Friday, January 27, 2006

Alabamians invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs

For many years, the corpse of an Alabamian named Pete Ray was on display in a Havana morgue, the most bizarre trophy in Fidel Castro's collection.

Today, Ray's body rests in his hometown of Birmingham, in Forest Hills Cemetery overlooking the airport. An Alabama Air National Guard pilot, Ray was shot down by Cuban forces April 19, 1961, during the disastrous CIA-backed invasion of Cuba at la Bahia de Cochina -- the Bay of Pigs.

Ray was one of 60 Alabama guardsmen, both pilots and technicians, sent to Guatemala and Nicaragua by the CIA to train the Cuban exiles who were to carry out the invasion. Why Alabama? Because the Alabama Air Guard was the last military unit in the country still flying the obsolete B-26, which the Cuban Air Force also flew. Sending in B-26's to provide air support during the invasion was intended as a psychological tactic; the CIA wanted to make the Cubans think their own Air Force had turned against them.

The Alabamians were supposed to be strictly support personnel, staying behind at the base in Nicaragua while Cuban exiles piloted the planes. But the invasion bogged down, and the Cuban pilots exhausted themselves flying back and forth between base and battlefield. Eight Alabamians eventually volunteered to fly the planes themselves -- knowing that if they were killed or captured, the U.S. government would deny any knowledge of their existence.

Of the eight, only four survived. One who didn't was Pete Ray; his plane was shot down, and though he survived the crash, he was executed by Fidel Castro's troops.

Ray's body was kept on ice in Havana for 18 years, as Castro's prime evidence that U.S. troops were indeed involved in the botched invasion. Dignitaries were trooped in to admire Ray's body and make sport of it.

Not until 1977 did the CIA admit the Alabamians' involvement and award posthumous medals to the four dead men. Not until 1979 did Castro return Ray's body to the United States for burial.

Many of the Alabamians who were part of the Bay of Pigs invasion are still alive. They may be the state's least known, least honored and, in some circles, most controversial veterans.

Their story is well told by Warren Trest and Don Dodd in the winter 2005 issue of Alabama Heritage magazine -- to which everyone interested in Alabamiana should subscribe -- and in the book Wings of Denial: The Alabama Air National Guard's Covert Role at the Bay of Pigs (New South Books, 2001).


Post a Comment

<< Home