Janet Ray Wineger was 6 years old and playing on the swings at her elementary school just outside Birmingham in 1961 when she first realized something happened to her dad, who was an Alabama National Guard pilot on a clandestine mission in Cuba.
Her home was across the street and she saw "a big shiny car pull up and three men in suits get out." It was an unusual sight. Most men in town worked in the steel and iron mills and only wore suits to church on Sundays.
She later learned the men worked for the federal government and told her mother that her father had been killed in a plane crash in Cuba. It would be years before she would learn he was one of the four Alabama guardsmen killed in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.
Thomas W. "Pete" Ray was shot down 50 years ago Tuesday while flying a B-26 bomber during the ill-fated effort by Cuban exiles to topple Cuba's communist dictator Fidel Castro.
Ray crash-landed his plane and was shot by Cuban soldiers in an orange grove two days after the invasion began. He was part of a group of Alabama guardsmen who trained the exiles at secret CIA bases in Nicaragua and Guatemala and provided air support for the invasion.
Ray's body would remain in a morgue in Havana for 18 years before Wineger was successful in her long campaign to get Castro to return the remains.
The permission to use forces from the Alabama Guard was given by then-Gov. John Patterson, who is now 89 and one of the few leaders of the operation who is still alive. As the 50th anniversary of the failed invasion approached, Patterson talked about Alabama's role in the Bay of Pigs invasion during an interview at his rustic home on a private lake in the isolated Goldville community about 50 miles northeast of Montgomery.
"The Bay of Pigs, what a sad thing," Patterson said.
Patterson became governor in 1959 when Dwight Eisenhower was still president. Patterson said the first he heard of a planned invasion of Cuba came when the commander of the Alabama Air National Guard, Brig. Gen. Reid Doster, and a CIA official came to visit him at the governor's mansion in Montgomery. They told him a brigade of Cuban exiles was being trained in Guatemala for an invasion "to overthrow Castro." Patterson said the plan was to use B-26 bombers to provide air support and for the Alabama Air Guard pilots and airmen to train the exiles to fly and maintain the planes.
Patterson wanted to know if Eisenhower was in on the plan. Patterson asked the CIA officer: "Does the old man know about this?"
"He said, 'Yes sir' and I said, 'Let's do it,'" Patterson said.
The mission involved about 90 to 100 volunteer Air Guardsmen from Alabama and some volunteers from the Arkansas Guard.
Patterson supported John F. Kennedy for president in 1960 and he met briefly with Kennedy once during the campaign at a hotel in Washington, but Kennedy hadn't been briefed on it at the time, Patterson said. But once he became president, Kennedy "inherited this thing down there," Patterson said.
Patterson's part in planning the Bay of Pigs invasion is told in the book "Wings of Denial" by Warren Trest and Donald Dodd. Trest and Patterson will make a presentation about the failed invasion on Tuesday at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery.
Patterson said everyone involved with the plan from top military and political leaders in Washington to Alabama Guard leaders thought the invasion "could not fail" and would cause anti-Castro Cubans to rise up and liberate Cuba. Now, 50 years later, Patterson shakes his head wondering why anyone expected to succeed by landing a brigade of under-trained exiles in the swampy terrain around the Bay of Pigs using World War II bombers for air support.
"I was green as grass myself," said Patterson, who was 39 when he became governor. He was propelled into the political spotlight five years earlier when his father, Albert Patterson, was shot to death after having won the nomination of attorney general on a promise to clean up crime in Phenix City.
"If I had known what I know now, I would have called the president and been awfully reluctant to get involved," Patterson said.
Wineger said for many years after she saw the men in suits approaching her house she devoted her life to finding out what happened to her father. She said it was frustrating that no one would tell her what happened.
She said she later learned that Castro had kept her father's body in a morgue in Havana so that he would have proof that the United States had been involved in the Bay of Pigs. Her persistence and letter writing to Cuban officials, paid off with the return of her father's body to Alabama in 1979.
Patterson said he later saw Kennedy when he went to the White House with other Southern governors for a bill-signing ceremony, but the involvement of the Alabama Guardsmen in the Bay of Pigs invasion remained a secret at the time.
Patterson said Kennedy quietly told him, "I hope I live long enough to do something for the families of those Alabama men killed at the Bay of Pigs and to help their families."
Alabama archives: http://www.archives.alabama.gov