CIA Sent Alabamans to Invade Cuba at Bay of Pigs
The unforgotten soldier
By Meredith Cummings
Staff Writer, Tuscaloosa News
May 28, 2001
Many people, including some in the United States government, wanted Janet
Ray Weininger to forget her father and what happened to him.
But in the end, her determination triumphed.
As a nation celebrates Memorial Day today and pays tribute to the fallen
soldiers throughout America's history, Weininger has her own painful
"I can remember the feel of him, the smell of him, but I can't remember his
voice," Weininger said of her father, Thomas "Pete" Ray, of Birmingham, who
was killed when she was 6 years old.
Ray was one of four Alabama Air National Guardsmen who died at the Bay of
Pigs in a covert operation that was a secret to even their families. It was
a controversial incident in U.S. history that soon was overshadowed by
Vietnam. Yet for Ray's daughter, the episode wasn't so easily eclipsed.
>From 1961 to 1978, Fidel Castro kept the preserved body of Ray on display
in Cuba, both as a propaganda trophy and proof of U.S. involvement in the
Bay of Pigs. In 1979, through the work of his daughter, Ray's body finally
was returned to his family.
Ray's wife, Margaret, first received the news of her husband's death in
1961. It was relayed to her in a string of lies.
"[Government agents] had come and told her that he was missing and told her
not to say anything to anybody," Weininger said. "They told her he died
while flying a cargo aircraft and that all four Alabama boys had been
together in the airplane."
Now the real story can be told. Ray was shot down in his plane but survived
only to be executed. He was shot six times - once in the head at close
After nearly four decades of government denial, the deeds of the four
Alabama Air National Guardsmen who died at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 finally
have been made public and their names memorialized at the CIA's Wall of
Honor in Langley, Va.
But of the four downed guardsmen, only Ray's body has been retrieved.
With the release of a new book, "Wings of Denial," Alabama's connection to
the Bay of Pigs is gaining more attention.
The Alabama Air National Guard's involvement was not acknowledged officially
until 1999, when related documents were declassified. And members of the
117th and 187th wings gathered in Birmingham just this year for a
declassification briefing. Even as a child, Weininger sensed there was more
to her father's death than people were telling her.
"As time went on, I realized more what was going on, but no one would allow
us to talk about it . and no one would bring up my father's name," said
Weininger, who now lives in Miami. "It was kind of like he disappeared. Our
family was very patriotic. If the government said don't speak about it, you
didn't speak about it."
After the mission was made public, and through many trips to Havana and
Nicaragua, Weininger finally brought her father's remains home and buried
him on a Birmingham hillside in 1979 in a full military funeral. It was that
year that the FBI officially identified her father's body, found
refrigerated in a Havana morgue.
"There was a very special bond between my dad and I, and I said, 'I have a
right to know my father and I have a right to bring him home,'" she said.
"It was a very lonely and painful time. My family was against it, and very
few people supported what I was doing."
On one of her many trips, Weininger met with Lino Gutierrez, then-U.S.
ambassador to Nicaragua, a Cuban-American who was raised in Tuscaloosa and
was instrumental in Ray's return.
"I walked in there, and there was a big photo of Paul 'Bear' Bryant on his
wall in the U.S. embassy in Nicaragua," Weininger said, laughing. But most
of her trips were not filled with talk of Alabama football. She was mocked,
scoffed at and even laughed at by government officials who told her she
would never get her father back.
Weininger also fought for years to help recover the remains of two Cuban
soldiers, Crispin Garcia and Juan Gonzalez, who finally were buried in Miami
with full military honors last November. She also founded Wings of Valor
(http://www.wingsofvalor.org/), a humanitarian organization dedicated to
rebuilding lives torn apart by war, poverty and disaster.
'The Alabama boys'
Warren Trest, who was the senior historian with the U.S. Air Force and
co-wrote "Wings of Denial," called the Alabama involvement "one of the
best-kept secrets of the Cold War."
"I think it's fantastic because it's the first time that the role really
comes out from the Alabama boys' side," Weininger said. "There's so much
written about what Cuban pilots experienced; it's nice to see the stuff come
out about the Alabama boys and what they did."
The four guardsmen flew with a group of Alabama volunteers to secret CIA
bases in Guatemala and Nicaragua to train Cuban exiles to fly B-26 bombers
in support of invasion forces. When the small group of exhausted pilots
could no longer sustain the air battle, seven Alabama guardsmen flew with
them into combat on the final day of the invasion in a futile attempt to
stave off defeat at the embattled beachhead.
"These were real heroes of the Cold War. They just got neglected because
they were tied up in a CIA covert operation," Trest said. "They had not
gotten the recognition they deserved."
Donald Dodd, who collaborated on the book with Trest and is assistant
director of the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, said the book's
title gets to the core of the matter. As he and Trest wrote in the book,
President John F. Kennedy wanted the operations carried out secretly so that
the U.S. government could "plausibly deny any involvement."
"It was a small war, but it was Alabama's war," Dodd said, adding that about
60 men from Alabama participated in the Bay of Pigs. It was difficult to
track them down, since the Guard kept no records of such a secret operation.
The majority of the men were from the Birmingham and Montgomery areas.
"These people were not identified or recognized until this book came out,"
Dodd said. "Back then they were all given fake IDs. They went down there to
train the Cubans . but they ended up doing more than that. This was a
volunteer basis. They did this on their own."
