The Bay of Pigs, 1961, Part 1

Posted on June 29, 2023


This is number three or four of historical tidbits we’ve done recently on the history of Latin America for our Northport Gazette readers. If you were ever students of mine at UA—1972-2013—and took some of my Latin American history courses, you might be excused from this column. Or if you forgot, keep on reading. And if you are new to our little course, enjoy. And, other than your subscription to the Gazette, it’s free! And, perhaps best of all, no tests, or exams.

This is the story of how the U. S. tried to invade and remove Fidel Castro from power in Cuba in the spring of 1961. I got interested in it not simply because it was related to Latin America but also was curious about the anti-Castro aviators and their flight instructors who flew against Fidel Castro’s increasingly communist regime that spring. If I were to invent this story and cast it into a novel, you would not believe it. Read on to find out that they were Alabama flyers from right up the road in Birmingham.

 On Jan. 1, 1961, Castro sat in his office in Havana wondering when the Yanquis would invade his small island and try to topple him. Everyone, it seemed, knew that an invasion was planned. The New York Times knew it, and if the Times knew it, so did millions of its readers. It was the worst kept secret of the times.

 The same day, a committee of CIA people hunkered down in their headquarters in Washington and continued to plan the invasion of Cuba. Castro had to be removed. He was the latest communist thorn in the flesh of the United States, locked into a protean struggle with the Soviet Union for the domination of the world.

If Fidel got a true foothold in Cuba–and his popularity and strength was growing daily under his charismatic rule–then communism would have not only a toehold in the Western hemisphere, but also one only ninety short miles from Key West.

Fidel Castro Leads His Troops in the Bush in Revolution to Overthrow the Dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Succeeds in 1959

The decision to remove Castro from power was made near the end of President Dwight David Eisenhower’s administration (1953-1961). But before Ike left office and turned the Presidency over to the newly elected John F. Kennedy, the plan to remove Castro was underway. Kennedy basically inherited it in the winter of 1961 when he was inaugurated. Remember this.

That plan concocted by the CIA culminated in the invasion of Cuba, at Playa Girón, in the Bay of Pigs, on the southwest coast of Cuba, April 15-19, 1961. Led by Cuban exile pilots flying B-26s, the aerial bombing of Cuban airfields began two days before the actual landing of the Cuban exile brigade of nearly 1500 men on the beaches of the Bay of Pigs.

Map of Cuba Showing Location of Bay of Pigs and Guantánamo Bay, Site of U. S. Naval Base

The series of air raids preceding the landing was meant to destroy Castro’s air force. The Cuban exile air force put together by Americans failed in this critical maneuver, not due to any fault of their own, but by decisions made in the new administration of President John F. Kennedy.

Enough of Castro’s slender air force resources survived these raids to challenge the exile Cuban pilots for air control in the ensuing air battle over the Bay of Pigs. When the landings actually began in the predawn hours of April 15, led by CIA-trained Cuban frogmen clearing the channels for the landing craft, the issue was at stake. Control of the air was absolutely crucial. The U. S. had learned this lesson well in the battles for Japanese-held islands in the Pacific during World War II.

As in all good stories, air control, however, was only a part of this unfolding drama. For its true beginnings we have to go back into the history of Cuba and the United States, back into the nineteenth century when the destinies of both countries were wound together in a battle for Cuban independence that culminated in the Spanish-American-Cuban War of 1898.

Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, San Juan Hill, Cuba, 1898

The centuries-old rule of Spain over Cuba ended after the war and Cuba entered the twentieth century as an independent nation.

But something happened between then and the Castro Revolution that brought him to power early in 1960. Political malfeasance and corruption subverted true democracy and economic freedoms and opportunities for the many, not just the few, and Castro promised to make things right.

Tune in for the next segment of the story which brings Castro’s revolutionaries into the picture in the late 1950s, along with the Soviet Union and the Birmingham pilots. As in much of the world today, we share a lot that is not just a contemporary phenomenom of 2023 but goes back centuries.

Published in the Northport Gazette Wed. July 5, 2023