It was midnight in Manhattan, Sunday, April 16, when the telephone
rang in the fashionable East Side apartment of Lem Jones. Sleepily,
Jones answered, then came alert with a jolt. It was the Central
Intelligence Agency calling from Washington.
"This is it," Jones's agency contact told him. The invasion had
begun. The CIA man dictated the first communiqué, to be issued to
the world by Jones in the name of the Cuban Revolutionary Council.
Jones took it down in longhand on a pad.
"Before dawn," the CIA man dictated slowly, "Cuban patriots in the
cities and in the hills began the battle to liberate our homeland
from the despotic rule of Fidel Castro and rid Cuba of international
Communism's cruel oppression ..."
It had been a peaceful Sunday for Jones, and he had received no
advance inkling that midnight would be the start of D-Day. He knew
the Council had met during the early afternoon at the Hotel
Lexington on 48th Street and Lexington Avenue. (It had named one of
its members, Carlos Hevia, to be the minister of foreign affairs
when a new government was established in Cuba.) In midafternoon,
Jones had called the hotel and tried to reach Miro Cardona. He was
puzzled when he was told that there was no answer, but thought
little about it.
There was a good reason why Jones was unable to reach his clients.
At about 3:30 P.M., CIA agents, avoiding the main exit, spirited
Cardona, Hevia and the other members of the Council out of the
hotel. The Cubans were told only that they were being taken to Miami
for something important.
They were driven by the CIA to Philadelphia, where they boarded a
plane and were flown to Opa- locka. There for three days, the men
who were to lead a free Cuba were virtually held prisoner in a
barracks-like house, all but barren of furniture. They learned about
the start of their invasion on a radio.
But Jones knew nothing of this at the time. The call from Washington
had instructed him to take the communique across town to the Hotel
Statler and show it to Antonio Silio, the secretary treasurer of the
Council, and Ernesto Aragon, Cardona's right-hand man. Silo was
registered at the hotel under an assumed name.
Jones typed the communique himself. He grabbed a taxi outside of his
apartment at 39th Street and Second Avenue and took it to the
Statler, where he showed the announcement to the two Cubans. Then,
at 2:00 A.M., he started distributing it, still by taxi, to the wire
services. It began:
CUBAN REVOLUTIONARY COUNCIL
Via: Lem Jones Associates, Inc.
280 Madison Avenue
New York, New York
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 17, 1961
The following statement was issued this morning by Dr. Jose Miro
Cardona, president of the Cuban Revolutionary Council:
"Before dawn Cuban patriots in the cities and in the hills began the
battle to liberate our homeland ..."
At Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, at 1:15 A.M. on Monday, April 17, six
B-26 bombers were lined up on the runway, ready to carry out the
second strike against Castro's air bases. Their targets were
Camaguey, Cienfuegos, San Antonio de los Banos, Camp Libertad, Santa
Clara and also Managua, an Army base where U-2 photos had shown more
than forty heavy tanks lined up in the open.
The planes were set to take off from Happy Valley at 1:49 A.M. They
would strike just before dawn, finishing the destruction of Castro's
air force that had begun with the first strike two days before.
The men in the B-26s had not yet learned of Richard Bissell's
message from Washington, canceling the air strike on orders from the
President. But when 1:40 A.M. came and went with no clearance to
take off, they realized something had gone wrong.
At 1:55 A.M. the Cuban pilots were told their mission had been
canceled on orders from Washington. They were not to proceed with
the strike against the bases. Instead, they were to fly to the
beaches to try to provide air cover for the landing.
Aboard the Houston, Mario Abril noticed the ship had come almost to
a complete stop.
"They started using the winches to put the boats in the water, with
a lot of noise, so much noise that they started shooting from the
coast, just a few machine guns. We saw the tracers coming over. My
squad was one of the first to get there, Company E. We got in a boat
and ran for the coast. It was a wood boat, like you might use for
water skiing, with an Evinrude outboard motor, with gray paint, the
motor I mean. It stopped in the middle of the Bay of Pigs when we
were two miles away from shore, so we had to start it up again and
they were shooting. We were told not to shoot back because they
would see our positions. So we got there, and we had a wreck against
the rocks on the beach.*1 We didn't land at the right place. And then
we met the other squads who were around. We got together and start
thinking what to do. On both sides we had swamps, water and very
marshy. We started walking on the road ..."
Hundreds of miles away, on tiny Swan Island off Honduras, the CIA's
Radio Swan had begun broadcasting mysterious messages to the
underground several hours before:
"Alert, alert -- look well at the rainbow. The fish will rise very
soon ... the sky is blue ... the fish is red. Look well at the
Now Radio Swan confidently broadcast the text of "Bulletin No.1."
At Happy Valley the disappointed B-26 pilots climbed down from their
cockpits. New briefings were held in the wooden operations building.
New plans had to be drawn up on the spot because of the changed
nature of the mission.
It took a B-26 two hours and fifty minutes to fly from Happy Valley
to the Bay of Pigs. The bombers had enough fuel to stay over the
beaches for two hours if need be and still make it back to base. So
it was decided that the bombers would fly over the beaches in pairs,
every half-hour. A total of eleven B-26s were sent over the beaches
in relays. The first of them took off before daylight.
As exile Brigade 2506 was moving ashore, Castro received word of the
invasion. He ordered his T-33 jets and Sea Furies to take off before
dawn for the Bay of Pigs.
At 4:00 A.M., as General Cabel was pleading with Secretary Rusk at
the Sheraton Park Hotel in Washington, Mario Abril's E Company made
contact with the enemy.
At 4:00 A.M. we met the first company of those guys, the Castro
militia. They were attacking, shouting dirty words and shooting. We
lay down and wait for them. We started shouting at each other across
the marshes. We gave them the word: 'Surrender.' They said they were
going to fight us. They shouted 'Patria O Muerte!' and then we
The CIA's Radio Swan transmitter crackled again at 5:15 A.M.:
"Forces loyal to the Revolutionary Council have carried out a
general uprising on a large scale on the island of Cuba ... the
militia in which Castro placed his confidence appears to be
possessed by a state of panic ... An army of liberation is in the
island of Cuba to fight with you against the Communist tyranny of
the unbalanced Fidel Castro ... attack the Fidelista wherever he may
be found. Listen for instructions on the radio, comply with them and
communicate your actions by radio.
"To victory, Cubans!"
On the Houston, the prow machine-gunner Manuel Perez Salvador had
his hands full. Units of the second battalion were still unloading.
Perez Salvador, a former catcher for the Fort Lauderdale Braves, a
Class C team in the Florida International League, could hardly
believe he had been in Miami only twelve days before. He had been
recruited for the invasion at the last moment and flown to Happy
Valley on April 5 with forty-seven others. He was literally turned
into a soldier overnight.
After one day's training as a
machine-gunner, Perez Salvador was assigned to the Houston. Now, at
5:30 A.M., he peered through his gun sights and saw the first T-33s
and Sea Furies begin a series of attacks on the ship. In the next
five hours Perez Salvador fired 5,000 bullets.
Sergio Garcia had taken off from Happy Valley at 1:16 A.M. at the
controls of a C-46 transport loaded with paratroopers. Their target
was the strategic Y-shaped crossroads at San Blas, inland behind
Giron Beach. His co-pilot was Fausto Gomez. At 6:14 A.M. Garcia
began the drop of men and equipment at San Blas. When all the cargo
and all but the last paratrooper had been dropped, the cable running
the length of the plane snapped.
It broke the leg of a parachute
drop officer, jammed the tail controls of the plane and left one
young paratrooper dangling helplessly from the plane at the end of
the cable. Gomez went back to try to help. He and another man
managed to pull the paratrooper in and discovered he was only a
young boy. A few minutes later the youth, crying, came to the
cockpit to plead with Garcia:
"Please turn back and drop me. It's
"I can't," Garcia shouted over the noise of the engines. "Your main
chute is broken. I can't drop you on a reserve chute. It's against
An hour later, as they were winging back to Happy Valley, Gomez cut
open the boy's boot and saw that his leg had been badly gashed when
the cable snapped. He was bleeding profusely.
In New York the CIA phoned Jones with Bulletin No. 2*2:
The Cuban Revolutionary Council announces a successful landing ...
Because Cuban Revolutionary Council members are now totally occupied
with the dramatic events unfolding in Cuba, their views will be made
known to the press solely through the Cuban Revolutionary Council's
spokesman, Dr. Antonio Silio.
The Council may have been totally occupied, but it was not totally
free. Held in their barracks house at Opa-locka, the Cuban leaders
were chafing. They were told they had been brought there so they
could be flown to the beachhead as soon as it was secured. The
United States would then recognize them as the legitimate government
The Council leaders donned their khaki uniforms, in readiness. They
were allowed to take walks along the hard-surface road in front of
the house. But when Carlos Hevia, who was to be the foreign affairs
minister of a free Cuba, went to take a stroll, a CIA man warned him
not to go very far. The area was rough and wild, the CIA man
insisted, and the surrounding shrubbery was full of rattlesnakes.
