Bay of Pigs - Part 2

By Humberto Fontova

This is the 2nd part of a two-part article on the Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961.

We left the 1400 Bay of Pigs invaders abandoned on the beachhead last week, with Castro’s Air Force unopposed above them and with 51,000 Red troops massing for attack.. The Brigade’s lumbering B-26s now provided rollicking sport for Castro’s jets, and the troops and supplies below even more. It was a Turkey shoot.

The Brigadistas dug in deeper, counted their meager ammo, tried to treat their wounded comrades. Things looked grim.....

But WAIT!.... Turns out, a few U.S. destroyers and the carrier Essex were just offshore, deadly Skyhawk jets poised on the carrier deck for take-off! They could clean up Castro’s entire air force with a few cannon bursts, obliterate his troop columns with a few bombing and strafing runs--and be back on deck in time for breakfast.

The Brigade’s own air force could then fly in from it’s Nicaragua base to the newly captured airfield on the beachhead, bringing ammo, supplies–most importantly–bringing HOPE! Then they’d pick-up where the Essex jets left off, flying sorties themselves against the Castro infantry and tank columns that blundered down the only three roads to the beachhead. These roads were elevated over the surrounding swamp and completely open. The Brigades’s B-26's would slaughter anything on them; a veritable shooting gallery here; a cakewalk, Castro’s very own "Highway of Death."

From that mission the Brigade planes would refuel, re-arm and move on to hammer any more troops coming down Cuba’s Central Highway from Havana. More defeats, more defections. The tide would turn. Cuba might still be free!

Then Washington sent it’s response to the carrier Essex: "Can’t do it. Too noisy."

So all those jets with their rockets and cannon, so those destroyers brimming with artillery, so those ace Naval Pilots, chomping at the bit, kicking in their stalls, panting for action–all this was hog-tied by strict orders from the Commander in Chief.

"See, Latin "street?" Camelot was saying with wide eyes and a smug little grin, like Eddie Haskell’s in front of June Cleaver. "See U.N.? As you can plainly see, we’re not involved in this thing! Gosh we’re wonderful folks! Gosh, aren’t we good neighbors, after all! See?"

This infantile and criminal idiocy had Admiral Arleigh Burke teetering on mutiny. Years before, Admiral Burke had sailed thousands of miles to smash his nation’s enemies at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Now he was Chief of Naval operations and was aghast as new enemies were given a sanctuary 90 miles away!

The fighting admiral was livid. They say his face was beet-red and his facial veins popping as he faced down his Commander in Chief that fateful night of April 18, 1961.

"Mr President, TWO planes from the Essex," His jaw trembled and lips quivered as he sputtered the plea. "That’s all those boys need, Mr President. Let me....!"

JFK was in white tails and a bow- tie that evening, having just emerged from an elegant social gathering. "Burke," he replied. "We can’t get involved in this."

"WE put those boys there, Mr PRESIDENT!!" The fighting Admiral exploded. "By God, we ARE involved!"

For the bow-tied, white-tailed and manicured New Frontiersmen the thing STILL boiled down to that all-important "image" problem. What would the Latin American "street" and the all-important U.N. think of the Yankee bullies?

A lot more than they ended up thinking of the "Yankee pansies and nincompoops," that’s for sure.

While the wine-sniffing Ivy Leaguers mulled over their image problems, the men on the beachhead had problems of their own...

"MAY-DAY! MAY-DAY! Have Castro jet on my tail! Request...I REPEAT!-- Request....!"

"Sorry" replied the Essex. "Our orders are..." the Cuban pilot didn’t hear the rest of his death sentence. An explosion and his radio went dead. These messages went on and on, hour after hour, from different pilots–to no avail. By the second day, a third of these almost suicidally brave Cuban exile pilots had met a fiery death from Castro’s jets.

This was too much for their enraged American trainers at the base in Nicaragua. Four of them suited up, gunned the engines and joined the fight. These weren’t pampered Ivy leaguers. They were Alabama Air Guard officers, men with archaic notions of loyalty and honor.

They were watching the decimation. They knew the odds. They went anyway. All four died on that first mission.

And I wouldn’t call those Alabama pilots "mercenaries" anywhere near Little Havana, especially on the streets named after them. One of their remains was recently returned from Cuba and given an honorable burial in Birmingham. None of The Best and The Brightest were on hand to comfort the surviving family members. Several Cuban-American families were.

