Yankee Comandante in Fidel Castro’s Cuba

Olga Goodwin, the widow of Toledo native William Morgan.
Olga Goodwin, the widow of Toledo native William Morgan. The Blade

Editor’s Note: Much has been written about William Alexander Morgan, an American who emerged as one of the most controversial figures of the Cuban Revolution — and the Cold War. Drawing on declassified FBI, CIA and State Department documents, Michael Sallah of the Miami Herald and Mitch Weiss of The Associated Press detail the life of the ex-army serviceman in a recently released book, Yankee Comandante: The Untold Story of Courage, Passion, and One American’s Fight to Liberate Cuba. The authors, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004, provide new details of Morgan's behind-the-scenes power struggle with Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, the CIA and the mob for control of Cuba during one of the most dangerous periods in U.S. history. Below are two excerpts, including a battle that Morgan led during the revolution.

Morgan slung the Sten over his shoulder and stormed onto the trail. Nothing was going to stop him and his men from reaching the first town, Cumanayagua. From the edge of the camp, Olga watched as her husband’s green fatigues faded into the trees. In just hours, the column would march into the valley of death.

More than a hundred miles to the east, government troops had ambushed a 26th of July column, killing eighteen rebels and wounding eleven. But no one knew when the army was going to attack the southern positions. During these tense, unsure moments, Morgan stared straight ahead, clenching his weapon like a sacred object. For most of the march, he kept to himself, looking occasionally at the map to make sure he was keeping pace with Menoyo. Every now and then, a messenger on horseback pulled up to the unit, giving bits and pieces of information on the locations of the other comandantes.

In the distance, the tops of the buildings of Cumanayagua rose above the long road. The town lay just a dozen miles from Cienfuegos, the major port city and lifeline for the government.

Morgan instructed his men to break into teams—just as they had done in the mountains—and enter the city at different points.

Their first target would be the garrison for the army’s weapons and ammo. In addition to encountering government troops, it was Christmas Eve, so there might be civilians on the streets. The men needed to stay hidden as much as possible, using the storefronts for cover, and they needed to take one street at a time.

Leading his team, Morgan moved along the side of a road that ran directly into the city. Coming from above, the rumble in the air began to get louder. As the rebels looked up, two B-26s broke from the clouds.

Some of the men froze. Morgan didn’t flinch. He quickened his pace for the town and then ducked into a row of stucco storefronts. Moments later, the planes swooped over the town and let loose a barrage of bullets across the dusty road. Pedestrians ran for cover, jumping into stores and hiding under trees. Suddenly, the other rebels watched as Morgan appeared on a roof.

With his silhouette against the sky, he screamed while lifting his Sten in the air, firing upward at one of the planes. Even as the plane veered and flew away, Morgan kept aim, firing round after round.

As quickly as they had circled in, the planes disappeared.

The town’s pedestrians saw the crazy gunner on the rooftop and applauded. The rebels soon learned that most of the soldiers had left the town for Cienfuegos before they had arrived. The few who remained surrendered. William Morgan had taken Cumanayagua.

Hailed as a hero of the revolution, Morgan pushed for elections and for the new government to help the farmers in the mountains, but ultimately, he broke with Fidel Castro over the Cuban leader forging ties with the Soviet Union and allowing Russian military advisors into the country. Arrested for leading an uprising in the mountains against the government, Morgan was tried by a military court and hauled before a firing squad in a dramatic execution in 1961 in which he refused to wear blindfolds or handcuffs.

A gentle wind blew across the water as the guards took their place in the dry moat of La Cabaña, just as they did every night before falling in line at the execution wall. In the distance, the faint sputtering of the transport car could be heard at it entered the large gate at the far end of the fortress. Morgan stood next to the priest, John Joseph McKniff, another tranquil night over the vast, dark waters.

The aging priest dreaded these moments. He had watched so many young men lined up against the wall after praying with them that it sickened him. But something stirred in him after meeting Morgan. In the quiet of the prison cell, Morgan had whispered his last confession to Father McKniff and then turned to him calmly and said he was not afraid to die. He was supposed to be executed the next day in accordance with the law, but Morgan and Carreras had asked that their sentences be carried out that night.

“I have made my peace with God,” he wrote from his cell. “I can accept whatever happens with my mind clear and my spirit strong.”