Mario and the men of E Company had pushed back the militiamen and
seized a T-shaped crossroads near Playa Larga.
"At 6:00 A.M. in the morning we saw the first plane. It had blue
stripes on it. The sun wasn't out yet. At first 1 didn't see the
stripes, and I was wondering, Is it going to shoot at us or not? It
was ours. At that time we heard a real big noise and saw a couple of
lights. It was a truck coming up the road with militia. We shouted
the password 'aguila' and the other one answers 'negra.'
*4 But we
didn't get any answer. We shouted 'aguila' again but we got no
answer. The truck was coming closer, so everybody turned their
weapons and started shooting and that thing exploded just like that,
Pow! It jumped in the air and came down in flames. Then we saw there
were three women and two girls, little ones, that's all, in the
truck, and a couple of militiamen. I don't know how that happens but
that's what we got out of it, three women and two girls, killed."
By dawn Castro's air force was taking a heavy toll of the invasion
fleet. About 9:00 A.M., following a direct hit from the air, the
Houston began to sink. Captain Luis Morse managed to edge the
transport onto a reef a mile and a half from shore to keep it from
going under completely. Along with most of the 120 men of the fifth
battalion, Perez Salvador had to swim to the beach. The one-time
professional baseball player stripped to his shorts, kicked off his
shoes and jumped into the Bay of Pigs.
At 9:15 A.M. in San Juan, Puerto Rico, CIA Director Allen Dulles
mounted the speaker's rostrum in the La Concha Hotel to the applause
of the thousand members of the Young Presidents Organization. He
launched into the keynote speech of the convention. For his topic
this morning Dulles had chosen "The Communist Businessman Abroad."
Joaquin Varela, a slight, twenty-eight-year-old former Cuban Air
Force pilot, led the relays of B-26s over the beaches. With Castro's
air force still in action, the bombers were flying straight to
disaster. Eight exile pilots died that April morning.
Jose Crespo and Lorenzo Perez, the two fliers who had landed in Key
West on Saturday (and who had supposedly gone into asylum), flew
over the Bay of Pigs this April 17 under the code name "Puma I."
They were just leaving the beach, after firing all their rockets,
when their bomber was hit in one engine by a Castro fighter. Crespo
feathered the engine, radioed Happy Valley and began limping home at
Chirrino Piedra, the twenty-five-year-old pilot so well liked by his
comrades, was also turning from the beach when his B-26 was hit in
the tail. The plane exploded instantly, killing Piedra and his co-
pilot, Jose A. Fernandez.
Matias Farias, only twenty-two, tried to make a forced landing at
the little airstrip now in exile hands at Giron Beach. The piles of
gravel that had alarmed the CIA when spotted by the U-2 on Sunday
had been cleared away. But Farias, coming in for a landing, flipped
over and his B-26 lost its tail. Eddy Gonzalez, his co-pilot, was
killed. Farias, slightly wounded, survived and was flown out in a
C-46 two days later.
Crispin L. Garcia, a short, dark-haired pilot, fought over the
beaches but ran short of fuel. He landed at Key West, refueled and
took off for Happy Valley with his co-pilot, Juan M. Gonzalez
Romero. He nearly made it. About a year later, during a search for a
missing P-51, Crispin Garcia's mangled B-26 was found on a hillside
eighty miles northwest of Happy Valley.
Antonio Soto, a small (five-foot-four) chestnut haired ex-Cuban
military pilot flew as "Paloma II" and was hit in one engine. He
became the second exile pilot to land at Grand Cayman Island. He and
his co-pilot, Benito R. "Campesino" Gonzalez, were flown back to
Puerto Cabezas, but their plane remained behind on British
Still the B-26s kept coming. Demetrio Perez, riding the co-pilot
seat of one of the bombers, looked at his watch as he crossed the
south coast of Cuba en route to the Bay of Pigs. The twenty-five-
year-old co-pilot noticed it was 11:56 A.M. He and the pilot,
thirty-four-year-old Raul Vianello, were only two minutes behind
But Perez was worried. The two fliers had been plagued by bad luck
since Saturday, when one engine of their bomber burst into flames as
they were taking off for the first strike against Castro's bases.
They were sidelined. Now, on April 17, they made it off the ground,
but ever since take-off they had noticed a persistent smell of
gasoline in the cabin.
Remembering their previous embarrassment, the two did not want to
return to Happy Valley to face their friends. They decided to keep
going. They radioed Soto to come closer for a look, but when he did,
he was unable to spot the trouble.
Perez and Vianello met Varela as the squadron leader was returning
from the beaches. They radioed him that they had fuel trouble but
were going on. As they reached the beach, another pilot warned that
a "T-bird" (T-33) was loose in the area. A moment later the Castro
jet was diving at them. A burst of machine-gun bullets just missed
The bomber turned inland, flew low over the swamps and blew up a
Castro machine-gun nest that commanded a highway to the beach. Then
the two fliers spotted a large convoy about to enter the sugar-mill
town of Australia. They were uncertain whether or not it was a
Castro convoy. By the time the bomber received radio confirmation
that it was, the convoy was in the town. Rather than shoot at
civilians, the fliers waited until the convoy emerged on the other
side. As it came out, Perez saw a white ambulance with a red cross
on its roof, followed by a jeep, a truck and a tank.
As they swooped low over the convoy for a better look, they were
amazed to see Castro's militia waving their caps and guns at the
plane in greeting. Then they realized the militiamen had not noticed
the blue stripes under the wings, the only distinguishing marks
between the exile bombers and Castro's B-26s.
Some of the militiamen were still waving when the bomber made a
second pass, this time with its .50-caliber machine guns blazing.
The B-26 also fired two rockets at the convoy. The ambulance blew
up. Perez later claimed the attack was justified because the
ambulance had armed militiamen in and around it.
At 2:15 P.M., its ammunition gone and fuel running low, the bomber
turned for home. Just as Vianello attempted to climb into a bank of
clouds for cover, a T-33 caught the bomber with a storm of bullets.
The left engine was knocked out and smoke poured into the cockpit.
"Mayday! Mayday!" Perez radioed. Below, the two aviators spotted a
destroyer. Assuming it was either American or British, Vianello flew
near it. "Bailout!" he ordered the younger man.
Then, before Perez jumped, Vianello, who had a wife and three
children, reached over and shook hands. He pointed to the water.
"We'll meet down there," he said. "Good luck!"
Perez jumped. As he plummeted through the air he was unable, at
first, to find the D-ring on his chute. Finally he did, and yanked
with all his strength. The parachute billowed open, and the orange
and white silk overhead was a beautiful sight to Perez. He looked up
in time to see the bomber burst into flames and nose-dive into the
ocean. He never saw Vianello jump.
Perez hit the water, inflated his Mae West and waited to be picked
up. Forty-five minutes later, although it seemed hours, he found
himself aboard the U.S.S. Murray, an American destroyer.*5
Some of the B-26s did make it back to Happy Valley. Mario Zuniga,
who had returned secretly from Miami the previous day, flew support
over the beaches with Oscar Vega Vera, his co-pilot. They returned
safely, as did the B-26s flown by Gonzalo Herrera, Varela, Mario
Alvarez Cortina and Rene Garcia.
Crespo, with one propeller feathered and no compass, maintained
radio contact as Happy Valley tried to guide him home. Crespo was
also in contact with a C-54 pilot who attempted to persuade him to
land at Grand Cayman Island. But Crespo did not change course. He
radioed a final message to Happy Valley: "Trying to trade air speed
for altitude for bailout, only ten minutes fuel left, no ground in
sight." He was never seen again.
Eleven B-26s had flown from Happy Valley on this Monday, April 17.
They were never told why their mission had been changed at the last
moment from an air strike against Castro's bases to air support over
the beaches. They obeyed their orders. Eight men died. Six planes
were lost. Five planes returned to Happy Valley. Their valiant
efforts at such a high cost had not really been very effective over
the beaches. "The Monday air cover;" as one CIA official later
conceded, "was murderous."
With the Houston out of action, the men of the second battalion were
critically short of the ammunition and supplies the ship carried. In
the Zapata swamps Mario Abril, with no food and little ammunition,
skirmished with the enemy on Monday afternoon.
"There were only a few militiamen. I got my first one in there. He
was in a tree. They were only ten or fifteen guys, but they were
giving us a hard time because they didn't shoot all the time. They
just shoot and keep quiet, shoot and keep quiet. And so this guy in
a tree, I shot him down, he kept hanging from there. He was tied up
to it and swinging. He just kept swinging."
In the United Nations in New York, Raul Roa was furious. He accused
the United States of financing and backing the invasion. Grim-faced
and chain-smoking, he charged that the CIA had poured $500,000 a
month into the invasion preparations. He said a principal base was
the Opa- locka airport. And he said the chief CIA agent in Miami was
"Bender." On Monday afternoon, for the second time in forty-eight
hours, Adlai Stevenson rose and denied the Cuban's allegations.