JFK had a chance to offset his criminal blunder of canceling the air strikes-- by acceding to Admiral Burke’s desperate plea two days later. But Burke’s pleas –"Mr President! TWO planes!"--were vain. So the Cuban pilot’s pleas–"MAY-DAY!"-- were vain. So Commander San Roman’s pleas from the beachhead–"SEND PLANES!-- Repeat: SEND PLANES or we CAN’T SURVIVE!"-- were vain.

More correctly, the planes combat role was denied. Because , amazingly, JFK did permit some Essex planes over the beachhead. One of these pilots quickly spotted a long column of Castro tanks and infantry making for the Brigada. The Soviet tanks and trucks were sitting ducks. "AHA!" he thought. "NOW we’ll turn this thing around!" The pilot started his dive.....

"Permission to engage denied," came the answer from his commander.

"This is CRAZY!" he bellowed back. "Those guys are getting the hell shot out of them down there! I can SEE it!!"

Another Naval pilot had a Castro jet in his sights. The Red pilot was frantic, trying every evasive maneuver in his book. Dream on, chico. The naval pilot was hot on his tail and preparing to blow him from the skies. One little burst here, a few at his wingmates and he’d change the course of battle-- and thus of history. No "shock and awe" needed here.

"Permission to engage denied" crackled his radio.

"WHAT the hell are we here FOR?!" He screamed back. Had the naval pilot "engaged", this "Fidel Castro" chump would merit less textbook space today than Pancho Villa.

In Peter Wyden’s Bay of Pigs, these Naval pilots admit to sobbing openly in their cockpits. They were still choked up when they landed on the Essex. Now they slammed their helmets on the deck, kicked the bulkheads and broke down completely.

"I wanted to resign from the Navy," said Captain Robert Crutchfield, the decorated naval officer who commanded the fleet off the beachhead. He’d had to relay Washington’s replies to those pilots.

So what on earth where they there for?

To take pictures, it turned out. That’s all JFK authorized...... Friends, are you beginning to understand why we get a trifle "worked up" over these things?

Just saw on Fox that we flew THIRTY THOUSAND sorties over Iraq. And sure looks like some Iraqui’s are grateful. But I’ll admit to a twinge of wistfulness. This because 42 years ago this month --and only 90 miles of our shores-- some desperately embattled freedom-fighters, couldn’t beg 2 sorties. That’s: two. I repeat: T-W-O sorties. And this to knock out a major-league swine, thief and mass-murderer who a year later confronted the U.S. with the gravest threat in its history.

A close-up glimpse of the heroism on that beachhead might have sent those Essex pilots right over the edge. As JFK adjusted his bow-tie in the mirror and Jackie picked off lint from his tux, the men of Brigada 2506 faced a few adjustments of their own. To quote Haynes Johnson. "It was a battle when heroes were made." And how!

We call them "men," but Brigadista Felipe Rondon was 16 years old when he grabbed his .57-mm cannon and ran to face one of Castro’s Stalin tanks point blank. At ten yards he fired at the clanking, lumbering beast and it exploded, but the momentum kept it going and it rolled over little Felipe.

Gilberto Hernandez was 17 when a round from a Czech burp gun put out his eye. Castro troops were swarming in but he held his ground, firing furiously with his recoilless rifle for another hour until the Reds finally surrounded him, and killed him with a shower of grenades.

By then the invaders sensed they’d been abandoned. Ammo was almost gone. Two days shooting and reloading without sleep, food or water was taking it’s toll. Many were hallucinating. That’s when Castro’s Soviet Howitzers opened up, huge 122 mm ones, four batteries worth. They pounded two-thousand rounds into the Brigada’s ranks over a four hour period. "It sounded like the end of the world’ one said later.

"Rommel’s crack Afrika Corps broke and ran under a similar bombardment," wrote Haynes Johnson. By now the invaders were dazed, delirious with fatigue, thirst and hunger, too deafened by the bombardment to even hear orders. So their commander had to scream.

"THERE IS NO RETREAT, CARAJO!!" Oliva stood and bellowed to his dazed and horribly outnumbered men. "WE STAND AND FIGHT!!!"

And so they did. Right after the deadly shower of Soviet shells more Stalin tanks rumbled up. Another boy named Barberito rushed up to the first one and blasted it repeatedly with his recoilless rifle, which barely dented it, but so rattled the occupants that they opened the hatch and surrendered. In fact, they insisted on shaking hands with their pubescent captor, who an hour later was felled by a machine gun burst to his valiant little heart.

