Back to the Bay of Pigs

By James P. Delgado

Within three hours, news of the landings had reached Castro, and he responded by sending in troops and aircraft to repel the landings. Air strikes intended to knock out his air force were called off, and after daylight on 17 April the T-33 (former U.S. F-80s) and Sea Fury aircraft of the Cuban Air Force attacked the ships and troops on the shore. Hits on the Rio Escondido sank her after setting the aviation fuel she carried on fire. CIA operative Grayston Lynch, on board the Blagar , watched as the fuel-laden ship exploded in a huge fireball that lifted into the sky and formed a mushroom cloud several thousand feet high. Pressing on, Cuban aircraft also took out the Houston . A hit at the stem forced her captain to beach the ship on the Zapata Peninsula before she sank.

The other ships retreated under fire, and Lynch downed attacking Cuban aircraft as the captain of the Blagar pulled back from the beach and headed for international waters. The brigade's own force of B-26 light bombers tried to protect the ships and support the landings, but they were taken out systematically by Cuban aircraft and antiaircraft guns. Losses in the brigade air force included four U.S. advisors. Two of them survived their downing but were executed by the Cubans on the ground. Watching the battle and the retreat of the supply ships were the frustrated crews of the carrier Essex (CV-9), the destroyer escorts Conway (DDE-507), Cony (DDE-508), Eaton (DDE-510), Murray (DDE-576), and Waller (DDE-466), the dock landing ship San Marcos (LSD-25), and the pilots of VA-34, the "Blue Blasters," all under presidential order not to engage the Cubans. Orders notwithstanding, some Navy pilots flew cover, without firing on the Cuban aircraft, to protect the last of Brigade 2506's B-26s, thus saving the lives of pilots.

But on the beach, without additional supplies and ammunition, Brigade 2506 was doomed to defeat. After three days of fighting, holding its lines and inflicting losses on the troops pouring in to repel the invasion, the brigade retreated into the swamps that line the bay, out of ammunition and with its air cover downed. Castro's forces hunted them mercilessly, as the Eaton , the Cony , and the CIA operatives on the scene struggled to rescue them. Despite their best efforts, only 26 men were pulled out of the swamps of the Zapata Peninsula, under fire from Cuban aircraft. The Eaton and the Murray , on a beach reconnaissance, also were fired on by Castro's forces, one tank shell reportedly just missed hitting the Eaton's bridge. When the shooting finally stopped, 114 members of the 2506 Brigade lay dead, while another 150—those unable to land as well as some who made it off the beaches—escaped. But nearly 1,200 members of the 2506 Brigade were captured. Only 1,189 members of the brigade returned to their homes in Florida in December 1962, but only after mass trials, imprisonment, and finally, a U.S. ransom payment of $53 million in supplies to Cuba.

The legacy of the Bay of Pigs is bitter memories for veterans of the 2506 Brigade and CIA operative Lynch, who does not hesitate in his recent memoir to blame the White House for what he terms a "betrayal at the Bay of Pigs." The debate still rages, with harsh criticism leveled at President John E Kennedy, the CIA, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others. Recently declassified documents, including CIA Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick's "Survey of the Cuban Operation," have added fuel to the controversy.

In Cuba, however, there is no debate, only the official line of the government. Playa Giron and Playa Larga, the "Blue" and "Red" landing beaches of the operation, are now tourist destinations for their clean sand and clear blue waters. They also are part of a determined effort by Castro's government to make this bay and these beaches a platform for both celebrating his victory and, without debate or discussion, presenting to local residents, school children, and tourists a carefully prepared message about the events of 17-19 April 1961.

In early January 2001, I was, as a Canadian museum director, part of a cultural tour of Cuba's historic sites, cities, and monuments. The tour included a two-day visit to the Bay of Pigs. As a student of the recent past, including the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, I was intrigued to see how the Cubans portrayed the Bay of Pigs landings. I had a fair idea, having reviewed Castro's speeches about the events of April 1961, and his characterization of the 2506 Brigade as "mercenaries." I was not surprised to see the message repeated, but I was amazed at the lengths to which Castro and his government have gone to present it. Not surprisingly, much of the message is delivered now in an official "museum" at Playa Giron.