On April 19, 1961, seven Alabamians flew out of Puerto Cabezas. Only three
returned. The men went, having been promised air cover from the U.S. Navy
Carrier Essex, but because of a mix-up, the air cover did not arrive in
Shot down by Cuban forces, Alabama Guardsmen Wade Grey and Riley Shamburger
went down with their planes, while Thomas "Pete" Ray and Leo Francis Baker
survived their crash, only to be killed by Cuban soldiers.
According to "Wings of Denial," Leo Baker's body had been dumped into a
common grave with other Bay of Pigs corpses because his Latin features made
him look like an apparent Cuban exile. Grey and Shamburger's plane crashed
somewhere off the Coast of Cuba, and their remains may never be found, even
though Weininger says she is devoted to bringing home the remains of the
other Alabama boys.
Guardsmen Joe Shannon, Billy Goodwin and Carl Sudano and civilian James
"The Bay of Pigs was a fiasco," Dodd said. "If they had everybody flying ...
they probably would have knocked out Castro's air force."
Dodd said many of the men did not want to talk about the ordeal, and many
simply did not know it had been declassified and refused to talk about the
days when they "went south."
"I interviewed all of them that I could find. But I suspect more of them
will come out of the woodwork when they see that we treated them fairly and
they're not in jail for talking to us," Dodd said. Since the book was
published, other men have come forward with their own Bay of Pigs stories.
"These men had not talked because they were sworn to secrecy," Trest said.
"They were military men in the best tradition, and they just didn't talk
Dodd, who worked on the book for more than a decade, said that after it was
published, a Cuban man living in America came forward and said he witnessed
"We don't know if this is true or not," Dodd said. "We're checking it out."
Pieces of the puzzle
In October 1960, Air National Guard Brigadier General Reid Doster was
visited secretly in Birmingham and asked by a CIA man to round up a group of
men to go to Cuba, according to "Wings of Denial." It was an
Alabama-football-weather kind of day, and Doster, a UA fan, was invigorated.
"Nothing me and my boys would like better than to go down and kick Castro's
butt," the book quotes Doster as saying to the CIA representative.
Around the same time, Weininger remembers Doster sending a plane to pick up
her father from Fort Rucker.
"I thought my dad must be so important because the general was sending a
plane to pick him up," she said. "But that was to pick him up to bring him
for the first initial meeting from the Bay of Pigs."
Weininger remembers eating banana sandwiches in the kitchen with her father
not long before he died. Her mother was doing the dishes, and her father was
home from work unusually early. Weininger said she recalls noticing
something strange. Just below the line of her father's shorts, a dark tan
line peaked out from the usually pale skin of Ray's leg.
"Daddy, where have you been to get such a dark tan?" his daughter asked him.
The room suddenly went silent.
"All of a sudden my mom stopped what she was doing and my dad looked up at
her and he looked at me, and he just got up and walked away, put on some
pants and came back. He kept eating his sandwich and never said a word about
where he was. For my father not to answer me . I knew then something was
wrong. I had asked the wrong question."
Later, after her father was killed, her mother delivered the news to
"She sat my brother and I down on the bed and she said, 'Your dad will not
be coming home. He's been killed in a plane crash.' I didn't believe it
because we had a memorial service for him, but there was no body or no
Weininger recalled an overgrown cemetery in Birmingham where she played as a
child, where she would pick blackberries and once, witnessed workers digging
a grave. A curious child, she asked what the men were doing. They let her
help dig the grave that hot, muggy day, then let her put dirt on top of the
coffin. She knew what a funeral was supposed to be like. It was supposed to
have a body and a coffin.
Putting the past together has been a lifelong puzzle for Weininger. She
still has the bullets that killed her father.
A fall without football
Ray, who knew the men he flew with at the Bay of Pigs from his days at
Tarrant High School in Birmingham, grew up in a house near the Alabama Guard
and loved to hang out with "the boys" near the airport when he wasn't
studying or playing sports. He would fly on a Guard plane to Alabama
football games. The rules were different back then.
Dodd described the men from Alabama as being like Ray, with similar
personalities. They came from the same place, so "nearly everybody knew
But it was too late for the four boys from Alabama, who wanted nothing more
than to feel the crisp fall Alabama breeze on their faces again, to watch a
football game, to spend time having beers and spinning yarns at the Airport
Inn, their local Birmingham hangout.
"These are a bunch of good old boys," Dodd said.
"They were nonjudgmental and live-and-let-live. [The Alabama guardsman was]
a good guy to have a beer with. If he got too much to drink, he wouldn't
fight you. He wouldn't hit on your best girl. If he had a job to do, he had
a responsibility and he did it."
WHAT WAS THE BAY OF PIGS? The Bay of Pigs was an unsuccessful invasion of
Cuba by Cuban exiles, supported by the U.S. government. On April 17, 1961,
an armed force of about 1,500 Cuban exiles landed in the Bah?a de Cochinos
(Bay of Pigs) on the south coast of Cuba.
Trained in Guatemala by members of the Central Intelligence Agency with the
approval of the Eisenhower administration, and supplied with arms by the
U.S. government, the rebels intended to overthrow the Communist regime of
Fidel Castro. The Cuban army easily defeated the rebels and by April 20,
most were either killed or captured.
The invasion provoked anti-U.S. demonstrations in Latin America and Europe
and further embittered U.S.-Cuban relations. Poorly planned and executed,
the invasion subjected President Kennedy to severe criticism at home. Cuban
leader-in-exhile José Mir? Cardona, president of the U.S.-based National
Revolutionary Council, blamed the failure on the CIA and the refusal of
Kennedy to authorize air support for the invasion.
In December 1962, Castro released 1,113 captured rebels in exchange for $53
million in food and medicine raised by private donations in the United