Daring, painful escapes from Cuba to the United States are not unique: Camarioca in 1965, Freedom Flights through 1973, the 1980 Mariel boatlift and the 1994 balsero exodus boosted the Cuban exile population to about two million. But the most poignant refugee wave remains Operation Pedro Pan -- the secret, two-year-long effort to get unaccompanied minors out of Cuba and away from Communist indoctrination.
A total of 14,048 children -- between the ages of 6 and 17 -- made it out ahead of their parents between December 1960 and October 1962.
Getting them out proved to be the easy part.
''My parents told me we would be separated for just a few weeks; I didn't see them again for nine months,'' said Eloisa Echazábal, a Pedro Pan who arrived in Miami at age 13 with her 8-year-old sister Teresita on a regularly scheduled Pan American flight in 1961.
Once in South Florida, the children -- about 70 percent of them boys -- were first sent to youth camps in Florida City, Kendall, Opa-locka and Camp Matecumbe.
From there, about 8,000 who had no relatives or friends in the United States were dispersed to 41 states, where they were placed in foster homes, orphanages and religious boarding schools to begin life in exile alone.
Sent to temporary homes in places like Dubuque, Iowa; Yakima, Washington; and Helena, Montana, some of the children lived happily until reunited with their parents; others had miserable experiences in temporary homes
Eloy Cepero, who arrived at age 15, found refuge in the Coral Gables mansion of McGregor Smith, then chairman of Florida Power & Light. His wife, Elizabeth, raised her hand at her Methodist church when volunteers were sought to take in unaccompanied Cuban boys.
''That couple treated us like sons,'' said Cepero, who has fond memories of a home that came with maids, butlers and chauffeurs. ``They were so kind that, to this day, I can't speak of the Smiths without choking up over their incredible kindness to me and my two brothers.''
All who took part in the historic operation were marked by it.
Armed with visa waivers that allowed them U.S. entry, the children began boarding regularly scheduled flights from Havana to Miami on Dec. 26, 1960.
Wearing their best outfits, some descended the plane in tears, others clutched dolls, and most carried a suitcase with enough clothes for a week. Many were told to ask for ''George'' upon arrival.
George was Jorge Guarch, a big-hearted employee for Catholic Charities who greeted the children at Miami International Airport and then drove them to one of the camps that would serve as a temporary home until assigned to a family.
To help him keep track of the children, Guarch wrote down their names and other data. Today, his meticulous record-keeping is known as the ''Airport Log,'' and is considered the gem of the Pedro Pan archives at Barry University in Miami Shores.
The Miami Herald has computerized the names in that log and placed them in a unique, searchable database. Pedro Pans can now find themselves and each other at MiamiHerald.com/pedropan.
Among those on the list is Frank Angones, president of The Florida Bar, who arrived in Miami at age 11. Guarch greeted him and the other children arriving at MIA on June 13, 1961.
'This man was the first face we saw when we got out of the plane. I remember he told me: My name is `George.' I didn't know if he was Cuban or American. He then drove us in a station wagon to the Kendall camp; he was very kind to kids who were sort of in shock,'' Angones said.
For weeks, Angones cried himself to sleep at the Kendall camp. ''I missed my parents,'' he said. He remembers calling them on the phone. 'I would tell them: `Hurry up and come get me.' ''
Angones was lucky. He reunited with his parents four months later.
The wait was much longer for many others whose parents became trapped by the political tension between Havana and Washington, including the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
When travel between the two nations was suspended, many parents -- like those of future U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez -- could not get out until the Cuban Freedom Flights approved by President Lyndon B. Johnson began in 1965.
Juan Pujol's parents never made it out of Matanzas. He was sent alone at age 16.
''For family reasons -- my brother was military age and my grandmother was elderly -- my parents stayed behind. I did not see them again until 1979 -- 17 years after I got here,'' said Pujol, a merchant in Miami Beach who returned to Cuba on a short visit to see his family.
THE SEEDS OF PEDRO PAN
The seeds of Operation Pedro Pan began just after the 1959 Cuban revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
In the spring of 1960, Castro announced the closing of secondary schools and the opening of ''youth camps'' in the countryside, where Cuban children would learn to work in agriculture and embrace a revolutionary lifestyle.
The best and the brightest were given scholarships to study abroad in the Soviet Union, Castro's new ally. In a speech that sent chills down many Cuban parents' spines, Castro announced he would ``. . . terminate the school year and mobilize all the students from sixth grade up and send them to revolutionary schools in the countryside.''