Stevenson had not left New York over the weekend and he did not see
Kennedy. However, the President had dispatched McGeorge Bundy to New
York to coordinate with Stevenson. Bundy, following developments on
the AP ticker, had hastily briefed Stevenson that morning in the
office of the United States mission to the UN. Then he accompanied
Stevenson over to the UN, donned his hat and coat and flew back to
the White House.
It was a day for denials.
They had begun in Washington, when Joseph W. Reap, a State
Department spokesman, declared: "The State Department is unaware of
any invasion." The Pentagon said it knew nothing about any invasion,
either. The White House was equally uncommunicative. "All we know
about Cuba," the Associated Press quoted Pierre Salinger as saying,
"is what we read on the wire services."
The strongest assurances came from Secretary of State Rusk, who said
of the Cuban situation:
"There is not and will not be any intervention there by U.S. forces.
The President has made this clear, as well as our determination to
do all we possibly can to insure that Americans do not participate
in these actions in Cuba.
"We do not have full information on what is happening on that
"The American people are entitled to know whether we are intervening
in Cuba or intend to do so in the future. The answer to that
question is no. What happens in Cuba is for the Cuban people
themselves to decide."
On the other side of the globe, at his Black Sea villa near Sochi,
Nikita S. Khrushchev conferred with his impassive Foreign Minister,
Andrei Gromyko. They drafted a note threatening to come to Castro's
aid unless Kennedy halted the invasion.
In the Roman era,persecuted Christians would draw a fish to indicate
a clandestine meeting was to be held. The CIA had selected this as a
symbol for the invasion. (Hence the business about fish rising,
which Radio Swan had broadcast Sunday night.) In New York, late on
Monday, the CIA dictated Bulletin No. 3 to Lem Jones. It contained a
reference to a fish standing. When Jones showed it to Silio, the
exile official was worried.
To Cubans, a phrase about fish rising or
standing could have an earthy and much more graphic meaning. Jones
argued with Silio, and finally, at 7:15 P.M., the bulletin was
issued unchanged, despite the Cuban's apprehensions:
The principal battle of the Cuban revolt against Castro will be
fought in the next few hours. Action today was largely of a supply
and support effort ...
Our partisans in every town and village in Cuba will receive, in a
manner known only to them, the message which will spark a tremendous
wave of internal conflict against the tyrant ... before dawn the
island of Cuba will rise up en masse in a coordinated wave of
sabotage and rebellion which will sweep Communism from our country
... our clandestine radio has been giving instructions to the
insurgents throughout the island. In a coded message on this radio
yesterday, a statement was made that "the fish will soon stand."
As is well known, the fish is the Christian symbol of the
resistance. When the fish is placed in a vertical position it is a
sign that internal revolt is in full swing. The fish will stand
By this hour on Monday night, Dulles was hurrying home from Puerto
Rico. In Washington, the full disastrous effect of the cancellation
of the second air strike was being felt. It was realized that the
invasion was slipping away fast. The exiles had, in the two days
since April 15, lost ten of their original force of sixteen B-26s.
Ten pilots had been killed in a little over forty-eight hours:
Daniel Fernandez Mon, Gaston Perez, Jose A. Crespo, Lorenzo Perez,
Chirrino Piedra, Jose A. Fernandez, Crispin L. Garcia, Juan M.
Gonzalez Romero, Eddy Gonzalez and Raul Vianello.
Under the circumstances, Washington permitted a second air strike
against Castro's bases to be reinstated. But attrition and
exhaustion had overtaken the Cuban pilots. And the weather had
turned bad. The whole point of that strike had been to catch
Castro's air force on the ground before dawn. Now it would take
place -- eighteen hours late.
Exactly three B-26s took off from Happy Valley at 8:00 P.M. Monday,
April 17. Their target was the San Antonio de los Banos airfield.
The strike was led by Joaquin Varela, despite the fact that he and
his co-pilot, Tomas Afont, had flown that morning. Varela was unable
to find San Antonio in the dark. Under orders to hit only military
targets, he dropped no bombs and returned to Happy Valley. The
second plane, piloted by Ignacio Rojas and Esteban Bovo Caras,
developed engine trouble and turned back before reaching the target.
So did the third plane, piloted by Miguel A. Carro and Eduardo Barea
Two hours later, at 10:00 P.M., two more B-26s took off from Happy
Valley. Their crews also had flown earlier that day. Gonzalo Herrera
and Angel Lopez were in one bomber. Mario Alvarez Cortina and
Salvador Miralles were in the other. They had no more success than
the first three planes. Five B-26s had gone out Monday night. All
returned, but they inflicted no damage on their targets. The score
for the belated second air strike: Zero.
The start of Tuesday, April 18, found the exile brigade strung out
along three separate beachheads on Cuba's southern shore. To the
east of the Bay of Pigs, the exiles held Giron Beach and had moved
inland behind it. At the north end of the wide Bay of Pigs itself,
Mario Abril and the entire second battalion of 175 men was
positioned in a crater astride a T-shaped crossroads near Playa
Larga. The hole had been dug for a traffic circle under construction
The battalion was alone, because the men of the fifth
battalion, swimming ashore from the Houston, had been carried by the
current to a point about twelve miles farther south of Playa Larga.
As a result, the second and fifth battalions never joined up as
planned. Shells were bursting all around the crater. The noise was
"They were shooting at us with mortars and artillery from far away,
for three hours. Then at about 12:3O, maybe 1:00 A.M., it stopped.
It was quiet. And then we start hearing the tanks coming up. I heard
'clank, clank, clank, clank,' real far away. They were coming
closer. Our tanks moved into position on both sides of the road. The
first Castro tank showed up with its lights on and the hatch closed.
One of our tanks shot him and stopped him right in the middle of the
road. But they cleared it away. All night long the tanks kept
coming. They sent eight, but only one got through to the beach. Then
this Stalin tank, real heavy, came up the road. Our tank had no
ammunition, so it started pushing him on the side and threw him out
of the road. The guys came out of the tank with their hands up and
that was real great. We took them prisoners. It was real busy then.
It was a real busy night."
At 3:44 A.M., as the second battalion stood off Castro's tanks,
Radio Swan broadcast an appeal to the Cuban Army and militia to
"Now is the precise moment for you to take up strategic positions
that control roads and railroads! Make prisoners of or shoot those
who refuse to obey your orders! Comrades of the Navy, this is your
opportunity to prove your sincerity ... Take over and secure your
post in the Navy of Free Cuba. Comrades of the Air Force! Listen
closely! All planes must stay on the ground. See that no Fidelist
plane takes off. Destroy its radios; destroy its tail; break its
instruments; and puncture its fuel tanks! Refuse to give service!
Inform your friends that freedom and honor await those who join us,
as death will overtake the traitors who do not!"
Three hours later, that was followed up with a broadcast urging
"People of Havana; attention, people of Havana. Help the brave
soldiers of the liberation army ... electrical plants must not
supply power today to the few industries that the regime is trying
to keep in operation. Today at 7:45 A.M., when we give the signal on
this station, all the lights in your house should be turned on; all
electrical appliances should be connected. Increase the load on the
generators of the electric company! ... But do not worry, people of
Havana, the liberation forces will recover the electrical plants and
they can be placed in operation rapidly."
But at Playa Larga, the liberation forces were in trouble. Mario and
the second battalion got the bad news; they would have to retreat.
"At 11 A.M. we got the orders to move to Giron Beach to join up with
the other battalions. I ask myself, Why? I think we won that battle
during the night against tanks with no ammunition, no support, no
fifth battalion, which was in another place. So I got on a truck and
I was riding to Giron Beach, twenty miles away down the line of the
coast. We got there at 12:30, maybe 1:00 P.M. There we got rest and
I got a couple of crackers and a bottle of water. We were in a new
house Castro built for the workers. In the meantime, Castro's planes
were coming and bombing and shooting. We were so tired, it didn't
make any difference to us."
The exile air force was still in action, despite the long odds
against it A thunderstorm swelled the little river behind the
airstrip at Happy Valley on Tuesday afternoon, and sent the
scorpions and snakes near the operations building scuttling for
cover. Despite the storm, six B-26s took off at 2:00 P.M. Their
target was a large Castro armored column moving toward the shrinking
beachhead at Giron.
Mario Zuniga flew in one of the bombers, with the chief of the exile
air operations, Manuel Villafana, as his co pilot. Luis Cosme,
Villafana's deputy, took over as the operations officer at Happy
Rene Garcia, Antonio Soto and Gustavo Ponzoa flew three of the B-26s
in the strike force. Despite the presidential pledge that no
Americans would participate in the fighting, the other two bombers
were flown by American CIA pilots. One was the instructor who used
the name "Seig Simpson" and who had told the Cubans he was a U.S.
Air Force veteran of the Korean War. His co-pilot was Gustavo
Villoldo, a Cuban. Alberto Perez Sordo, a twenty-two-year-old exile,
flew as co-pilot with the other American.
It took the six bombers only twenty-five minutes to destroy the
Castro convoy on the road to the beach.*6 All six bombers and crews
returned safely to Puerto Cabezas.
The same day, April 18, the exile air force received four P-51
Mustangs from the Nicaraguan Government. The trouble was, the Cuban
pilots had not been trained to fly them. The Mustangs went unused.
