They Fought Like Tigers
Recounting the heroism of Cuba's fallen and forgotten freedom-fighters.
“They fought like tigers,” writes the CIA officer who helped train the Cubans who splashed ashore at the Bay of Pigs 49 years ago this week. “But their fight was doomed before the first man hit the beach.”
That CIA man, Grayston Lynch, knows something about fighting – and about long odds. He carries 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, Grayston Lynch (an American) and his band of brothers (Cubans) learned — first in speechless shock and finally in burning rage — that their most powerful enemies were not Castro’s Soviet-armed soldiers massing in Santa Clara, Cuba, but the Ivy League’s best and brightest dithering in Washington.
Grayston Lynch put it on the line for the U.S. Constitution unlike many living today. I’d say he’s earned the right to indulge in a little “freedom of speech.”
So when he wrote, “Never have I been so ashamed of my country” about the bloody and shameful events 49 years ago this month at the Bay of Pigs, I’d say we owe him a respectful audience.
In his own words, Lynch helped train, “brave boys, most of whom had never before fired a shot in anger” — college students, farmers, doctors, common laborers, whites, blacks, mulattoes. 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, this included the folks in between as befits a nation with a larger middle class than most of Europe.
They were known as La Brigada 2506. An almost precise cross-section of Cuban society of the time. Short on battle experience, yes, but bursting with what Bonaparte and George Patton valued most in a soldier — morale. No navel-gazing about “why they hate us.” They’d seen the face of Castro/communism point-blank. And that’s all it takes.
They set their jaws and resolved to smash the murderous barbarism that was ravaging their homeland. They went at it with a vengeance. These “brave boys” fought till the last round, without food or water, and inflicted losses of almost 30-to-1 against their Soviet-led and arm-lavished enemy.
Castro defectors, some the very doctors who attended the casualties, say the invading freedom-fighters inflicted over 3,500 casualties on their Stalinist enemy. Castro and Che were jittery for a while, urging caution in the counterattack. From the lethal fury of the attack and the horrendous casualties their troops and militia were taking, the Stalinist leaders assumed they faced at least “20,000 invading mercenaries,” as they called them.
Yet, it was a band of mostly civilian volunteers they outnumbered 20-to-1, led by the heroic Erneido Oliva. (A black Cuban, by the way, Congressional Black Caucus.) A high percentage of these men had wives and children. But to hear Castro’s echo chamber (the mainstream and academia) Fidel was the plucky David and the invaders the bumbling Goliath!
The invaders themselves suffered 100 dead. Four were American pilot “advisers” who defied direct orders to abandon the men they’d trained and befriended. “Nuts!” they barked — but at their own commander in chief. These U.S. volunteers — Pete Ray, Riley Shamburger, Leo Barker, and Wade Grey — suited up, gunned the engines, and joined the fight. These were Southern boys, not pampered Ivy Leaguers, so there was no navel-gazing. They had archaic notions of right and wrong, of honor and loyalty, of whom America’s enemies really are. Their Cuban brothers were being slaughtered on that heroic beachhead. Knowing their lumbering B-26s were sitting ducks for Castro’s unmolested jets and Sea Furies, all four Alabama air guard volunteers flew over the doomed beachhead to lend support to their betrayed brothers in arms.
All four Americans were shot down. All four have their names in a place of honor next to their Cuban comrades on The Bay of Pigs Memorial, plus streets named after them in Miami’s Little Havana and their crosses at Miami’s Cuban Memorial cemetery.
When Doug MacArthur waded ashore on Leyte, he grabbed a radio: “People of the Philippines: I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God our forces stand again on Philippine soil — soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples.”
Cuban soil was similarly consecrated.
To quote author Haynes Johnson, “The Bay of Pigs was a battle where heroes were made.” And how! We call them “men,” but Brigadista Felipe Rondon 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’s 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 shooting and reloading without sleep, food, or water was taking its toll. Many were hallucinating. That’s when Castro opened up four batteries’ worth 122 mm Soviet howitzers. They pounded 2,000 rounds into the invaders’ ranks over a four-hour period. “It sounded like the end of the world,” one said later.
