Bay of Pigs, Part Three, The Boys from Birmingham

Posted on August 11, 2023


Who were some of the veterans and what was their story from the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April, 1961 at the Bay of Pigs?

Joe Shannon who we met in an earlier column on the Bay of Pigs was a veteran of the Second World War. He began flying in Birmingham in the 1930s, attracted to planes, inexorably drawn by the sight of flying machines, to the roar of the engines cranking up, to the smell of cabins, to the sight of cockpits with myriads of knobs, twinkling lights, fuel gauges, throttles, radios, the stuff of flying.

Joe flew P-38 Lightnings in the Africa Theater, then B-25s in China, and stayed in the Air National Guard when peacetime came. His life was airplanes, fighter planes, bombers, piston engines, jets, twisting and turning in the sky, trying to nail the other pilot before being nailed oneself.

When Fidel Castro’s ragtag revolutionary army rode into Havana on New Years Day, 1959, he chased out a president, Fulgencio Batista, infamous for running a corrupt machine. Batista, in fact, was feared and hated by most Cubans who were glad to see him go.

Fidel Castro With His Revolutionary Army

Indeed, Americans, and Alabamians of course, loved Cuba. Dancing girls, casinos, spas, bright lights, casual prostitution, Cuba Libres (the wonderful rum and coke combination characteristic of Havana), cigars, Cuba had it all.

“The two best liberty ports in the world,” grizzled old Warrant Officer Hutchinson told the greenhorn Ensign one evening many years ago, “are Singapore and Havana.” “And now, heck, we can’t go to either,” Hutch said as we played gin one evening, steaming through the Caribbean Sea in the fall of 1965 on the USS Donner (LSD 20). I’m sure Donner and, perhaps Hutch, have both gone to their reward. And perhaps American warships once again do liberty call in Singapore. Can Havana be far behind?

Great liberty ports for the fleet do not earn their reputations based on the excellence of their USO clubs. Havana was an avatar of sensual engagement, not only for the Navy, but also, more important, a playground for America’s fun seekers. U. S. investments in Cuba were heavy, and trade continued to flourish between Alabama and Cuba, largely through the ports of Mobile and La Habana as historically had been the case.

Then the puritanical Fidel Castro took over. He expropriated tens of millions of dollars of U. S. properties, shut down the casinos, took up with the Soviet Union, nationalized the richest property owners, and moved on with his socialist agenda. The Cold War had dropped its Iron Curtain right on the narrow Florida Channel that separates the U. S. from Cuba, ninety miles away from the southernmost island of the Florida Keys, Key West. Cubans started to flee the island, first by the hundreds, then by thousands, then by the tens of thousands as Castro’s iron fist imposed a Soviet-style communism on the island’s people.

Fidel became one of the great enigmas of the Cold War. Was he a Communist before he came to power? Or was he forced into the arms of the Soviets when he offended Americans by expropriation of properties and a heavily socialist agenda that flew in the face of U. S.-style capitalism? Most Cubans wanted to be rid of Batista’s gangster-style, corrupt regime. But had Fidel betrayed the very Revolution which brought him to power? He promised a restoration of the liberal, democratic Constitution of 1940. But he replaced Batista not with the old Constitution, but with a new, socialist dictatorship that has lasted more than half a century.

By summer of 1960, plans were well underway in Washington to overthrow this renegade Communist dictator.

As we examined earlier, Alabamians were in the small corps of U. S. advisers and flyers chosen to lead anti-Castro Cubans bent on dislodging Castro in the spring of 1961. This was the beginnings of the famous Bay of Pigs invasion, which brought relations between the U. S. (and, of course, Alabama) and Cuba to a resounding, closing thud that has lasted more than sixty years. But any narrative is driven by the story of people we can name and examine as human beings.

Shot down and killed over Cuba, the CIA buried Alabama pilot Pete Ray’s existence deep in its secret files. But his daughter Janet didn’t. The little girl grew up, wanting to know where her dad went. Why he never came back. What happened to him? She persisted, until in 1978, with the help of a journalist cousin of her dad’s, Thomas Bailey, she broke through the shield of silence and secrecy. Two CIA agents met with her and Bailey in Selma and told her the truth but swore them to secrecy.

Pete Ray

Yes, Pete Ray and other Alabama fliers were recruited by the CIA to support the invasion of Cuba. Pete had, in fact, been awarded posthumously its highest medals, the Distinguished Intelligence Cross and the Exceptional Service Medallion.

Indeed, until 1979, the Cubans didn’t even know who they had frozen in their morgue all these years, since Ray carried fake CIA identity papers when he was shot down. It took FBI agents, working with their Cuban counterparts, to identify Ray positively by using fingerprints and dental records. In one sense, the CIA had done its work well, maintaining the secret for so long, even to the identity of the unknown, frozen flier in Havana.

Janet finally brought her dad home to Birmingham in 1979. He was buried with many of his comrades there in attendance, including Cuban friends from the doomed exile Brigade. Still, the circle of silence was kept until the Los Angeles Times in 1998 pushed in the old boundaries of this great secret, almost forty years after the Bay of Pigs.

The Agency finally admitted publicly the involvement of the Alabama fliers in the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion. The aviators who survived and returned to Alabama, and their families, could now speak openly of an event in their lives that had transformed them. But one they could never acknowledge until now. They kept the secret well, and but for the persistence of a little girl grown to woman from Birmingham who wanted to know what happened to her dad, we may never have known how closely Alabama and Cuba came during the Bay of Pigs invasion.