"Freedom is our goal!" roared commander Pepe San Roman to the men assembled before him 49 years ago this week. "Cuba is our cause! God is on our side! On to victory!"
Fifteen hundred men crowded before San Roman at their Central American training camps that day. The next day they'd embark for a port in Nicaragua, the following day for a landing site in Cuba named Bahia De Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). Their outfit was known as Brigada 2506, and at their commander's address the men (and boys, some as young as 16) erupted.
A scene of total bedlam unfolded. Hats flew. Men hugged. Men sang and cheered. Men wept. The hour of liberation was nigh -- and these men (all volunteers) were putting their lives on the line to see their dream fulfilled. Their dream was a Cuba free from the Soviet barbarism that tortured it, free from firing squads, torture chambers and the teeming Castroite Gulag.
The Brigada included men from every social strata and race in Cuba -- from sugar cane planters to sugar cane cutters, from aristocrats to their chauffeurs. But mostly the folks in between, as befit a nation with a larger middle class than most of Europe.
"They fought like Tigers," wrote a CIA officer who helped train these Cuban freedom-fighters. "But their fight was doomed before the first man hit the beach."
That CIA man, Grayston Lynch, knew something about fighting -- and about long odds. He carried scars from Omaha Beach, The Battle of the Bulge and Korea's Heartbreak Ridge. But in those battles, Lynch and his band of brothers could count on the support of their own chief executive.
At the Bay of Pigs, Lynch and his band of Cuban brothers learned -- first in speechless shock and finally in burning rage -- that their most powerful enemies were not Castro's Soviet-armed and led soldiers massing in Santa Clara, Cuba, but the Ivy League's Best and Brightest dithering in Washington.
Lynch trained, in his own words, ''brave boys most of whom had never before fired a shot in anger." Short on battle experience, yes, but they fairly burst with what Bonaparte and George Patton valued most in a soldier -- morale. They'd seen the face of Castro/Communism point-blank: stealing, lying, jailing, poisoning minds, murdering.
They'd heard the chilling "Fuego!"" as Castro and Che's firing squads murdered thousands of brave countrymen. More importantly, they heard the "Viva Cuba Libre!" from the bound and blindfolded patriots, right before the bullets ripped them apart. They set their jaws and resolved to smash this murderous barbarism that was ravaging their homeland. And they went at it with a vengeance.
When the smoke cleared and their ammo had been expended to the very last bullet, when a hundred of them lay dead and hundreds more wounded, after their very mortars and machine gun barrel had almost melted from their furious rates of fire, after three days of relentless battle, barely 1,400 of them -- without air support (from the U.S. Carriers just offshore) and without a single supporting shot by naval artillery (from U.S. cruisers and destroyers poised just offshore) -- had squared off against 41,000 Castro troops, his entire air force and squadrons of Soviet tanks. The Cuban freedom-fighters inflicted casualties of 30 to 1against their Soviet-armed and led enemies. But to hear Castro's echo chambers in the MSM, think-tanks and academia, Fidel was the plucky David and the betrayed invaders the bumbling Goliath!
No amount of heroism and pluck can offset those odds, however -- not without air cover. And tragically, 80 percent of the pre-invasion sorties by the freedom-fighter planes from Nicaragua -- the essential component of the plan to knock out Castro's air force on the ground as originally devised under the Eisenhower administration -- had been canceled at the last moment by JFK on the advice of his Best and Brightest. This was a Republican plan, after all, that had landed in their lap. And the New Frontiersmen suffered a guilty conscience about such "Yankee bullying."
"The liberal cannot strike wholeheartedly against the Communist," wrote early National Review columnist James Burnham, "for fear of wounding himself in the process." Here was perfect proof. (Interestingly, Vice President Nixon was the main booster for this early action to take out Castro. The man who saw through Alger Hiss also saw through Fidel Castro, and at a time the closet Stalinist was being lionized by both the U.S. media and even the U.S. State Dept.)
The canceled airstrikes made the Brigade's lumbering B-26s easy prey for Castro's jets and fast Sea-Furies -- and the troops and supplies below them were even easier prey. It was a turkey shoot for the Castroites.
But the unequal battle raged furiously on the tiny beachhead. CIA man Grayston Lynch, just offshore one of the landing ships, finally learned about the canceled air strikes and figured the freedom-fighters he'd trained and befriended were doomed. "If things get rough," he radioed Commander San Roman "we can come in and evacuate you."
