'Yanqui' rebel William Morgan's saga in Cuban revolution is revived

The image of the 'yanqui comandante' has faded, but ex-rebels still recall his role in a revolution that changed Cuba.

01/03/2009 3:01 AM

09/08/2014 5:36 PM

With hands resting on their guns, Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara and William Morgan -- two rebel leaders -- glared at each other from across a desolate field in the central mountains of Cuba.

For a tense moment on that fall day 50 years ago, each waited for the other to make a move -- the Cuban revolution on the brink.

They exchanged harsh words but in the end put down their weapons, agreeing to return to fighting their common enemy, the Fulgencio Batista regime.

Both would lead their own units in the final weeks of the revolution. Both captured major cities. Both played pivotal roles in the conflict.

But while Guevara has been long remembered, Morgan has been largely forgotten -- an ex-paratrooper buried in an obscure grave in Havana's largest cemetery.

Former rebels who fought with Morgan argue that he has never been recognized for his role in a revolution that changed Cuba.

''He was a soldier,'' said Enrique Encinosa, a Miami radio host who penned six books on Cuban history. ``He was tough. He was disciplined. He was able to teach people to fight who had never been taught before.''

In a crucial sweep during the last two weeks of the fighting, Morgan and his men attacked a fortress that guarded the road to Cienfuegos, forcing the soldiers inside to surrender.

The move not only allowed Morgan to capture the city, but opened the area to the guerrillas marking the beginning of the end for Batista's army, historians say.

Three years later, the yanqui comandante met his own demise after defying a revolutionary government he helped put in power.

Charged with running guns to anti-Castro rebels, Morgan was executed by a firing squad in 1961 and was buried in the massive Colón Cemetery.

Five decades later, his role in modern Cuban history is resurfacing, partly because of a rare request by relatives to have his remains returned to the United States.

For the past 18 months, Morgan's widow has been quietly negotiating with the Cuban and U.S. governments, while former rebels in Miami have been raising money to ensure he won't be forgotten.

Some of the money is expected to pay for the return of Morgan's remains -- if the request is granted, said George Castellon, who has helped raise $2,500.

''For so long, people just remembered Che Guevara,'' Castellon said. ``It was Che this and Che that. But they forgot about Morgan.''


Morgan was a swashbuckling figure who cut a large swath among rebels in the Escambray Mountains.

A street tough with underworld ties, his entry into Cuba began in Cold War fashion: running guns to Castro's rebels -- possibly for mobster Meyer Lansky, interviews and FBI records show.

While the guns were strictly for money, Morgan said he took on the revolutionary cause after a fellow gun smuggler was killed by Batista's forces in 1957.

No one has been able to confirm the story, but Morgan showed up in the Escambray that year to launch a series of assaults that later drove Batista's soldiers from the mountains. Sporting tattoos and speaking broken Spanish, the pudgy, sunburned Ohioan was a curiosity to the rebels in the mountains of central Cuba.

Compared to the fighters in the eastern Sierra Maestra, the guerrillas of the Escambray -- known as the Second Front -- were less experienced.

Although Morgan had a checkered military past -- he was booted from the U.S. Army for going AWOL -- he was well trained in hand-to-hand combat, according to former rebels.

''He was experienced,'' recalled commander Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, 74, in a phone interview from an apartment outside Havana. ``He spoke little Spanish, but we took in anyone willing to take up arms against the dictatorship.''

While Morgan had a poor U.S. Army record, ''he was in a position to teach the young [rebels],'' said Encinosa. ``You're talking about some who never knew how to fire and clean a gun. That's what Morgan brought to them.''

In one of his first encounters with the enemy, Morgan showed his experience while revealing his lack of Spanish.

Gutiérrez Menoyo ordered his men to hold their fire as an army patrol approached. The goal: to capture the soldiers for their weapons.

''I asked everyone to confirm they understood my orders, and all, including William, nodded in agreement,'' Gutiérrez Menoyo recalled.

