[IWAR] CIA and the Bay of Pigs

Date: Mon Mar 16 1998 - 11:06:52 PST

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    LA Times Article from 15 March 1998
    Copyright LA Times
                                                       Sunday, March 15,
       COLUMN ONE 
       Bay of Pigs: the Secret Death of Pete Ray 
       The Alabama Air Guard pilot died during ill-fated Cuban invasion
       attempt. For years, the CIA hid his fate from his family. Havana,
       meanwhile, kept his body frozen. By MARK FINEMAN, DOLLY MASCARENAS,
       Special to The Times
       H AVANA--When Thomas "Pete" Ray's B-26 bomber was shot down by
       Cuban antiaircraft batteries near Playa Giron on April 19, 1961, he
       wasn't there.
            So said the CIA.
            And for decades, the U.S. government publicly denied that a
       top-secret squadron of civilians recruited from the Alabama Air
       National Guard ever existed, let alone was on a CIA mission to bomb
       Cuba in one of the agency's best-kept and most humiliating secrets.
       It was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, in which, officially, no
       Americans were involved.
            But Ray was there. The 30-year-old Center Point, Ala., pilot
       shot to death--pistol and knife in hand--by one of Fidel Castro's
       soldiers. They also killed his flight engineer, Leo Baker, after
       the two had bombed targets near Castro's field headquarters. Two
       other Alabamians also died when their plane was shot down during
       the invasion, which included napalm bombing by U.S. aircraft.
            They were on a mission that Col. Joe Shannon, one of the few
       surviving pilots from the group, recently recalled was "a
       last-ditch effort" that, through its very secrecy, would change the
       course of many lives for decades to come.
            Castro was so determined to prove the Americans were there
       he froze Ray's remains--for more than 18 years.
            For Ray's wife, mother and two children, those years were
       by silent confusion and fear, as the U.S. government knew, but
       refused to tell, the whereabouts of a man who had simply vanished
       from the face of the Earth.
            For the CIA, Ray's secret involved national security and
       To admit that the pilot was one of theirs was to concede the depth
       of the agency's involvement in a disastrous invasion that it
       insisted, until last year, was the work of dissidents within Cuba.
            And for the Cuban government, which spent thousands of dollars
       preserving Ray's remains, the case was both frustrating and
       mystifying: How could any government lie for so long to the family
       of a soldier? After all, it had announced to the world on the day
       Ray died that it had the body of an American pilot.
            In December 1979, after the Cubans learned of a personal
       by Ray's daughter, Janet Ray Weininger, to find his body--and after
       19 months of painstaking diplomacy with a U.S. government that
       still did not want to claim him as one of its own--the Cuban
       government returned the pilot's body to Alabama.
            The CIA still has not publicly admitted that it knew where his
       remains were all along. Just last month, however, the agency
       released a document confirming that U.S. pilots were, in fact, shot
       down over Cuba in 1961.
            And last week, in response to detailed inquiries about the Ray
       case from The Times, agency officials acknowledged publicly for the
       first time that the Alabama pilot was one of theirs.
            "Thomas 'Pete' Ray made heroic contributions to the CIA and to
       this country, serving with great distinction," CIA spokesman Bill
       Harlow said. "Given the passage of time and recent declassification
       of historic documents from this time period, his affiliation with
       the CIA can now be acknowledged publicly."
            Documents obtained by The Times from the Cuban government,
       combined with the recently declassified CIA memos, cables and
       confidential reports on the Bay of Pigs, solve much of this
       extraordinary Cold War mystery of the lost Alabamians. 
            Official Deception and Mutual Mistrust
            It is a story of official U.S. deception and of a mutual
       between the United States and the Communist government 90 miles off
       its shores--a regime the CIA has spent hundreds of millions of
       dollars trying to overthrow since Castro came to power in 1959.
            As for the men of the secret squadron, "these were vortex
       people--the most important people in the world for a few
       moments--and then the government just cuts the strings and cuts
       them loose to drift," said Thomas Bailey, Ray's cousin and an
       Alabama journalist. "You're the front line between communism and
       the free world. . . . Then, at the end, the government ignores you.
            "If there's a message beyond that, it's about government,
       human lives, about how lives are changed by one event. In some
       ways, these people were never the same again. Some better, some
       worse. But it marked that moment when we all, who believed in the
       government, began to lose faith in that government."