At 1:20 P.M. on Tuesday in New York, Lem Jones issued Bulletin No. 4
of the Cuban Revolutionary Council. For the first time it took a
more pessimistic tone:
Cuban freedom fighters in the Matanzas area are being attacked by
heavy Soviet tanks and Mig aircraft
*7 which have destroyed sizable
amounts of medical supplies and equipment.
Meanwhile, the note Khrushchev had drafted at Sochi the day before
was transmitted to Washington. The Soviet Premier charged the United
States had armed and trained the exiles. He threatened to give
Castro "all necessary assistance" unless Washington stopped the
invasion. At 7:00 P.M. Soviet Ambassador Mikhail A. Menshikov was
handed a note by Rusk at the State Department. In it President
Kennedy warned Khrushchev to stay out of the fight. In the event of
outside intervention, Kennedy declared, the United States would
"immediately" honor its treaty obligations to the hemisphere.
In the UN, Soviet Ambassador Zorin mocked Stevenson's continued
denials of United States responsibility for the invaders. "Have
these people come from outer space?" asked Zorin.
A few moments earlier Carlos Alejos, Roberto's brother, rose in the
UN and said he had just returned from a trip to Guatemala, and
wished to state, in answer to Cuba's charges, that the forces which
had landed in Cuba had not been trained in Guatemala and had not
come from Guatemalan territory. Guatemala, Alejos solemnly assured
the UN, had never allowed and would never allow its territory to be
used for the organization of acts of aggression against its sister
At the White House, that Tuesday night, more than a thousand guests
had gathered for the President's traditional reception for members
of Congress and their wives. Champagne and punch flowed. At exactly
10:15 P.M. the President and Jacqueline Kennedy descended the main
stairs. Mrs. Kennedy wore a lovely sleeveless floor-length sheath of
pink and white straw lace, with matching pink slippers. A
feather-shaped diamond clip glittered in her bouffant hairdo. The
Marine Band struck up "Mr. Wonderful."
The Kennedys led the first
dance. Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird,
wearing her salmon-pink inaugural gown, joined in. Midway through
the first number the Kennedys and the Johnsons switched partners.
For the buffet dinner the guests had chicken a la king and pheasant.
The President mixed with his guests, smiling and apparently
carefree. But at 11:45 P.M. guests noticed he had slipped away.
Still in his formal dress, the President met at midnight at the
White House with his highest military and civilian advisers. The
Joint Chiefs and top officials of the CIA were present. The invasion
was now near collapse. At the meeting Richard Bissell maintained
that the operation could still be saved if the President would
authorize the use of Navy jets from a carrier then stationed
offshore between Jamaica and Cuba.
But the President had repeatedly stated, both privately and publicly
(at his April 12 press conference), that no United States armed
forces would be used in Cuba. He was reluctant to change his
Bissell, who had been so deeply engaged in the Cuban operation for
more than a year, argued desperately in favor of U.S. airpower to
save it now. So did Admiral Burke, who made a series of proposals.
Like Bissell he asked that Navy jets be sent over the beaches.
Burke also suggested several alternatives: that a company of Marines
be landed; that a destroyer be allowed to give gunfire support to
the invaders; that Navy jets be allowed to fly just outside the
three-mile limit. General Lemnitzer, the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs, supported Burke's plea for Navy jets over the beaches, as
did General White, Chief of Staff of the Air Force.
The President declined to accept these various proposals. Then Burke
suggested that Navy planes be allowed to fly over the beaches, but
that there be no U.S. markings on the planes. As the group talked,
the clock ticked past midnight and into Wednesday, April 19. Finally
the discussion resulted in a compromise:
The President authorized the unmarked Navy jets from the carrier
Essex to fly over the Bay of Pigs for one hour just after dawn.
Their mission was to be restricted. They were to support an
air-to-ground strike that morning by the B-26s from Happy Valley.
The Navy jets were to fly "dead cover," which meant they were to
interpose themselves between the bombers and any enemy aircraft. In
this way they were to try to protect the B-26s against attack by
Castro planes. The Navy jets were not to strafe or to initiate any
firing. Under the President's authorization, however, they could
fire back if fired upon.
There was a subtle and unspoken aspect to this. If the Castro planes
fired, the Navy jets would not be able to make the fine distinction
of whether the attackers were firing at the bombers or at them. By
interposing themselves between the B-26s and Castro's planes, in
other words, they would draw fire and be able to fire back.
Burke wrote out the order on a pad. It was telephoned to the Joint
Chiefs communication center at the Pentagon, sent immediately to
CINCLANT, in Norfolk, Virginia, relayed from there to the Commander,
Second Fleet, and thence to the carrier. The markings on the Navy
jets were to be painted over.
It was 1:00 A.M. Wednesday when the meeting broke up at the White
At Happy Valley a 1:00 A.M. meeting was also in progress, in the
building that served as the air operations center. Among those
present were General Doster, Riley W. Shamburger, Jr., a CIA pilot
who was a close friend of Doster's and on leave as a major in the
Alabama Air National Guard, and Luis Cosme, the Cuban operations
All realized that the situation was grim and that something had to
be done. The Cuban pilots were exhausted; ten were dead. The
American advisers agreed to fly night missions starting that night,
to relieve the weary Cubans. The Americans were not ordered to do
so; they volunteered, although it was understood when they signed up
with the CIA that they might at some point have to fly combat
Now the pledge that no U.S. armed forces and no Americans would be
involved was doubly violated, since American CIA pilots were flying
in the invasion and Navy jets were to screen them against attack.
Five B-26s took off during the night. Shamburger and a fellow
American, Wade Carroll Gray, flew in one B-26. Two more Americans,
Thomas Willard Ray and Leo Francis Baker, flew in another. Three
other Americans flew. One was a tall, skinny pilot known simply as
"Joe," whose co-pilot was also an American. The other was the pilot
known as "Seig Simpson." The fifth B-26 was piloted by a Cuban,
Three more Cubans, including Zuniga, were scheduled to fly, but
operations were halted before they took off.
Bissell left the White House meeting with the understanding that the
Navy jets would appear over the beaches at dawn simultaneously with
the B-26s. What happened next has since become clouded in a welter
of conflicting interpretations.
Bissell, of course, did not have the responsibility of ordering the
Navy jets into the air, but he did have the task of notifying the
exile air force. From his secret office he relayed the news that
United States air cover would be available for one hour at dawn to
support the air-to-ground strike by the CIA B-26s. Bissell did not
write the order out himself. He repeated it verbally to the colonel
on duty at the CIA office, who in turn transmitted it to Happy
Bissell's message reached Happy Valley shortly before Shamburger,
Gray, Ray and Baker took off. These four Americans, therefore, took
off for the Bay of Pigs with the understanding that they would have
protection from U.S. Navy jets. They did not.
Somewhere along the line there was a fatal mix-up between the CIA
and the Navy. At first the CIA thought that the President's order
had reached the carrier so conservatively worded that the jets had
been unable to take hostile action against Castro's planes because
the jets had not been fired upon. Later the CIA realized the error
was one of timing. In the secret post-mortem over the Bay of Pigs,
it was officially concluded that the bombers had arrived after the
jets had already come and gone, after the clock had run out on the
one hour of air support.
How this happened may never be entirely unscrambled (there has been
no public explanation), but the evidence pointed directly to the
incredible conclusion that the mix-up had occurred because of
confusion over time zones. The Bay of Pigs and Washington were both
on Eastern Standard Time, but Nicaragua time was an hour earlier.
Which means a plane that left Happy Valley, Nicaragua, at 3:30 A.M.
local time would have arrived over the Bay of Pigs at 6: 30 A.M.
Nicaragua time, or just after dawn. But because of the difference in
time zones, it was 7: 30 A.M. at the Bay of Pigs -- an hour too
The CIA and the Navy did not co-ordinate their respective orders to
the fleet and to Happy Valley. Burke simply sent his order to the
fleet and Bissell sent an order to Happy Valley. Neither official
saw the order the other had transmitted.
The confusion over time zones may have been compounded by the fact
that the Navy always transmits messages in Greenwich Mean Time, but
the CIA sometimes uses Standard Time, sometimes GMT.
In any event, the Navy pilots reported they never made contact with
CIA bombers. They said they saw no bombers and no Castro planes.
After the hour had elapsed, they returned to the carrier.
On this morning of April 19 four Americans lost their lives. Riley
Shamburger and Wade Gray were shot down and crashed at sea. Ray and
Baker were shot down and apparently crashed inland. "Joe," the tall
American, never reached the beaches. He heard the cries for help of
the four American fliers as they were shot down, and he turned back.
Gonzalo Herrera, his plane shot full of holes, also made it back.
At Happy Valley at 8:30 A.M. "Gar," the chief CIA air adviser, asked
the Cubans for volunteers to go in again over the beaches. The
pilots were called together by Luis Cosme, the Cuban operations
deputy. They were willing, but since another trip over the beaches
meant almost certain death, they understandably demanded to know why
they were being sent out.
