Joe Shannon’s life course was set forever one day in 1927, when he was just 6 years old. His dad took him to Roberts Field in Birmingham to see Charles Lindbergh make a stop on the triumphant national barnstorming tour that followed his solo flight across the Atlantic in The Spirit of St. Louis.
“I saw my first airplane up close, and I made up my mind that I wanted to be a pilot,” Shannon tells me. “That’s all I ever wanted to do.”
Shannon, now 86, has flown everything — J-3 Piper Cubs, P-51 Mustang fighters, B-25 bombers, C-47 transports, and more. He flew in World War II and the Korean War. He was a corporate pilot after retiring from the military.
Pictures hanging in the study in Shannon’s Birmingham apartment show him with such dignitaries as World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker; Air Force general Jimmy Doolittle, who led the first bombing raids on Japan in 1942; and even Lindbergh, who Shannon was chosen to escort when he made an appearance in Birmingham in the 1970s. Shannon looks comfortable with these people. He belongs in that class.
Any of these connections to history would make Shannon a good interview, but none of them explains why I was so anxious to spend time with him, or why I found his story so moving.
Shannon is the last survivor of a group of Alabama Air National Guard pilots who flew B-26 bombers in combat at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in April 1961, during the U.S. government’s failed attempt to use Cuban exiles to invade the island and stir up a popular revolt against Fidel Castro.
One of Shannon’s best friends died during the mission, along with three other members of the Alabama Air Guard. Although Shannon survived, he was forced to endure nearly two decades of silence before being allowed to tell anyone — even the families of his dead comrades — what really happened.
I'm not the first reporter to talk to Shannon, but he's my first chance to sweeten the dry facts of history with blood and flesh, to look into the eyes and hear the voice of a participant in a major historical event.
Even better, this event has a Birmingham connection — back to the Alabama Air Guard base on the north side of Municipal Airport, just blocks from the quiet working-class enclave of East Lake where I grew up.
The call to adventure
It was December 1960 when Shannon, a Lieutenant Colonel and commander of the Alabama Guard’s 106th Bombardment Squadron, and Major Riley Shamburger, his friend and operations officer, were summoned to the office of their base commander.
They found Brigadier Gen. Reid Doster waiting there with two representatives from the Central Intelligence Agency. “We were not even given their names,” Shannon says. The meeting was his introduction to the strange customs and shifting identities of the world of covert operations.
Doster had been asked by the CIA to recruit pilots, crewmen and mechanics willing to train and provide logistical support for a group of Cuban exiles that would fly B-26 bombers in support of an invasion. The landing would be carried out by Cuban exile ground troops, also trained and equipped by the CIA
The Alabama Air Guard unit was picked for the mission because they had flown B-26s until 1958, more recently than other U.S. guard units. Doster wanted Shannon and Shamburger, who were among his highest-ranking officers and best-qualified people, to participate.
The goal of removing Castro from power was appealing to Shannon. “I was very anti-Castro,” Shannon says. “I grew up despising dictators. I didn’t like the fact that he had established a Communist dictatorship right at our back door.”
According to Shannon, the other guys in the Guard, including Shamburger, felt the same. “I felt like it was an opportunity, an adventure for a worthwhile cause,” Shannon says.
Shannon, then 39, had his concerns, however, regarding his wife, Helen, and their children, Lauren, Joe, Jr., and Malcolm. “It was hard to agree to go on an operation like this without being able to tell my family where I was going and what I was doing,” he recalls. “I didn’t make a spontaneous decision. I thought about it overnight.”
I asked him if Shamburger, who was 36, also needed time to think. “I don’t remember,” Shannon says. “I don’t think he committed right on the spot. But we went together. We felt like we were in this thing together.”
The two men accepted, but still needed something to tell their families. “I just told them I was going to a classified training,” Shannon says. Shamburger, according to one account, told his family that he was going to train some foreign pilots on the B-26.
Neither man had any reason to believe that he would never see his family again. They expected to serve only in supporting roles, not in combat.
Secret airfield, Cuban exiles & high hopes
Shannon, Shamburger and the other advisors trained the Cuban pilots in the weeks prior to the invasion at a secret airfield at Retalhuleu in the Sierra Madre Mountains in Guatemala, next to a banana plantation owned by the United Fruit Company.
