Bay of Pigs, Part Two, The Boys from Birmingham Training the Cuban Exile Pilots

Posted on August 14, 2023


  Who were the Alabama Air National Guardsmen and what was their role in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961?

After the decision was made to invade Cuba and remove Castro, anti-Castro Cuban exiles were trained to do the invasion and fighting and make it seem as it was totally a Cuban movement.

To do this, the US needed to train Cuban pilot to fly B-26s since it was the principal aircraft in service in Cuba and the plan was to repaint them in Cuban colors and train the pilots.

The last B-26 is in military service in the U. S. had been flown as late as 1957 by the Alabama Air National Guard unit. Most of the Cuban exile pilots recruited for the invasion had little or no experience in the B26s, although many were seasoned pilots.

Who could train them to fly these World War II vintage light bombers? And in a short period of time? Pilots and crews of the Air Alabama Air National Guard were suggested, given their relatively recent experience with the B-26.

Meanwhile, back in Alabama, Major General G. Reid Doster, Jr., the local Air Guard commander, was delighted to help the CIA recruit pilots to instruct the Cuban exiles. Doster hated communists, and this would be a strike for freedom. Doster persuaded about a dozen pilots and flight engineers, including Colonel Joe Shannon, Riley Shamburger, Flight Engineer Leo Baker, and Captain Thomas “Pete” Ray, to deploy on some TDY, or temporary duty with the CIA.

Pete Ray

 It was all hush-hush, however. The boys were to keep this quiet.

They  told their families they were going off on some extended training.

“Breathe one word of what I am going to tell you and I’ll have your ass,” the gruff, plainspoken Doster warned a couple of the recruits.

But the one-star general was excited about the prospects of combat.

“How would you guys like to kick Castro’s butt?” he asked them pointedly.

The Cold War was heating up in the Western Hemisphere. Fidel was rapidly evolving into the point man for the Soviet Union in America’s own “backyard,” long a term associated with the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean area. And Castro was expecting an invasion.

Pete Ray was perhaps typical. He lived in Center Point, a Birmingham suburb, and worked as an aircraft inspector and test pilot for the Hayes Aircraft Corporation at the Birmingham Airport. He was thirty years old. His daughter, Janet Ray Weininger, was just six years old when her dad left home on February 5, 1961.

He loved to fly, and he was a patriot who felt that communism had to be stopped or it would envelop the world. Pete’s flight engineer, Leo Baker, also worked at the Hayes Aircraft Corporation at the Birmingham Airport. Leo owned two pizza parlors to supplement his income. Pete Ray and Leo Baker and the others would soon get their chance to “kick Castro’s butt.”  

The Alabama Air National Guardsmen, now working for the CIA, flew their B-26s to a secret base in the mountains of Guatemala and started training with the Cuban exile pilots. From their base, Retalhuleu, in Guatemala, they transferred to a clandestine airfield at Puerto Cabezas on the north coast of Nicaragua.

The CIA had negotiated the use of an old World War II strip at Puerto Cabezas with Anastasio Somoza, the strongman President and good friend of the U. S.

His parting words to the CIA negotiating team were prophetic. “I’m willing to support you,” he said, speaking of plans to overthrow Fidel Castro, “but be sure you get rid of that son of a bitch, or you are going to live with him the rest of your life.”

The training of both Cuban flyers by the Alabama aviators and the Cuban invasion troops by the CIA was intense and demanding. The advantage, at this point, seemed to lie with the intense training and preparation of the exile air force by the Alabama fliers.

When the invasion started in mid-April, the exile pilots and their B-26s flew missions over Cuba for one day., destroying as much of Cuba’s. Air Force as possible.  

However, on the second day, at the last moment, President Kennedy reduced the number of planes and missions that Cuban exile Air Force was to fly. This order effectively sealed the fate of the Cubans on the beaches as we noted in an earlier piece.

Kennedy had a new plan towards Latin America, the Alliance for Progress, and he did not want an American imprint on a U.S.-sponsored invasion of Cuba. Much of Fidel’s Air Force survived the initial air assaults.

Their control of the air over the beaches made the difference in repelling the expedition and assuring its defeat.

Cuba remained under an increasingly communist-led government and is still communist today.