Even though the operation was considered top secret by American officials, many middle-class parents in Cuba were aware that church clergy, teachers and staff members of American schools like Ruston Academy could be contacted for visa waivers.
THE FIRST CHILDREN ARRIVE
Sixto and Vivian Aquino were the first two unaccompanied Cuban minors to arrive, according to Operation Pedro Pan records.
''I remember being met at the airport and everyone being very nice to us,'' said Sixto Aquino, who arrived at age 11 and today works for the World Bank in Washington, D.C.
Walsh himself had met the two first Pedro Pans, who were sent to live in a Miami orphanage called St. Joseph's Villa at Northwest Seventh Street and 28th Avenue.
''For me, arriving here all by myself with my little brother and going to live in an American orphanage was a terrible culture shock,'' said Vivian Sixto of Miami, who was 14.
For several weeks, dozens more kids followed. But the operation then came to a screeching halt.
Early in January 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke diplomatic relations with Cuba and Operation Pedro Pan was faced with the new problem of how to distribute visas for the children in the absence of an American embassy.
Walsh said in interviews prior to his death that he thought the operation would die a month into it. ''It was a nice try,'' he said.
But the operation turned into a much larger and dramatic effort as events unfolded.
Walsh said two components heightened the panic: Children coming back from the Cuban government's mandatory agriculture camps told their parents they were being taught leftist ideology and were required to join the young Communist pioneers movement. They also wore uniforms and were instructed to alert authorities if their parents were not true revolutionaries.
Many Cuban parents saw these measures as a way for the Castro government to indoctrinate their children.
Adding to the anxiety was the arrest of more than 200,000 people believed to be loyal to the previous regime of Fulgencio Batista, or who had turned against the revolution they had once supported.
By May of 1961, the government had taken control of all private schools, and in September it expelled large numbers of priests and nuns from the country.
Echazábal's Catholic school was among those shut down.
''I remember the day the militia men came to the school and told the nuns what they had to teach -- what the revolution required,'' she said. ``The nuns instead decided to close the school and return to their home base in Mexico.''
Alarmed by the government's control of education, rumors began circulating that the government would institute a Patria Potestad law, effectively taking away the right of parents to determine their children's future.
Parents saw the youth camps, the literacy campaign, the closing of private schools, the ''scholarships'' to study in the Eastern bloc and their possible loss of control over their children as a call to get their kids out of Cuba.
'I think a lot of parents just looked at each other and said, `We've got to get our children out of here,' '' Walsh said in an interview years later.
So Operation Pedro Pan, whose name was coined by late Miami Herald Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Gene Miller, spread across Cuba.
Ironically, the name of the mission in honor of a mischievous boy who can fly and refuses to grow up is contrary to what happened to many who found themselves alone in America without their parents.
''When I got on that plane in Cuba, I was a boy,'' said Angones. ``When I landed in Miami, I was more of an adult than any child should be.''