was responsible for to prepare them for evacuation, and I called headquarters in Nha Trang for a plane for evacuation. I then went down to try to locate four young Americans at the International Voluntary Services whose house was in a Montagnard village on the lower end of town that was still occupied by the NVA. I made it to their house and found out that they had left town the day before. I then used escape and evasion tactics to get out of the village back to my jeep, and was about to try to get to the American Missionary to convince them to come to my house for evacuation.
Realizing that I would be trapped if I tried driving into their compound. Instead, since the compound was within shouting distance, I got up on the jeep and shouted to them to come to the house for evacuation. They began waving me off telling me to leave. The missionaries were very independent, and I mistook it as signaling me that they didn't want to be evacuated. I soon realized that they were trying to warn me for they were on a hill and could see the NVA sneaking up a gully toward me. As I was getting back into my jeep, 13 NVA armed with AKs, SKs and a rocket launcher pointed at me and the jeep, and the leader said "surrender, humane and lenient treatment." Yea, sure!! All but three of the missionaries were later murdered. One survived under the bodies of the others that were killed hiding in a bunker. Two were captured and later joined me in a camp in the mountains.
FP: I apologize for bringing up painful memories, but you spent 27 months in solitary confinement and one year in a "black box." Could you talk about this horrible experience and some others you endured?
Benge: The first month of my capture I was kept chained in a very small cage with a roof and was by myself. Some time later after arriving in that camp, I found out that two missionaries were in the camp. After a month, they moved us. Every night we were chained to a tree and slept on the ground. They moved us to a new camp about every month. In July we were taken to the mountains, it was very cold and in the monsoon season. The three of us were chained out in the open and given a small piece of plastic which was inadequate to keep the rain off. Our lenient guards slept in a large dry cave nearby.
The male missionary caught pneumonia and although they had access to a nearby field hospital, the medical personnel who came to our camp prescribed death as his treatment. In November of that year, the woman and I were purposely poisoned and she died, and I barley survived. I was weighing about 90 pounds at the time. I was taken to a camp in Cambodia arriving in the middle of December and was kept in a cage there for almost a year, most of the time alone, although there were 13 others in the camp, Army personnel, but we were forbidden to talk to anyone in other cages.
In November of 1979, they began moving us north. I was shuttled off into a hospital camp with one other person who had Dinge fever that was near Chepon, Laos for a while and then resumed our move north staying in caves over night on our way north. I arrived in Hanoi on Christmas Eve and moved to a camp 35 kilometers SW of Hanoi. I spent most of a year in this camp in solitary confinement, and almost all of the time in a small brick house 4 X 8 feet with the walls painted black. I was allowed out only to empty my defecation bucket, and every other week I was allowed 5 minutes to take a cold bath.
FP: I am very sorry that you went through this hell. How did you survive? What did you think about during those lonely torturous days and months? How did you survive? Did you ever lose hope?
Benge: In order to survive, you have to will yourself to survive through sheer determination. If you lose hope, you will die.
FP: You made many efforts in rescuing several Americans before you were captured yourself. For this you received the Department of State's highest award for heroism and a second one for valor. You were credited with saving the lives of 11 USAID personnel prior to your capture. Could you tell us a bit about your rescue operations?
Benge: Ban Me Thuot, the town where I was assigned, was virtually overrun. VC and NVA were all over the place with sporadic fire fights. I went out in this to the houses of the personnel for whom I was responsible, and at times, literally pulling them from their houses into my jeep and taking them back to my house for evacuation.
FP: Tell us about the “Cuban Program”.
Benge: The Cuban Program was a research program on torture methods, conducted by three Cubans with oversight by the Communist Vietnamese to show Hanoi, on how to coerce American POWs into confessing to war crimes. These "so called confessions" were to be used as propaganda at the Second Internationale communist Bertram Russell War Crimes trial of America to be held in Cuba. A paper I wrote on this, "Cuban Program," can be found on the internet.
FP: How have we made the Cubans account for these crimes? You would think there would be some payback and, if anything, some pressure to get information on POWs.