The exiles — called the Cuban Liberation Air Force — flew B-26 bombers taken from the U.S. Air Force mothball fleet in Arizona and painted to look like the B-26s used by Castro’s air force. “The cover story was to have been that these people were members of Castro’s armed forces that defected and took their airplanes with them,” Shannon says.
The efforts at secrecy didn’t stop there. Shannon, Shamburger and the other Americans wore civilian clothing and assumed new identities.
“We had phony ID – phony Social Security, driver’s license, home address, name and none of our clothing had American markings in it, like ‘Made in the U.S.A.’’ Shannon says. “It was all sanitized.”
Both aircraft and personnel were, in Agency parlance, “sheep-dipped” to the CIA — meaning their true origins or affiliations were obscured in case they should be captured.
Shannon and Shamburger became full-fledged members of the CIA. This occurred in Washington, D.C., where they spent most of January and February of 1961 using their knowledge of the B-26 to assist CIA personnel who were planning the invasion. “Out of the 75 or 80 people from Birmingham and vicinity who were involved, we were the only two who were actually hired by the CIA,” Shannon says. “The others were employed by a front company.”
Shannon was confident in the Cubans he was training in Guatemala, although some had no combat experience. “I had never seen such a determined bunch in all my life,” Shannon says. “I have never seen American pilots who were as determined.”
He admired their esprit de corp. “They were closer than any group of military people that I’ve ever known,” he says. “They were a real family. And they were real emotional about it sometimes.”
Shannon identified strongly with the Cubans’ cause — what they saw as the liberation of their homeland. “These people, the fact that they left Cuba and went into exile, they developed a hatred of the Cuban military and the Cuban government,” he says. “They had a lot of personal reasons that those of us who fought in Word War II didn’t have.”
In March 1961, just weeks before the invasion, the operation ran into problems, due largely to politics.
The CIA had cooked up the idea for the invasion in the waning months of the Eisenhower administration and, according to some intelligence analysts and historians, grossly overestimated the popular resistance to Castro within Cuba.
The recently inaugurated U.S. President John F. Kennedy was never comfortable with this plan he inherited, and — along with his advisers — meddled clumsily in the military details.
Kennedy — anxious to maintain plausible deniability regarding the U.S. role — ordered the CIA to scale back the size of the invasion and move it from Trinidad, a city on Cuba’s southern coast, to a less visible site.
According to Shannon, CIA planners believed that Trinidad was a hotbed of resistance to Castro, making it an ideal place to spark a rebellion. Trinidad is also surrounded by the Escambray Mountains, meaning the exiles could have fought their way into the hills and joined anti-Castro guerrillas already operating there if the landing did not go well.
However, the high visibility of a landing at Trinidad made the president nervous. “Kennedy wanted it look from the very beginning like it was planned and executed by a bunch of Cubans in exile,” Shannon says.
The CIA moved the invasion to the Bay of Pigs, or Bahia de Chochinos, also on the island’s southern coast, because the nearby town of Giron had an airfield that could be used by B-26s. The site was surrounded by swamps, meaning the invaders would have no mountain escape route. “The Cubans that invaded at the Bay of Pigs were trained in the mountains in Guatemala,” Shannon says. “They weren’t trained for an operation into a swampland.”
On to “Happy Valley”
In April 1961, two weeks before the invasion, the Cuban pilots and American advisors moved from Guatemala to another secret base — called “Happy Valley” — at Puerto Cabezas on the east coast of Nicaragua.
Shannon, Shamburger and the others prepared the Cuban pilots for a series of critically important bombing strikes on Castro’s air fields.
“We knew from the beginning that the only way this operation could succeed was to have absolute mastery of the air,” Shannon says. “The 16 airplanes we had planned were for the sole purpose of destroying Castro’s air force.”
Even a few enemy aircraft would be able to wreak havoc on the invaders, especially since the B-26s would have no fighter cover. There were no fighters available for the operation that could fly round-trip from Nicaragua.
The Cuban pilots and their advisers received a devastating blow just before the bombing runs: Kennedy ordered that the number of B-26s be reduced from 16 to eight.
According to Shannon, part of Kennedy’s motivation may have been to preserve the cover story that the operation was carried out by defectors from Castro’s military. “An organized, 16-plane raid on the three airfields Castro had wouldn’t exactly have fit that profile,” he says.