But when the soldiers broke through the brush, Morgan opened fire, wounding several. The soldiers escaped but returned with more men, chasing the rebels deep into the mountains for several days.

Gutiérrez Menoyo ended up scolding Morgan, but it was clear the American ''possessed tremendous ability,'' said Gutiérrez Menoyo, who spent 21 years in prison after falling out of favor with Castro.

During later skirmishes with troops in Fomento, Saltillo, Padrero and La Diana, Morgan inflicted numerous casualties.

He also earned respect among his men. After one battle, he carried a wounded rebel on his back ''all the way from the scene of the battle to the mountains, where he was treated,'' according to the 1979 book Merc: American Soldiers of Fortune.

Within a short time, Morgan's troops had fought more than 15 engagements -- losing none, according to Merc.

One rebel particularly impressed by Morgan was Olga Rodríguez, who fled to the mountains after she was accused of making bombs during the resistance movement in Santa Clara.

She watched as he was put in charge of five men, then a larger column, and finally promoted to comandante, the equivalent of major.

As he lost more men in fighting, Morgan became more committed to the revolutionary cause, Rodríguez said. ''I could see that he felt for my people,'' said Rodríguez, who married him in late 1958. She is now Olga Morgan Goodwin.

A turning point for the rebels was in November 1958 when they received a letter from Guevara saying the 26th of July Movement -- Castro's force -- was going to take over the Second Front.

Angered by the note, the Escambray rebels were determined to run their own unit, recalled Osiel González.

Now living in Miami, González said he was livid over the way the letter was signed, simply, ``Che.''

'It was as if we had sent a letter signed `Chico,' '' González said. ``It denoted a lack of respect.''

When more than 100 men from Castro's front arrived in November, Morgan and his rebels surrounded them and stripped them of their weapons, according to interviews and published accounts.

Soon afterward, Guevara showed up, angry. ''He was humiliated by the disarming of his men by the Morgan-trained guerrillas,'' wrote authors Brown and Mallin.

For a moment, the two rebel leaders -- Morgan and Guevara -- refused to back down. González said he later learned that Morgan challenged Guevara to draw. ''One of Morgan's most important roles was his part in defining our stand,'' González said.

No one fired, and eventually, the men put their guns down. With the revolution at stake, the two sides agreed to put their differences aside and coordinate their efforts.


In the ensuing weeks, the dual forces unleashed their own attacks through the province -- the heart of Cuba -- in a final assault on Batista's soldiers.

On Dec. 22, 1958, Morgan's column stormed a fortified area guarding the city of Cienfuegos, firing on the building until the soldiers inside gave up.

Nine days later, Guevara and his men -- after a brutal spate of battles -- took the provincial capital of Santa Clara, causing Batista to panic and flee Havana.

While the rebel factions gathered in Havana to celebrate, Morgan and Guevara never reconciled, say those who knew them. ''Che hated Morgan,'' Castellon recalled.

In fact, they squared off once more when Guevara insisted that leaders of the Second Front give up their command. ''It got real ugly,'' Gutiérrez Menoyo recalled in a 2002 interview. ``We had our hands on our guns.''

Morgan was allowed to keep his rank in the revolutionary army, but neither Morgan nor Gutiérrez Menoyo was given a prominent post in the new government.

Angry over Castro's relentless turn to communism, Morgan broke with the regime and began to run guns to a new rebel front in the Escambray -- acts that led to his arrest.

Tried and convicted before a military court, he was led to a firing squad on March 11, 1961. He was 32.

Since then, Morgan's image has been eclipsed by larger Cold War events. But to those who fought with him in the Escambray, he remains an intriguing figure in the revolution.

''He was a tough guy who struggled most of his life,'' Encinosa said.

``He got in trouble with the army and the law. But he goes to Cuba and he finds a cause. He finds something to believe in, and then he dies for it. In his death, he becomes somebody he had never been before.''

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