Victory at the Bay of Pigs
Diary of Girón
In mid-April 1961, organized into militia units, the Rebel Army and the police, the people brought down like a sandcastle the long- and carefully-prepared Operation Pluto, with which the United States hoped to wipe the Cuban Revolution and its example off the face of the continent.
Some 1,500 CIA-trained men, equipped with the most modern weapons utilized by the U.S. Army and with extensive aerial coverage, were defeated in combat in just 72 hours on the sands of Playa Girón, the first great military defeat of the United States in Latin America.
The defeat of the invasion eliminated the possibility of direct intervention by the United States and prevented Cuba’s victory from being incomparably more costly. An end to the myth of the great power’s invincibility had begun. From then on, many things began to change in the world.
The moon, in its fourth quarter, was invisible at nightfall. A soft breeze blew in from the north at 15 to 25 miles per hour. The night was cool when militia member Mariano Mustelier and literacy teacher Valerio Rodríguez saw a light approaching over the ocean waves in the darkness. It was a ship that was sending signals.
They moved the jeep they were manning until it faced the boat that was signaling, and signaled back.
The time was just after midnight, April 17, on Playa Girón (Girón beach).
It was the ship Blagar, one of seven navigated by more than 1,500 men financed, trained and led by the CIA to invade Cuba. There was also a group of combat frogmen, led by officers of the U.S. Army and other U.S. agencies.
From the ship, they began firing on the jeep. Mustelier responded with his FAL rifle. The shots wounded the 13-year-old literacy teacher, who had been teaching local residents how to read and write. Mustelier took him to a small militia encampment and then returned with five men. Cannon fire began to come from the ship as the frogmen who had disembarked ordered them to surrender.
"Patria o muerte (Homeland or death)!" was the firm response they had learned from Fidel.
Those simple words symbolized what awaited the invaders.
The shrapnel wounded two of the brave defenders. Another was sent to the Covadonga sugar mill to sound the alarm, and a fourth went to a radio station to communicate with Santa Clara and report the landing.
A squadron attached to Battalion 330 of the National Revolutionary Militias of Cienfuegos had been situated to protect the location on Playa Larga, at the central interior point of the Bay of Pigs about 31 kilometers from Playa Girón on the right-hand entry into the bay coming from the south. At midnight, the squad’s five men saw the flashes of the gunfight on Playa Girón. At 2:00 a.m., a small boat approached. The order to halt was answered with rifle and machine-gun fire. Combat began immediately, and squadron leader Ramón González Suco radioed the Australia sugar mill complex.
Together with their leader, García Garriga, Hernández, Jaramillo and Quintana fought until their ammunition ran out. At 2:45 a.m., they retreated after informing the mill complex.
The Larga and Buenaventura beaches were also fired on from the ships Houston and Barbara J. On the latter, a Navy boat responded with fire from the dock.
As soon as Captain Cordero, head of battalion 339, comprised of 528 workers and students from the city of Cienfuegos, received the report at the Australia sugar mill complex, he informed Havana. On the orders of the commander-in-chief, he left for Girón at 2:30 a.m., a 68-kilometer journey. By then, from the small boats with skull-and-crossbones painted on their sides, invaders carrying M-3s and other weapons had landed at three points of the Bay: Playa Girón, Playa Larga and Hornos.
The militia members who fought back during the initial moments had been sent there the day before when, during a tour of the area, Commander Juan Almeida, chief of the armed forces in central Cuba (in the east, it was Commander Raúl Castro, and in the west, Commander Che Guevara), noted the communication difficulties in the zone and dispatched a company to it.
At the first landing point, Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro received the information and confirmed that a landing was underway, backed up with heavy weapons.
Fidel later commented that the imperialists had only analyzed the landing area from a military point of view, without being interested in the fact that in Ciénaga de Zapata, the local population had been "redeemed from the worst misery, the worst isolation."
In a place where even dogs used to die of hunger, where men came to buy sacks of charcoal for 80 cents, people were now earning eight to 12 pesos daily. Roads and tourist centers had been built.
Moreover, 200 literacy campaign volunteers had been sent to the area, and 300 campesino children were going to school in Havana.
The Revolution had accomplished so much in the area that when one of the invaders, José Manuel Gutiérrez, found out on the way from Nicaragua to Cuba that they were going to the Ciénaga de Zapata, and knowing what was taking place there, commented: "It’s all over! Because if there’s anywhere that the government has influence..."
