August 14, 2018

Cuba: The Bay of Pigs Invasion – Anniversary

In April of 1961 the United States government sponsored an attempt by Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro and the communist government he led.  The veterans of the invasion attended a memorial of the event in Miami last weekend.   The attack failed because of the selection of a poor landing site, inability to disable the Cuban Air Force because of decisions taken by President Kennedy of not providing air support for the invasion at the last minute. Frank de Varona a Bay of Pigs veteran and Miami-Dade Director of Bear Witness Central explains what went on that horrific day.

 Shortly after midnight, our ship, the Houston, an old liberty type vessel, entered the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961. There was complete silence, only the splashing of waves against the ship could be heard. Our D-Day had arrived!

I was reminiscing and recalling that less than a month before my brother, Jorge, and I were students at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia. When the winter quarter ended in mid March, we both arrived in Miami and announced to our astonished parents that we wanted to enlist in the Brigade and train in the camps of Guatemala to liberate our country from communism.

My father allowed my brother, who was 19 at the time, to enlist but refused to allow me to do so since I was only 17. Eventually, my father agreed and signed a consent form since I was a minor. I was finally able to join my brother, many cousins, and other friends in Guatemala on April 1, 1961. Fortunately, I attended Admiral Farragut Academy, a naval academy prep school from 1957 to 1960 in St, Petersburg, Florida where I  graduated. We had military discipline and AFA prepared me to be a soldier. Also at my father’s cattle ranch in Camaguey,Cuba my brother and I would shoot birds so we were used to handling a rifle. In fact at the training camp in Guatemala I was the among the best, I wrote a letter to my parents stating any enemy soldier at 300 yards is a dead soldier.

After barely two weeks of training, I was flown to Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. On the night of April 14, our five small rusty cargo ships left for Cuba. We were not allowed to cook onboard since we were carrying gasoline for the planes and tons of ammunition, which made our ships floating bombs. Later one of our ships, Río Escondido, blew up after being attacked by Castro’s air force.

At 2:00 a.m., the Houston arrived in front of Playa Larga. I was on the deck of the ship anxiously waiting to disembark with other soldiers from the Fifth Battalion. The more experienced soldiers from the2506-houston Second Battalion began to disembark first in the small boats that we were carrying. The crane used to place these boats on the water made a tremendously loud noise and soon we were under fire by the enemy on land. The Houston had four 50-caliber machine guns which immediately began firing at the enemy in Playa Larga. The Barbara J, a support ship, also began to fire at the enemy. Throughout the night I watched the illuminated tracer bullets hitting the shore. The outboard engines in some of the boats broke and others got lost in the dark or sank when they hit the rocks and reefs on the beach. When morning arrived, the entire Fifth Battalion and squad from the Second were still on board the Houston.

At 6:00 a.m., we saw a B-26 flying in our direction and we all applauded. We expected air support as we had been told that “the sky would be ours.” Much to our surprise and despair, the B-26 opened fire on us from one end to the other of the Houston. Our nightmare had just begun. We were repeatedly attacked by Castro’s B-26s, Sea Furies, and T-33 jets. Several of our soldiers were killed or wounded. I saw a bomb dropped by a B-26 so close to our ship that its explosion shook the Houston.

At about 9:00 a.m., we were hit in the stern by a Sea Fury’s rocket. The explosion made a ten-foot hole in the bottom of the ship and damaged the rudder. Fortunately the rocket did not explode or we would have all died. The Houston started to sink fast and its captain, Luis Morse, beached her about a mile from the coast. I heard explosions and saw smoke and thought that the ship was going to blow up at any moment. Soldiers began to jump in the water but I hesitated since I had seen sharks in the water. I finally jumped in with a knife in my hand. I had left my rifle and backpack aboard but kept 360 bullets and grenades around my chest and waist and was wearing my uniform including my boots. With all this weight on me, I soon hit the bottom of the ocean and almost drown. I had great difficulty reaching the surface due to the weight I was carrying. With great effort, I discarded everything in the water except for my pants.

Together with my roommate at Georgia Tech, Eduardo Sánchez, I started to swim towards the shore.

playa-larga-6After more than 50 years, I still vividly remember what happened on that day. Enemy planes were shooting at those of us in the water, many soldiers were screaming and drowning and some were being devoured by sharks. It took me about an hour to swim to shore as I had to float to rest along the way several times. Feeling completely exhausted, I eventually emerged out of the water. I knelt down, thanked God, and kissed the sand. I looked around and saw desperate unarmed soldiers begging for water, many of them wearing only underwear with their bodies covered with oil.

Later on that sad morning they asked for four volunteers to row a lifeboat back to the Houston to rescue the wounded soldiers and others still onboard. I volunteered together with Mario Cabello, Jorge Marquet, and another soldier. We rowed as fast as we could to the Houston, always looking at the sky for enemy planes that continued shooting at us from time to time. We were able to rescue several soldiers and some of our wounded. One of them was Dr. René Lamar, a medical doctor who had been hit in the arm. Among the soldiers we brought to shore were the Fifth Battalion second-in-command Félix Pérez Tamayo, Luis González Lalondry, and Fico Rojas.

In the afternoon, we walked north bordering the beach towards Playa Larga. Unfortunately, there were enemy soldiers at a nearby small village called la Caleta de Buenaventura and only a handful of us had rifles. Our battalion commander Ricardo Montero Duque ordered us to return to the area near the partially sunk Houston and to wait to be rescued.

Without food or water I waited with the others. On Thursday, April 18, at approximately 5:00 p.m., as our priest Father Tomás Macho (who years later married me to my wife Haydee) began to offer a mass, at the same time a boat with six enemy soldiers landed in the area. The few of us who had rifles opened fire killing or wounding them. At that moment, since our position was already known, we received the order to disband and attempt to escape. But where should we go? We had no maps and we were in a swamp area.

I was very weak and extremely thirsty. With a small group, I started to walk south not knowing where to go. By Saturday morning, April 20, I could not speak due to the dryness in my mouth and throat caused by extreme thirst. At about noon, I was captured by the enemy.

Two difficult years of brutal imprisonment followed. We were packed like sardines in a can, starved, given polluted water, beaten, and kept in isolation for as  long as seven months. I contracted hepatitis, dysentery, and skin diseases. We slept on the bare floor and were deprived of soap, toothpaste, and toilet paper for months. We were truly treated worse than animals.

After a year of imprisonment we were given a trial and sentenced to thirty years at hard labor. Each prisoner was also set a ransom of money. The ransom for my brother and I was $100,000 each. While in prison I learned French, German, religion, accounting, and history, and read hundreds of books.

At last we were freed on December 25, 1962 after 20 months in the Castillo del Príncipe and Isle of Pines prisons. My parents cried when they saw my brother and I in Miami. My weight at the time of release was 120 pounds.

The week at the Bay of Pigs and the nearly two-year imprisonment made me appreciate even more the value of freedom and those everyday privileges and comforts that we take for granted, such as food, water, housing, cleanliness. Despite having lost our freedom along with our home, cattle ranch and bank accounts in Cuba and living below the poverty level in Miami, I was certain that I was going through a transitory situation. I was determined to achieve an education and become a successful professional in the United States. I have had a great life in this country as an educator and writer. I am happily married to a great woman, Dr. Haydee Prado, a school psychologist, and have a wonderful daughter   Irene, a successful sales consultant, and handsome grandson Danny.

bay of pig invasion veterans  2014

Bay of Pig Invasion Veterans, at the memorial, 2014

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