OPERATION PEDRO PAN | 1960-1962

A man known as 'George' was prince of Pedro Pan

 

pedropan@MiamiHerald.com

Ray Flores still recalls his parents' odd, but stern instruction as they tearfully parted nearly 50 years ago.

``When you land in Miami, ask for George.''

With that, the 10-year-old Flores and his brothers, Jose, 14, and Salvador, 8, boarded a flight for the United States, leaving their parents behind in Cuba.

Emy Botet said she received similar instructions when she left the communist island, alone, at age 12.``My parents told me to say I wanted to see George.''

''George'' was Jorge Guarch, and Marta de la Portilla Keen vividly remembers him.

''He picked up my sister and me at the airport and drove us to the Florida City camp,'' she said. ``That night, my sister and I hugged each other and cried all night long.''

Flores, Botet and de la Portilla were among the 14,048 unaccompanied minors spirited away to the United States by Operation Pedro Pan -- the most famous political airlift of children in the Western Hemisphere, a mission to rescue youngsters from communist indoctrination sweeping Cuban schools.

Guarch was the first friendly face the children saw as they arrived at Miami International Airport.

In a meticulous, handwritten log, he chronicled -- as an employee of the Catholic Welfare Bureau -- the arrival of each child in the historic airlift, which ran from December 1960 through October 1962.

The Miami Herald obtained the data archived at Barry University and created the first-ever Operation Pedro Pan Database, which can be found at MiamiHerald.com/pedropan.

OPERATION ICONS

Waiting for the children was more than a 9-to-5 job for the Cuban-born Guarch, who moved to the United States in 1949 with his American wife, Peggy, whom he met in Cuba.

Initially serving as a volunteer, he was hired in 1961 by Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh -- the father of Operation Pedro Pan -- to meet and transport the frightened children arriving almost daily. Guarch spoke Spanish, loved children and was fluent in English, making it easy to deal with immigration and customs issues. When he died at age 71 in 1991, scores of grown-up Pedro Pans attended his funeral to pay their respects to the man they remembered as ``George.''

Guarch inadvertently became the best chronicler of the historic exodus.

As the youngsters poured in, he began to keep ''The Airport Log,'' recording the names of all the Pedro Pan children -- their dates of birth, types of entry visas and where they went upon arrival -- either picked up by relatives or driven by Guarch to one of the four Miami-Dade camps: Matecumbe, Kendall, Florida City or Opa-locka; or to group homes like St. Raphael's Hall and St. Joseph's Villa.

The original log provides the only list of names available today -- the Holy Grail of Operation Pedro Pan.

Before his death in 2001, Walsh had begun the process of preserving the history of Operation Pedro Pan and computerizing the data from the log Guarch created. The Miami Herald transcribed the information into a searchable database, which includes a social-networking component that allows Pedro Pan veterans across the country to reconnect.

HOW IT WORKED

The secret mission emerged because concerned Cuban parents approached James Baker, headmaster at Ruston Academy, an American school in Havana, to seek help in getting their children out of Cuba. Baker approached the Finlays.

As general manager of KLM Airlines, Pancho Finlay could arrange for seats on regularly scheduled flights from Havana to Miami. Baker later traveled to Miami and met with businessmen and Walsh, who was summoned to Washington, where it was decided the Catholic priest would be allowed to sign and issue visa waivers for children to make it look as if they were going to the United States to study.

''For the rest of his life, my father was very proud of his role in Operation Pedro Pan, but he never tried to get credit for it. He was just glad so many kids made it out,'' said Baker's son, Chris Baker.

Others also helped, including Polita Grau and her brother, Ramón Grau. Their uncle Ramón Grau San Martín, had been president of Cuba, but that didn't stop Castro from arresting the two in 1965, largely for their role in Operation Pedro Pan. The CIA also played a role in directing Pedro Pan.

Gustavo Marinello, who made it out on a visa waiver at age 11, said his mother, Silvia, was a CIA operative and obtained her children's visa waivers from Polita Grau.

''It wasn't a big secret who my mother worked for; there were agents who would come to our house to pay her salary,'' Marinello said. ``When she wanted to get us out of Cuba, she went to Polita.''

THE PAINFUL PRICE

Yale historian, author and Pedro Pan veteran Carlos Eire praises the painful decision made by parents and feels they acted unselfishly in a dark moment.

''Our parents correctly judged Cuba to be a sinking ship, and most of them probably felt a lot like the passengers on the Titanic as it was going down,'' said Eire, who wrote a memoir about his experience titled Waiting for Snow in Havana.

``They threw us into the only lifeboat available, knowing that they had no other choice.''

Carmen Cancelas, 84, who lives in Puerto Rico, knows she did the right thing by sending her daughter and two sons ahead, but still struggles with the emotional scars the separation may have left on her kids.

She still chokes up when she speaks of her decision -- over the objections of her late husband, who felt Castro would fall within months and that there was no need to send the children away.

''It was the hardest thing I did in my life,'' she said. ``During the year and a half I was separated from them, I cried every day and said a prayer for each one. But I knew I had to get them out of Cuba or lose them to communism.''

Flores, who did not reunite with his parents for two years, said that even as he is grateful for the sacrifices his parents made, there was a price to pay.

''I had to grow up fast; I know I lost part of my childhood,'' he said. `` I had to become a man before I was ready.''

Read more Operation Pedro Pan stories from the Miami Herald

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