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3 pilots who died in Bay of Pigs remembered

Apr. 23, 2011 - 04:13PM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 23, 2011 - 04:13PM  |  
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It has been half a century since four Alabama pilots gave their lives in a battle the U.S. decided to keep secret.

In the dark of early morning, April 19, 1961, seven Alabama Air National Guard pilots took off from Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, in six World War II-era B-26 bombers, headed to a marshy beach known as Playa Giron, at the mouth of the "Bahνa de Cochinos" — the Bay of Pigs.

The pilots, members of the 117th National Guard Tactical Reconnaissance Wing based in Birmingham, were committed to provide air support to some 1,500 Cuban exiles who were fighting — with backing from the U.S. government — to overthrow Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro and the newly formed Communist regime in their homeland.

The CIA recruited men from the Alabama unit to train the novice Cuban airmen simply because the 117th was the last unit to fly the B-26, the "mothball fleet" bomber the Cuban exiles would fly in battle after training — first in Guatemala and then Nicaragua, the operation's staging base.

None of the guardsmen expected to take part in the battle, which began April 17.

But after two days, additional flight crews were needed to give the invaders air cover in an effort to stave off defeat. There were not enough Cuban invaders left to do the job, so the CIA commander agreed to let seven members of the 117th do it.

Of the seven Alabama pilots who went up, only three would survive the final day of the Bay of Pigs invasion, a U.S.-backed coup that would become known as a historic failure.

Killed that day were Leo Baker, Wade Gray, Riley Shamburger and Thomas "Pete" Ray.

"We were told we couldn't fly against Cuba even if we wanted to," said retired Lt. Col. Joseph Shannon — one of the survivors — in an interview before his death in January 2010. That plan went horribly awry.

Supporting the flight trainers were 11 aircraft mechanics, all members of the Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, a Montgomery-based Guard unit. They did not enter the fray of battle but put their lives on the line. Their assignments included constantly repainting numbers, lettering and stripes on the American aircraft to disguise them as Cuban military planes.

Those who made it out alive bore witness to this story that for so long remained hidden.

The event's very existence was once steeped in secrecy by government mandate; its details were declassified only in the late 1990s. John Patterson, Alabama's governor at the time, said the facts surrounding the events, though tragic, seem to have faded from memory as soon as they were made public.

"It was a very well-kept secret for a very long time, and then, it didn't get much attention. It's so long after it's been over that people have forgotten about it," Patterson said in a recent interview.

Still, at the half-century anniversary of the disaster come new explorations and re-examinations that may bring about widespread awareness.

Uncovering facts

After years of silence, there is finally recognition. The names of the four downed American pilots are now memorialized on the CIA's Wall of Honor in Langley, Va.

And there is a plethora of information.

"Wings of Denial," a 2001 book by Montgomery historians Warren Trest and Donald Dodd, is being reissued by its publisher, NewSouth Books. The book stands out among other Bay of Pigs accounts, Trest said.

"To my knowledge this is the only one written about the Guard itself," he said of books chronicling the events. "That was the reason it was written — to be from the Air Guard's perspective and to preserve a record of that."

In 2008, University of Alabama historian Howard Jones released "The Bay of Pigs," a critically acclaimed book that provides a dramatic, concise account of the missteps leading to the invasion, the disaster that followed and its role as a crucial turning point in the Kennedy administration.

Jones' book aims to show what the author describes as "the perils of intervention." He believes President John F. Kennedy's advisers did not give him the amount of information needed to make an executive decision. After the botched invasion, world leaders began to see Kennedy as spineless, he said, and that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Jones is one of the experts interviewed in an upcoming documentary produced by the University of Alabama Honors College "Lights Camera Alabama" project, which encourages honors students to produce films about Alabama history.

On May 10, "Playa Giron," a documentary about the Alabama Air National Guardsmen's role in the invasion, will debut online at www.lightscameraalabama.com.

UA student Samuel J. Dotson was drawn to this chapter of Alabama's history not only by its intrigue but also because of his Cuban heritage.