"We will not be evacuated!" Pepe roared back to Lynch. "We came here to fight! We don't want evacuation! We want more ammo! We want PLANES! This ends here!" Repeated requests from the beachhead for air cover were transmitted to Washington -- to no avail.
"See, Latin American ‘street?’" Camelot was saying with wide eyes and a smug little grin, like Eddie Haskell in front of June Cleaver. "See, U.N.? As you can plainly see, we're not involved in this thing. We're not the imperialist bullies Castro claims."
This infantile and criminal idiocy had Adm. Arleigh Burke of the Joints Chief of Staff, who was transmitting the battlefield pleas, teetering on mutiny. Years before, Adm. Burke had sailed thousands of miles to smash his nation's enemies at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Now he was Chief of Naval Operations and was aghast as new enemies were being given a sanctuary 90 miles away!
The fighting admiral was livid. They say his face was beet red and his facial veins popping as he faced down his commander-in-chief that fateful night of April 18, 1961.
"Mr. President, TWO planes from the Essex! (the U.S. Carrier just offshore from the beachhead)" that's all those boys need, Mr. President. Let me ...!"
JFK was in white tails and a bow tie that evening, having just emerged from an elegant social gathering. "Burke," he replied. "We can't get involved in this."
"WE put those boys there, Mr. President!!" The fighting admiral exploded. "By God, we ARE involved!"
For the bow-tied, white-tailed and manicured New Frontiersmen the thing still boiled down to that all-important image problem. What would the Latin American street and the all-important U.N. think of the Yankee bullies?
A lot more than they ended up thinking of the "Yankee pansies and nincompoops," that's for sure.
While the Knights of Camelot mulled over their image problems, the men on the beachhead had problems of their own...
"MAYDAY! 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 -- to no avail. By the second day, nearly half of these almost suicidal brave Cuban exile 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 pampered Ivy Leaguers. They were Alabama Air Guard officers, men with archaic notions of loyalty and honor. They were watching the decimation. 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 tanks and infantry making for the Brigade. 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!" he 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 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 Essex pilots right over the edge. As JFK adjusted his bow tie in the mirror and Jackie picked lint off his tux, the men of 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 at the clanking, lumbering beast 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 troops were swarming in but he held his ground, firing furiously with his recoilless rifle for another hour until the Reds finally surrounded him and killed him with a shower of grenades.
By then the invaders sensed they'd been abandoned. Ammo was almost gone. Two days of shooting and reloading without sleep, food or water was taking its toll. Many were hallucinating. That's when Castro's unmolested Soviet Howitzers opened up, huge 122 mm ones, four batteries' worth. They pounded 2,000 rounds into the Brigada's ranks over a four-hour period. "It sounded like the end of the world," one recalled to your humble servant here.
"Rommel's crack Afrika Corps broke and ran under a similar bombardment," wrote Haynes Johnson. By now the invaders were dazed, delirious with fatigue, thirst and hunger, too deafened by the bombardment to even hear orders. So their commander had to scream.
"NO RETREAT!" roared Erneido Oliva, second in command of the freedom-fighters (a black Cuban, by the way, and today a retired major General in the U.S. Army Reserve. Just so you know, Congressional Black Caucus.) stood and bellowed to his dazed and horribly outnumbered men. "We stand and fight!" And so they did.
Right after the deadly shower of Soviet shells, more Soviet tanks rumbled up. Another boy named Barberito rushed up to the first one and blasted it repeatedly with his recoilless rifle, which barely dented it, but so rattled the occupants that they opened the hatch and surrendered. In fact, they insisted on shaking hands with their young captor, who an hour later was felled by a machine gun burst to his valiant little heart.
These things went on for three days.
The Brigada's spent ammo inevitably forced a retreat. Castro's jets and Sea Furies were roaming overhead at will and tens of thousands of his Soviet-lavished troops were closing in. The Castro planes now concentrated on strafing the helpless, ammo-less freedom-fighters men.
"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 ...How can you people do this to us?" The radio went dead.
"Tears flooded my eyes," writes Grayston Lynch. "For the first time in my 37 years I was ashamed of my country."
"We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty!" proclaimed Lynch's Commander-in-Chief just three months earlier. The words were actually speechwriter Ted Sorensen's, later an Obama campaign consultant.