Thirty-five years after writing this memo, Marine Col. Jack Hawkins broke silence in an article in the Dec. 31, 1996, edition of National Review:
. . . "The crucial point at issue was air support. Throughout my participation in the Cuba project I frequently emphasized both orally and in formal correspondence the absolute necessity for complete destruction of the opposing air force at the outset of the operation. In another memorandum in early 1961 I stated flatly that if Castro's air force were not all destroyed before the troop transports arrived at the landing beaches, a military disaster would occur.... [Secretary of State Dean] Rusk did not seem to grasp the point ... so when the recommendations from the State Department conflicted with those of the CIA, the President usually adopted Mr. Rusk's position.... President Kennedy's cancelling of the invasion bombing of the remains of Castro's air force doomed Brigade 2506.... The Brigade fought hard and well for three days and was not overrun or driven from its position.... The troops eventually ran out of ammunition and had to surrender. Before the surrender ... [Admiral Arleigh] Burke requested permission from the President to have carrier aircraft eliminate the rest of Castro's air force and fly cover and support for the Brigade, and use naval landing craft to evacuate troops from the beach. The president refused
FROM THE BOOK, WINGS OF DENIAL:
For the first time during the invasion Alabama Air National Guard pilots
were at the controls of warplanes taking part in the fray. Prior to April
19th the Alabama guardsmen were not allowed to fly combat missions in
support of the brigade. The White House feared that an American pilot might
be shot down and expose the U.S. Government's role in the covert affair.
President John F. Kennedy, newly inaugurated and concerned about the
political fallout from the invasion, was adamant that operations be carried
out in such a way that the U.S. Government could plausibly deny any
involvement. Unfortunately, the concern for "plausible deniability" within
the decision-making process took precedence over military requirements.
Pre-invasion air strikes against Cuban airfields were held to a minimum to
mask U.S. involvement. This was done on direct orders from the President.
Remnants of Fidel Castro's air forces, including two British-built Sea Fury
prop fighters and two Lockheed T-33 jet trainers with fighter capability,
survived the attacks to strike back against the invasion forces and their
limited air support. The fighters attacked the landing forces at will, sank
their ammunition and supplies coming in from the sea, and wreaked havoc on
the B-26s coming to their aid. The denial of U.S. fighter cover from the
carrier Essex steaming offshore yielded command of the air to Castro's few
surviving planes. The minimal bombing strikes two days before the landing on
April 17 not only failed to destroy all of Castro's planes, but alerted the
Cuban dictator that the landing forces were on the way. On the morning of
the 17th Castro's planes sank two of the brigade's ships, the Houston and
the Rio Escondido, loaded with war supplies. Five of the liberation air
force's 16 B-26s and their crews were lost on the day of the landing. Flying
one and sometimes two missions a day-each mission six and one-half hours
over open water without navigational aids-the Cuban pilots were physically
and emotionally exhausted by the third day of the invasion. Air Guard
Lieutenant Colonel Joseph L. Shannon recalled that the Cuban pilots were in
no shape to fly on the 19th, but some flew anyway.
Faced with exhausted aircrews and a desperate situation on the ground in
Cuba, the CIA authorized Alabama guardsmen to fly missions on the 19th. Four
Guard pilots and four crewmen stepped forward. The lead formation on the
19th was commanded by Billy "Dodo" Goodwin, a major in the Air Guard, and
Gonzalo Herrera, a fearless Cuban pilot known as "El Tigre" by his
compatriots. The other Alabama Guard pilots were Joe Shannon, Riley
Shamburger, and Thomas Willard "Pete" Ray. Crew members from Alabama
included Leo Francis Baker, Wade Gray, Carl "Nick" Sudano, and James Vaughn.
A second exiled Cuban pilot, Mario Zuniga, and his observer rounded out the
At the last minute the B-26s were promised air cover from the Essex, but in
a tragic mix-up the jet fighters did not show until the bombers were leaving
the target area. The Navy pilots had orders not to fire unless fired upon.
When the unprotected bombers arrived over the beachhead at sunrise, the
Cuban fighters were waiting for them. The two lead B-26s piloted by Goodwin
and Herrera sustained hits but delivered their ordnance and were returning
to Puerto Cabezas when the other bombers arrived in the target area. Two of
the B-26s came under attack as they approached the beachhead. Joe Shannon
was able to outmaneuver the T-33s, but his wingman Riley Shamburger was hit.
Shamburger and his observer Wade Gray went down with their plane. Further
inland, a Cuban fighter brought down Pete Ray's bomber as he pressed the
attack against heavily defended targets. Ray and Leo Francis Baker, a flight
engineer, survived the crash only to be killed in a shootout with Cuban
That afternoon the beachhead collapsed and the Cuban exiles, having
exhausted their supplies and ammunition, surrendered to Castro's army. It
had taken just seventy-two hours to crush the invasion. Some survivors were
rescued by U.S. ships, but the brigade took heavy casualties including 114
men who died and 1,189 who were taken prisoner. Fidel Castro held the
prisoners until December 1963 when he ransomed them to the United States for
$53 million worth of food and drugs. A humiliating defeat for the U.S.
Government, the Bay of Pigs was a tragedy from which the Cuban exiles and
their liberation movement would never recover.
No one shared the loss more than their U.S. comrades. Joe Shannon recalled
that he and the other Alabama guardsmen had flown the final mission on 19
April because they "were closely associated with the Cuban aircrews, and . .
