Taps will fill the air in Little Havana Sunday as the survivors of Brigade 2506 honor their fallen brothers, the men who died trying to liberate Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.
The survivors, now in their 70s and 80s, will salute as a bugle plays and 104 names of veterans killed in battle are read. Among the honored dead:
• Brigade pilot Jose Crespo Grasso, 26, who, under fire from a Cuban jet, asked a chaplain over the radio to hear his last confession. Me quiero confesar, padre!
• Alejandro del Valle, 22, a young brigade leader who died of thirst and starvation after fleeing from the failed invasion on a sailboat.
• Manuel Puig, 37, accused of spying on Cuba and sent to a firing squad.
On the 50th anniversary of the failed invasion, Miamis Cuban exile community will pay homage to the Bay of Pigs veterans the brigadistas viewed by many Cuban Americans as heroes, even as their effort to topple Fidel Castro was clouded by defeat.
These men certainly fit the bill of being considered a great generation, said Victor Triay, who wrote the book The Bay of Pigs: An Oral History of Brigade 2506.
More than 3,000 took part in the doomed mission, about half of which are still alive today.
What these men did 50 years ago was an act of bravery not seen again by our community, said U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who last week honored a delegation of veterans in the nations Capitol.
Prominent exile activist Ninoska Perez Castellon also dedicated much of her daily radio to brigade fighters. After her family fled Cuba, her two half-brothers fought in the invasion. The brigadistas were my first childhood heroes, she said.
The young men who joined up, including Humberto Martinez, who was just 16 when he was assigned to Battalion 2, said heroism was not the motivation: My parents knew what I was doing and we as family all felt it was the right thing to do for my country.
For exiles, the men of Brigade 2506 represent the first and only organized, large-scale, CIA-backed effort to rid their homeland of Castro. Because of that, being a brigadista has always been a revered thing, said Triay, who was born and raised in Miami after his parents fled Havana.
This marked the first time in Cuban modern history that a group of men from all walks of life lawyers, fisherman, carpenters and students came together to achieve a greater good, said Triay, a history professor at Middlesex Community College in Middletown, Ct.
The fact that air support for the operation was nixed by the Kennedy administration, leaving the men stranded on the beach, added to their mystique, he said. Not only were they viewed as heroes, they were victims of a great betrayal.
Betrayal wasnt on Frank De Varonas mind when he signed up at 17, said the Miami-Dade schools employee and author.
I was trying to bring freedom to Cuba, he said.
As part of a personal project, De Varona tracks the lives of brigadistas; he says most have led exemplary lives. They were not mercenaries, as Castro dubbed them. Ive actually had young Cuban people tell me: You dont look like a mercenary? said Julio Gonzalez Rebull, 74, assigned to the Air Force unit. Thats the Castro propaganda against us.
One brigadista became a two-star major general in the U.S. armed forced. There were also six colonels, 19 lieutenant colonels, nine majors, 29 captains and 64 lieutenants. They also fought the nations wars, including Vietnam.
Many brigadistas became businessmen and politicians. Some, like Mario Martinez-Malo, 72, received a loan from the government to attend the University of Florida. He became a successful financial planner. When we were released from a Cuban prison and returned to Miami 20 months, I wanted to catch up on lost time. I think many of us did, he said.
One brigadista is the father of a South Florida icon Gloria Estefan. Jose Fajardo eventually served in Vietnam, where is believed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. He died in 1980.
The brigadistas are very close to our hearts, Emilio Estefan said recently at a book signing. They were brave young men who wanted a free Cuba and were willing to fight for it.
Like Fajardo, Hugo Sueiro, 71, head of Battalion 2, also stayed in the U.S. Army after the Bay of Pigs invasion. He was wounded and disabled.
In 1961, he was 21 and assigned to lead the 181-member unit largely made up of idealistic university students and natives of Cubas Oriente province.
I was planning a military life and when I saw my friends being arrested and sentenced to 20 to 30 years, I felt a sense of duty to help, Sueiro said. I was motivated by a just cause.