I was just out of Navy boot camp on this day in 1961. I was at the Navy Receiving Station in Brooklyn waiting for transfer to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Bay of Pigs invasion canceled all such travel. I was then ordered to Norfolk and assigned to the USS Greenwich Bay. Aboard the Greenwich Bay, I sailed half way around the world and had the greatest military tour possible.
I was transferred to Guantanamo Bay for the Cuban Missile Crisis later, but that’s another story.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of several books, most recently How the Barbarian Invasions Shaped the Modern World (Fair Winds Press, 2008) and Stealing Lincoln’s Body (Harvard University Press, 2007). He has written articles on history, religion, politics, and popular culture for the Wall Street Journal, American Spectator, and U.S. News & World Report. He lives in Bethel, Connecticut. Journalist, lecturer, and historian M. William Phelps is the author of eleven books, including his most recent, Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America’s First Spy(Thomas Dunne Books, 2008). He lives in Vernon, Connecticut.
Many of the men of Brigade 2506 believed fervently that they were the first wave of Cuban freedom fighters who would liberate their homeland from Castro. They were convinced as they stormed ashore that they would be supported overhead by some of the finest fighter pilots of the U.S. Air Force, and they thought that as they advanced into Cuba, the U.S. Marines would be right behind them. Whether the insurgents had talked themselves into this conviction or the trainers from the United States had made such a promise is still a subject of debate.
The air support promised by the CIA consisted of sixteen B-26 twin-engine light attack bombers. From an airstrip in Nicaragua to the Bay of Pigs was a journey of 1,000 miles, round-trip, which left a B-26 with enough fuel to provide less than forty minutes of air cover for the Brigade. Anything longer than forty minutes and the pilots risked running out of gas somewhere over the Caribbean.
On April 14, 1961, just three days from the invasion, Kennedy called CIA Operations Chief Bissell to ask how many planes he planned to use in the operation. Bissell told the president the CIA planned to use all sixteen of their B-26s. “Well I don’t want it on that scale,” Kennedy replied. “I want it minimal.” So Bissell cut the number of planes for the invasion to eight. The next day, those eight planes attacked the three airfields of the Cuban air force, knocking out some of the aircraft, but not enough to cripple the fleet.
On the morning of April 17, as the Cuban militia pinned down the men of Brigade 2506, the Cuban planes that had survived the air strikes attacked the exiles from the air. Meanwhile, the B-26s, their fuel low and their forty minutes up, veered away from the beach for the flight home. The Brigade’s commander, San Román, radioed his CIA handlers for help. “We are under attack by two Sea Fury aircraft and heavy artillery,” he reported. “Do not see any friendly air cover as you promised. Need jet support immediately.” When San Roman’s request was denied, he replied, “You, sir, are a son of a bitch.”
With the sea at their backs, no means of retreat, and no chance of advancing into the interior of Cuba, the Brigade was in a desperate position. Back in Washington, the CIA and the Kennedy administration concluded that the invasion would fail. In a conversation with his brother, Robert Kennedy, the president said he wished he had permitted the use of U.S. ships to back up the Cuban exiles. “I’d rather be an aggressor,” he said, “than a bum.”
On April 18, Kennedy authorized six fighter jets from the aircraft carrier Essex to provide one hour of air cover for the CIAs attacking B-26s over the beach at the Bay of Pigs. But the jets from the Essex and the B-26s missed their rendezvous because the Pentagon forgot to factor in the one-hour difference in time zones between the B-26s’ base in Nicaragua and the beach in Cuba.
That same day, Kennedy’s national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, gave the president a status report on the invasion. “The Cuban armed forces are stronger, the popular response [is] weaker, and our tactical position is feebler than we had hoped,” Bundy said. That was perhaps the kindest possible description of the Bay of Pigs operation.
As a humanitarian concession, the president permitted U.S. destroyers to approach the Cuban coast to pick up survivors. The ships were authorized to get within two miles of shore after dark, but no closer than five miles during daylight hours. The directive meant the rescue mission was beyond the reach of almost every man in Brigade 2506. A handful who had managed to swim to one or another of the bay’s outlying cays were picked up, but the rest lay dead on the beach or were captured by Castro’s forces.
At 2 p.m. on April 19, after two days of being pounded by militia, tanks, and the Cuban air force, Commander San Román and Brigade 2506 surrendered. “Everything is lost,” Allen Dulles told former vice president Richard Nixon. “The Cuban invasion is a total failure.”
Sixty-eight Cuban exiles were killed in the Bay of Pigs debacle; 1,209 were captured, and nine of them died of asphyxiation in a windowless sealed truck that took them from the beach to prison in Havana. After twenty days of interrogation, the prisoners were given show trials and sentenced to life in prison.
Soon after the conviction of the men of Brigade 2506, Castro made a public offer to exchange the prisoners for farm machinery. Kennedy leapt at the proposal. Immediately he formed the Tractors for Freedom Committee, chaired by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, with the purpose of collecting donations to purchase farm equipment for Cuba. But the group was not able to meet Castro’s exorbitant demand of $30 million worth of capital relief, and it disbanded. The tractor deal fell through.
Negotiations between the two governments went on sporadically over the next twenty months. Finally, on December 24, 1962, Castro announced that he was releasing the Brigade 2506 prisoners in exchange for $53 million in medicine and food from the United States. He also promised, “as a Christmas bonus,” to permit 1,000 of the prisoners’ relatives to emigrate to the United States.
The animosity between Cuba and the United States intensified after the Bay of Pigs debacle. Cuba allied itself with the Soviet Union, while America continued its policy of isolating Cuba economically and diplomatically. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev viewed America’s failure at the Bay of Pigs as a sign of Kennedy’s weakness and inexperience, an assessment he felt was confirmed after meeting Kennedy at the Vienna Summit of April 1962, where it appeared to some that Kennedy was sandbagged by Khrushchev’s threat to cut off West Berlin from the Western powers. Within six months, Khrushchev was placing nuclear missiles in Cuba, an action that brought the world as close as it has ever come to all-out nuclear war.
In the face of the missile crisis, Kennedy held firm. The Soviets backed down, removing the nuclear weapons from Cuba, but the tension between Cuba and the United States has dragged on for more than forty years. During that time, political observers and historians have argued that the failed invasion actually strengthened Castro’s grip on Cuba. Certainly, Che Guevara thought so. In August 1961, at a meeting of the Organization of American States in Uruguay, he sent a note to Kennedy saying, “Thanks for Playa Giron [another name for the site of the invasion]. Before the invasion, the revolution was weak. Now it is stronger than ever.”