As a result, the bombing runs on April 15, two days before the invasion, did not completely destroy Castro’s small air force. Even though few of his airplanes survived — “Maybe less than eight, somewhere between six and eight,” Shannon estimates — this would later prove decisive.
According to Shannon, a second B-26 strike planned for dusk on April 15 was cancelled by the White House after word of the invasion reached the United Nations during the day, causing a controversy.
“If we had had the follow-up mission, there’s no question in my mind that we would have destroyed the rest of his airplanes, and we knew where his tanks were concentrated,” Shannon says.
A third strike on Castro’s air fields, scheduled for the early morning of April 17, was also scrubbed.
Brigade 2506 lost in the swamps
The invasion at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961 — an amphibious assault by approximately 1,200 exiles, who called themselves Brigade 2506 — was a disaster, largely because of Castro’s few remaining fighter planes. “They sank two of the invading ships, one which had the reserve ammunition aboard and the other had communications equipment and field hospital,” Shannon says.
Brigade 2506 inflicted heavy casualties on Castro’s forces but were gradually pushed back onto the beach and into the swamps. By the morning of the third day, April 19, it was clear the operation had failed. “We were terribly let down that the whole thing had collapsed, and feeling terribly sorry for the poor guys who were stranded on the beach with no re-supply, no water, nothing,” Shannon says.
To make matters worse, the Cuban air crews were emotionally and physically drained by the long flights between the base in Nicaragua and the beachhead in Cuba, and only two pilots were able to fly. “Two planes weren’t enough to give any kind of coverage on the beachhead,” Shannon says.
This would necessitate one final heroic, and very costly, gesture by the Alabama Air Guard.
Shannon & Shamburger’s final mission
The CIA base commander at Happy Valley, who called himself “Gar,” received a telegram from his bosses in D.C. on April 18, 1961, authorizing the use of American pilots, as long as they remained over the beachhead and sea approaches. They were not to fly inland, which would increase the chance of them being shot down or captured, thereby confirming America’s involvement.
“Cannot attach sufficient importance to fact American crews must not fall into hands enemy,” the telegram reads, according to a sanitized copy obtained by Shannon in the late 1990s from declassified CIA documents. “In event this happens all precautions crews must state hired mercenaries, fighting communism, etc; US will deny any knowledge.”
According to Shannon, there had been plans all along to use American pilots if the Cubans could not continue flying. “Riley and I were not included in this contingency plan,” Shannon says.
On the April 19, however, only two of the designated American pilots — Thomas W. “Pete” Ray” and Billy Goodwin – were available at Happy Valley. The others had been sent temporarily on other assignments.
Gar asked Shannon and Shamburger if they would be willing to fly, even though they had been told previously by the Agency they would not be allowed to fly into Cuba due to security concerns.
“He had no authority to let us go, and we knew that we weren’t supposed to go, but we had become so attached to the Cubans down there, that their fight was our fight,” Shannon says. “So we agreed to fly this last-minute, desperation mission just to let these guys know they weren’t forgotten.”
Shannon flew that day with Carl “Nick” Sudano serving as navigator. Shamburger flew with Wade Gray. Billy Goodwin flew with James Vaughan, and Pete Ray with Leo Baker. Two Cuban pilots, Gonzalo Herrera and Mario Zuniga, refused to stand down from the mission, despite their exhaustion.
Shannon and Shamburger made landfall about 20 miles east of the Bay of Pigs, then turned and followed the coastline. It was about 6 o’clock in the morning. As they approached the beachhead, they identified a column of military vehicles as their first target.
“Riley says, ‘You have the napalm. You go in first,’” Shannon recalls. “So he moved from my right wing to my left wing, and we were lined up on our first pass going into this column of vehicles, and Riley yelled over the radio, ‘I’m hit! I’m hit!’”
Shannon saw white smoke coming from Shamburger’s B-26. Shamburger and Gray were headed into the water in a shallow dive, at about 300 mph, and a Cuban T-33 jet fighter was on their tail.
“I knew I had to do something in a hurry, because I was probably next,” Shannon says. “Being a WWII fighter pilot, my reaction was the only logical thing to do. I turned into the T-33.”
Shannon also dropped his napalm and other ordnance. “I didn’t drop it on or near any target,” he says. “I was just getting rid of extra weight so I could get up more speed.
“That T-33 pulled up to avoid me, and I just continued on around,” Shannon says. “I never did see the T-33 again. He was almost vertical when I saw him last.”
