Invasion Fiasco Showed Necessity of Air Support
Aero-News HISTORY by Senior Correspondent Kevin R.C. "Hognose"
An anniversary slipped quietly past in the night this week, just
as two rubber rafts slipped quietly through the mangrove swamps
surrounding Playa Giron in Cuba on the night of April 16/17,
Each raft held a CIA officer -- contract officers considered
expendable by the Ivy Leaguers in Langley -- and a handful of Cuban
exile frogmen. They were marking the limits of a beach for an
invasion that was as bold, and as historic in its own way, as
The mission, known forever as the Bay of Pigs invasion, would
fail. Unknown to the two Americans and the 1,500 Cubans they had
trained and advised -- after months of training, their close
friends -- Washington power brokers had already decided to pull the
air cover and cancel five-sixths of the preparatory air strikes
which had been calculated to ground Castro's air force.
Already, parachute units had been dropped at strategic choke
points by the C-54s and C-46 of the rebel Cuban air force. And a
first pre-emptive strike by 16 rebel-manned Douglas B-26 Invaders
was supposed to have eliminated the Cuban Air Force on the
The ground invaders were kept in the dark, but the Kennedy
brothers, unnerved by State Department objections, feared the US
would be exposed as a patron of the invasion. So they cut back on
the air available to the troops on the ground. They cut sorties.
They cut targets. They cut reconnaissance needed to determine if
targets had been hit effectively. They ordered the defensive guns
removed from the Cuban exiles' B-26s. Instead of three strikes by
16 aircraft each, only one strike was made -- and only with half
the planned striking force, 8 instead of 16 planes.
The half-strike destroyed half of Castro's air force on the
ground. He was still left with B-26s of his own -- and more
critically, with Sea Furies and three armed T-33 jets. And no
sooner had the President ordered the cancellation of subsequent
strikes -- at the urging of Secretary of State Dean Rusk -- than
someone in the US Government leaked that decision to the Soviets,
who quickly passed it to their Castro Cuban clients.
Castro's air arm was not very well manned or led, but it was so
unequally equipped it didn't matter. Even though the B-26s were
able to outmaneuver and shoot down a couple of the Sea Furies
(which is less amazing the more you know about the B-26), the
exiles had no answer for the jets except the air cover that had
been in the original plan. The low-level dogfights alternately
elated and depressed the exile ground unit, "Brigada 2506" --
depending on who was getting shot down at the time. But the lack of
cover not only exposed them to enemy fire, it allowed the Castro
Cuban Sea Furies and bombers to destroy or sink the supply ships
with the ammunition that the men of 2506 needed to stay in the
Thinking that the problem was that the men in Washington didn't
understand, the rebels and their US advisors mounted a desperate
attempt to airlift an eyewitness out of the beachhead on the 19th:
two Alabama ANG-crewed B-26s would fly as "fighter support" for an
attempt to land the C-46 on the beach landing strip at Playa Giron
and remove B-26 shootdown survivor (and aerial victor over a Sea
Fury and a Castro B-26) Matias Farias. Farias was rescued and
recorded a tape which has been described as "a vivid account." The
tape was flown to Washington, but it appears to have disappeared;
it doesn't come up in the CIA, Kennedy Library, or National
Admiral Arleigh Burke, Chief of Naval Operations, General Lyman
Lemnitzer, his army counterpart, and CIA officer Richard Bissell
tracked down President Kennedy at a social event at the White House
and ran through several options to save the crumbling beachhead.
Kennedy objected to each one: "Then we'd be involved!" the
President objected. "Mr President, we ARE involved!" Burke
thundered. "We trained and armed these Cubans. We helped land them
on the beaches. Goddammit, Mr President, we can't let those boys be
slaughtered there!" (It was career curtains for Burke, a Pacific
War hero; he'd be shuffled into retirement in a little over three
months). What Kennedy thought can never be known, but he returned
to dancing while the Admiral returned to the Pentagon, forbidden to
send his ships or planes to the rescue.