On another front, Lynch from his command post offshore, was talking with Commander Pepe San Roman. Lynch.

"We don’t want EVACUATION!" Pepe yelled... We want MORE AMMO!! We want PLANES!’

The Reds had 50,000 men around the beachhead now. But Oliva had one tank manned by Jorge Alvarez, and two rounds. Jorge aimed–BLAM!. Reloaded–BLAM! and quickly knocked out two of Castro’s Stalins. But more Stalins and T-34's kept coming. So Alvarez--outgunned, outnumbered and out-of ammo-- finally had no choice: he gunned his tank to a horrendous clattering whine and CHARGED!!

He rammed into another Stalin tank. It’s driver was stunned, frantic. He couldn’t get a half-second to aim his gun. So Alvarez rammed him again. And AGAIN. And again, finally splitting the Stalin’s barrel and forcing its surrender. These things went on for three days.

The Brigada’s spent ammo inevitably forced a retreat. Castro’s jet’s were roaming overhead at will, they long ago sank the ammo ships. Now they concentrated on straffing the helpless men.

"Can’t continue..." Lynch’s radio crackled and it was San Roman again...."Have nothing left to fight with....destroying my equipment..." The radio went dead.

"Tears flooded my eyes," writes Grayston Lynch. "For the first time in my 37 years I was ashamed of my country." These weren’t the tears of a Bill Clinton on a camera-op, either. Lynch landed on Omaha Beach. He helped throw back Hitler’s Panzers at the Battle of The Bulge. He fought off human wave attacks by Chi-Coms at Korea’s Heartbreak Ridge. Grayston Lynch does not strike me as a whiny fraud and a tear-squeezer.

If you overlook his superb book, Decision To Disaster, you simply miss out some of the Century’s most momentous history. You rely on Camelot and their press agency version–which is to say, on self-serving, sycophantic HOGWASH!!

Lynch takes Camelot’s version and compares it to what he saw-- first–hand-- on that doomed but heroic beachhead, plus what he heard from CIA and Military colleagues who were in the thick of the planning.

Camelot’s cover-up emerges from his book like a green pepper emerges from my Popeel’s Veg-O-Matic. The man is absolutely merciless with his chopping and mincing. He purees it–demolishes it.

Almost to a man, these American officers involved in the invasion admit to breaking down under the emotional ordeal. And who can blame them? To them, Duty, Honor, Country were not abstract principles. They’d put it on the line– literally. So imagine a dilemma where that oath to Duty, Honor and Country violated their oath to obey their Commander in Chief? It was HIS hasty intervention that doomed their plan to defeat, their Cuban comrades to death and prison, and Cuba itself to 44 years of serfdom and horror.

This dilemma agonized them worse than any bombardment at Omaha Beach or Iwo-Jima. To read their own accounts is to realize that all the bullets and bombs blasted at them by Nazis and Communists, that all the sleeplessness, wounds and mouth-parching terror of trials like Inchon and the Battle of the Bulge– that all that stuff was easy compared to watching helplessly as their embattled Cuban comrades were overwhelmed (NOT defeated!) by Soviet arms and slaughtered on the bloody beaches at Playa Giron.

But, man....did they ever go down in a blaze of glory. When the smoke cleared and over a hundred of them lay dead and hundreds more wounded, after their very mortars and machine gun barrels had melted from their furious rates of fire–after three days of relentless battle-- barely 1,400 of them without a single supporting shot fired by naval artillery, and without air support-- had squared off against 51,000 Castro troops, his entire air force and squadrons of Stalin tanks. According to defecting Castroites the Red forces took casualties of 20 to one against the Brigade.

Castro’s victims this time were his own strutting soldiers and milicianos. Oh sure, while terrorizing and bullying disarmed civilians they were real hot-shots. They roared like lions while shoving them around with their new-issue Checka machine guns, threatening them with prison, with execution, chanting "paredon!-paredon!"

Then at a place called Playa Giron they ran up against the armed freedom-fighters known as Brigada 2506. They weren’t quite so cocky here.

Humberto Fontova holds an M.A. in history from Tulane University. He's the author of "Helldiver's Rodeo," described as "Highly entertaining!" by Publisher's Weekly, "A must-read!" by Booklist, and "Just what the doctor ordered!" by Ted Nugent. You may reach Mr. Fontova by e-mail at

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