Shannon, in making his escape, took advantage of the early-morning sun, which he says was hanging right on the coast: “When I turned into him, I turned into the sun, so I got as close to the water as I could, and full throttle for about five minutes, and if the T-33 tried to find me, he would have been looking into the sun and would have had a real rough time.”
After about 15 or 20 miles Shannon and Sudano turned south and gained altitude for their return to Happy Valley in Nicaragua.
“I saw two unmarked navy airplanes as I was going out, and they were going in toward the beachhead,” Shannon says. They were A-4 jet fighters from a U.S. Navy task force nearby — part of the vast American arsenal that went unused despite persistent rumors that the Navy might provide air cover over the beachhead.
Dealing with loss
Shannon’s nickname in the service, according to one source, was “Shaky Joe,” because he was so unflappable. Like many men of his generation, Shannon doesn’t go for cheap displays of emotion. I discovered this during our first visit, at the Southern Museum of Flight.
What did he think when he saw Riley and Wade plunging to their deaths? Did he even have time to think?
“I don’t quite remember what my reaction was at the time,” Shannon says. “I know I was mad when we got back, and I wanted to go back and do some more damage to the Cubans. But I was a fighter pilot in World War II, and I saw lots of my friends go down, and it was the same sort of reaction I got then.”
A few nights later on the telephone, I asked Shannon to tell me more about that anger he said he felt when he landed at Happy Valley. Was he mad at the Cubans? At the U.S. government? At the situation?
“I was probably angry at the situation,” Shannon says. “I don’t think the human element entered into it.”
What went through Shannon’s mind during that three-hour flight back to base?
“It was a feeling of sadness about having lost a friend and seeing him go down,” Shannon says. “Unfortunately, that was not the first opportunity I had had to see something like that.”
Shannon told me about the summer of 1943 in North Africa. He was in the U.S. Army Air Forces, flying P-38 Lightning fighters against Germans ME-109s. In one particularly bloody engagement, his fighter group lost 22 pilots in two days — including four of Shannon’s friends. “There were five of us in a tent, and after two days I was the only one left, and I saw some of them go down,” he says.
It was still tough to lose Shamburger.
“I wouldn’t say best friends, but we were very close,” Shannon recalls. “I had a lot of respect for Riley and his ability, and we partied together. In the afternoons after our work, we’d go by the Airport Inn frequently, and a lot of the mechanics from the flight line would be with us. We’d stop by and have a beer or two on our way home. Our families met together on occasion. We were just close friends. He was just a happy-go-lucky individual. He didn't care whether school kept or not.”
Shannon also realized that he could easily have been the one who was killed. “I would have been the target of the T-33 if Riley had not moved from my right wing,” he says.
In a third follow-up interview at Shannon’s apartment, I asked one more time about the nature of his anger when he got back to base that day.
“You said you were angry at the situation. Is there anything else you can put into words?" I asked.
“Well, before we took off, we felt like it was a futile trip,” Shannon says. “We knew that it wouldn’t have any effect on the outcome of the war.”
“Yes, sir,” I say, a phrase I used a lot while talking to him. After all, underneath the hip veneer, I’m just an Alabama boy with an innate respect for men who have been in combat, especially those of the same generation as my dad, now deceased, a Navy vet born in 1921, the same year as Shannon.
“Our primary concern was to make sure that the poor guys stranded on the beach knew that they weren’t forgotten,” Shannon says.
So, Shannon and Shamburger — two battle-tested officers who had already seen their share of death, two men who had families waiting at home — made an almost romantic gesture for men they saw as their brothers-in-arms, flying a mission they were never supposed to fly, and only one came home to tell the tale.
Riley’s and Gray’s bodies were never recovered. Shannon recalls the memorial service held for Shamburger in Birmingham. “In fact, I went by and picked up Candy, their daughter, and took her to the service,” he says.
Shamburger and Grey were not the only Alabamians to lose their lives that day. Pete Ray and Leo Baker were shot down and killed on the ground by Cuban soldiers.
Shannon was not allowed to tell Riley’s wife, Jane, what really happened. He couldn’t even tell his own wife, Helen. The operation was classified, and Shannon and Shamburger had been CIA employees. “We had sort of an oath with the CIA,” Shannon says.