Benge: Since we have no diplomatic relations with Cuba and since it is still a communist dictatorship, there is very little if anything other than ban the travel to the U.S. of those involved. Also, the U.S. has literally swept this issue under the rug, and I rather doubt that you will find anything in the historical writings on the Vietnam War of the Cuban involvement, other than the book published by the government, "Return with Honor," about the POWs, and there if very little in it. You can find my research on the "Cuban Program" on line, and in it, you will see when approaches were made to the USG about providing information on U.S. POWs in Cuba, the USG's response was to ignore it. The office in DID in charge of accounting for the POW/MIAs has never investigated the Cuban connection to American POWs despite intel intercepts that Cubans were guarding POWs in Laos, Intel reports that 17 Americans POWs from Vietnam were being held in Cuba, Intel reports of Cubans interrogating POW at COSVN headquarters in Cambodia and that all of the historical records of the same Cuban engineering unit that maintained a good stretch of the Ho Chi Minh trail was captured at the airfield in Grenada when the U.S. invaded that country.
FP: Former POW Air Force Colonel Donald "Digger" Odell has stated that two American POWs were left behind when other POWS were released in the 1973 Operation Homecoming. This is an outrage. Can you tell us about this?
Benge: Two American POWs were virtually tortured senseless by these Cuban tortures. One, if not both, were taken to a hospital and given electric shock treatments that left them comatose. They either died from this or were killed.
FP: The U.S. Government is complicit in sweeping all of these outrages under the rug. Why?
Benge: I lay part of the blame on the fact that our politicians lost a winnable war. You are at a great disadvantage in getting the truth out of the enemy when you lose, instead of winning -- rather like being a eunuch. The American and Vietnamese military were not defeated by the NVA, but were betrayed and defeated by politicians in the United States. These same politicians, such as John Kerry, and later, John McCain, as U.S. senators in 1993, swept it all under the rug when they were members of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs and issued their final report that there was no evidence that any POWs were still alive in Vietnam. Neither was there evidence that they were dead. Our government gave the North Vietnamese a list of over 300 POWs that were last known to be alive and in the hands of the North Vietnamese. To this date, only a handful of remains of these POWs have been returned. This begs the question, "What is the fate of those not yet accounted for?" Yet Senators McCain and Kerry, apologists and advocates for the North Vietnamese communists, claim that they are fully cooperating in the accounting process. I beg to differ with them.
FP: What are the motives of people like McCain and Kerry?
Benge: Senator John Kerry has always had a love affair with the communists and was called the Ambassador for the communist Sandinistas after he was first elected, and floated and tried to sell their platform for a cessation of hostilities (concede the war to them) while in congress, although it was in violation of U.S. law.
John McCain is conundrum, not to be confused with a similar-sounding word, a synonym of "scumbag," that he frequently uses to describe veterans and others who oppose his positions on Vietnam including POW/MIA activists. John is a narcissist and lives off of getting all the attention possible. He loves to be in the limelight, and to do so, he takes controversial positions, and Vietnam. He's the epitome of Rudyard Kipling's: if I were King. He has the dream to be President, and will do anything to achieve his dream, right or wrong, it's part of his strategy. He and John Kerry are identical twins in this matter.
FP: Can you tell us about some accounts of American POWs that were still in Vietnam after the war?
Benge: I cannot tell you accounts of POWs still in Vietnam after the war, but I can tell you that there was evidence that POWs were still alive after the war. In 1991, we had two satellite images of two Americans in North Vietnamese who has stamped out their pilot authenticator codes in the grass in the compound where they were being held. Although Marine Pvt. Garwood testified in close session of congress to a number of American POWs he saw while in North Vietnam after the war, this information has never been declassified. The U.S. gave the North Vietnamese a list of over 300 Americans who were known to have been captured alive and were in the hands of the North Vietnamese, but only a handful of remains of these POWs have ever been returned. Of the remains returned, several were "green" showing signs that they were of POWs alive several years after the war. Senators John Kerry and John McCain parsed the summary of the 1993 report by the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs so that it implied that although there was evidence that some Americans had been left behind, there was no compelling evidence that were alive at that time. What they deliberately forgot to say is that neither was there evidence that they were dead.