For many parents, it became obvious that indoctrination was seeping into the public, private and religious schools on the island.
Many middle- and upper-class Cubans who opposed Castro began looking for ways to get their children out.
'My parents' idea was to send us to the U.S. until this whole thing blew over. At that time, no one thought Castro would last long,'' Echazábal said. ``Sending us to the U.S. was just a temporary solution to remove us from what was happening in Cuba.''
A SECRET PLAN IS HATCHED
Some Cuban parents approached James Baker, head of the Ruston Academy, an American school in Havana.
A secret plan coalesced involving Baker, a priest in Miami and the U.S. government.
In December of 1960, Baker traveled to Miami and met with the Havana-American Chamber of Commerce to try to secure funds for about 200 children whose parents wanted them out of Cuba.
He also met with Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh, then director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau for the Archdiocese of Miami, to discuss the care of the unaccompanied minors.
Walsh flew to Washington to meet with high-ranking officials who came up with an unprecedented plan to allow Walsh to sign U.S. immigration visa waivers for the Cuban children.
The signed waivers were distributed throughout the island via the American Embassy. But the operation had to be kept secret to safeguard against the risk of detention by Cuban intelligence officers.
A committee of the American Chamber of Commerce of Havana and a group of Cubans raised funds for the youngsters' passage from Havana to Miami.
The Catholic Welfare Bureau assumed the responsibility of caring for the children until they could be reunited with their parents -- either in Cuba or in the United States. In an unprecedented move, the U.S. government paid about $100 a month per child to help pay for their care.
Even though the operation was considered top secret by American officials, many middle-class parents in Cuba were aware that church clergy, teachers and staff members of American schools like Ruston Academy could be contacted for visa waivers.
THE FIRST CHILDREN ARRIVE
Sixto and Vivian Aquino were the first two unaccompanied Cuban minors to arrive, according to Operation Pedro Pan records.
''I remember being met at the airport and everyone being very nice to us,'' said Sixto Aquino, who arrived at age 11 and today works for the World Bank in Washington, D.C.
Walsh himself had met the two first Pedro Pans, who were sent to live in a Miami orphanage called St. Joseph's Villa at Northwest Seventh Street and 28th Avenue.
''For me, arriving here all by myself with my little brother and going to live in an American orphanage was a terrible culture shock,'' said Vivian Sixto of Miami, who was 14.
For several weeks, dozens more kids followed. But the operation then came to a screeching halt.
Early in January 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke diplomatic relations with Cuba and Operation Pedro Pan was faced with the new problem of how to distribute visas for the children in the absence of an American embassy.
Walsh said in interviews prior to his death that he thought the operation would die a month into it. ''It was a nice try,'' he said.
But the operation turned into a much larger and dramatic effort as events unfolded.
Walsh said two components heightened the panic: Children coming back from the Cuban government's mandatory agriculture camps told their parents they were being taught leftist ideology and were required to join the young Communist pioneers movement. They also wore uniforms and were instructed to alert authorities if their parents were not true revolutionaries.
Many Cuban parents saw these measures as a way for the Castro government to indoctrinate their children.
Adding to the anxiety was the arrest of more than 200,000 people believed to be loyal to the previous regime of Fulgencio Batista, or who had turned against the revolution they had once supported.
By May of 1961, the government had taken control of all private schools, and in September it expelled large numbers of priests and nuns from the country.
Echazábal's Catholic school was among those shut down.
''I remember the day the militia men came to the school and told the nuns what they had to teach -- what the revolution required,'' she said. ``The nuns instead decided to close the school and return to their home base in Mexico.''
Alarmed by the government's control of education, rumors began circulating that the government would institute a Patria Potestad law, effectively taking away the right of parents to determine their children's future.
Parents saw the youth camps, the literacy campaign, the closing of private schools, the ''scholarships'' to study in the Eastern bloc and their possible loss of control over their children as a call to get their kids out of Cuba.
'I think a lot of parents just looked at each other and said, `We've got to get our children out of here,' '' Walsh said in an interview years later.
So Operation Pedro Pan, whose name was coined by late Miami Herald Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Gene Miller, spread across Cuba.
Ironically, the name of the mission in honor of a mischievous boy who can fly and refuses to grow up is contrary to what happened to many who found themselves alone in America without their parents.
''When I got on that plane in Cuba, I was a boy,'' said Angones. ``When I landed in Miami, I was more of an adult than any child should be.''