Gutiérrez was one of the men who landed on Playa Larga and heard the militia members yell "Patria o muerte! Viva Fidel Castro!"
Along with infantry battalions, the invaders unloaded battalions of heavy motorized cannons and a tank company, and a battalion of paratroopers landed at dawn.
The militia battalion from Cienfuegos, with light weapons, clashed with the invaders at dawn. After the decision to move the 339, Fidel ordered Captain José R. Fernández, with the battalion of militia chiefs, to go from Matanzas to Jovellanos, and another battalion from Matanzas to advance. He directed Battalion 117 from Las Villas to move toward Yaguaramas and Covadonga.
The invading paratroopers were launched on the rearguard of Battalion 339 from Cienfuegos and the rearguard of the Las Villas battalion.
The Commander-in-Chief ordered the revolutionary air forces to attack.
At 5:00 a.m., only three planes had been activated. The Air Force was suffering from a lack of spare parts because of the blockade. In addition, 11 planes, of various types, had been rendered useless after the bombings of air bases two days earlier, on April 15, by planes bearing the insignia of the revolutionary Air Force in order to cause confusion and surprise.
Fidel telephoned and asked for pilot Enrique Carreras. "You have to sink those ships for me!" was the order.
Captain Carreras left in a Sea Fury, followed by Bourzac. Silva Tablada was in the third plane, a B-26.
From the air, Carreras saw the impressive spectacle of the seven or eight ships, and "an undetermined number of small boats and landing craft in full activity."
He noted that one of the large ships was sailing into the bay, followed by a war frigate. It was full of troops and war material. Light from the tracers and explosions from missiles fired from the ships attempted to block his path as he dove down against them. Carreras was the first to fire his rockets on the Houston.
Bourzac and Silva also hit the ship. The first vessel was out of combat. The war frigate escorting it fled when it saw that it was lost.
During his second flight, Carreras fired his rockets at the Río Escondido ship, destroying a good part of the mercenaries’ supplies. Before returning, Carreras shot down a B-26, but either it or the enemy anti-aircraft fire hit his engine, making his return to base difficult.
By the end of the first day, the Revolutionary Air Force had sunk four ships and shot down five enemy planes.
In the morning, Fidel had gone to the front lines. At the Australia sugar mill complex, he laid out the strategy to be followed to a group of officers and gave the order to carry it out.
Combat continued uninterruptedly for the entire day.
The revolutionary government issued a communiqué that day announcing the landing, which ended by saying:
"Onward, people of Cuba, because the Revolution is invincible, and all enemies of her and the heroic people who defend her will be smashed!
"Let us shout out now, with more zeal and firmness than ever before, when Cubans are already sacrificing themselves in combat:
"¡VIVA CUBA LIBRE! ¡PATRIA O MUERTE! ¡VENCEREMOSI"
Fidel Castro Ruz
Commander-in-Chief and Prime Minister of the Revolutionary Government
On the second day of battle, dawn saw an offensive by our tanks in the direction of Playa Larga itself, backed by anti-aircraft fire. The night before, a good part of those forces could not be used because of enemy planes.
Alongside the militia battalions who initiated active defense with the goal of clearing out the invaders –the forces from Cienfuegos, Matanzas, Las Villas and the one made up of militia chiefs– Fidel mobilized Columns One and Two of the Rebel Army, a tank company, anti-tank batteries, four 122-mortar batteries, and the First Police battalion.
But the enemy was dominating the air with its B-26 planes, and the batteries stopped at determined locations to wait for nightfall before moving on, given that the revolutionary planes were being used to destroy ships, and could not provide protection to the land forces that were advancing along vulnerable roads.
The battalion of militia chiefs was protected by two planes when it crossed Matanzas on its way there.
The 11 men defending the Covadonga sugar mill complex received orders to keep resisting until reinforcements arrived, and that’s what they did; the same situation occurred at the Australia mill.
The most important outcome of the first day was the incredible feat by the Revolutionary Air Force. With an extremely small number of planes (one-third of the enemy’s) and 10 pilots, without relief or replacement and no spare parts, they sunk half of the enemy’s naval forces, shot down five planes and provided air protection to the infantry so that it could hold the beachhead on the west side of the Ciénaga.
