In the days before Christmas 50 years ago this weekend, 1,113 Bay of Pigs fighters captured by Fidel Castros forces and imprisoned for 20 months were finally released to a heroes welcome in Miami.
The first planeload of POWs arrived at Homestead Air Force Base on Dec. 23, 1962. Gaunt and betrayed by the John F. Kennedy administration, members of the proud Brigade 2506 were bused to Miamis Dinner Key Auditorium, where waiting relatives engulfed them with hugs at a massive reunion that made front-page news. Five days later, JFK and his wife Jackie would be at the Orange Bowl to welcome them, too.
On Saturday, the 50th anniversary of those pivotal days will be observed as surviving brigade members now in their 70s and 80s hold a and 11 a.m. Mass and reunion at the Bay of Pigs Museum in Little Havana.
The release of the men was the one bright spot in the disastrous April 1961 CIA-backed invasion to overthrow the two-year old Castro government. Yet the fighters return also sent the somber message that exiles would not reclaim Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis that October had set the course of U.S.-Cuba relations until today.
Back then, it was sinking in: The Cuban exile community was in Miami to stay.
A defeated Jose Andreu, now 76, the first brigade member to sign up for the invasion, was among those who arrived home that bittersweet day.
My wife to-be was there to meet me, along with my sister and my father, Andreu said. I remember a lot of hugging and crying.
Among the young people waiting at the auditorium that day in 1962 was a teen-aged Ninoska Perez Castellon, there with her family to welcome her brothers and uncle, all brigade members.
I remember being in that packed auditorium ... I can truly say as a child I viewed those men as my first heroes. I still do, said Perez-Castellon, who grew up to become one of Miamis most influential radio personalities.
Perez and her family still have black-and-white snapshots of the joyful reunion, showing her late grandmother proudly hugging her son.
The behind-the-scenes negotiations that finally led to the release of the brigadistas 50 years ago this week were the stuff of Hollywood movies. They involved months of haggling with Castro by everyone from a former first lady to a high-profile diplomatic negotiator who led the group that finally succeeded a group of the prisoners mothers, wives and fathers who made up the Cuban Families Committee.
Their effort resulted in a now-forgotten 7,857 exodus of Cuban refugees, many relatives of the brigadistas, who arrived in cargo ships at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale from December 1962 to July 1963.
Two women in the committee played key roles one in Cuba, motivated by a mothers love; the other in Miami, seeking to free her husband.
Havana socialite, Berta Barreto, whose oldest son, Alberto Oms Barreto, had been captured during the invasion, made the initial contact with Castro and promised that the ransom he had set for the men would be paid. Years later, her second son, Pablo Perez-Cisneros Barreto, wrote the definitive book on the negotiations called After the Bay of Pigs, soon to be published in Spanish. What my mother and the others managed to do, with no experience in high-level negotiating, was extraordinary, Perez-Cisneros Barreto said.