When U.S. airstrikes could have destroyed a terrorist regime, freed a nation and altered history.
“Where are the planes?!” kept crackling over U.S. Navy radios exactly 56 years ago this week. The U.S. Naval armada (22 ships including the Carrier Essex loaded with deadly Skyhawk jets.) was sitting 16 miles off the southern Cuban coast near an inlet known as Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). The question — bellowed between blasts from a Soviet artillery and tank barrage landing around him — came from commander Jose San Roman.
“Send planes or we can’t last!” San Roman kept pleading to the very fleet that escorted his men to the beachhead (and sat much closer to them than the U.S. destroyers Porter and Ross sat to the Syrian coast this week.) Meanwhile the Soviet artillery barrage intensified, the Soviet T-34 and Stalin tanks closed in, and San Roman’s casualties piled up.
By that date the terrorists who ran (and still run) Cuba had been operating terror-training camps for two years, had kidnapped, tortured and murdered dozens of American (to say nothing of tens of thousands of Cubans.) A year later they wantonly brought Western civilization a whisker from nuclear destruction. If foreign terrorists ever merited a MOAB, it was these-- based 90 miles from U.S. shores.
Crazed by hunger and thirst the Cuban freedom-fighters had been shooting and reloading without sleep for three days. Many were hallucinating. By then many suspected they’d been abandoned by the Knights of Camelot.
That’s when Castro’s Soviet Howitzers opened up again, huge 122 mm ones, four batteries’ worth. They pounded 2,000 rounds into the freedom-fighters over a four-hour period. “It sounded like the end of the world,” one recalled later to your humble servant here.
“Rommel’s crack Afrika Corps broke and ran under a similar bombardment,” wrote Haynes Johnson in his book, the Bay of Pigs. By that time the invaders were dazed, delirious with fatigue, thirst and hunger, too deafened by the bombardment to even hear orders. But these men were in no mood to emulate Rommel’s crack Afrika Corps by retreating. Instead they were fortified by a resolve no conquering troops could ever call upon–the burning duty to free their nation from Castroism….
They were mostly civilian volunteers known as La Brigada 2506, an almost precise cross-section of Cuban society of the time. The Brigada included men from every social strata and race in Cuba — from sugar cane planters to sugar cane cutters, from aristocrats to their chauffeurs. But mostly, the folks in between, as befit a nation with a larger middle class than most of Europe.
Short on battle experience, yes, but they fairly burst with what Napoleon and Patton valued most in a soldier: morale. No navel-gazing about “why they hate us” or the merits of “regime change” for them. They’d seen Castroism point-blank.
Their goals were crystal-clear: firing-squads silenced, families reunited, tens of thousands freed from prisons, torture chambers and concentration camps. We see it on the History Channel after our GIs took places like Manila and Munich.
Well, in 1961 newsreels could have captured such scenes without crossing oceans. When those Cuban freedom-fighters hit the beach at the Bay of Pigs, one of every 18 Cubans suffered in Castro Gulag. Mass graves dotted the Cuban countryside, piled with hundreds who’d crumpled in front of Castro and Che Guevara’s firing squads. Most of the invaders had loved-ones among the above. Modern history records few soldiers with the burning morale of the Bay of Pigs freedom-fighters.
Camelot’s criminal idiocy of cancelling airstrikes made the Brigada’s lumbering B-26s easy prey for Castro's jets and fast Sea-Furies -- and the troops and supplies below them were even easier prey. It was a turkey shoot for the Castroites.
This finally brought Adm. Arleigh Burke of the Joints Chief of Staff, who was receiving the battlefield pleas, to the brink of mutiny. The fighting admiral was livid. They say his face was beet red and his facial veins popping as he faced down his commander-in-chief that fateful night of April 18, 1961. “Mr. President, TWO planes from the Essex!” that’s all those Cuban boys need, Mr. President. Let me order…!”
JFK was in white tails and a bow tie that evening, having just emerged from an elegant social gathering. “Burke,” he replied. “We can’t get involved in this.”
“WE put those Cuban boys there, Mr. President!” The fighting admiral exploded. “By God, we ARE involved!”
Admiral Burke’s pleas also proved futile. But the betrayal was too much for the Cuban freedom-fighters’ enraged and heartsick American trainers at the base in Nicaragua. These American airmen had closely bonded with their Cuban band-of-freedom-fighting brothers. “Their fight our our fight,” later related Lieut Col. Joe Shannon. “We were in this thing together.”
So four of the American airmen suited up, gunned the engines and joined the fight—but in the lumbering B-26 bombers the Brigada had been issued. These enraged and valiant pilots weren't pampered Ivy Leaguers. They were Alabama Air Guard officers, men with archaic notions of loyalty and honor. They had watched the decimation of the freedom-fighter pilots. They knew the odds. They went anyway.
All four died on that first mission. All four (Pete Ray, Riley Shamburger, Leo Barker, and Wade Grey) have their names in a place of honor alongside their fallen Cuban freedom-fighting comrades on The Bay of Pigs Memorial, plus streets named after them in Miami's Little Havana, plus their crosses at Miami's Cuban Memorial cemetery.
When Doug MacArthur waded ashore on Leyte, he grabbed a radio: "People of the Philippines: I have returned, “he declared in a strong but shaking voice. “By the grace of Almighty God our forces stand again on Philippine soil — soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples."
Cuban soil was similarly consecrated.
The freedom-fighters’ spent ammo and lack of air cover inevitably forced a retreat. Castro’s jets and Sea Furies were roaming overhead at will and tens of thousands of his Soviet-led and armed troops and armor were closing in. The Castro planes now concentrated on strafing the helpless, ammo-less freedom-fighters.
“Can’t continue,” crackled over the navy radio handled by CIA trainer Grayston Lynch. It was Lynch’s friend San Roman again. “Have nothing left to fight with ...out of ammo…Russian tanks in view….destroying my equipment.”
“Tears flooded my eyes,” wrote multi-decorated WWII and Korea hero Grayston Lynch. “For the first time in my 37 years I was ashamed of my country.”
When the smoke cleared and their ammo had been expended to the very last bullet, when a hundred of them lay dead and hundreds more wounded, after three days of relentless battle, barely 1,400 of them—without air support (from the U.S. Carriers just offshore) and without a single supporting shot by naval artillery (from U.S. cruisers and destroyers poised just offshore)—had squared off against 21,000 Castro troops, his entire air force and squadrons of Soviet tanks. The Cuban freedom-fighters inflicted over 3000 casualties on their Soviet-armed and led enemies. This feat of arms still amazes professional military men.
“They fought magnificently and were not defeated,” stressed Marine Col. Jack Hawkins a multi-decorated WWII and Korea vet who helped train them. “They were abandoned on the beach without the supplies and support promised by their sponsor, the Government of the United States.”