“Rommel’s crack Afrika Corps broke and ran under a similar bombardment,” wrote Haynes Johnson. By now the invaders were dazed and delirious with fatigue, thirst and hunger; too deafened by the bombardment to even hear orders. So their commander had to scream.
“No retreat, Carajo!” Oliva stood and bellowed to his dazed and horribly outnumbered men. “We stand and fight!” And so they did, and wrote as glorious a chapter in military history and the annals of freedom as any you’d care to read.
Right after the deadly shower of Soviet shells, more Stalin tanks rumbled up. Another boy named Barberito rushed up to the first one and blasted it repeatedly with his recoil-less rifle. It barely dented it, but so rattled the occupants that they opened the hatch and surrendered. In fact, they insisted on shaking hands with their pubescent captor who, an hour later, was felled by a machine-gun burst to his valiant little heart.
On another front, Lynch, from his command post offshore, was talking with Cmdr. Pepe San Roman. Lynch had just learned how the Knights of Camelot (for dread of name-calling by the Latin-American “Street” as “yankee-bullies!”) had canceled the vital air strikes to knock out Castro’s Air-force, and figured the men were doomed. “If things are really rough,” he told Pepe, “we can come in and evacuate you.”
“We will not be evacuated!” Pepe barked back. “We came here to fight! This ends here!” The communists had almost 50,000 men around the beachhead now. But Oliva had one tank manned by Jorge Alvarez, and two rounds. Jorge aimed — Blam! Reloaded — Blam! — and quickly knocked out two of Castro’s Stalins. But more Stalins and T-34’s kept coming. So Alvarez — outgunned, outnumbered and out of ammo — finally had no choice: He gunned his tank to a horrendous clattering whine and charged! He rammed into another Stalin tank. Its driver was stunned, frantic. He couldn’t get a half-second to aim his gun. So Alvarez rammed him again. And again. And again, finally splitting the Stalin’s barrel and forcing its surrender.
The Brigada’s spent ammo inevitably forced a retreat. Castro’s jets were roaming overhead at will. They long ago had sunk the ammo ships; now they concentrated on strafing the helpless men.
“Can’t continue …” Lynch’s radio crackled – it was San Roman again. “Have nothing left to fight with … destroying my equipment …” The radio went dead.
“Tears flooded my eyes,” wrote Grayston Lynch. “For the first time in my 37 years I was ashamed of my country.”
The battle was over in three days, but the heroism was not.
Now came almost two years in Castro’s dungeons for the captured Brigada, complete with the physical and psychological torture that always comes with communist incarceration. On a visit to Miami during his presidential campaign, John McCain learned that he had shared torturers with his Cuban-American freedom-fighter hosts (Castro had sent several of his regime’s most promising sadists to North Vietnamese prison camps to instruct the Vietnamese reds in finer points of their profession.)
During almost two years in Castro’s dungeons, Oliva and his men lived under a daily death sentence. Escaping that sentence would have been easy: simply sign the little paper confessing they were “mercenaries of the Yankee imperialists” or go on camera and on record denouncing the U.S. Given these freedom-fighters betrayal, you might think the Castroites had a cakewalk here.
Hah! Neither Oliva nor any of his men signed the document. The freedom-fighters stood tall, proud, defiant, and solidly with their commander, even sparring with Castro himself during their televised Stalinist show trials. “We will die with dignity!” snapped Oliva at the furious Castroites again, and again, and again. To a Castroite, such an attitude not only enrages but also baffles.
“Wimps,” sneers Michael Moore in his book “Downsize This,” referring to Bay of Pigs veterans “really just a bunch of wimps. That’s right, wimps– and crybabies too….ex-Cubans with a yellow stripe down their backs.” Knowing that anti-yankee confessions would save them from Che Guevara’s firing squads and torture chambers, these freedom-fighters refused any association with the type of slogans Michael Moore shouts weekly for free publicity.