The militia battalion spent the night of April 17 attacking Playa Larga from the highway, since it was the only way to cross the swamps. The advance was heroic, given that enemy aircraft constantly raked their way. But by nightfall the anti-aircraft guns and tanks arrived.
At 12:00 p.m. the anti-aircraft artillery of Battalion 122 began attacking Playa Larga and by dawn the tanks had reached the edge of the beach.
At dawn, Battalion 111, which was in the Australia center, was also ordered to advance to Cayo Ramona, which was under enemy control, and locate itself in the rearguard. One battalion would go around Buenaventura to take Playa Larga.
In addition, Fidel ordered other troop movements: a company of tanks to Yaguaramas so that they would be there by the night of April 18; four batteries of Artillery Force 122 to Covadonga; a company of heavy tanks, as a reserve to Yaguaramas; another tank company to be used on the morning of the 19 and a special combat column and a police battalion, which entered through Australia-Girón.
The invaders perceived the battle in the following way: "When night fell (on the 17), Fidel’s tanks began to arrive. Then everyone one looked at each other and said: But, what’s going on here, where are the militias that were going to meet us here?... the next day they sent us to cover the retreat from Playa Girón, so that everyone could leave, and they sent us in behind..."
One of the invading paratroopers, Antonio Fernández Alvarez, narrated what happened on the enemy’s side the morning of the 18.
"Around 7:00-7:10 a.m. the same militia that had attacked the first advance began to attack again, but this time with mortars, the famous 120 mortars, and when these hit our first trenches and wounded many of our comrades, Alejandro del Valle (chief of the paratroopers) ordered a retreat to another place called Dos Vías, or that we called Dos Vías, I don’t know what its real name might be; there was a tiny hamlet there at the crossroads.
"The troops went back to take possession of the trenches again and to wait for the enemy, but this time they were already calling for another relief battalion, because people were already getting discontented. Because they said that the troops were going to relieved, that the fighting was not going to be continuous, that they weren’t going to fight... They sent another battalion to that Dos Vías place and there was more combat there; again we were pushed back by artillery, by now everyone was retreating to the beach..."
Meanwhile, in Havana and other locations in the country, the State Security agencies, efficiently assisted by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), detained bands that they had been following and made preventative arrests of people suspected of being potential enemy collaborators.
On April 15, the capture of a band in Pinar del Río, directed by U.S. American Howard Frederick Anderson, owner of the Coney Island amusement park located on Mariano beach, was announced.
The band, made up of 15 people, had eight tons of arms cached in a place known as Las Furnias, in Pinar del Río.
Anderson was a CIA agent who put the band, led by Joaquín del Cueto, a former lieutenant in Batista’s army, in contact with a U.S. embassy official and CIA agent known as Mr. Avignon who, before the breaking off of relations, was one of those directing internal subversive activities.
The meeting place was a store located at 70 and 29-F, Mariano.
The eight tons of arms had been received on February 22, 1961, brought from the United States by a U.S. boat to the Pinar del Río coast. The military equipment included 40 cases of rifles; 12 cases of automatic rifles; 18 cases of Thompson machine guns; 18 cases of 30-caliber machine guns; 5 cases of bazookas and 5 mortars; one box of plastic dynamite, etcetera.
On April 17 the CDR detained the priest Eduardo Boza Masvidal, a known counterrevolutionary leader, who had stashed a large volume of propaganda and medicine in La Caridad church, which he distributed.
International solidarity, for its part, spread around the world. Two eloquent expressions of that are [indeed] eloquent ones: General Lázaro Cárdenas, former president of Mexico, prepared the means to come to Cuba and fight alongside the Cuban people, provoking a great impact when Cuban Foreign Minister Raúl Roa announced this news in the UN General Assembly.
And from the distant Soviet country which, at that time, had much impressed the world with the heroic feats of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, thus making the Soviet Union’s rockets even more respectable, the government sent a message to the U.S. government expressing the indignation of its people and warning: "There should be no confusion in relation to our position: we will lend the Cuban people and its government all the assistance necessary to repel the armed aggression of Cuba."
In the morning of the 19, the third day of the invasion, the revolutionary forces began to attack Playa Girón with artillery, tanks and infantry. Other troops with the same arms were fighting to take San Blas and succeeded between 9:30 a.m. and 10:00 a.m.
After that came an extensive artillery preparation against enemy positions in Girón.
At 2:40 p.m., when the Cuban forces were two-and-a-half kilometers from Girón, two U.S. Navy destroyers that had escorted the invading fleet from Nicaragua to Cuba came into view.
