Veterans of Operation Pedro Pan -- the 1960s airlift that spirited 14,048 Cuban children out of Fidel Castro's Cuba -- gathered Saturday for the unveiling of a statue honoring the father of the mission, the late Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh.
The bust of the beloved Irish priest, who once headed Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Miami, will be in the courtyard inside Children's Village-Boystown in southeast Miami-Dade.
The artwork was financed by Operation Pedro Pan Group, a nonprofit charitable organization made up of airlift veterans who today sponsor field trips, Christmas gifts and provide other supplies for the children at the village, who are without their parents -- just as the Pedro Pans were decades ago.
''We wanted to honor the memory of Monsignor Walsh for all he did for us back then and we think there is no better place than the Children's Village, which is home to children who are in a similar circumstance,'' said Carmen Romanach, a director of Pedro Pan Group and the liaison with the children's organization.
The unveiling of the bust comes as veterans of the airlift, now in their 50s and 60s, are working to highlight and preserve the history of the mission that brought them clandestinely to America between 1960 and 1962.
Last month, The Miami Herald launched the first ever searchable database of the names of those unaccompanied children. In three weeks, the database has attracted more than 250,000 visitors and nearly 700 Pedro Pans have registered and reconnected through the site's social network component. The Operation Pedro Pan Network can be accessed at MiamiHerald.com/pedropan.
Walsh died at age 71 on Dec. 20, 2001, of complications during heart surgery.
He was the father of Pedro Pan, the man who created the escape route for children whose parents feared Marxist-Leninist indoctrination in a Cuba quickly turning to communism. The U.S. government gave Walsh, then a priest heading the Catholic Welfare Bureau in Miami, unprecedented permission to sign visa waivers for the children. Walsh was helped by a legion of others inside Cuba, including James Baker, head of the Ruston Academy; Pancho Finlay, general manager of KLM Airlines and his wife Berta; and Ramon and Polita Grau, members of a Cuban presidential family.
Once in America, Walsh and the Catholic church oversaw housing the children until they could reunite with their parents, which sometimes took years. The children were sent to orphanages, foster homes, or permanent living centers in Miami and elsewhere. When the secret plan was made public, the late Miami Herald reporter Gene Miller dubbed it Operation Pedro Pan.