The invasion was a military and public relations disaster, as 1,500 Cuban exile troops were captured by Castro’s forces and the American hand in the operation exposed. If the United States operated under a parliamentary system, the young President John F. Kennedy, who approved the invasion, might have been thrown out of office.
Many Alabamians are unaware that the Alabama Air National Guard (ANG) in Birmingham played an important role in the CIA’s doomed operation. The Guard provided virtually all the training and support for the Cuban exile bomber pilots. And in the final, desperate hours of the doomed Bay of Pigs landing, eight Alabamians flew into combat in relief of exhausted Cuban air crews, and four were killed.
According to University of Alabama history professor Howard Jones, the Bay of Pigs was a mistake. “Of course, it was an attempt at regime change, which always raises my fears at the beginning,” Jones says. He discusses his findings regarding the invasion and why it failed so badly in his book The Bay of Pigs, published recently in paperback by Oxford University Press. On the occasion of the operation’s 50th anniversary, I talked to Jones about the Bay of Pigs and its implications and spoke to former Alabama Governor John Patterson, who approved the ANG’s participation.
Planning for the operation began in the 1950s under CIA director Allen Dulles, at the behest of President Dwight Eisenhower, and came after successful Agency operations in Iran and Guatemala, according to Jones. “These were places where the CIA had supposedly won the day and pushed out someone who was Communist or left-leaning,” he says. “The CIA appears to be invincible.”
Dulles, according to Jones, came up with a covert action plan to destabilize Castro’s regime using infiltration, guerrilla warfare and other techniques, a plan that was turned over to Richard Bissell, an agency official who was often called the most brilliant man in Washington.
Kennedy was inaugurated in January 1961 and inherited the invasion plan from the Eisenhower administration. A young man who was hungry to make his mark as a world leader, JFK allowed the operation to proceed but never seemed comfortable with it and desperately wished to conceal American involvement.
As documented by Jones and many others, Kennedy forced the CIA to curtail the number of bombing runs the exiles and their American advisors intended to use to destroy Castro’s air force on the ground. He refused to allow a U.S. Navy task force in the area to help protect the beachhead from Castro’s forces, including ok remaining aircraft.
Perhaps most damaging to a plan with, at best, limited prospects for success was Kennedy’s decision to move the invasion site from Trinidad, a large city on Cuba’s southern coast, to the Bay of Pigs. The new site was sparsely populated, surrounded by swamps and was a poor landing area. It was also 80 miles from the mountains, meaning that the exiles would be unable to find refuge from Castro’s army if forced to give up their beachhead.
“I think the fundamental problem in the whole operation [is] that Kennedy was so concerned with politics that it hid military common sense,” Jones said. “You can’t have people do an amphibious landing without air cover. They are dead.”
Many people connected to the invasion, including some of the mechanics, firemen and other personnel recruited for the operation from the ANG and Birmingham’s Hayes Aircraft, remain convinced the invasion would have succeeded if Kennedy had not mucked about in operational details.
The late Donald Crocker, whom I interviewed in 2008, was an ANG aircraft mechanic who worked at the exiles’ air base in Nicaragua. “I wonder why Kennedy pulled the plug when he did,” Crocker said. “Why he changed his mind, why he didn’t give us air support like he said he would. It cost us a lot of good men, Cuban and American.”
While Jones is critical of Kennedy’s performance, he points out that Kennedy was not served well by Bissell. “Kennedy made some mistakes but was operating on information from Bissell,” Jones says. This included the CIA’s poor job of alerting the President to the inadequate nature of Bay of Pigs as a landing site. “Bissell kept this from Kennedy,” according to Jones.
The historian suspects that Bissell’s personal ambition got in the way. “Bissell has already been led to believe that Dulles was to retire soon and Bissell was to be [CIA] director,” Jones says. “If the plan works, he’s got it; if it doesn’t, he won’t. And if he reveals the flaws in the plan, Kennedy might stop it. He had never had a failure. Kennedy, too. They’re thinking that they are controlling things, and they are not controlling anything.”
According to Jones, Bissell allowed the operation to grow far beyond its original scope and didn’t allow the U.S. military to take charge. “The CIA was set up to deal with low-key, covert ops, and that’s how it [the Cuban plan] started under Dulles,” he says. “But Bissell took it several steps higher, and it had grown into a military operation, and then an amphibious operation, and then a nighttime amphibious operation, things that the WWII people wouldn’t have done, and they were the experts. Bissell held onto the operation, and that was a big flaw.”
Gen. Reid Doster and the ANG trained and provided logistical support for what was called the Cuban Liberation Air Force, a group of exiles who flew U.S.-supplied transports and B-26 bombers in the operation. The training took place in Guatemala and Nicaragua.