In 10 minutes, an extraordinary number of barges, motorboats and other vessels set off from the destroyers and headed for the shore. Captain Fernández, who was leading of the Cuban troops there, thought that it was another landing and ordered his troops to fire. Some of the vessels turned back.
A Cuban airplane arrived and fired on the barges and boats. Those heading for the shore had to retreat to the destroyers.
Later, one of the prisoners, the son of José Miró Cardona, stated that he was still fighting in Girón when he suddenly realized that the leadership of the invaders had left. That immediately caused the complete disintegration of the troops. The U.S. Navy destroyers were attempting to evacuate San Román and others, but failed.
The U.S. president had been pressured by the CIA, the Miró Cardona's and Tony Varona, to directly intervene with the U.S. armed forces. Aware of the tremendous consequences that would entail, Kennedy decided not to authorize it. Instead he permitted U.S. naval units to evacuate the mercenaries.
Hours earlier, he had also authorized protection for the last B-26 air strike, using reaction craft from the Essex aircraft carrier, which was nearby escorting the invading force.
The U.S. Navy planes arrived poorly coordinated after the incursion of the B-26. That day a further five enemy planes were shot down bringing the figure to 10. Four of these last pilots were U.S. Americans under CIA contract, since those of Cuban origin refused to continue. One of them was Leo Francis Baker of Boston. The U.S. government began to send a check for $245 to the four widows every two weeks.
In total, 12 enemy B-26 planes were downed.
In Playa Girón, the last mercenary resistance was undertaken by two tanks. Being left with no leadership, they surrendered.
Fidel ordered the organization of a cordon to capture enemy troops who had escaped and the survivors of the sunken boats. One of them, Ulises Carbó, son of the former owner of the Havana Prensa Libre daily, was aboard the Houston when it sunk. Like many others of that battalion unable to land due to the aim and bravery of the revolutionary air fleet, he swam to the shore and hid out for days before turning himself over to the militias.
Meanwhile, members of the brand-new Congress, the front for the invasion, had been closeted in an abandoned air base in Opa-Locka, Florida.
Arthur M. Schlesinger went there to visit them on Kennedy’s orders. He was met by a CIA official known as Frank Bender, of German origin, and Schlesinger’s account is a great tragicomedy:
"They took us with evident stealth in a car parked nearby. We traveled for a while: later we parked in front of a hamburger stand where we switched cars. One was beginning to feel like a character in a Hitchcock movie. Then we resumed our trip for miles and miles of sterile Florida landscape. Finally we arrived at the Opa-Locka airbase... we stopped a few yards from a strange and indescribable timber-frame house, located in the farthest reaches of the base. The grounds were patrolled by young American GIs with revolvers visible in their holsters..."
In the meeting, Varona accused the CIA and it was he who most vehemently demanded the intervention of U.S. Navy planes and infantry. He was the embodiment of a traitor to his country.
Schlesinger brought them to Washington to meet with Kennedy.
"After listening to Kennedy they were much more submissive in the morning," wrote Schlesinger in his book A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.
However, on that day, the 19, the battle had already been decided.
The balance of the invasion was: 89 invaders dead and 1,197 taken prisoner. The revolutionary armed forces lost 157 men.
The Cuban forces dealt a crushing defeat to the enemy in less than 72 hours. The dreams of the CIA turned to dust.
The CIA headquarters in Washington sent a cable to its stations around the world on April 19, instructing them to treat the invasion as if it were a supply mission to the rebels in the Escambray mountains.
The cable was intended to cover up the first defeat of U.S. imperialism, by stating that the supply operation had been a success. It was simply ridiculous.
In a televised statement after his capture, José Manuel Gutiérrez, one of the members of the invasion’s 2506 Brigade, perhaps without meaning to, demonstrated one fundamental difference among many between those who came to assault Cuba at the behest of a foreign power and those who defended it.
"The other morning a jeep passed shooting and saying: ‘Surrender, surrender;’ a little later a group of us came out and turned ourselves over; it was Fidel in that jeep, and I said to someone: ‘That’s why we lost, because Fidel is with them, fighting on the frontline and those who were with us, those who embarked us and left us stranded, went off afterwards.'"
(Revised excerpt from the book Diario de Girón [Girón Diary], Editora Política, 1984. The author is editor of Granma International.)