Daring, painful escapes from Cuba to the United States are not unique: Camarioca in 1965, Freedom Flights through 1973, the 1980 Mariel boatlift and the 1994 balsero exodus boosted the Cuban exile population to about two million. But the most poignant refugee wave remains Operation Pedro Pan -- the secret, two-year-long effort to get unaccompanied minors out of Cuba and away from Communist indoctrination.
A total of 14,048 children -- between the ages of 6 and 17 -- made it out ahead of their parents between December 1960 and October 1962.
Getting them out proved to be the easy part.
''My parents told me we would be separated for just a few weeks; I didn't see them again for nine months,'' said Eloisa Echazábal, a Pedro Pan who arrived in Miami at age 13 with her 8-year-old sister Teresita on a regularly scheduled Pan American flight in 1961.
Once in South Florida, the children -- about 70 percent of them boys -- were first sent to youth camps in Florida City, Kendall, Opa-locka and Camp Matecumbe.
From there, about 8,000 who had no relatives or friends in the United States were dispersed to 41 states, where they were placed in foster homes, orphanages and religious boarding schools to begin life in exile alone.
Sent to temporary homes in places like Dubuque, Iowa; Yakima, Washington; and Helena, Montana, some of the children lived happily until reunited with their parents; others had miserable experiences in temporary homes
Eloy Cepero, who arrived at age 15, found refuge in the Coral Gables mansion of McGregor Smith, then chairman of Florida Power & Light. His wife, Elizabeth, raised her hand at her Methodist church when volunteers were sought to take in unaccompanied Cuban boys.
''That couple treated us like sons,'' said Cepero, who has fond memories of a home that came with maids, butlers and chauffeurs. ``They were so kind that, to this day, I can't speak of the Smiths without choking up over their incredible kindness to me and my two brothers.''
All who took part in the historic operation were marked by it.
Armed with visa waivers that allowed them U.S. entry, the children began boarding regularly scheduled flights from Havana to Miami on Dec. 26, 1960.
Wearing their best outfits, some descended the plane in tears, others clutched dolls, and most carried a suitcase with enough clothes for a week. Many were told to ask for ''George'' upon arrival.
George was Jorge Guarch, a big-hearted employee for Catholic Charities who greeted the children at Miami International Airport and then drove them to one of the camps that would serve as a temporary home until assigned to a family.
To help him keep track of the children, Guarch wrote down their names and other data. Today, his meticulous record-keeping is known as the ''Airport Log,'' and is considered the gem of the Pedro Pan archives at Barry University in Miami Shores.
The Miami Herald has computerized the names in that log and placed them in a unique, searchable database. Pedro Pans can now find themselves and each other at MiamiHerald.com/pedropan.
Among those on the list is Frank Angones, president of The Florida Bar, who arrived in Miami at age 11. Guarch greeted him and the other children arriving at MIA on June 13, 1961.
'This man was the first face we saw when we got out of the plane. I remember he told me: My name is `George.' I didn't know if he was Cuban or American. He then drove us in a station wagon to the Kendall camp; he was very kind to kids who were sort of in shock,'' Angones said.