"Freedom is our goal!" roared commander Pepe San Roman to the men assembled before him 48 years ago this week. “Cuba is our cause! God is on our side! On to victory!” Fifteen hundred men crowded before San Roman at their Guatemalan training camps that day. The next day they’d embark for a port in Nicaragua, and the day after that would be bound for a landing site in Cuba named Bahia De Cochinos. We know it as the Bay of Pigs.
Their outfit was Brigada 2506, and at their commander’s address the men (and boys, some as young as 16) erupted. A scene of total bedlam unfolded. Hats flew. Men hugged, sang, cheered, and wept. The hour of liberation was nigh – and these men, all volunteers, were putting their lives on the line to see their dream of a free Cuba fulfilled.
The Brigada included men from every social strata and race in Cuba. There were sugar cane planters and cutters, aristocrats and their chauffeurs. Mostly, they hailed from somewhere in between, fitting for a nation with a larger middle class than most of Europe.
"They fought like Tigers," wrote CIA officer Grayston Lynch, who helped train these Cuban freedom-fighters. "But their fight was doomed before the first man hit the beach."
Lynch, knew something about fighting – and about long odds. He carried scars from Omaha Beach, the Battle of the Bulge, and Heartbreak Ridge. But in those battles, Lynch and his band of brothers could count on the support of their own chief executive.
At the Bay of Pigs, Lynch and his band of Cuban brothers learned – first in speechless shock and finally in burning rage -- that their most powerful enemies were not Castro's Soviet-armed and led soldiers massing in Santa Clara, Cuba but the Ivy League's Best and Brightest dithering in Washington.
In his own words, Lynch trained ''brave boys, most of whom had never before fired a shot in anger." They were short on battle experience, yes, but they fairly burst with what Bonaparte and George Patton valued most in a soldier: morale. They'd seen the face of communism point-blank: the stealing, the lying, the poisoning of minds, the jails, and the murders.
When the smoke cleared, and their ammo had been expended, a hundred of them lay dead and hundreds more were wounded. Barely 1,400 of them had squared off against 41,000 of Castro’s troops, his entire air force and squadrons of Soviet tanks – all without air support (from the U.S. carriers just offshore) and without a single supporting shot by naval artillery (from U.S. cruisers and destroyers poised just offshore). Nevertheless, they inflicted casualties at a rate of 30-to-one against these forces armed and led by the Soviets.
No amount of heroism can offset such odds, however – not without air cover. Tragically, 80 percent of the pre-invasion sorties by the supporting planes from Nicaragua – an essential component of the plan to knock out Castro’s air force on the ground – had been canceled at the last moment by JFK. This invasion was a Republican plan, after all, that had landed in their lap. And Kennedy’s advisors suffered a guilty conscience about “Yankee bullying.”
“The liberal cannot strike wholeheartedly against the Communist,” wrote early National Review columnist James Burnham, “for fear of wounding himself in the process.”
The canceled airstrikes made the Brigade’s lumbering B-26s easy prey for Castro’s jets and fast Sea-Furies, and the troops and supplies below them were even easier prey. It was a turkey shoot for the Communists.
Still, the unequal battle raged furiously on the tiny beachhead. The CIA’s Lynch, just offshore on one of the landing ships, finally learned about the canceled air strikes and figured the freedom-fighters he had trained and befriended were doomed. "If things get rough," he radioed Commander San Roman, "we can come in and evacuate you."
"We will not be evacuated!" Pepe roared back to Lynch. "We came here to fight! We don’t want evacuation! We want more ammo! We want planes! This ends here!..." Repeated requests from the beachhead for air cover were transmitted to Washington, all to no avail.
Adm. Arleigh Burke of the Joints Chief of Staff, who was transmitting the battlefield pleas, was livid. Years before, Adm. Burke had sailed thousands of miles to smash his nation’s enemies at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Now he was chief of naval operations and was aghast as new enemies were being given a sanctuary 90 miles away.
They say his face was red, his facial veins popping, as he faced down his commander-in-chief that fateful night of April 18, 1961. "Mr. President, two planes from the Essex! [the U.S. Carrier just offshore from the beachhead] That’s all those boys need, Mr. President. Let me...."
JFK was in white tails and a bow tie that evening, having just emerged from an elegant social gathering. "Burke," he replied. "We can’t get involved in this."
"We put those boys there, Mr. President!!" the admiral exploded. "By God, we are involved!" For the Kennedy administration, though, the Bay of Pigs still boiled down to an "image" problem.