"We must hold twenty-four hours more," the CIA chief said. "Don't
play the bells loud, but something is going to happen."
It was the sort of vague promise that the Cubans, by this time, were
fed up with. Now they rebelled. Cosme addressed the assembled
"I think we've had enough losses," he told them. "I believe
this operation is a failure. I don't see any reason to continue the
flights. Either they appoint another operations officer or no
airplane takes off from Happy Valley with Cubans aboard."
It was 9:45 A.M. The air operations at Happy Valley were over. In
four days of combat the exile air force had flown more than
thirty-six missions, against overwhelming odds. It had fought an air
battle against faster, more maneuverable planes, jets and
conventional fighters that were supposed to have been destroyed on
the ground.*8 Its men were weary from lack of rest and sleep.
It had suffered fifty-percent losses -- twelve of its twenty-four
B-26s were gone. Fourteen pilots had died -- ten Cubans and four
This final day of the invasion found Mario Abril with his battalion
west of Giron Beach fighting against the militia as the perimeter
was gradually pushed back.
"We stayed there until 1:00 P.M. At that time Erneido Oliva, the
battalion commander, he told us everything was real bad and we were
doing pretty bad, no support at all from the Americans. We could see
the ships and they don't send nothing. He told us to try to run to
the hills. He told us he was going that way, to resist until we can
do something. So we started walking that way. At Giron Beach 1 got
water, and with a couple of friends of mine, 1 started running
for the woods. That was 3:30, maybe 4:00 P.M.
*9 I was in real bad
condition. 1 started walking toward Cienfuegos. 1 got friends there
and I believed if I could get there 1 would be saved."
The invasion was over. By 5:30 P.M. Castro's forces were engaged in
mopping-up operations at the Bay of Pigs. At the same hour the
indignant members of the Cuban Revolutionary Council, free at last
from their Opa-locka confinement, were meeting secretly with Kennedy
at the White House. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the Harvard
historian and assistant to the President, and Adolf Berle had flown
to Miami during the night to placate the Cuban leaders, after which
the Council was flown to Washington for a meeting that was both
emotional and difficult. This meeting was not disclosed by the White
House until the next day.
In New York, Lem Jones issued two more bulletins for the CIA. The
last one regretted that:
... the recent landings in Cuba have been constantly though
inaccurately described as an invasion. It was, in fact, a landing
mainly of supplies and support for our patriots who have been
fighting in Cuba for months ... Regretfully we admit tragic losses
in today's action among a small holding force which courageously
fought Soviet tanks and artillery while being attacked by Russian
Mig aircraft -- a gallantry which allowed the major portion of our
landing party to reach the Escambray mountains.
We did not expect to topple Castro immediately or without setbacks.
And it is certainly true that we did not expect to face, unscathed,
Soviet armaments directed by Communist advisers. We did and
The struggle for the freedom of six million Cubans continues!
Mario Abril, together with hundreds of his fellows, was captured the
next day. He spent the next year and a half in prison in Havana. He
returned to the United States with the rest of the brigade in the
prisoner exchange of Christmas, 1962.
Manuel Perez Salvador, of the Fort Lauderdale Braves, lived for ten
days on land crabs and muddy water after he had swum ashore from the
Houston. Giant flies bit his legs, which became infected and
swollen. He still bears round black scars the size and shape of
kitchen-faucet washers. He and a companion had just found a tin of
Russian canned meat on the beach and were trying to open it when a
militia speedboat rounded the bend with a machine gun trained on
them. They surrendered. That was how it went for the majority of the
A few managed to escape in small boats and were later picked up at
sea by American Navy and merchant ships. A very few managed to
escape through the Cuban underground. Most were captured.
The exile air force fought no more. Its task was over. And yet not
quite. Sergio Garcia, the pilot who had refused to drop the wounded
young paratrooper over San Blas, was assigned to a final mission.
On the morning of April 20 he flew far out to sea from Happy Valley,
carrying thousands of leaflets that had been printed by the CIA.
They were packed in special boxes designed to open after leaving the
plane. The leaflets were meant to have been dropped over Cuba ahead
of the advancing and victorious invaders. They bore such slogans as
"Cubans, you will be free!"
Hundreds of miles off the Nicaraguan coast, out of sight of land,
Garcia banked and began the last air drop of the Bay of Pigs. The
boxes tumbled from the plane, and opened as they were caught by the
wind. Garcia watched as the leaflets fluttered into the sea.
*1CIA hydrographic experts believed the beaches were excellent at the
Bay of Pigs. An unexpected reef was encountered as the ships moved
in, and it slowed down the landing operation.
Although Jones and the Council later came in for some criticism
for issuing press releases from a Madison Avenue office, the truth
is that he did not write any of them. Each of the six bulletins was
dictated directly to Jones by the CIA.
Castro had realized the danger of this. On June 16, 1961, during a
cigar-waving tour of the battlefield for British and American
newsmen, he said that because the exiles held forty-three miles of
coast at one point "it became an urgent political problem for us to
oust them as quickly as possible so that they would not establish a
The two words together mean black eagle.
It was the start of a weird adventure for Perez, who followed
orders and stuck to his cover story that he was a defecting Castro
pilot. On April 19 he was flown by helicopter to the aircraft
carrier U.S.S. Randolph and given an air-conditioned stateroom. From
there he was flown to Guantanamo, smuggled across the bay in a
launch to the main Navy base and armed by Navy Intelligence, whom he
exasperated by repeating his CIA cover story. Only after the Navy
threatened to send Perez "back" to Havana, did he tell the truth. He
was whisked to Washington by jet for further interrogation by the
Navy and, finally, by the CIA. He met General Maxwell D. Taylor, the
President's military representative, and even made it to the White
House. All the while Perez was being kept in a luxurious Alexandria,
Virginia, motel. Finally, he was given new clothes and a plane
ticket. Still wearing the parachute boots in which he had jumped,
Perez returned to Miami.
During his June 16 tour of the battlefield, Castro admitted to
newsmen that his forces had made the error of advancing on the open
road that cuts through marshes, and as a result were an easy target
for the exile air force.
Castro had no Migs in the air during the invasion. This probably
refers to the T-33 jet trainers.
The exile pilots received no training in defensive tactics, for
example, because it was not anticipated that Castro would be left
with any planes.
Several members of the brigade later claimed they saw U.S. jets
flying high over the beaches about this hour. This would have been
long after the one hour of air cover at dawn ordered by the
Back to Contents
THE CASE OF
THE BIRMINGHAM WIDOWS
FOUR widows whose husbands had died at the Bay of Pigs were living
in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. During the long, hot summer of that
year, Birmingham was a city of fear and violence. But some of the
widows lived in a special atmosphere of fear that had nothing to do
with the city's racial troubles.
Partly it was because of an unseen hand that sent them, every two
weeks, a check for $245. There was danger that if they said too much
the same invisible hand might cut the payments off. For one of the
widows, Mrs. Margaret H. Ray, a soft-spoken, attractive brunette,
these fears were also compounded by talk of lie-detector tests,
suspicion that her telephone was being tapped, that she was under
The imaginings of a distraught widow alone in the world with her two
young children? Perhaps. And then again, perhaps not. For The Case
of the Four Birmingham Widows is, in some respects, a
twentieth-century tragedy. It is George Orwell and Franz Kafka come
The husbands of these four women were Thomas Willard Ray, Leo
Francis Baker, Riley W. Shamburger, Jr., and Wade Carroll Gray, the
American CIA airmen who had died on April 19, 1961, while flying in
combat at the Bay of Pigs.
One key to the mystery of all that has since happened to the widows
could be found in a small two-story building on a quiet palm-lined
street in Miami Springs, Florida, not far to the north of Miami
International Airport. It was, the sign out front proclaimed, the
law office of Alex E. Carlson.
Carlson, a big, blond, heavy-set man, towering well over six feet,
saw three years of combat during World War II in New Guinea, the
Philippines and Okinawa. After the war he got his bachelor's degree
in Spanish at the University of Michigan. By 1952 Carlson, then
twenty-seven, was finishing law school at the University of Miami.
That year he went to Chile on an exchange scholarship. He then
returned to Miami and set up practice in Miami Springs. Most of his
clients appeared to be obscure airline and air-cargo firms operating
out of Miami International Airport.
But Carlson's most intriguing business activity was the Double-Chek
Corporation. According to the records of the Florida Secretary of
State at Tallahassee this firm was incorporated on May 14 1959, and
"brokerage is the general nature of business engaged in."
The officers of the Double-Chek Corporation, as of 1963, were listed
as "Alex E. Carlson, President, 45 Curtiss Parkway, Miami Springs"
(the address of Carlson's law office); "Earl Sanders,
Vice-President, same address; Margery Carlson, Secretary Treasurer,
same address." The "resident agent" was listed as "Wesley R.
Pillsbury," at the same address.
In 1960 the CIA, having been given the green light by President
Eisenhower to organize the Cuban exiles, began looking about for
American pilots to serve as PIs -- pilot instructors. Because the
Cubans would be flying the CIA B-26s, the agency wanted Americans
who had flown the plane in wartime.
