"MAY-DAY! MAYDAY! Have Castro jet on my tail! Request ... I repeat! -- Request ...!"
"Sorry," replied the Essex. "Our orders are ..." The Cuban freedom-fighter pilot didn't hear the rest of his death sentence. An explosion and his radio went dead. These messages went on and on, hour after hour, from different pilots in their lumbering B-26s-- to no avail. By the second day, nearly half of these almost suicidaly brave freedom-fighter pilots had met a fiery death from Castro's jets.
This was too much for their enraged and heartsick American trainers at the base in Nicaragua. Four of them suited up, gunned the engines and joined the fight. These weren't Ivy Leaguers. They were Alabama Air Guard officers, men with archaic notions of loyalty and honor. They were watching the decimation of lumbering U.S. B-26’s against Castro’s jets. They knew the odds. They went anyway.
All four died on that first mission. All four (Pete Ray, Riley Shamburger, Leo Barker, and Wade Grey) have their names in a place of honor alongside their fallen Cuban comrades on The Bay of Pigs Memorial, plus streets named after them in Miami's Little Havana, plus their crosses at Miami's Cuban Memorial cemetery.
Finally JFK relented and allowed some Skyhawk jets to take-off from the Essex. One of these pilots quickly spotted a long column of Castro’ Russian tanks and trucks making for the freedom-fighters. The Soviet tanks and trucks were sitting ducks. "AHA!" he thought. "Now we'll turn this thing around!" The pilot started his dive...
"Permission to engage denied," came the answer from his commander.
"This is CRAZY!" the Navy pilot bellowed back. "Those guys are getting the hell shot out of them down there! I can SEE it!!" Turned out, JFK had allowed them to fly and look -- but not to shoot! Some of these Navy pilots (no tear-squeezers for camera-ops, heaven knows!) admit to sobbing openly in their cockpits. They were still choked up when they landed on the Essex. Now they slammed their helmets on the deck, kicked the bulkheads and broke down completely.
"I wanted to resign from the Navy," said Capt. Robert Crutchfield, the decorated naval officer who commanded the destroyer fleet off the beachhead. He'd had to relay Washington's replies to those pilots.
A close-up glimpse of the heroism on that beachhead might have sent those Skyhawk pilots right over the edge. As JFK adjusted his bow tie in the mirror and Jackie picked lint off his tux, the men of freedom-fighting Brigada 2506 faced a few adjustments of their own. To quote Haynes Johnson, "It was a battle when heroes were made." And how! We call them "men," but Brigadista Felipe Rodon was 16 years old when he grabbed his 57 mm cannon and ran to face one of Castro's Stalin tanks point-blank. At 10 yards he fired and it exploded, but the momentum kept it going and it rolled over little Felipe.
Gilberto Hernandez was 17 when a round from a Czech burp gun put out his eye. Castro’s Soviet-led troops were swarming in but he held his ground, firing furiously with his recoilless rifle for another hour until the Stalinists finally surrounded him and killed him with a shower of grenades.
The freedom-fighters’ spent ammo inevitably forced a retreat. Castro's jets and Sea Furies were roaming overhead at will and tens of thousands of his Soviet-led and armed troops and armor were closing in. The Castro planes now concentrated on strafing the helpless, ammo-less freedom-fighters.
"Can't continue,” Lynch's radio crackled - it was San Roman again. "Have nothing left to fight with ...out of ammo...Russian tanks in view....destroying my equipment.”
"Tears flooded my eyes," wrote Grayston Lynch. "For the first time in my 37 years I was ashamed of my country."
Humberto Fontova holds an M.A. in Latin American Studies from Tulane University and is the author of four books including his latest, The Longest Romance; The Mainstream Media and Fidel Castro. For more information and for video clips of his Television and college speaking appearances please visit www.hfontova.com.