In April 1961, the Central Intelligence Agency — using air and ground forces made up of Cuban exiles — tried unsuccessfully to invade Cuba and spark an uprising against President Fidel Castro. The Cuban leader was an avowed Communist, and the U.S. government had come to view his presence — only 90 miles from the coast of Florida — as intolerable.
Gen. Reid Doster and the Alabama Air National Guard in Birmingham, under the supervision of the CIA, 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.
It was understood by Doster and Alabama Gov. John Patterson, who in the fall of 1960 gave Doster permission to participate, that Air Guard personnel would not see combat. That would change, however, on the final, desperate day of the operation.
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, and four men — pilots Thomas “Pete” Ray and Riley Shamburger, and their crewmen, Leo Baker and Wade Gray — were killed.
Last Thursday night, at the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, more than 200 people gathered to honor the members of the Alabama Air National Guard and the other American and Cuban air and ground crews who participated in this doomed invasion.
About a dozen of the surviving American veterans and a roughly equal number of Cuban veterans were present, along with friends and family.
Also in attendance were current members of the Alabama Air Guard, members of the Birmingham Aero Club, and such dignitaries as former Gov. Patterson and Alabama native and retired U.S. Air Force General Harry “Heinie” Aderholt, who helped plan the operation.
The ostensible reason for the gathering — co-sponsored by the museum and Compass Bank — was the unveiling in the museum’s Early Aviation Hall of a Bay of Pigs commemorative oil painting commissioned by the CIA. Lobo Flight, which will soon be on display in the Intelligence Art Gallery at the CIA’s headquarters in McLean, Va., depicts a scene from an air attack on one of Castro’s troop convoys.
“The painting is a permanent icon representing the sacrifice of CIA and Alabama National Guard and Cuban pilots in an attempt to free a beautiful island from communism,” said artist Jeffrey Bass in his remarks during the unveiling. Bass is known for military and historical subjects and for portraits of such establishment luminaries as George H.W. Bush.
The more important reason for the event was to give the aging veterans at least one more chance to get together — to honor the living, to remember the dead and to celebrate friendships forged in the crucible of combat.
Warren Trest, historian and author of Wings of Denial, an account of the Air Guard’s role in the operation, was one of the featured speakers at the unveiling ceremony. “The Cubans and Americans formed bonds that have lasted a lifetime,” Trest said. “They were brothers. They are brothers.”
Ghost at the party
One prominent though uninvited guest at this event — and, I suspect, at virtually any gathering of what one might call the Bay of Pigs extended family — was the late President John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy’s presence is inescapable because virtually everyone connected to the invasion seems convinced that it would have succeeded — and that many American and Cuban lives would have been saved — if the president had not interfered in the operational details.
Kennedy was inaugurated in January 1961 and inherited the CIA’s original invasion plan from the Eisenhower administration. He allowed the operation to proceed but was never comfortable with it and desperately wished to conceal American involvement.
Kennedy forced the CIA to move the invasion site from Trinidad, a large city on Cuba’s southern coast, to the Bay of Pigs. The new site was more sparsely populated but was surrounded by swamps and was a poor landing area.
He forced the CIA to drastically curtail the number of bombing runs the exiles and their American advisors had planned to destroy Castro’s air force on the ground.
He refused to allow a U.S. Navy task force in the area to take an active part in protecting the beachhead from Castro’s forces, including his remaining aircraft.
“History cannot be turned, but I wish our president at the time had listened to the CIA and his military advisors,” said Dr. Eduardo Zayas-Bazan, a Cuban-born writer and Bay of Pigs veteran, and an American citizen, in his remarks during the ceremony.
American veteran Nick Sudano, who flew into combat in a B-26 with Lt. Col. Joe Shannon of the Air Guard and narrowly avoided being shot down by a Cuban T-33 fighter, was quite blunt when asked before the ceremony what prevented the operation from succeeding.
“Kennedy should have been impeached,” Sudano said, citing in particular the President’s withdrawal of air support. “He served his political purposes and that was it.”
Even after all these years, the veterans remain frustrated about the failure of the operation and the political consequences of that failure, especially in Latin America.
“Had we won, there would not have been a Cuban Missile Crisis or a Venezuela with Hugo Chavez or a Nicaragua with the Sandinistas or a Bolivia with political unrest, so we are still paying for the Bay of Pigs debacle,” Zayes-Bazan said.
“Well, I don’t want to get into a discussion of all of those things,” Patterson replied. “It happened so long ago. I know if I had it all to do it over again, I’d ask a lot more questions.”
In his remarks during the ceremony, Patterson described his meeting in 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 had worked for President Eisenhower for a time during the war in London and Algiers and knew him casually and liked him,” Patterson said. “I asked the CIA guy, ‘Does the old man know?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘And he wants me too do it?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he said.”
Patterson agreed to allow Doster and the Air Guard to participate. “We were young and gung ho and ready for excitement,” Patterson recalls. “And in those days when the president asked you to do something, you did it.”
Patterson described the distress and confusion he and his staff experienced after the failure of the invasion. “This was a bad time,” he said.
“When it failed, we couldn’t get 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.
The former governor recalled a meeting he had later in the White House with President Kennedy. “John, I’m sorry about those Alabama boys. I hope I live long enough to be able to do something to honor them for their service to their country,” Kennedy told him.