Back in 1961, the Alabama Air National Guard based in Birmingham played an important role in the CIA’s attempt to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro. The Guard provided virtually all of 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.
You can learn more about this overlooked chapter in state history on Friday, March 28, at 7 p.m., when Alabama Public Television’s Alabama Stories presents a mini-documentary by correspondent Rhonda Colvin. “That Alabama was the only state, along with a little bit of Arkansas, that was involved in this, that was pretty significant,” Colvin says.
Colvin’s interview subjects include former Gov. John Patterson, whose approval was necessary for the Air Guard to participate; Joe Shannon, the last surviving Air Guard pilot who flew in the operation; and several of the Cuban exile pilots, now living in Miami, whose intense desire to return home to Cuba has not been diminished by age or the passing of time.
The correspondent heard a particularly grim tale in Miami from Janet Ray Weininger, daughter of Air Guard pilot Thomas “Pete” Ray, one of the Alabamians killed in the invasion. Weininger told Colvin that the Cubans kept her father’s body refrigerated in a morgue in Havana until 1978, when his remains were finally returned.
“That to me was just so shocking that I hadn't heard it before,” Colvin says. “You would think that this would be a national story, but to know that that one Alabamian was kept down there for about 18 years, that's pretty interesting in the state's history.”
The U.S. government was able to keep the full truth of the Guard's role at the Bay of Pigs hidden until the late 1990s, when the CIA finally begin to release some classified documents. “After the Bay of Pigs, people knew. It wasn't a secret, but the CIA had to keep it a secret, as best they could,” Colvin says.
Colvin also found out first-hand the difficulties for any reporter who pursues a story that involves the CIA, or, as it’s so often called, the Agency. “Since this was a covert operation to begin with, we may never know every single detail,” she says. “Usually, when you research a story, you have cut and dry details, and with this, several documents will say different things. Nothing is the same. You can give the black and white details, but beyond that, I know there are things that we'll never know. That's maddening, of course, to a journalist, but we can at least try.”