Although the past in Cuba was "kind of a touchy subject in my family," Dotson said, his grandmother, Marνa Vega de Febles, a former internal resistance member who was arrested the day of the invasion, agreed to be interviewed for the documentary.

Dotson also interviewed Shannon before he died and Pete Ray's daughter, Janet Ray, who today is a sort of heroine among both Alabamians and Cubans who were thrust into the mission.

When the documentary premieres online — there will be a DVD release later — it will run for about 70 minutes, with input from both historians and participants.

It was originally planned as a 15-minute short with a single interview.

"Everyone on the team was very passionate about it," Dotson said. "It's a unique, poignant story that ... has been neglected."

Shrouded in secrecy

All the men recruited to train the Cuban exiles received aliases, along with the warning that if they were captured or killed, the U.S. would deny any association with them.

Gray and Shamburger were shot down by Cuban pilots who were flying modern and far more powerful T-33 fighters; the two Alabamians' bodies were never recovered.

Upon crash landing in Cuba, Baker was killed by Cuban gunfire, and Ray was fatally shot in the head by Fernando Mel, Castro's field commander.

Castro demanded that Ray's frozen body be kept in Cuba as evidence of American involvement in the Bay of Pigs.

It was not until 1979 that Ray's body was returned to Alabama, after Janet Ray had fought an 18-year battle. Through the years she has continued to pursue the truth.

There will always be speculation, blame and questions about whether this disaster could have been averted.

In interviewing the guardsmen for "Wings of Denial," Dodd and Trest found many of the men believed that if the government had stayed with its original invasion site, Trinidad, instead of the Bay of Pigs, there would have been a positive outcome; some of the men were also baffled by earlier decisions, such as Kennedy's cutting of the initial airstrike force from 16 planes to eight.

Secrecy concerning the event was deeply rooted, according to Patterson.

The CIA had told the Alabamians that they were being employed by the Double Check Corp. — a fictitious entity — to test military equipment at sea, he said. The men were "quite handsomely insured," Patterson said, so their families would receive a generous amount of money if anything were to happen.

"After it went bad and these four men didn't come home, the CIA warned the families that, ‘If you talk about this, we'll cut off the money,'" Patterson said. "That's one reason why it was so well kept a secret. Nobody talked about it for years and years. The CIA and the federal government denied involvement and even claimed that the four pilots were renegades."

That familiar claim is an injustice to the men who gave and risked their lives, said Larry Clayton, a history professor at the University of Alabama.

"The Alabamians were most certainly not ‘paid mercenaries' who were fighting for a wage. They all considered this to be a legitimate extension of their obligations as warriors in the Cold War," Clayton said in an email interview.

Clayton, part of the team that made the film "Playa Giron," is of Cuban heritage and has written two books on Cuban history; he is working on a book about the air battle above the Bay of Pigs.

He is learning through his research that there are always new, eye-opening aspects to the story.

"As I probed deeper into the story, the factors for success and failure sometimes seemed to glow with certainty, and then fade as I dug deeper, especially into the revolutionary Cuban story," said Clayton, who is also a pilot who for almost 40 years has passed by Hayes Aviation, where many of the Alabama Air National Guardsmen worked when they were recruited.

"The four Alabamians were drawn into the vortex of the Cold War and paid a price when it turned hot at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, although Cuban saboteurs and infiltration teams were already deployed in Cuba in the months before the invasion."

Patterson acknowledges he had a hand in the events early on but had no idea of the repercussions.

He gave Brig. Gen. Reed Doster the go-ahead to recruit volunteers from the Alabama Air National Guard to help the Cuban invasion force, with the understanding that then-President Eisenhower knew of the plan.

"I should have checked that out, but I didn't," Patterson said. "I agreed to it, and they started recruiting people out of the Air Guard. "What authority did I have? Probably none. If the president of the United States wants to use the Air National Guard — I was young and impetuous and gung-ho to have a role in the overthrow of a corrupt dictator.

"I learned a real lesson, but you don't live long enough to apply those lessons to the future. In September, I will be 90."

The lesson: "When you go to war, you do not try to hide it," he said. "This is not worthy of the great United States."

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