. felt a strong dedication to their cause." Captain Edward B. Ferrer, a
pilot in the liberation air force, wrote a book on the air battle at the Bay
of Pigs and declared that the U.S. crews who volunteered to fly with them in
combat were no longer advisers, but brothers. Despite the swirl of
controversy surrounding the Bay of Pigs fiasco and their strong feelings
about the constraints placed on air power, Shannon and the other air
guardsmen kept their silence for decades. They had been sworn to secrecy,
and they honored that commitment. They did not even tell their wives.
For the families of the four heroic guardsmen who gave their lives on the
final day's mission, theirs was a compelling story. The families mourned
their loss, but went years without knowing what happened to their loved
ones. How could they relate the deaths to the Bay of Pigs if the government
denied they were ever there? Some family members refused to give up. In a
poignant twist to the Bay of Pigs tragedy the family of Pete Ray learned in
1978 that for 17 years his body had been refrigerated in Cuba on Castro's
orders. The Castro regime kept the slain U.S. pilot's body as a propaganda
trophy and as evidence that the U.S. government was behind the Bay of Pigs
Thomas Ray, Jr., (a San Francisco attorney) and his sister Janet (the wife
of an Air Force colonel and F-16 pilot) were small children when their
father was killed. Although the family learned that he had died while
supporting the invasion, officially he was never there. While growing up the
son and daughter relentlessly pursued the truth about their father's death
and what had happened to his body. The family's persistence persuaded the
Cuban government to return Thomas Ray's body to Alabama for burial in
December 1979. The U.S. Government finally admitted in May 1999, nearly four
decades after the event, that Ray and three other Alabama guardsmen were
shot down on April 19, 1961, flying combat over Cuba's Bahia de Cochinos.
Over the past 40 years the daring B-26 mission on the final day of the
invasion-resulting in the untimely death of four intrepid guardsmen-has
become a symbol of the Alabama Air National Guard's role in the Bay of Pigs
invasion. That role had its start when a large contingent of Alabama
guardsmen, joined by other volunteers from Arkansas units and the civil
aviation sector, deployed on a secret mission to Guatemala in late 1960.
They served there as advisers to Cuban exiles who were preparing to liberate
their homeland under the auspices of the CIA. No one else, not even their
families, knew where they were. The failure at the Bay of Pigs had
far-reaching implications for the U.S. Government and its Cold War policies.
It led directly to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and may have propagated
the political indecision and myopia leading to our more tragic failure in
the Vietnam War. For the Alabama Air National Guard there were no Bay of
Pigs service medals or campaign streamers, but the experience has become a
distinctive part of Air Guard history. For the guardsmen who were part of
that history, their silence was a badge of honor.
April is Bay of Pig’s Month at the Southern Museum of Flight. The April 1961 futile invasion by U.S.-supported Cuban exiles to oust Castro was a fleeting moment of Cold War history. It was a small war but it was Birmingham’s war. The bulk of the advisors and instructors assisting the Cuban Liberation Army’s Air Force of B-26s, C-46s, and C-54s were from Alabama, most within fifteen miles of the Southern Museum of Flight. Seven of the sixty-plus Air Guardsmen attended the closest high school to the Air Guard complex at the Airport - Tarrant High School. The CIA civilian-contract personnel primarily came from Hayes Aircraft across the runway from the Air Guard. Most of the Guardsmen who "went South" to Guatemala and Nicaragua in 1961 had a similar background ... four years in the Air Force as aircraft mechanics, employment by Hayes Aircraft, service as "weekend warriors" in the Guard, and finally as full-time Air Guard technicians.
They were a close-knit group, good ole boys in the best sense of the term. They pulled their own weight. If a job was their responsibility, they did it. They wouldn’t let a tough task beat them. The Guardsmen took the Bay of Pigs’ defeat personally and hard. After it was over, they were quickly and quietly (Air Guard complex cleared out before they landed) back to Birmingham and told to forget the whole mess. The never forgot, but they did keep silent.
To a man they felt betrayed by the lack of decisive air support at the appropriate times. The title of a recent book on the Alabama Air Guard’s covert involvement captured their plight ... Wings of Denial. Wings (air support) denied caused the tactical failure of the invasion. Wings denied was the government’s long-term denial of the extent of the Alabama Air Guard’s involvement. Bay of Pig’s participants learned a new dimension of "keeping a stiff upper lip." Wing’s of Denial: The Alabama Air Guard’s Covert Role in the Bay of Pigs by Warren Trest and Don Dodd (Montgomery, AL: New South Books, 2001) tells their story. The following is a synthesis of the book’s introduction.
In the predawn hours of April 19, 1961, six Douglas B-26 Invaders, painted in Cuban Air Force colors, took off from a secret CIA base at Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, and headed north over the moonlit waters of the Caribbean toward Cuba. Puerto Cabezas, known as "Happy Valley" to the pilots and crews, was the staging base of the ill-fated invasion at the Bay of Pigs.
Armed to the teeth, the twin-engine B-26s flew the mission in two-ship formations—taking to the skies at 30-minute intervals to stagger their arrivals over the target area. The bombers were launched in a desperate attempt to stave off defeat for the brigade of Cuban exiles who were stranded on the embattled beachhead and fighting for their lives.
For the first time during the invasion Alabama Air National Guard pilots were at the controls of B-26s taking part in the fray. Prior to the 19th the Alabama guardsmen B-26 pilots were not allowed to fly combat missions in support of the brigade. The White House feared that an American pilot might be shot down and expose the U.S. Government’s role ...