Ships cannot approach or sail into the Bay of Pigs. To visit, one must drive in from Havana or nearby Cienfuegos, approaching Giron on a narrow coastal highway pocked with potholes and devoid of traffic, save the occasional truck or horse-drawn cart. As one skirts the bay, with occasional glimpses of white sand and water, one sees simple concrete monuments along the side of the road. Markers set up by the government show where a "hero of Giron" died to repel the landings. Various accounts suggest that hundreds, perhaps thousands of Cuban troops, as well as civilians, died during the landings. The Cubans list only 156 dead. The names of those who died are displayed prominently outside Giron, not only on these individual markers, but also on a larger monument, with the names cast on bronze plaques, as well as on a smaller monument at the "Museo de Giron."

The sacrifice of those dead is marked and honored, but nothing shows where fellow Cubans, divided from their countrymen by Castro's revolution and compelled by events and their own sense of patriotic duty to take up arms, also died. To underscore the message of patriotic sacrifice by members of Castro's armed forces, and the "murder" of civilians, the Museo de Giron displays photographs and personal effects of many of the "heroes," including a pair of white high-heel shoes, torn by shrapnel, from a woman who died in Giron.

A large sign on the highway proclaims what they died for. Graphically, it introduces visitors to Playa Giron, site of "the first great defeat of Imperialism in Latin America." Another prominent sign, at the entrance to the Museo, points out that Giron was the scene of the "victory of socialism." The Museo itself does little to put a human face on the members of the 2506 Brigade. They are shown as a mass of captured men and portrayed in one exhibit collectively, not only as CIA "mercenaries," but also lumped into categories of "rich" supporters of former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, members of Batista's military and police forces, or in a few cases, as "assassins."

According to the Museo, which quotes Jose Ramon Fernandez, one of Castro's lieutenants at Giron, the 2506 Brigade lacked "ardor, courage, staunchness, boldness and will to win," while the defenders on the beach were patriots who had "acclaimed Fidel Castro" and his revolution and "convinced of the validity of their cause... took up arms on April 17, 1961 determined to confront and beat back the invaders." The museum reminded me that history is written by the victors, and to the victors go the spoils.

Displayed prominently in the Museo collection are captured documents and equipment, all of it labeled-like an M-41 "Walker Bulldog" tank (one of five brought ashore by the 2506 Brigade's LCUs)—as tools of "the yanquis and mercenaries." The Museo de Giron is in fact more a triumphant display of the enemy's weapons than a museum. Machine guns, mortars, pistols, and rifles all are laid out inside. Outside are the tank, a truck, one of the aluminum boats used by the 2506 Brigade to land on the beach, and the engine and pieces of a downed B-26. Displayed proudly at the museum in addition to the captured materials is one of Castro's Sea Fury aircraft used in the battle and an antiaircraft gun.

I examined the M-41 carefully. It is rusting, battle damaged, and decrepit, its paint faded. I could not help but compare this captured tank to another tank, displayed in Havana outside the Museo de la Revolucion. That vehicle, elevated on a concrete plinth, freshly painted and gleaming with a polished brass plaque, is the Soviet SAU-100 that Castro rode down to the beach at the Bay of Pigs. The plaque asserts that the tank, with Fidel Castro in it, made direct hits on the Houston , implying a more active role for him, perhaps, in the disabling of that vessel. In fact, by the time Castro arrived at the beach, the Houston was hard aground and out of the fight.

As I ended my tour of Giron, I was struck by how the beautiful beaches bear no traces of the three-day battle. Children play in waters and people sun on beaches where blood once flowed, little knowing or appreciating what actually happened there four decades earlier. I was reminded of how museums often can be little more than official mouthpieces of prevalent political philosophies or governments instead of objective centers of learning where artifacts are used to inspire reflection and debate. At Playa Giron, what I saw was just how clever a government can be, using a museum and a historic site to impress its citizens and visitors with its own political message—a message that would be contested hotly in the United States.

In this, however, I find that Cuba's government is not unlike others. At times, I have visited museums and historic sites in Europe, Canada, and the United States, where only one version of history or one perspective is presented, in some cases as the official word of the government. The important difference, not evident at Playa Giron, is that we wage battles of our own in North America over what messages museums portray and how we commemorate the past. That much is evident in the controversies and debate that continue to swirl around the Bay of Pigs, 40 years later, as we seek to understand better not only what happened, but why.

Mr. Delgado is the executive director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He is the former maritime historian for the U.S. National Park Service.

 

Mr. Delgado is director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and cohost of National Geographic International television's The Sea Hunters. He receives the 2003 Naval History Author of the Year award at the 130th Annual Meeting of the U.S. Naval Institute on 31 March 2004.

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