The CIA decided to do its recruiting through Alex E. Carlson and the
Double-Chek Corporation. The agency uses cover of this sort when it
recruits pilots for a covert operation. To find the pilots, the CIA
naturally turned to the Air National Guard in Alabama, Virginia and
Arkansas, the last state units to fly the obsolescent B-26.
From these states, some two dozen pilots were signed up by the CIA,
acting through Double-Chek. The majority were from Alabama, and, in
turn, the bulk of these were from the Birmingham area. The unit's
doctor was from Montgomery.
General Reid Doster, the congenial, bulldog-faced commanding officer
of the Alabama Air National Guard, was a key man in the CIA
operation at Retalhuleu. (Doster had left the CIA and was back
running the Alabama Air Guard and its 117th Reconnaissance Wing as
Because the Alabama Air Guard was under the supervision of the 9th
Tactical Air Force at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, Doster
went to see Major General David W. Hutchinson, the commanding
general there.*1 He asked for a leave of absence for himself and
about a dozen of his men in the Alabama National Guard. Hutchinson
approved the leaves of absence; the men, including Doster, joined
the CIA as civilians.
Each of the American pilots was sworn to secrecy by the CIA, with
the exception of Doster, who gave his word as a general officer. All
pledged they would never talk about what happened in the training
camps or at the Bay of Pigs.
Thomas Willard Ray, age thirty when he died, was born in Birmingham
on March 15, 1931. He began dating Margaret Hayden while he was
still in Tarrant High School. He served in the Air Force from 1950
to 1952 and was discharged as a staff sergeant.
In December of that year "Pete" Ray joined the Hayes International
Corporation, a large aircraft modification company with its main
plant at the Birmingham airport. Ray was a technical inspector at
Hayes, but he kept up his pilot's proficiency by flying the B-26s
and F-84s at the Alabama National Guard.
He married Margaret and they had two children: Thomas, a crew-cut
blond-haired boy of eight when his father died, and Janet Joy, six.
Five years before the Bay of Pigs, the Rays built a handsome brick
home in Center Point, a Birmingham suburb.
Ray did not particularly like flying jets, and, with several
buddies, he switched to the Army Reserve. He took leave from Hayes,
and for one year before he joined the CIA he was on active duty at
Fort Rucker, 170 miles south of Birmingham. In January, 1961, Ray
received a telephone call. He told his wife he would be leaving to
go to a "combined service school."
On February 5, 1961, Mrs. Ray and the children moved into her
mother's home in Birmingham. Her husband left the same day. He did
not say where he was going. He told his wife she could write to him
at this address:
c/o Joseph Greenland
Main Post Office
(There was no Joseph Greenland listed in the Chicago telephone book
in 1960, 1961 or 1962. The box was a CIA mail drop; the CIA official
who selected "Greenland" apparently was unable to resist choosing a
code name suggested by the verdant tropical vegetation of the target
Margaret wrote to her husband c/o Joseph Greenland, and he wrote
back, with his letters bearing the return address of different Air
Force bases. Pete came home only once, on April 10, for a two- day
visit; he had a deep suntan. During that time he did not tell his
wife what he was doing, but she had begun to piece it together from
newspaper stories and her own suspicions. She gave voice to these
"If you've learned anything," he told her, "keep your mouth shut,
because they are thinking of giving lie-detector tests to the
He indicated that "they" might do this in order to check on
whether there had been any security leaks from the wives in
On April 15 Margaret was fixing a girlfriend's hair at her mother's
house when her friend showed her a newspaper telling of the B-26
strike against Cuba. Margaret's hands began to tremble.
Leo Baker, thirty-four at the time of his death, was a native of
Boston. A short, dark-haired, handsome man, he was thought to be
Italian by many of his friends because of his appearance and the
fact that he owned two pizza shops in Birmingham. Actually, he was
the son of a French mother and a father who came from Newfoundland.
He entered the Air Force in 1944, served as a flight engineer and
was discharged as a technical sergeant. He married, and was
divorced. There was one daughter, Teresa. Baker flew in the Korean
War, then, on Lincoln's Birthday, 1957, joined Hayes as a flight
engineer. He also started a pizza shop in East Lake. The following
year an attractive, blue-eyed brunette walked into Leo's Pizza Shop.
He hired her on the spot.
Her name was Catherine Walker. Although born in Kentucky, she was
raised in Birmingham and was graduated from Woodlawn High School
there. They began dating and were married on August 12, 1959. In
December, Baker was laid off by the Hayes Company. But he bought a
second pizza shop in Homewood. Cathy managed one; Leo the other. He
worked hard -- he could not abide lazy people -- and his small
restaurant business prospered.
They had two children: Beth, born April 22, 1960, and Mary, who
never saw her father. She was born September 26, 1961, six months
after he died.
In January, 1961, Leo Baker went to Boston for his father's funeral.
He told Cathy he was expecting a phone cal1 and it came while he was
gone. Soon after, late in January, Baker left home. He did not tell
Cathy where he was going. But he told her she could write to him c/o
Joseph Greenland at the Chicago address.
His return mail came once from Washington, but usually it was
postmarked Fort Lauderdale, Florida. One picture post card from that
city showed a motel with a tropical-fish pool. One weekend Leo
returned to Birmingham carrying a plastic bag full of tropical fish.
During this period Baker told his wife he was dropping supplies over
Cuba and training pilots. Every two or three weeks he came home
briefly. Two weeks before Easter he came home for the last time. He
arrived on a Saturday and left on a Sunday, and that was the last
time Cathy ever saw him.
"Watch the newspapers early in May," were among the parting words he
spoke to her.
Cathy believed he then went to Guatemala. She later learned he had
won $300 in a poker game in Central America before the invasion.
When someone asked if he planned to send the money home, he had
replied: "I'm taking it with me to Cuba. I might be able to buy my
way out of trouble."
Cathy did not know how much money Leo was paid. But she received
$500 a month while he was away.
Riley W. Shamburger, Jr., the oldest of the four fliers, was born in
Birmingham on November 17, 1924. He married Marion Jane Graves, his
childhood sweetheart. They had dated for twelve years before their
marriage, through grammar school and Woodlawn High. After Pearl
Harbor, Shamburger quit high school to join the Air Force. (When the
war ended he returned and got his diploma.) A combat pilot in World
War II and Korea, Shamburger was a big breezy extrovert who loved to
He was a 209-pounder, six feet tall, with 15,000 hours in the air
and eighteen years of flying experience by 1961. A test pilot at
Hayes, he was also a major in the Alabama Air National Guard, and
was its operations officer at the Birmingham airfield. He was also a
good friend of General Doster. Shamburger did well; he owned a
substantial home in East Lake.
The Shamburgers were part of a beer-and-barbecue, happy-go-lucky
crowd of Air Guardsmen and their wives who frequently socialized
together. Aside from flying, Riley liked nothing better than to sit
in front of the TV set with a case of beer, eating his favorite
food, "parched" (roasted) peanuts. And he liked to barbecue pork
Early in 1961 Riley told his wife: "I'm going to be away at school
for three months." He did not say where he was going, but about once
a week he returned to Birmingham. He and Doster would fly in
Sometimes they would bring news of other Birmingham acquaintances --
such as Colonel Joe Shannon -- who were part of the mysterious
operation. Once, when Riley returned for a visit, he told how the
boys had rigged up a beer joint in Central America named after their
favorite bar in Birmingham. Over the makeshift saloon a pair of red
panties flew in the breeze as a cocktail flag.
Shortly before the invasion, Marion sent Riley a present -- a whole
cigar box full of parched peanuts.
Wade Carroll Gray, born in Birmingham on March 1, 1928, and
thirty-three when he died, had also once been employed at Hayes, as
a radio and electronics technician. (But he had been laid off in
1960). He married his pretty wife, Violet, on December 14 1946. They
settled down in Pinson, a suburb where Wade had lived all of his
life. They had no children.
Gray left home on February 5, 1961, the same day that Pete Ray said
good-bye to Margaret. He told his wife that he was going to Texas to
test planes. He said the project was secret and that he could say no
He first returned home for a visit in early March, 1961. He, too,
told his wife to write c/o Joseph Greenland. Some of the letters
Violet Gray wrote were returned to her with her husband's effects
after his death. Among these effects were matchbooks indicating he
had been in both Guatemala and Nicaragua.
This, then, is the background of the four Americans, and of how they
came to be in Happy Valley on Wednesday, April 19, 1961. On that day
all four volunteered to fly B-26s over the beaches to relieve the
exhausted Cuban pilots.
What happened has already been described: Shortly before they took
off, the four CIA fliers were told they would receive air support
from the carrier-based Navy jets. (The word had been flashed to
Happy Valley by Richard Bissell after the President authorized the
unmarked Navy jets to fly for one hour at dawn.) Because of the
mix-up over time zones, the B-26s got to the Bay of Pigs after the
Navy jets had already gone.