“It was tough,” Shannon says. “And other people that were involved didn’t have that restriction, and I would hear stories of people talking about what was going on down there, and I knew it was not exactly as it happened, but I couldn’t say anything at all about it.”
The Agency began to lift the veil in the late 1970s. Shannon was out of the military then, having retired in 1972 to become a commercial pilot.
“Apparently, the CIA might have been given a lot of pressure to find out exactly what happened to these people,” Shannon says, referring to the deceased Guardsmen.
“I got a call late at night from a general counsel from the CIA saying that I was free to tell the families anything they wanted to know about the whole operation,” Shannon says. “I don’t know which year, but it was probably at least 15 years after the operations.”
Shannon was finally able to tell Jane Shamburger what happened. “Before that I don’t think I ever had anything to say to her, didn’t discuss it at all,” he says.
Shannon says that he felt free to talk about the operation. “I assumed it was declassified as far as anyone was concerned because the families could speak to anyone they wanted to about it, and if they could, I thought I could, too,” he explains.
The CIA apparently didn’t feel the same way. In 1978 the Agency, while posthumously awarding the Distinguished Intelligence Cross, the Agency’s highest award for bravery, to Gray, Shamburger, Ray and Baker, still asked the families not to tell anyone how their loved ones died.
It was not until 1997 that the families were invited to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., for the unveiling of the Wall of Honor, meant to commemorate 70 people — including the Alabama Guardsmen — who had died while working for the CIA.
And it was not until May 1999 that the CIA finally admitted publicly that the four men died on assignment for the Agency at the Bay of Pigs.
The survivors began to receive some recognition. In Birmingham in 2001, Shannon, Carl Sudano and the survivors of three other participants were awarded the CIA Seal Medallion. Shannon has also received, among other honors, the Cuban Liberation Air Force Medal for Valor and an honorary membership in Brigade 2506.
Many of the participants in the operation have nurtured strong friendships, sometimes by attending special events, including Bay of Pigs reunions in Miami. Shannon remains in close touch with numerous Bay of Pigs veterans, including Carl Sudano and Gustavo “Gus” Ponzoa, one of two Cuban pilots Shannon traned for an attack on Castro’s airfield at Santiago de Cuba.
The ongoing battle
The main beneficiary of the operation was, ironically, Fidel Castro, who used this evidence of “Yankee aggression” to secure his status as a revolutionary hero and to tighten his grip on power in Cuba, where he remains in office to this day.
Even after 46 years, the Bay of Pigs isn’t over — not for the Cuban exiles who failed to retake their island and have never been able to go home, and not for the Americans who lost four of their friends. “I think about them a lot,” Shannon says.
It’s not over for Castro, who still exploits the Cuban people’s memory of the invasion, even when not mentioning it directly. In June of this year, in an editorial in the Cuban Communist Party’s official newspaper, Castro accused George Bush of wanting to invade Cuba and warned his people that they should be prepared to make more sacrifices to remain independent.
In fact, as Shannon discovered, Castro may still have scores he’d like to settle with some of the Americans who tried to take him out.
Shannon was informed of his inclusion on a Castro “hit list” by a journalist from Los Angeles who went to Cuba in 1998 to cover the visit of Pope John Paul and subsequently visited the Cuban government’s archives. “I don’t know whether he saw it or somebody told him, but he got my name down there going through the archives, and he told me that I was on their ‘blacklist,’” Shannon says.
Shannon received further confirmation of his presence on this list from the U.S. government in 2002. He had been invited to visit Cuba with a group from Duke University, but was warned by the State Department that it might not be safe for him. “They didn’t say ‘don’t go,’ but they suggested I not,” Shannon says.
This means that Shannon — like the aging veterans of the Cuban Liberation Air Force and Brigade 2506 — will probably never see Cuba, a country he almost died for.
Still, Shannon believes that Cuba has a bright future. “It may not be in my lifetime, ‘cause that would have to be right away,” he says, laughing, “but I think eventually they’ll get rid of Castro and if they do, and get rid of his brother, and establish a more democratic type of government, I think that Cuba has all sorts of potential. They got lots of smart people down there. It’s a beautiful country.”
Shannon thinks a lot about what might have been. “There’s no question in my mind that [the operation] would have been successful if it had been executed as planned,” Shannon says. “Operations of this kind are always a compromise between military and political, and in most cases where there is a failure, the political dominates, and that was certainly the case at the Bay of Pigs.”