“Where are the planes?” kept crackling over U.S. Navy radios 50 years ago. The U.S. Naval armada (22 ships including the Carrier Essex loaded with deadly Skyhawk jets) was sitting 16 miles off the Cuban coast near an inlet known as Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs.) The question—bellowed between blasts from a Soviet artillery and tank barrage landing around him--came from commander, Pepe San Roman, who led an amphibious force of 1500 Cuban freedom-fighters.
“Send planes or we can’t last!” San Roman kept pleading to the very fleet that escorted his men to the beachhead (and sat much closer to them than the Sixth Fleet sits to the Libyan coast today). Meanwhile the barrage intensified, the Soviet T-34 and Stalin tanks closed in, and San Roman’s casualties pile up.
"If things get rough," the heartsick CIA man Grayston Lynch, a multi-decorated WWII and Korea vet, radioed back, "we can come in and evacuate you."
"We will NOT be evacuated!" Pepe roared back to his friend Lynch. "We came here to fight! We don't want evacuation! We want more ammo! We want PLANES! This ends here!" Lynch kept sending the requests Washington-ward with all of San Roman’s urgency.
Along with the Bay of Pigs freedom fighters, Castro faced 179 bands of “bandits” (Che Guevara’s term for the tens of thousands of Cubans fighting his dutiful Stalinization of Cuba that year, a rebel force probably greater than Gadaffi faces today -- and with goals much clearer). But San Roman’s and Lynch’s urgency to Washington was futile.
Camelot’s criminal idiocy finally brought Adm. Arleigh Burke of the Joints Chief of Staff, who was receiving the battlefield pleas, to the brink of mutiny. Years before, Adm. Burke sailed thousands of miles to smash his nation's enemies at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Now he was Chief of Naval Operations and stood 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 Cuban boys need, Mr. President. Let me order...!"
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 Cuban boys there, Mr. President!" The fighting admiral exploded. "By God, we ARE involved!" While the Knights of Camelot mulled over their image problems, the men on the beachhead had problems of their own..."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.
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."