Exactly how the two planes were shot down is a subject of varying
accounts, but most versions agree that Shamburger and Gray crashed
at sea and that Ray and Baker crashed inland.*2
Some evidence that Ray and Baker did crash on Cuban soil was
provided by Havana radio on the morning of April 19. At 10:30 A.M.
Havana time (9:30 A.M. Nicaragua time), Radio Havana Broadcast:
We give you official government communique No. 3. The participation
of the United States in the aggression against Cuba was dramatically
proved this morning, when our anti-aircraft batteries brought down a
U.S. military plane piloted by a U.S. airman, who was bombing the
civilian population and our infantry forces in the area of the
Australia Central [a sugar mill].
"The attacking U.S. pilot, whose body is in the hands of the
revolutionary forces, was named Leo Francis Bell. His documents
reveal his flight license number, 08323-LM, which expires 24
December 1962. His social security card is numbered 014-07-6921. His
motor vehicle registration was issued to 100 Nassau Street, Boston
4, Massachusetts. The registered address of the Yankee pilot is 48
Beacon Street, Boston. His height is five feet six inches." (This
was Baker's height.)
A Havana wire-service dispatch identified the pilot as Leo Francis
Berliss. Another story had it as Berle.
In Oklahoma City the Federal Aviation Agency said it had no record
at its headquarters there of the pilot's license as reported by
Havana. The numbering system, the FAA added, "isn't like that."
Reporters in Boston who checked the Beacon Street address found an
apartment house. None of the residents had ever heard of Leo Francis
Berliss. The State Department in Washington said it had no one by
that name in either the civilian or military branch of the
What Castro had in his hands, of course, was Leo Baker's
CIA-prepared credentials, made out with a fake last name. (CIA
clandestine officers frequently have bogus papers; some possess
three or four United States passports issued under different names.)
Presumably, the papers were recovered from Baker's body after the
bomber crashed inland.
One week later, on April 26, Margaret Ray received a visit from
Thomas F. McDowell, a Birmingham lawyer, who was the law partner of
Frank M. Dixon, a former governor of Alabama. McDowell was
accompanied by another man. They told Mrs. Ray that it was believed
her husband had been lost at sea in a C-46 transport plane. They
asked her to tell no one. They indicated there was a slim chance he
might still be alive.
For the next week Margaret Ray went about her normal life, going to
church, to the PTA, to the supermarket. On Wednesday, May 3, she was
again visited by McDowell. This time he brought with him a big blond
man he introduced as an attorney from Miami. His name was Alex E.
They repeated to Mrs. Ray the story about the C-46, but on this
visit they said there was no longer any hope that her husband was
alive. Carlson said he would tell the same story to the Birmingham
newspapers the next day.
Carlson and McDowell visited Margaret for about thirty minutes at
her mother's home. Then they left. Margaret hinted to them that she
did not believe their story.
On Thursday, May 4, Carlson held a press conference in Birmingham.
He announced that the four fliers were missing and presumed dead
after their C-46 had left on a cargo mission from an airstrip
somewhere in Central America. Carlson said he was an attorney
representing the Double-Chek Corporation of Miami. He said Double-Chek
had put some anti-Castro Cubans in touch with the fliers early in
April. Carlson did not say whether the four had flown in the
"They were told to use the radio only in case of an emergency," said
Carlson. "Then they reported one engine had gone out and they were
losing altitude. That was the last they have been heard from."
He said the Double-Chek Corporation had contacted the four on behalf
of an organization which requested that its identity remain
confidential. "But it is presumed to be an exiled group of Cubans,"
said Carlson. He said that Double-Chek had hired the four at a
monthly salary to fly cargo.
"These men knew what they were getting into," he added. "It was a
calculated risk. If they came back, they had a nice nest egg."
To cover its role, the CIA was willing to imply that the four dead
Americans were mercenaries. Their reputations were expendable.
The widows were embittered at Carlson's words.
"Riley wasn't a soldier of fortune," Mrs. Shamburger said. "He
didn't do this for the money. He was a test pilot at Hayes, and was
paid a good salary there. He was an operations officer for the Air
National Guard. He held two jobs because he wanted us to have
things. I have a maid twice a week. I wear furs. You see the things
we have in the house."
Mrs. Gray told a newspaper interviewer her husband was no soldier of
fortune either. She said he was paid $1,990 a month during the short
period of time he was away. She said she, too, had been visited by
"He said my husband was dead and to start life anew. He
said they had spotted one of the plane's engines floating in the
water. I didn't think engines floated."
"They knew what they were getting into, but I didn't," said Cathy
Three days after he returned to Miami, Carlson told the press he was
sure the C-46 had been flying a support mission for the Cuban
invasion. But he said the mission was not connected with the main
exile organization, the Democratic Revolutionary Front.
"There are many so-called fronts and wealthy individuals, all
anxious to do their part," he announced. "This was a small group."
Carlson's partner in Double-Chek, Raymond W. Cox, told Miami newsmen
that the corporation originally was formed to buy a race horse. He
said he knew nothing about any fliers.
Shortly after Carlson's appearance in Birmingham in May, 1961,
mysterious checks began arriving for the four widows. At first the
checks were issued by the Hialeah-Miami Springs Bank and were signed
by Carlson. Soon afterward there was a change, and the checks began
coming from the Bankers Trust Company of New York. They came every
two weeks. The first fifty-two payments were $225 each. Later they
were increased to $245, or a bit more than $6,000 a year for each of
the widows. The checks from Bankers Trust were simply signed by an
officer of the bank. They were drawn on a trust fund set up at the
bank. But there was no indication of where the money came from.
However, it is quite obvious that it came from the CIA. On May 17,
1961, Carlson wrote to Cathy Baker on his law-office letterhead. He
enclosed a cashier's check for $1,990 and wrote:
Double Check (sic] Corporation has decided to extend the regular
monthly salary through the 4th day of June, 1961, but is regretably
[sic] convinced of the finality of your husband's fate.
Nevertheless, beginning June 5th, on a monthly basis, you will
receive regular benefit allotments, as provided for by your
husband's employment contract.
Again let me express my sincere feelings of condolance [sic] in your
time of bereavement, and should you have any questions or problems,
please feel free to call upon our attorneys in Birmingham for help.
Very truly yours, Alex E. Carlson,
Attorney for Double-Check [sic]
Peculiarly, Carlson seemed unsure both in this letter and in
numerous public statements of whether the firm of which he was
president was called Double-Check (as he wrote to Mrs. Baker) or
Double-Chek, as it was incorporated in the State of Florida.
By "our attorneys in Birmingham," Carlson meant McDowell, who
continued to act as a sort of self-appointed overseer of the widows'
affairs. McDowell was able to obtain death certificates for the four
fliers; he kept them in his safe in Room 533 of the Frank Nelson
Building in downtown Birmingham. The widows were under the
impression that McDowell had a background in Navy Intelligence, and
believed he had something to do with the checks that they receive.
As this surrealistic chain of events unfolded, Riley Shamburger's
mother began to try to do something about it. Riley's father was a
retired city fireman, a semi-invalid who moved about their
Birmingham home in a wheelchair. But Riley's mother, who refused to
believe her son was dead, carried on an energetic correspondence
with the Federal Government. She did her best to find out what had
happened to her son. She even wrote to the Swiss Government, which
handled affairs for the United States in Cuba after the break in
diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana.
Mrs. Shamburger began by writing to the State Department. She
received a reply, dated August 11, 1961, from Denman F. Stanfield,
the acting chief of the Protection and Representation Division. It
Reference is made to your letter of July 9, 1961, concerning the
welfare and whereabouts of your son.
If you will provide your son's full name, date and place of birth,
last known address here or abroad, and any other pertinent
information that would assist in locating him, the Department would
be pleased to make inquiries.
A few weeks later she received a letter, dated September 14. 1961,
from Major Sidney Ormerod, United States Air Force, Division of
Administrative Services. This one was briskly efficient:
( 1) Your letters to the Department of State concerning your son
have been referred to me for reply.
( 2) The records in this office do not contain the circumstances
surrounding your son's accident. At the time he was not on active
duty in his military status.
( 3) For more detailed information it is suggested you contact the
Hayes Aircraft Corp.,*3 Birmingham, Alabama, since he was under their
jurisdiction at the time in question.
(4) I regret that I was unable to be of assistance to you in this
The letter was deceptive. Hayes Aircraft is a private corporation
and has no one under its "jurisdiction." At "the time in question"
Riley Shamburger was flying for the CIA. He was certainly not
testing aircraft for Hayes over the Bay of Pigs.
A lesser woman might have been discouraged by this, but Mrs.
Shamburger was not. The following year she wrote to John McCone. She
received a letter in reply, dated July 14, 1962, on CIA stationary
and signed by Marshall S. Carter, Lieutenant General, United States
Army, Acting Director. It said:
In Mr. McCone's absence, I am replying to your letter of June, 1962,
requesting information concerning your son. I am sorry to disappoint
you, but this agency is unable to furnish you any such information.
Also, we have made inquiries of other government departments, and
these, too, have no pertinent information.
We have every sympathy for you in your natural concern for the fate
of your son, and I am sorry as I can be that we cannot help. Please
be assured that if at any time we are able to furnish information we
will contact you promptly.