Now standing next to each other, the men heard a sound coming from the prison that began in a low drone and then started to rise. The wind muffled the noise as it echoed from the center of the compound, but as they listened closer, they could hear the word “Viva” and then another: “Morgan.” Then again: “Viva . . . Morgan.”

To the guards, this wasn’t good. The prisoners were chanting in unison, a telltale sign that something was going to blow. Ever since Morgan was called to trial, the inmates had been uneasy, shouting at the guards and gathering in groups on the concrete patio in the yard. Now they were yelling from the rafters, “Viva Morgan.”

There had been rumors of an attack from the outside, prompting some of the guards to keep constant watch on the roof, lugging .50-caliber Czech and Russian anti-aircraft guns. The guards just needed to get Morgan into the car that would take him to the wall. The rush was on.

The transport car rounded the corner of the dry moat, rattling louder. The guards had long ago cut off the muffler of the vehicle so that it would create a loud, popping noise to scare the prisoners.

As Morgan and McKniff stood waiting, the priest glanced over at Morgan. These were the moments when the men began to whimper or shake uncontrollably. Some even refused to get into the car, planting their legs on the ground until a guard mercilessly slammed the backs of their legs with the butt of a rifle. Some even wet their pants. But Morgan waited calmly until the guard swung the rear door open, and he climbed into the backseat without saying a word.

As the car took off, the priest noticed that Morgan’s lips were moving. As McKniff inched closer, he could hear Morgan pray. It was as if Morgan couldn’t hear the roar of the engine. The vehicle rumbled around the stone wall encircling the fortress until it came to a stop in the center of the dry, grassy moat, the same place where everyone was taken.

Every time the car stopped at this spot, McKniff ’s heart never failed to skip a beat. Instead of getting easier, the executions were harder. The priest had been in Havana since 1939, but the last two years had been wrenching. The guards opened the rear door.

Morgan stood up, turned to the men, and stepped away from the car.

On the other side of the wall, the city was still alive, the faint glow of lights from a carnival breaking through the bleak darkness. As Morgan stood in the shadows, a guard flicked a switch, and suddenly the entire moat was bathed in the glow of floodlights. The guards looked at Morgan, but he was unfazed. As he wrote in the last letter to his mother: “It is not when a man dies, but how.”

Morgan raised his cuffed hands to the head guard. “I don’t want to wear these,” he said. Without hesitating, the guard nodded. Morgan was condemned to die, but he was still a comandante.

With free hands, Morgan turned to the middle-aged priest and embraced him. In just a short time, the two men had bonded. Then turning around, Morgan approached the sergeant of the firing squad. Stopping directly in front of him, Morgan held out his arms and surprised everyone by hugging him. “Tell the boys I forgive them,” he said.

For a moment no one said anything.

They had been shooting men every night, but they had never witnessed anything like this. Turning his back to the firing squad, Morgan walked slowly to the wall covered with gouges and bullet holes. McKniff followed him, whispering a prayer and then making the sign of the cross.

As the priest stepped away, Morgan stopped him. “Father, wait,” he said, removing the rosary from around his neck. “Take this.” McKniff tucked the beads in his pocket.

After waiting for Morgan to take his place, the sergeant shouted for the men to get ready. Standing in a straight line, the marksmen raised their Belgian rifles. Under the lights, Morgan looked larger than life as he stared across the moat at the men with the guns.

“Fuego!” the sergeant shouted.

Shots jolted the air, the force of the bullets slamming Morgan against the wall. Instead of shooting his heart or even his head, they had shot out his legs. McKniff looked up and saw that Morgan was not lying down, but sitting up. The priest could hear him gasping for breath. The hyenas had aimed for his knees. McKniff braced himself for the next volley. He could see the pain was shooting through Morgan’s entire body.

Breathing deeply, Morgan stared at the guard walking toward him. Stopping just a few feet away, the man aimed his submachine gun at Morgan’s chest heaving up and down in the light, and squeezed the trigger.

The noise echoed across the prison yard as the smoke rose like mist under the floodlights.

The guards lowered their rifles.

A brief service was held for Morgan in Havana’s Colon Cemetery, where he was laid to rest. But now, with President Barack Obama’s recent announcement to normalize relations with Cuba after a half-century, members of Congress are pressing to honor a longstanding request by Morgan’s family to return his body to his native Ohio for reburial.