Let's also remember that in the early 90s, a Russian pilot, Alex Zuyev defected with a Mig 29 and flew to Turkey, and then came to the U.S. Later he wrote a book called "Fulcrum". In his debriefings he was asked if he had seen American pilots in Russia that were captured in IndoChina. He said personally, he had not; however, his instructors at flight school said that much of their technical data and flying methods were learned from captured American pilots, and that they had participated in the interrogations of American POWs. There has been a number of live sighting reports of American POWs in the Soviet Union, and fellow former POW Red McDaniels believes his co-pilot Kelly Paterson is still alive and in Kazakhstan where much of the Soviet's aerospace research has been done. Zuyev was killed in an airshow.
FP: You note that we lost a winnable war. Could you talk a bit about how we could have won and who or what is responsible for us losing? Many North Vietnamese leaders have already conceded that they are grateful to the anti-war movement here in the U.S. -- which they credit for handing them the victory.
Benge: If you read the memories of people like North Vietnam's Defense Minister General Giap, he as does several others, states that we had North Vietnam on their knees and they were staring at defeat if the U.S. had continued the war. Vietnamization was a success, for the South Vietnamese successfully beat back and defeated the North Vietnamese in their two major offensives after the U.S. had pulled out. However, the South Vietnamese still had U.S. air support. It was when U.S. politicians, using Senator John Kerry's false testimony before the Foreign Relations committee, cut off all funding for military operations in S.E. Asia, which meant that we could no longer provide resupplies or air support to the South Vietnamese. Senator John Kerry is immortalized with his picture in Vietnam's war museums as the epitome of the anti-war movement that helped the North Vietnamese win the war.
FP: The Cuban torturers like "Fidel", "Chico" and "Pancho" who tortured and killed American POWs in Vietnam, where are they now? Is it possible to identify them and, ideally, inflict some damage on them?
Benge: In my research paper "The Cuban Program" (on line), I identify Fidel (Maj. Alegret), something that DIA and the CIA said they couldn't do, and that man is now the Minister of Education in Cuba. This ID was verified by POWs who had been tortured by the Cubans.
FP: You note that 80 percent of North Vietnamese targets could have been struck by American battleships and that American lives or aircraft did not have to be endangered. This is simply infuriating and mind boggling. Why wasn’t this strategy pursued?
Benge: The reason this strategy wasn't pursued was the fault of MIT wiz kid Defense Secretary McNamara because he wanted to test and do studies on our aircraft, munitions and attack strategies (e.g., our first stealth the F-111s), as well as North Vietnam's defense systems (SAMs, etc.).
FP: You have made the comment that it appears as if some in the Department of Defense intentionally aided the North Vietnamese by handing them some of our best and brightest military minds. Could you comment on this?
Benge: There are many pilots who worked in may of our very most top secret missile, electronics warfare and other programs lost in Vietnam who should never had been allowed to participate in that conflict. There are indications of a jump in Soviet Technology correlated to certain pilots lost in Vietnam, and there have been books written by Soviet's in their aircraft industry giving thanks our American friends (POWs) who helped us develop this technology.
FP: Perhaps it is too late now to rescue the American POWs that our government betrayed and left behind. Maybe most of them have died, been killed etc. While we must still try to find them, we can also still work on getting to the truth about their fate. What hope is there that we can get to the bottom of what happened to the POWS that were left behind in Southeast Asia?
Benge: The only way we will ever get an honest accounting of the fate of the POWs is if Vietnam has a democratic government. We must not forget that Vietnam also controls Laos where over 550 Americans were Missing in Action, and those captured were taken by the North Vietnamese. Only a handful of these people have been accounted for. If Vietnam goes democratic, Laos will follow.
FP: Mike Benge, thank you for joining us today. You are a great American hero and we support your valiant efforts.
Benge: Jamie: I want to thank you for the opportunity to discuss these issues. The POW/MIA issue is extremely important, and I only wish that more people were working on it. Not only is it important to get the fullest possible accounting for our POW/MIAs for the Vietnam War, but for the Korean War, World War II and the Cold War, but what we do or don't do now in accounting for these POWs will determine what will be done in accounting for our missing men and women in future wars.
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