He met Charles Lindbergh when the aviator landed at Robert’s Field in Birmingham in 1927 during the barnstorming tour that followed his historic solo flight to Paris. Shannon, 6 years old, knew that day he wanted to be a pilot.
Shannon flew Spitfire and P-38 fighters in Europe and North Africa and B-25 bombers in South Asia with the Army Air Corps during World War II. He was awarded many decorations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. He served in the Alabama Air National Guard for 32 years.
Shannon was a founding director of Birmingham’s Southern Museum of Flight, was active in two local flight clubs (always taking time to encourage novice pilots, I’m told) and continued to fly his small plane until two weeks before his death.
Perhaps most important, Shannon was devoted for 56 years to his late wife, Helen Hodgson Shannon. And when he died at home in Birmingham last week after a short illness at the age of 88, he left behind three children and seven grandchildren.
It’s no wonder that Elmwood Chapel was packed Saturday, Jan. 9, for Shannon’s memorial service, or that more than 100 people endured brutal cold to see the veteran be laid to rest with military honors at Elmwood Cemetery nearby.
However, there is another event in Shannon’s life that will assure his place in history and which caused the news of his death to be carried by hundreds of newspapers and web sites.
Shannon was the last survivor of a group of pilots from the Alabama Air National Guard who flew in combat as part of the ill-fated, CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Fidel Castro’s Cuba by Cuban exiles in the spring of 1961. Shannon and the other members of the Guard were tapped by the CIA to provide training and logistical support to the exiles.
The CIA promised Alabama governor John Patterson, whose approval was needed for the guard to participate, that no Alabamian would be placed in harm’s way, but as the military situation in the poorly planned operation deteriorated, Shannon and several other Alabama pilots and airmen were allowed to fly in support of their Cuban exile comrades. Four men died, including Riley Shamburger, a guard pilot and one of Shannon’s best friend.
“It was a defining moment in his life,” his son Lewis Shannon told Jeremy Gray of The Birmingham News. It was also a moment that Shannon and the others were not allowed to talk about until the CIA admitted in 2001 that the men killed in the operation were working for the agency.
For those wishing to learn more about the guard’s involvement in the Bay of Pigs, I suggest the book Wings of Denial: The Alabama Air National Guard’s Covert Role at the Bay of Pigs (New South Books), written by military historians Donald Dodd and Warren Trest.
I wrote a cover story for Birmingham Weekly about Shannon and the guard’s role in the operation in 2007, “The good fight: The true story of the Alabama Air Guard at the Bay of Pigs.”
Shannon’s death, on Tuesday, Jan. 5, received coverage in scores of newspapers and web sites nationally, with most outlets running an Associated Press wire story from reporter Jay Reeves, “Bay of Pigs pilot Joe Shannon dies at 88 in Ala.”
Shannon’s death received international coverage, as well; for example, his obit appeared on Jan. 11 on the web site of the British newspaper The Independent.
The web site aero-news.net ran a tribute to Shannon called “Gone West: Joe Shannon.”
Jesse Chambers is special projects editor of Birmingham Weekly. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.