One of the CIA officers would take the last message from the
doomed troops ashore. "I have nothing left to fight with. The enemy
tanks are already in my position. Farewell, friends!" A veteran of
Omaha Beach on D-Day and a former Army Special Forces officer,
Grayston Lynch was as hard as Americans get, but he was in tears as
he copied the message down in a shaky hand. "For the first time in
my 37 years, I am ashamed of my country," he would later write.
The men of Brigada 2506 met various fates: a handful were
plucked off the beaches and out of the mangroves by the same two
Agency men. A larger number were shot without trial by Castro. The
rest went into captivity; some were tortured, some not. President
Kennedy ransomed some of the survivors for tens of millions of
dollars in 1962, but others stayed in captivity. Of the men that
were ransomed, most became US citizens; dozens served as US
military officers; and some found other employment with CIA.
The Cuban rebel air
corps did little better. Of the original 16 B-26s, 13, and several
replacements, were lost. When the Cuban exile pilots collapsed from
exhaustion, their instructors -- Americans from the Alabama
National Guard -- took over. Four Americans were lost, two of them
were murdered -- one, Thomas "Pete" Ray (right), in Castro's
presence, and possibly by Castro himself -- after capture. In a
gruesome coda to the whole exercise, Ray's body was kept in a
freezer until 1978 and occasionally removed and abused by Cuban
leaders. (His daughter, Janet Ray Weininger, won a large judgment
from the government of Cuba in US court in 2004). The other
Americans killed were Riley Shamburger and Wade Gray, shot down in
the other B-26, and Ray's flight engineer, Leo Baker, who was
murdered and thrown into an unmarked mass grave. (Ray's got special
mistreatment because he was definitely American; Baker was mistaken
for a Cuban).
The Bay of Pigs invasion is a tidy little package of object
lessons made for a War College seminar, but perhaps because it was
such a shameful defeat for the US. it's little studied today. A
lesson learned from World War II, and neglected in this case, was
the necessity of air supremacy to permit an invasion to succeed.
Britain, Norway, Singapore, Guadalcanal, Crete, Sicily, Normandy,
the party that holds the air winds up holding the ground. Perhaps
no battle in history better illustrates this than the Bay of Pigs.
It is also a study in several even older principles of war, and
perhaps some principles in human factors.
The US failure was diplomatic as much as military. Despite the
State Department and President strangling the operation to prevent
its US origin from becoming public knowledge, the cat was out of
the bag from the very beginning. UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, who
had been kept in the dark about the whole project, was outraged
when he found out he'd been sent into the UN to utter a false, and
easily disproven, denial. The Soviets and their satellites had a
propaganda field day. Kennedy was ultimately forced to drop the
150-plus-year-old Monroe Doctrine.
If the Soviet source in the high levels of the US government was
ever discovered, his name has never been revealed.
While US vacillation weakened the nation abroad, secrecy and
recriminations ruled at home. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, for
instance, publicly denied that the follow-on air strikes had been
canceled. The CIA was scapegoated for the incident, with director
Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell (the man behind the U-2 and SR-71
reconnaissance programs, as well as the Bay of Pigs) forced to
resign for the consequences of decisions they'd opposed. The first
accurate report didn't come until 1964, when lawyer Dr Mario Laza
-- who would have run for President of a democratic Cuba -- was
able to piece together the story, after interviewing surviving
participants. A Reader's Digest version (literally!) of his study
can be found as one of the exhibits in the first FMI link.
A classified CIA study by Agency Inspector General Lyman
Fitzpatrick came to similar conclusions, although it also
identified many shortcomings in planning and procedures. WIth only
mild redactions to protect the privacy of living individuals and
certain intelligence sources and methods, that document was
declassified in 1998, and is available along with many other
primary source documents at the second FMI link.
The last word should probably go to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who
knew something of invasions, of Presidency, and of this plan, which
started, after all, on his watch; of Kennedy's handling of the
crisis: "A profile in indecision and timidity."