Alabama Pilots and the Bay of Pigs

Posted on April 9, 2011

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Fifty years ago to the day, a CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba commenced in the predawn hours. An underwater demolition team led by Grayston Lynch, ex-commando in the U. S. Army, and now a CIA employee, drove their small boat in the dark through the gentle swells lapping up on the Girón Beach, on the Bay of Pigs.

The invasion was underway. The objective was the overthrow of Fidel Castro.

Castro had come to power in a wildly popular revolution that began with guerilla warfare in the mountains of eastern Cuba in 1957 and culminated with the overthrow of the dictator, Fulgencio Batista, on New Year’s Day, 1959.

The mood in Havana when Fidel and his barbudos, the bearded revolutionaries, arrived was exhilarating. Cubans across all classes, from the privileged and wealthy sugar planters to the guajiros, or peasants, in the countryside celebrated.

Fidel promised to replace the corruption, venery and dictatorial regime of Batista by restoring the promise of honesty, democracy and true social and economic justice represented by the Constitution of 1940 which had been trampled by Batista.

In the United States, Castro was extoled in the Press and in books as the Robin Hood of Cuba. The famous New York Times journalist, Herbert Matthews, tracked Castro in his mountain hideout and wrote a book on Castro that propelled the much-admired revolutionary to the front pages of the American public.

Two years later, the CIA, acting on orders from the Eisenhower White House, was planning the overthrow of Castro. The plan continued to unfold even as a new president, John F. Kennedy, was about to be sworn in as the 35th President.

What happened?

In the eyes of many Americans, and not a few Cubans, the paladin of the revolution morphed into a Communist felon, bent on turning Cuba into a Soviet-style state.

Expropriation of properties, especially American-owned properties, mass executions, radical land reform, they all smacked of Communism

And it was happening right under our very noses. Castro had to be taken out, and Eisenhower set the removal of Castro into motion in March, 1960.

There is, of course, another face of the Cuban Revolution. Castro’s social and economic reforms were aimed at redistributing wealth and power in Cuba, so skewered towards the few at the expense of the many.

Eventually education and medicine would be made a right, not a privilege, in Cuba. And the strong gringo presence in Cuba would be purged.

To eliminate Castro, the CIA recruited and trained Cuban exiles. To make the invasion of Cuba work, the CIA/exile army had to have control of the air and so an exile air force was created with sixteen B-26s at the core.

To train the Cuban exiles, American pilots and support crews were recruited by the CIA from the Alabama Air National Guard (AANG), since the AANG was the last air guard unit to have experience with B-26s.

The die was cast. AANG pilots and crews were sent to Guatemala to train the exiles who were sent into combat beginning April 15, 1961, flying from a base in Nicaragua to attack and destroy the Castro air force before the amphibious landing scheduled to take place on April 17.

At the last moment, President Kennedy reduced the number of planes and missions the Cuban exile air force was to fly and effectively sealed the fate of the Cubans on the beaches. Fidel’s air force survived the initial air assaults and made the difference in repelling the expedition and assuring its defeat.

On the third day of the invasion, or April 18, Alabama pilots volunteered to fly combat missions over the Bay of Pigs since the exile pilots were exhausted. Four of the Americans in two B-26s were shot down and killed, either in the crashes or in subsequent contact with Castro militia forces.

Among those was Captain Thomas W. “Pete” Ray of Birmingham. Not having a positive i.d. but knowing he was a gringo, Castro froze his body to prove Americans were directly involved in the invasion. The Kennedy administration denied it all, and the U. S. Ambassador to the U. N., Adlai Stevenson, was allowed to make a fool of himself in the U.N., not knowing the depth of the U. S. involvement in the invasion, and denying it vehemently in that world public forum.

Pete Ray

It was a spectacle of defeat and disgrace, since the Alabama pilots were said only to have been mercenaries flying for “rich” Cubans in an aborted raid.

Six year old Janet Ray was shell shocked at losing her dad. What had really happened?

The story of her search for Pete Ray went on for almost two decades when she finally put together the body of an American aviator the Cubans had in a freezer in Havana with her missing father. It was him.

Stonewalled and lied to by her own government, hounded by the Press, sworn to secrecy as were all Alabama guardsmen and their families, their story and the truth only was slowly unraveled from the nightmare of secrecy and failure woven by the CIA.

Janet eventually brought her dad back from Cuba and buried him in Birmingham. And she forced the CIA and U. S. government to recognize those AANG pilots for what they did: fight for their country, not as paid mercenaries, but as warriors involved deeply in the Cold War.

This article published Sunday April  17, 2011 in The Tuscaloosa News

Posted in: History