While Camelot mulled over their image problems, the men on the beachhead had problems of their own.
"MAYDAY! MAYDAY! Have Castro jet on my tail! Request...I repeat! – Request...!"
"Sorry," replied the Essex. "Our orders are...."
The Cuban pilot didn’t hear the rest of his death sentence. An explosion sounded, and his radio went dead. These messages went on and on, hour after hour, from different pilots, but it was hopeless. By the second day, almost half of these suicidally brave Cuban exiles had met a fiery death from Castro’s jets.
This was too much for their enraged American trainers at the base in Nicaragua. Four of them suited up, gunned the engines, and joined the fight. They were Alabama Air Guard officers, men with archaic notions of loyalty and honor. They were watching the decimation. They knew the odds but went anyway.
All four died on the first mission. All four – Pete Ray, Riley Shamburger, Leo Barker, and Wade Grey – have their names in a place of honor alongside their Cuban band-of-brothers on The Bay of Pigs Memorial. Streets are named after them in Miami’s Little Havana, and there are crosses in their honor in Miami’s Cuban Memorial cemetery.
Eventually, President Kennedy relented and allowed some Skyhawk jets to take-off from the Essex. One of these pilots quickly spotted a long column of Castro tanks and infantry making for the exiles’ brigade. The Soviet tanks and trucks were sitting ducks. "Aha!" he thought. "Now we’ll turn this thing around!" The pilot began his dive.
"Permission to engage denied," came the answer from his commander.
"This is crazy!" he bellowed back. "Those guys are getting the Hell shot out of them down there! I can see it!"
Some of these Navy pilots admit to sobbing openly in their cockpits. They were still choked up when they landed on the Essex. Now they slammed their helmets on the deck and broke down completely.
"I wanted to resign from the Navy," said Capt. Robert Crutchfield, the decorated naval officer who commanded the fleet off the beachhead. He’d had to relay Washington’s replies to those pilots.
A close-up glimpse of the heroism on that beachhead might have sent those Essex pilots over the edge. As JFK adjusted his bow tie in the mirror, the men of Brigada 2506 faced adjustments of their own. To quote Haynes Johnson, "It was a battle when heroes were made."
We call its fighters "men," but Brigadista Felipe Rondon was 16-years-old when he grabbed his 57 millimeter cannon and ran to face one of Castro’s tanks point-blank. At 10 yards he fired at the clanking, lumbering beast and it exploded, but the momentum kept it going and it rolled over top of young Felipe.
Gilberto Hernandez was only 17 when a round from a Czech burp gun put out his eye. Castro troops were swarming in but he held his ground, firing furiously with his rifle for another hour until he was surrounded and killed in a shower of grenades. By then, the invaders sensed that they had been abandoned. Their ammunition almost gone, they felt two days of shooting and reloading without sleep, food, or water taking its toll. Many were hallucinating.
That’s when Castro’s Howitzers opened up, pounding 2,000 rounds into the Brigada’s ranks over a four-hour period. "It sounded like the end of the world," one of the men told me many years later.
"Rommel’s crack Afrika Corps broke and ran under a similar bombardment," wrote Haynes Johnson. By now the invaders were dazed, delirious with fatigue, hungry and thirsty, and too deafened by the bombardment to hear orders. So, their commander had to scream.
"No retreat!" roared Erneido Oliva, second in command. He stood and bellowed to his dazed and horribly outnumbered men. "We stand and fight!" And so they did.
Right after the deadly shower of Soviet shells, more Soviet tanks rumbled up. Another boy named Barberito rushed up to the first one and blasted it repeatedly with his rifle, which barely dented it, but so rattled the occupants that they opened the hatch and surrendered. In fact, they insisted on shaking hands with their young captor, who an hour later was felled by a machine gun burst to his heart. So it went for three days.
The Brigada’s spent ammo inevitably forced a retreat. Castro’s jets and Sea Furies were roaming overhead at will and tens of thousands of his Soviet-lavished troops were closing in. The planes now concentrated on strafing the helpless exiles.
"Can’t continue," Lynch’s radio crackled. It was San Roman again. "Have nothing left to fight with...out of ammo...Russian tanks in view...destroying my equipment...How can you people do this to us?" The radio went dead.
"Tears flooded my eyes," writes Grayston Lynch. "For the first time in my 37 years I was ashamed of my country."
“We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty!" proclaimed Lynch's Commander-in-Chief just three months earlier.
Forty eight years ago in Cuba, that promise was betrayed.