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The bay of pigs fiasco.

My first real interest in Cuba was sparked during a three-year NATO tour serving with 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade Group in Germany. As an infantry captain serving with 1st Battalion, The Canadian Guards, from 1959 to 1962, newspaper articles mentioned the Cuban Revolution and that Castro had entered Havana victoriously on January 8, 1959. On August 8, 1960, Cuba commenced nationalization of the country's economic resources, which was followed by the United States breaking diplomatic relations with Cuba on January 3, 1961 and imposing an economic embargo.

On the 17th of April, 1961, approximately 1,500 mercenaries of Cuban origin living in the United States landed at the Bay of Pigs (Bahia de Conchos) and seized Playa Giron and Playa Largo with little or no opposition. Surprisingly and to the disbelief of the Americans, the U.S.-backed invasion was repulsed in only 72 hours.

In retrospect, the Cuban Crisis and the events leading up to October 1962 and which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, encompassed my entire tour in Europe. Most of us did appreciate the true gravity and significance of events that were taking place in the Caribbean. We knew that if war was declared, our orders would be to move east immediately to our Early Deployment Positions (EDPs) to fight the enemy, the USSR.

In September 1962, as an infantry captain, I assumed my new duties as battalion operations officer (a major's vacancy) only to find that due to events unfolding in the Caribbean, our tour had been extended for the duration of the crisis. We were, of course, concerned about what would happen to our dependents in the event of a war. I spent most of my time working on the operational readiness of the battalion, which included reassessing the wisdom of using previously planned EDPs (which were well known to the Russian army), weapon and vehicle readiness, and ammunition availability.

I remember my commanding officer, Lt Col H.W. Mulherin, who had just taken command on August 15, ordering me to make sure I knew how much and where our ammunition was in the Fort Henry Ammunition Dump. I was somewhat amused when an armed guard prevented me from entering the storage area. The guard even stated that he had live rounds in his rifle to enforce the personal orders of Brigadier D.C. Cameron. Someone was sure that the United States and Russia were bluffing. I wondered?

As a PPCLI Korean War veteran, including the Battle of Kapyong in 1951, I was actually looking forward to going to war against Russia with a few reservations. The main one being rushing off to war in 3/4 ton trucks! I remember thinking that my new regiment, The Canadian Guards, which had no battle honours, might earn one or two, thus ensuring our continued existence as a regiment. (In the late 1950s, rumours circulated about eliminating the regiment. We were finally reduced to nil strength on July 6, 1970, when I was serving as commanding officer of the Ghana School of Infantry in West Africa. I proudly served wearing Canadian Guards flashes for a full twenty years.)

My tour with NATO during the Cuban Crisis led me to accumulate articles and books on Cuba during the next forty years. In January 2004, my wife and I took a two-week holiday in Cuba and were able to rent a car and spend a full day on a tour to the Bay of Pigs. We visited the actual landing site with good maps, articles, and with a reasonable knowledge of what had happened 43 years ago.

Our real coup was befriending a well-educated Cuban who spoke excellent English, who had studied the invasion at school and had visited the area on a number of occasions. He was our unofficial personal guide and he was able to speak on the subject with considerable knowledge. His uncle had been a fighter pilot at the actual battle, taking part in the sinking of at least one landing craft. My guide's narrative was free of politics and he clearly stated what had happened to the best of his understanding. We visited the museum in Giron, all the landing sites, the small town of Central Australia (Castro's headquarters), and saw the numerous war memorials beside the road where Cuban militia were killed in their advance to Giron. At no time did our guide say anything about the battle that contradicted any of my reference material, expressing points of view from both sides in the conflict.

Our guide pointed out that the swamp on both sides of the road was virtually impassable, contained at least a thousand crocodiles, thick vegetation and considerable standing water. His most interesting revelation was that his uncle the fighter pilot, Guillermo Figueroa, later defected to United States and is considered a traitor by his Cuban relatives.

The invasion force had been trained and assembled in May 1960 in Guatemala by the CIA. The rebels were expected to prompt an insurrection to overthrow Castro. After they landed, they hoped to advance north across the island to Havana. Generally speaking, in spite of some of the best American military and CIA brains, the operation was not well planned or executed and therefore the invasion was a complete failure. The Cuban militia and miniscule air force easily defeated the rebels, just 72 hours after the main landing.

Some historians believe the CIA hoped the landing would fail and President Kennedy would be forced to finish the job using the U.S. Marines. However, Kennedy decided to abort the fiasco when its outcome was clearly in doubt. The original plan to land in Cuba was authorized in March 1960 by President Eisenhower, who allotted $10 million for preparations. Eventually, the invasion would cost U.S. taxpayers over $46 million.