Still Mrs. Shamburger did not give up. She decided to go to the very
top. She wrote to the President of the United States. On October 4,
1962, Brigadier General Godfrey T. McHugh, the Air Force aide to the
President, wrote back. His letter expressed sympathy and said in
If any information is ever obtained on the circumstances surrounding
the loss of your son, you will be informed immediately.
Unfortunately, at present neither CIA nor any other government
agency possesses the slightest pertinent information on your son's
Riley Shamburger's mother was determined to keep trying.
"I am not
going to give up," she said. "They take your boy away and never let
you know what happened."
Mrs. Shamburger's correspondence with Washington, of course, was
going on behind the scenes. After the brief flurry of publicity
right after the Bay of Pigs, the story of the four missing Americans
dropped out of the news for almost two years -- until it reappeared
dramatically on February 25, 1963.
On that date Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen, Illinois Republican
and minority leader of the Senate, revealed that four American
fliers had been killed at the Bay of Pigs. He said he had learned
this in the course of a one-man inquiry into the Cuban invasion.
Dirksen's disclosure was extremely embarrassing for the Kennedy
Administration. In the first place, on April 12, 1961, five days
before the invasion, President Kennedy had said:
will do everything it possibly can, and I think it can meet its
responsibilities, to make sure that there are no Americans involved
in any actions inside Cuba."
In the second place, on January 21, 1963, Attorney General Robert F.
Kennedy, the President's brother, had said in an interview with
David Kraslow of the Knight newspapers that no Americans died at the
Bay of Pigs.
Robert Kennedy, in this interview and a similar one with U.S. News &
World Report, said something else of greater, and historical,
significance: a ranking official of the government for the first
time admitted clearly, and on the record, that the Bay of Pigs was a
United States operation, planned by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and
the CIA. "The President had to give approval to the plan," 
Robert Kennedy said. The Joint Chiefs "did approve it, although
responsibility for the planning lay primarily with the CIA."
After Dirksen's statement, newsmen sought out the elder Mrs.
Shamburger. "If no Americans were involved," she said, with obvious
reference to statements by President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy,
"where is my son?"
She said she had written to the President about her son "but he
evaded my question."
The White House was alarmed. Andrew T. Hatcher, the assistant
presidential press secretary, issued a statement. General McHugh had
answered Mrs. Shamburger's letter, Hatcher explained.
"At the direction of the President," he said, "the general extended
the President's heartfelt sympathy and explained that the government
had, unfortunately, no information to add to that which had been
conveyed to Mrs. Shamburger before.
"We are informed that representatives of the organization which
employed Mr. Shamburger reported her son's death, and as much as is
known of the circumstances, to Mrs. Shamburger in the spring of
However, the White House carefully did not make public the actual
text of its letter to Mrs. Shamburger, in which McHugh had assured
her that "at present neither CIA nor any other government agency
possesses the slightest pertinent information on your son's
Senator Mike Mansfield, the Democratic leader of the Senate, tried
to blunt Dirksen's political thrust. He noted that Carlson's
announcement in Birmingham on May 4, 1961 (the false cover story
about the C-46) had been carried at the time (as a four-paragraph
item) in the New York Times. There was nothing new about the story,
Mansfield declared. He also said that a few, selected members of
Congress had been told at the time that four Americans were killed
in the invasion; but Mansfield said he did not know how the fliers
met their deaths.
On March 4, 1963, following Dirksen's disclosure, Carlson told
newsmen who inquired about the widows' checks that a,
American group authorized Double-Chek to set up a trust fund for
payments in case the men died. Now the widows receive these
Then Carlson backed away from his "nest egg" remark of two years
earlier. The four men, he said,
"never were considered soldiers of
fortune. They knew they were going into hazardous duty, involving
anti-Castro tasks, but were motivated both by their beliefs and by
Two days later, on March 6, the administration, under pressure,
finally made its first oblique admission about the real role of the
four airmen. At a press conference that day, this exchange took
place with President Kennedy:
Q. Mr. President, can you say whether the four Americans who died in
the Bay of Pigs invasion were employees of the government or the
A. Well, I would say that there are a good many Americans in the
last fifteen years who have served their country in a good many
different ways, a good many abroad. Some of them have lost their
lives. The United States Government has not felt that it was helpful
to our interest, and particularly in the struggle against this armed
doctrine with which we are in struggle all around the world, to go
into great detail. Let me say just about these four men: They were
serving their country. The flight that cost them their lives was a
volunteer flight, and that while because of the nature of their work
it has not been a matter of public record, as it might be in the
case of soldiers or sailors, I can say that they were serving their
country. As I say, their work was volunteer.
The administration found itself in an awkward dilemma. It could not
admit very much more about the four fliers because to do so would be
to admit that it had misled Mrs. Shamburger and had kept the truth
from the American public.
And if it opened up the record on the four fliers, this would lead
directly to questions about why the carrier-based Navy jets and the
B-26s, in which four Americans died, had not arrived over the
This, in turn, would raise the question of why the President, having
stated on April 12, 1961, that "United States Armed forces" would
not be used "under any conditions," relented seven days later to the
extent of permitting one hour of air support by the unmarked Navy
In March of 1963, the case of the four CIA fliers, in short, held
the key to a host of explosively difficult questions for the White
House. But these were political questions. Suppression of
information about the fliers was justifiable only if national
security was involved. And it no longer was.
The need for security before the Bay of Pigs operation was
understandable, once the President had committed himself to the
invasion. It might be argued that in the immediate aftermath of the
invasion it was still necessary to protect the position of the
United States by fuzzing up the role of the fliers. But once the
role of the United States and the CIA was freely and publicly
conceded by Robert Kennedy in the two interviews in 1963, it is
difficult to see how security could any longer have been a factor in
cloaking the story of the four Birmingham fliers.
The administration was locked in with its previous denials to Mrs.
Shamburger. It had already informed her, in writing, that it knew
nothing about her son. And who could tell how much of this damaging
correspondence the elderly lady might choose to reveal?
As for Carlson, he was still sticking to his script. In a private
interview in Miami Springs in the summer of 1963, he said that he
continued to feel the four men were, basically, flying for money. He
pulled out a thick file, and, consulting it, said that Shamburger
and Ray had been paid $2,200 a month, Gray $1,500 and Baker $1,700.
"Double-Chek was contacted back in 1960 by a Central American
front," Carlson explained. But a moment later he said the
"recruiters," whom he refused to identify, "appeared to be American
businessmen." They had been recommended to him, Carlson said, by
"someone at the Miami airport," whom he declined to identify.
Carlson said Double-Chek had originally been formed to hold real
estate for a client.
"I was listed as president to protect the
identity of my client." The client, he said, "came from
Czechoslovakia and that's where he got the idea for the name."
(Carlson allowed as how Cox's story about a race horse was just a
bit of "jazz.")
"The recruiters," said Carlson, "came to me and said they wanted
pilots for the airline business, and did I have a corporation to
use. I checked through my files and found the Double-Chek
Corporation. They wanted to use the corporate shell as a broker or a
sort of placement agency."
Double-Chek then proceeded to recruit pilots for the "Central
American front" he said. Next thing he knew, said Carlson, he got a
telephone call from Central America and was told that a C-46 cargo
plane had gone down with the four men. Would he please go to
Birmingham and notify the widows? Carlson obliged.
Carlson professed to know nothing about the source of the money for
the widows' checks. He said that at first "Double-Chek had an
account at the Hialeah-Miami Springs bank and I was the authorized
signator." After that, he said, the "trust account" was established
at Bankers Trust in New York. "I believe there is a lump sum set up
there and the interest is what's paying the ladies."
And it was true that the checks continued to come from New York. But
that was all the widows had.
Three years after the Bay of Pigs the Birmingham widows had still
received no official acknowledgment from the United States
Government about their husbands. There had been no written
notification to the wives that their husbands died while employed
by, and fighting for, the United States. They had nothing official
to show their children to explain their fathers' deaths.
*1 Hutchinson later retired from the Air Force and became an oilman
in Oklahoma City. He said, on March 8, 1963, that five, not four,
American pilots had died flying in the Cuban operation but implied
that the fifth pilot was not lost in combat.
Albert C. Persons, managing editor of the weekly Birmingham
Examiner, said on March 8, 1963, that the plane carrying Shamburger
and Gray was shot down by a T-33 jet. Persons was one of the
American pilots at Happy Valley. He had been scheduled to fly in
Shamburger's bomber. Doster canceled his mission because Persons had
experience flying carrier aircraft rather than the B-26.
Hayes was not notably communicative. When one of the authors asked
for information about the background of the four men, who had worked
for the company for many years, a Hayes public- relations spokesman
said he would have to check with "topside." After doing so, he said
he could give out no information. "The matter is closed as far as we
are concerned," he said.
Prior to this, the clearest statement by the administration was
made by President Kennedy in an interview with the three major TV
networks on December 17,1962. Speaking in general terms of the 1961
Cuban invasion, the President said: "And I was responsible."
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