SPECIAL REPORT: FIRST OF THREE PARTS

How a group of Cuban exiles set up to topple Fidel Castro

 

jtamayo@ElNuevoherald.com

The commander of the Bay of Pigs invasion, José Perez San Roman, kneeled and kissed the sand with joy when he landed at Playa Girón on the south coast of Cuba. Two days later, his 1,500 men had been thoroughly defeated.

“We are out of ammo and fighting on the beach. Please send help,’’ San Roman radioed his CIA advisors. Then, this final transmission: “I have nothing to fight with. Am taking to the woods.’’

The most direct and powerful U.S. bid to topple Fidel Castro began amid rosy optimism 50 years ago on April 17. It ended in disaster April 19.

President John F. Kennedy and the CIA were forever seared by the historic failure. Castro became the Caribbean David who defeated the Goliath to the north. His grip on the reins of power grew ever more powerful. And 18 months later, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Castro branded the captured Brigade 2506 invaders as “mercenaries” and demanded ransoms for their release – from $500,000 for San Roman and each of the two other invasion leaders, down to $25,000 for the foot soldiers.

Yet survivors of the Brigade’s assault today recall the three days of fighting and 20 months in Castro’s appalling prisons as a heroic moment for them and a luminous moment in Cuba’s struggle for democracy.

The brigadistas landed in the predawn darkness of April 17, 1961 — five frogmen and one CIA case officer, Grayston Lynch, who were to plant lights on the beaches to guide ashore the rest of the amphibious assault force.

The exile fighters were to follow and seize a 40-mile long front on the eastern shore of the Bay of Pigs — from Playa Larga in the north to Playa Girón in the middle and Caleta Verde to the south.

In the first hours, the invasion seemed to go well.

“We repelled three attacks during daylight, including one in the afternoon [by] more than 1,000 militia and army” troops, wrote Erneido Oliva, head of Playa Larga operations and the landing force’s No. 2 military commander.

Brigade paratroopers seized two key roads to the beachheads — narrow causeways built over the largest swamp in the Caribbean, the Cienaga de Zapata. The infantry secured an airstrip needed to resupply the invaders and fly in a civilian “government’’ that would call for international recognition.

Six Brigade B-26 planes dropped 250-pound bombs on the first and last vehicles of a Castro police and militia convoy caught on one causeway, then raked the rest with the eight 50-caliber machine guns mounted on their noses. Cuba later reported 1,800 people were killed or wounded in that one battle alone.

“For me, those 15-20 minutes seemed like an hour. For the people down there, it must have seemed like an eternity,’’ recalled Gustavo Villoldo, who flew aboard one of the B-26s.

In another bloody battle, Brigade fighters controlled the critical San Blas causeway through three days under nearly constant pounding by Castro’s long-range artillery and waves of attacks by ground troops and Soviet-made T-34 tanks.

Mortar crewman Mario Martinez-Malo recalled that at one point, the number of civilians and Castro militias captured in just one area was more than twice the number of invaders.

On the third day of fighting, he fired 405 shells at an advancing militia column on a causeway, Martinez-Malo added, without the time to move away and cover his ears in between shells. “By the end, I was deaf.”

And while the Brigade lost 67 dead in combat, Cuba later admitted to 1,250 dead and nearly 3,000 wounded on its side.

“We fought with the love of our country in our hearts. And at the beginning we are winning,” said Santiago Jont, then a 23-year old fisherman-turned infantryman from Pinar del Río province in western Cuba.

They also fought with the cocky conviction that the mighty U.S. government, which had trained and armed them, would come to their rescue if they ran into trouble. That’s why the USS Essex aircraft carrier and a half-dozen U.S. destroyers were stationed just over the horizon.

Julio Gonzalez Rebull, then 24 years old and now a semi-retired Miami public relations man, recalled that another Brigade member had reassured him, “We are with John Wayne, and John Wayne never lost a fight.”

DOOMED ATTACK

But by nightfall of the 17{+t}{+h}, the invasion was doomed.

Castro had quickly marshaled 40,000 to 60,000 men for a counter-attack – mostly police and militias with little training but ammunition to spare — and lined up 20 Soviet long-range cannon and 40 tanks that would pound the beaches with more than 2,000 shells over the three days of fighting.

He had only a handful of warplanes — two T-33 jets and a couple of prop-driven Sea Furies and B-26 bombers. But they were enough to rule the skies over the Bay of Pigs and seal the fate of the assault force.

While Castro’s warplanes needed only 20 to 30 minutes to fly to the beaches, Brigade pilots had to fly seven hours from their covert base in Nicaragua and back, and had only enough fuel to linger over the battle zone for 20 to 40 minutes.

The Brigade’s air wing flew 36 missions despite the fatal odds, losing 10 pilots and half its own B-26 bombers. With their tail guns removed to make space for extra fuel, they were easy prey for rear attacks. Four American B-26 pilots, contracted by the CIA, also were killed.

Cuban warplanes quickly sank the ship Río Escondido, which carried a 10-day supply of ammunition and fuel, and hit the Houston, carrying weapons, ammunition and fuel for another 5,000 men.

Even underwater, the Río Grande provided a light show: “The ship had sunk but it was still firing rockets and ammunition out of the water,’’ said Esteban Bovo, a Brigade pilot who flew overhead.

The Houston’s captain, Luis Morse Sr., ran it aground still carrying units from the 2{+n}{+d} and 5{+t}{+h} infantry battalions, which had to lay ropes to the shore and hang on to them as they landed under repeated strafing runs by enemy planes. Morse’s own son was among the invaders.

Two other ships — the civilian-crewed Atlantico and Caribe, carrying more supplies and men, including the medical team — were ordered to leave the area on the 17{+t}{+h} to avoid the air attacks and return under the cover of darkness.

Frogman Eduardo Zayas-Bazan recalled that the two ships “left and never returned.” Another supply ship, the Oratawa, did not arrive in the area until several days later.

Three of the invaders’ five M-41 light tanks did not work properly and had to be turned into static artillery pieces. Gunners on the Houston hit one of their own landing craft in the chaos of the battle.

On the 18{+t}{+h}, some of the Brigade’s B-26 crewmen refused to fly more missions back at their base in Nicaragua, saying they were tired. One jumped out of a cockpit just as his plane was about to take off.

A diversionary landing of 168 Brigade fighters between Santiago and Guantánamo in southeastern Cuba was called off because their ship, the Santana, could not find the assigned beach on the first night. By the second night, the area was crawling with Castro troops.

Some Brigade units began falling back on the 18{+t}{+h} as Castro’s militias left the risky causeways and began closing in through the swamp. “They were coming out of the swamp like ants,’’ Martinez-Malo said.

THE CHAOS

By the night of the 18{+t}{+h} and the morning of the 19{+t}{+h}, there was chaos and panic on the beachheads as the ammunition ran out, Brigade veterans recalled.

San Roman gave the order to destroy all transmission equipment and disperse into the swamp. “We will never abandon our country,’’ he declared, words that Brigade veterans use as their slogan today.

Castro’s government made it official on the afternoon of the 19{+t}{+h}: “The invading mercenary army, which occupied Cuban territory for less than 72 hours, has been completely crushed. The revolution emerged victorious.”

Rebull has a different view: “The Brigade did not surrender. It ran out of ammunition.’’ he said. “The U.S. trained us, and then they abandoned us.’’

Miami Herald staff writer Luisa Yanez contributed to this report.

Read more Bay of Pigs stories from the Miami Herald

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