Some experts believe that President Kennedy's loss of nerve at the critical moment, when he cancelled the air strikes, resulted in the invasion's failure. It is my opinion, after visiting the landing beaches and, considering the distances involved, and the inability of the rebel's two small parachute battalions to hold ground against a serious onslaught, that the final outcome would have been the same. Castro's regime was at a high water mark, a large number of Cuban militia were closing in on the Bay of Pigs and absolutely no spontaneous uprising took place. Therefore, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

It is interesting to note that Kennedy took full responsibility for the disaster, although he blamed the CIA. The three men responsible for the operation: Director Allen Dulles, Deputy Director General P. Cabell and Deputy Director for Plans Richard Bissell, were tired. Nevertheless, Bissell was awarded the National Security Medal by President Kennedy one year after the Bay of Pigs defeat.

When questioned by Robert Kennedy, Allen Dulles stated that the operation's objective was to "Get a beachhead, hold it, and then build it up." Some historians have questioned the selection of the landing site. Looking at the choke points (roads leading to the Bay of Pigs), if more resources had been deployed south of the small towns Central Australia and Covadonga in Zapata Swamp, a determined force could have inflicted heavy casualties on Castro's forces and opened the way to Havana.

Castro's strong and effective leadership was a significant factor in the battle, which, although not large, resulted in 156 fatal casualties during the Cuban militia's 60-kilometre advance to the main landing site at Giron. Cuban sources admit to 500 wounded, which confirms that the advance was difficult by any standard. The rebel invading force of about 1500 had 114 killed and the remainder surrendered or fled into the swamp and hills. All of those who fled were captured by the militia. Mass trials were held for the invaders, and each was sentenced to 30 years in prison. After twenty months of negotiations, most were released in exchange for $53 million in food and medicine.

The role of the Cuban Revolutionary Front, the main political organization of the Cuban exiles came as a surprise to me. The CIA apparently did not allow the Front to participate in selecting the invasion force or to have input into its training. Elements in the invasion force represented the old (Batista) army. Even the leader of the Brigade was a Batista man: Pepe San Roman.

Although the miniscule Cuban air force was not really ready for battle, it was quick to react. Castro ordered his T-33 trainer jets, two Sea Furies and two B-26s into the air. In short order, they sank the command vessel the Marsopa and the supply ship Houston that carried the entire 5th Battalion of the 2506 Brigade and 30,000 rifles. The supplies for the landing teams and eight other smaller vessels were also sunk. From that point the logistics of the operation were almost non-existent.

Castro's air force made short work of the rebel's slow moving B-26s. Before the battle was over, the U.S. backed force had lost 10 of its 12 aircraft. On the ground, the Cuban militia fought well in my view and, most certainly, seemed better motivated than the rebels.

Colonel Jack Hawkins, the U.S. military chief apparently ordered the Houston back to Largo Beach by radio from Happy Valley in Nicaragua. He was one of the heroes of MacArthur's brilliant landing at Inchon, September 15/16, 1950, during the Korean War. In November 2002, I was in the Republic of Korea for nine days assisting the McKenna brothers with the film Korea: The Unfinished War. We spent a day at the Inchon Landing site with a U.S. marine who landed on the sea wall with the first wave. Jack Hawkins's name came up during our discussions, confirming that my belief that the CIA was using one of the most experienced officers available for Operation PLUTO, the invasion of Cuba.

Dozens of reasons have been given over the years for the failure of the invasion. Briefly, the three most important are: the wrong people were running the operation. For example, Allen Dulles who was head of the CIA, was in Puerto Rico giving a speech at the time of the landing. Secondly, the Agency, which was in charge of the operation, was the one providing all the intelligence! Thirdly, the CIA, which has a penchant for security, had massive security leaks. My research substantiates the conclusion that Castro knew more about the Operation PLUTO than most of the U.S.-backed players.

In conclusion, it is worthwhile publishing opinions expressed on behalf of 2506 Brigade, a selected American point of view and a statement by Fidel Castro. These statements are not necessarily conclusive or accurate but may be of interest to the reader.

"There's no question that the brigade members were competent, valiant, and committed in their efforts to salvage a rapidly deteriorating situation in a remote area," writes Bissell. "Most of them had no professional military training, yet they mounted an amphibious landing and conducted air operations in a manner that was a tribute to their bravery and dedication. They did not receive their due."

"The reality," writes Arthur Schlesinger, "was that Fidel Castro turned out to be a far more formidable foe and in command of a far better organized regime than anyone supposed. His patrols spotted the invasion at almost the first possible moment. His planes reacted with speed and vigor. His police eliminated any chance of sabotage or rebellion behind the lines. His soldiers stayed loyal and fought hard. He himself never panicked; and, if faults were chargeable to him, they were his overestimate of the strength of the invasion and undue caution in pressing the ground attack against the beachhead. His performance was impressive."

Fidel Castro made the following statement on Havana's Union Radio shortly after his victory: "Humble, honest blood was shed in the struggle against the mercenaries of imperialism. But what blood, what men did imperialism send here to establish that beachhead, to bleed our revolution dry, to destroy our achievements, to burn our cane?"

In his account of the invasion, Castro estimated that the invaders and their families among them once owned a million acres of land, ten thousand houses, seventy sugar factories, ten sugar mills, five mines, and two banks. Hardly champions of the people.
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Author:Bishop, John R.
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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