According to Wayne Novy of the Southern Museum of Flight, a fair number of people in Birmingham are aware of the city’s connection to the Bay of Pigs, but many are confused on the details. “For a certain age level, among older, educated people around Birmingham, I think it’s a pretty well-known thing, but it’s sometimes mixed with [the idea that] it was the Alabama Air National Guard that invaded Cuba,” he says. “Some people think they took planes from the base here and went down to Cuba. Maybe we haven’t done such a good job of educating people of what happened and what their government had been involved in.”
It was understood by Doster and Alabama Gov. John Patterson, who in the fall of 1960 gave the general permission to participate, that ANG personnel would not see combat. Patterson, in a telephone interview, describes his meeting in October 1960 with Gen. Doster and a CIA representative, a meeting held for secrecy’s sake at the governor’s mansion in Montgomery, not the state capitol building. “I worked for Ike at his headquarters in London and Algiers [during WWII], and I had great respect for him,” Patterson says. “And he was the kind of a guy who didn’t go off half-cocked. If he had an attack or invasion, his people were well prepared. I asked the CIA guy, ‘Does the old man know about this?’ He told me he did. ‘And he wants me to do it?’ I asked. ‘Yes, sir,’ the CIA guy said. That was good enough for me. I was young and impetuous and seemed to jump at the chance to get in involved with a revolution to overthrow a corrupt dictator. That fascinated me. You know, I have a lot more sense than that now.”
By the final day of the Bay of Pigs invasion, on April 19, the exile ground troops, called Brigade 2506, were being pushed back into the water by Castro’s forces, and most of the Cuban pilots — physically and emotionally drained after days of flying — were unable to fly cover over the beachhead. As a result, eight pilots and crewman from the Alabama Air Guard flew into combat. As the late Lt. Col. Joe Shannon, a pilot who survived the mission, put it once, “Their fight had become our fight.” Four men from Alabama—pilots Thomas “Pete” Ray and Riley Shamburger, and their crewmen, Leo Baker and Wade Gray—were killed.
Patterson describes the distress and confu sion he experienced after the failure of the invasion. “This was a bad time,” he said. “When it failed, I couldn’t get [the CIA] people on the phone,” Patterson said. “Their phones were disconnected. They had given us fictitious names.” Worst of all, there were four Alabama boys who were not coming back. “A very, very sad thing,” Patterson said.
Patterson was a Democrat who was quite close to President Kennedy and supported his bid for the Democratic nomination in 1960. He recalls a meeting he had with Kennedy later in the White House, at the signing of a federal Appalachian relief bill. “John, I’m sorry about those Alabama boys,” the president told Patterson. “I hope I live long enough to be able to do something to honor them for their service to their country.”
As Patterson notes sadly, “Of course, he would not live long enough,” an allusion to November 22, 1963, when an assassin’s bullet put an end to the idealism of Kennedy’s so-called “New Frontier,” leaving it on the ash heap of history with the dreams of the young Cubans who had wanted so badly to take back their island.
Decades later, historians like Jones continue to ferret out more details regarding adventures like the Bay of Pigs and the presidential administrations that carry them out. Some of the most disturbing revelations in recent years have involved the assassinations or assassination plots involving foreign leaders that the United States took part in, most beginning during the Kennedy administration.
“In the first week of [Kennedy’s] administration, two phone calls go to the CIA telling [them] to set up the executive action capability,” Jones says. “I tried to figure out who would make the calls. It must have been McGeorge Bundy. He was National Security Director, the [administration] liaison to the CIA and a friend of Bissell.”
Jones, in reviewing now-declassified documents, found that the CIA never used the words ‘kill” or “assassinate,” of course. They spoke instead of pushing the “the Magic Button” or exercising “executive capability.”
Castro was the next big target for assassination. “Bissell was given responsibility for coming up with ways to kill Castro,” Jone says. The CIA turned to the Mafia for help, according to Jones, since the mob knew the island of Cuba well and wished to get rid of Castro and re-establish their gambling operations there.
Jones is opposed to these types of govern ment operations. “I think it contradicts everything we stand for when you play around with the CIA and covert ops and that’s the magic step that will get you where you’re going,” he says. “You’re talking about pre-emptive war, assassination, the military as a final solution. It’s a new foreign policy.”
Patterson suggests that contemporary leaders should learn the lessons of the Bay of Pigs. “It’s good to remember some of the lessons that should have been learned at that time about getting involved in things of that kind without being prepared to do it,’ he says. “Our government getting involved in things like that and trying to keep it secret… never seems to work.”
To learn more about the Alabama connection to the Bay of Pigs, read the book Wings of Denial: The Alabama Air National Guard’s Covert Role at the Bay of Pigs, by Warren A. Trest and Donald Dodd (New South Books; a new edition of the book was published recently to commemorate the 50th anniversary).