Bay of Pigs Invasion
The Bay of Pigs is the location on the southern coast of the island nation of Cuba that is now associated with a failed invasion that was part of a covert plan to overthrow the Cuban government. The military force composed of Cuban exiles was trained by American military units, including elements of the Arkansas Air National Guard.
During the Cuban Revolution, from 1953 until early 1959, fighting erupted and persisted between the government of President Fulgencio Batista and revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro and others. The war ended with a victory for the revolutionaries as Batista fled the country. Castro took the position of prime minister and began to nationalize various industries and redistribute the land.
Much of the island’s economic facilities at the time—including farmland, sugar factories, and casinos—were owned by Americans. The administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower placed an embargo on oil shipped to Cuba from the Soviet Union in 1960. This led to the Cuban nationalization of American-owned oil refineries on the island. The American government responded by placing an embargo on all goods imported to Cuba except food and medicine. Castro’s government responded by nationalizing all American businesses and much of the private property owned by American citizens and corporations.
The Eisenhower administration in 1960 approved a plan to support a paramilitary invasion of the island by Cuban exiles, with the goal of overthrowing Castro and establishing a non-communist government friendly to the United States. President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961 and continued the planning and training of the military force. Paramilitary troops for the invasion comprised Cubans living in the Miami, Florida, area. Early recruits were typically young men who formerly served in the Cuban military, but older men who were professionals in the Miami area began to join as the unit trained for the invasion. In addition to ground forces, a paratroop battalion and air support forces were organized. The entire organization became known as Brigade 2506.
In an effort to deceive Cuban intelligence and make the unit seem larger than it actually was, members used serial numbers that began at 2500. Number 2506 belonged to Carlos (Carlyle) Rafael Santana, who died during training, and the men of the unit selected the number in his honor.
Training was conducted in Guatemala and the Panama Canal Zone. Airstrips constructed near Retalhuleu, Guatemala, and Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, served as training locations for the air support units of the force. A total of 124 air guardsmen participated in the training, with about twenty-four guardsmen from Arkansas joining others from Alabama, Georgia, Washington DC, and California. (Various sources report different numbers of Arkansas guardsmen participating in the effort: a Central Intelligence Agency document declassified in 2011 puts the number of Arkansans at twenty-one, while a recording held by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library puts the number at eight officers—consisting of pilots, navigators, and planners—and sixteen groundcrew.) Joining the effort were contract pilots from the CIA. Major General George Reid Doster of the Alabama Air National Guard recruited men for the effort on behalf of the CIA. One source reported that an unnamed colonel in the Arkansas Air National Guard previously served in Cuba, training pilots for the air force before the revolution.
The guardsmen trained the Cubans how to operate Douglas B-26B bombers. These aircraft were extensively modified from their World War II configuration and became ground attack planes with the addition of machine guns in the nose and rockets under the wings. The planes used in the invasion were acquired from various sources, including from the Guatemalan military and from U.S. military stocks. At least one of the planes used in the invasion formerly served in the Arkansas Air National Guard, as several guardsmen recognized the aircraft after it was shot down during the engagement.
The invasion proved to be unsuccessful, with the exiles being quickly met by elements of the Cuban military during the initial assault on April 17, 1961. Over the next three days, the battle continued, with the Castro forces pushing the exiles back to the ocean. By April 20, the majority of the fighting ceased, with only a handful of exiles escaping capture. Some of the captured men were tried and executed or placed in prison, but the majority were released in December 1962 after the Cuban government received millions of dollars in food and medical aid.
No evidence exists that the Arkansas guardsmen participated in the invasion beyond training the Cuban pilots. The only American military members in the invasion were eight Alabama guardsmen who flew missions on April 19 when the original Cuban exile pilots were too exhausted to continue.
The role of the Arkansas guardsmen came to light in 1998 when taped telephone conversations recorded in 1963 between President Kennedy and various officials were released. The conversations gained widespread attention when digitized around 2012. In one recorded conversation, Kennedy relates that Governor Orval Faubus had made statements blaming him for putting Arkansas troops in the invasion at risk. Kennedy reportedly informed Faubus that the Arkansas guardsmen participated in the training effort but were not part of active combat operations. He concluded by stating that he wished the governor would “put the goddamn thing to rest.”
For additional information:
Bowden, Bill. “Files Link Arkansans to Role in Bay of Pigs,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 18, 2021, pp. 1A, 6A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/apr/18/files-link-arkansans-to-role-in-bay-of-pigs/ (accessed August 16, 2023).
———. “Kennedy Discusses Arkansas Guard.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 18, 2021, p. 6A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/apr/18/kennedy-discusses-arkansas-guard/ (accessed August 16, 2023).
Johnson, Haynes, et al. The Bay of Pigs: The Leaders’ Story of Brigade 2506. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1964.
Kornbluh, Peter, ed. Bay of Pigs Declassified: The Secret CIA Report on the Invasion of Cuba. New York: New Press, 1998.
Persons, Albert C. Bay of Pigs: A Firsthand Account of the Mission by a U.S. Pilot in Support of the Cuban Invasion Force in 1961. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1990.
Rasenberger, Jim. The Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. New York: Scribner, 2011.
Telephone Recordings: Dictation Belt 10A. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Massachusetts. Online at https://www.jfklibrary.org/asset-viewer/archives/JFKPOF/TPH/JFKPOF-TPH-10A/JFKPOF-TPH-10A (accessed August 16, 2023).
Wyden, Peter. Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.
Southeastern Louisiana University
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