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Cuban leader Fidel Castro, lower right, watched the CIA-funded Bay of Pigs invasion from inside a tank near Playa Giron, Cuba, on April 17, 1961. (Canadian press file, 1961) Photo gallery
Bay of Pigs
The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion was doomed from the outset by forces out of the Cuban exiles' control; after the failed attempt to overthrow Castro, his grip on the island became tighter than ever

It began April 17, 1961, with fervor and confidence. The soldiers of Brigade 2506, with the assurance that only righteousness can breed, knew they would succeed.

They were Cuban exiles, fighting to rid their land of communist domination, and they had the political and military support, they thought, of the U.S. government.

It ended, 72 hours later, in blood and confusion and the deepest despair a fighting force could know. The battle at Cuba's Bay of Pigs, doomed by forces out of the soldiers' control, turned into a rout, with most of the invaders captured.

The result: Castro's grip on the island and its people was tighter than ever.

"My defeat consolidated Fidel Castro in power," Erneido Oliva, the brigade's deputy commander, said in 1986. "That's the important thing to remember. . . It's something that will stay with us until we die."

FAILED PLAN

The plan was drafted, funded and implemented by the CIA.

It called for 1,453 Cuban exiles recruited largely in Miami and trained in Guatemala to establish a beachhead at the Bay of Pigs, a sparsely populated inlet in southwestern Cuba surrounded by swamps. The landing party would be preceded and supported by substantial air cover, organized by the CIA and designed to destroy Castro's modest air force.

Once established, the force would be joined by a provisional civilian "revolutionary government'' flown in from Miami. Large numbers of Cuban civilians and some of Castro's troops were expected to then enlist in the effort. Castro might be overthrown quickly; if not, a provisional government would be in place and could call on outside help.

The United States would provide almost everything training, supplies, planes, naval support. But it would be camouflaged to look like a Cuban exile operation. A month before the landing, the site was changed when President Kennedy decided the Trinidad area was too "noisy," making U.S. involvement less deniable. The landing was switched to the remote Bay of Pigs 80 miles farther west on Cuba's south coast. The site met the criteria of being isolated and having a landing strip from which airstrikes could be said to originate, although actually launched from an American-run base in Nicaragua.

Richard Bissell, the CIA's director for clandestine operations, said it would work. The Pentagon expressed doubts. Kennedy vacillated.

SCALED DOWN

At the final moment, Kennedy approved a scaled-down operation, ordering a night landing unheard of for an amphibious assault and a reduction in air cover, a fatal decision. Destroying Castro's air force on the ground had been considered essential.

At dawn on April 15, eight B-26 bombers attacked Cuban airfields at Ciudad Campo Libertad, San Antonio de los Baños and Santiago de Cuba. The raids did not substantially weaken Castro's air force. Instead, they warned him that an invasion was coming.

On the night of Sunday, April 16, the main assault force neared the Bay of Pigs aboard chartered ships. Seven U.S. destroyers, their identification numbers altered or obscured, accompanied the convoy and helped with navigation.

The landing already was doomed by tactical and political mistakes, according to two authoritative studies, Bay of Pigs, The Untold Story, a book by Peter Wyden, and the report of a U.S. board of inquiry.

American officials had cited surprise as an essential element. But the curtailed airstrikes, combined with nearly public recruiting efforts and media reports in the United States, eliminated any chance of that.

Most critically, officials in Washington decided late on the night before the invasion to delay further airstrikes until the landing party seized the airstrip. And Navy destroyers were under strict orders to avoid engaging the Cubans.

DOOMED ATTACK

And so, at 1:15 a.m. April 17, Brigade Commander José Pérez San Román brought his troops ashore near the town of Girón, east of the Bay of Pigs.

At about the same time, Oliva led his troops to the other landing site at the mouth of the bay. But engine trouble slowed many of the landing craft, some hit a coral reef, and ammunition and radios were damaged by water.

Later, 172 parachutists were dropped farther inland but many came down in swamps and were lost to the operation.

On both beaches, landing parties met resistance from militias loyal to Castro. The popular support predicted by the CIA did not occur. Cuban troops and militia soon began moving in force toward the Bay of Pigs.

For all intents and purposes, it was over.

At the end, this was the brigade's toll: 114 dead and 1,189 captured. Some of those captured were shot as war criminals; most of the others were returned to the United States 19 months later, ransomed for $53 million in food and medicine.

Castro claimed that only 155 of his citizens troops were killed, but Oliva and others put the toll much higher, possibly in the thousands. They died defending Castro and his vision of Cuba.