            Added Weininger, whose mother died years ago and whose Miami
       is filled with boxes of documents and photographs of her father:
       "If we had to go back and do it all over again, I just wish they
       would have told me the truth when it no longer needed to be a
            In its formal statement to The Times last week, the CIA also
       confirmed for the first time that Ray was posthumously awarded the
       CIA's highest honor for bravery--the Distinguished Intelligence
            "We plan to add his name to the book of honor which identifies
       individuals for whom a star has been inscribed in the marble facade
       of the foyer of the CIA headquarters building," spokesman Harlow
            Until now, Ray's star has been marked only by a number. 
            Cubans Call Costly Mission Humanitarian
            In opening Havana's archives on the Ray case to The Times last
       month, Cuban officials asserted in interviews that their government
       originally froze the pilot's body to prove U.S. involvement in the
       invasion but that the costly maintenance quickly became a
       humanitarian mission.
            "In our culture, we do not handle dead bodies insensitively,
       even our enemies, our worst enemies," Cmdr. Manuel Pineiro, a
       former intelligence chief better known as "Red Beard," said in his
       last interview before he died of a heart attack after a car crash
       in Cuba last week.
            "The only explanation that I have for keeping the body for so
       long was to return him to whoever claimed him, to his family," said
       Pineiro, who was venerated in the Cuban press after his death as
       "the CIA's nemesis" in Cuba.
            Pineiro and other Cubans interviewed expressed shock that the
       U.S. government could turn its back for so long on one of its own.
            "How does a country allow its own citizens--I refer to the
       families of these pilots--to live in doubt, not to know what
       happened to their loved ones?" he asked. "We told the world, the
       United Nations; we sent the list with the names we had. Why was it
       nobody answered?"
            Another senior Cuban official used a recent interview to
       Ray's daughter to Havana as a state guest for what he said would
       amount to emotional closure.
            But Weininger, 43, who has devoted her life to researching the
       case and who now participates in Cuban American exile events in
       Miami, politely declined.
            After decades of trying to find out the truth and finally
       retrieving her father's body with the help of two members of the
       U.S. Congress who pushed the case with the State Department, she
       said she has become suspicious of nearly everyone.
            "I don't want to go to Cuba and be involved in something
       to be used as a pawn between different political groups--there or
       here," she said. "I want to go to Cuba when it's a free country."
            Yet Weininger added that she harbors no animosity toward the
       Cubans for keeping her father all those years. Just the opposite:
       "I blame my government. My government did wrong. They led these men
       into harm's way and then turned [their] back on them."
            It is only within the past year that the CIA has admitted even
            In more than 1,000 pages of recently declassified documents on
       file at the National Security Archives in Washington, and in a
       State Department volume published last fall, the spy agency has
       come clean about its role and its failures in the Bay of Pigs
            The agency previously went to great lengths to keep the
       information secret. A document released last month, for example,
       was the sole surviving copy of CIA Inspector General Lyman
       Kirkpatrick's highly critical 150-page report, which had been kept
       in a CIA safe for 37 years.
            Those documents, combined with others provided by the Cuban
       government and interviews with witnesses and with relatives of
       those who died in the invasion, tell a story not only of CIA
       bungling but of bitter betrayal. 
            Recruits, Secret Bases and an Ill-Fated Plan
            The story begins about a year after Castro overthrew Cuba's
       U.S.-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and marched into Havana in
       January 1959. In a plan hatched under President Eisenhower and
       executed in the first months of John F. Kennedy's presidency, the
       CIA plotted every ill-fated step of an invasion that was meant to
       appear entirely the work of dissidents within Cuba and of mutinous
       Cuban military forces.
            The CIA recruited exile fighters from throughout the United
       States, set up clandestine training bases in the U.S., Guatemala
       and Nicaragua, and searched for planes that would match those in
       the Cuban air force--B-26 bombers that the agency could repaint and
       deploy to make it appear as if Castro's military had turned on him.
            The only B-26s the CIA could find in the United States were in
       the aging fleet at the Alabama Air National Guard in Birmingham.
       And there, the agency also found a more-than-willing co-conspirator
       in the local Air Guard commander, Maj. Gen. G. Reid Doster Jr., who
       hated Communists everywhere.
            In January 1961, the CIA picked Doster to recruit local pilots
       fly, along with Cuban exiles, the disguised B-26s during the
       invasion. Ray, an Alabama-born aircraft inspector at a Birmingham
       factory, was typical of Doster's unlikely Cold Warriors--weekend
       fliers who included the owner of a local pizza shop.
            Weininger remembers the day her father left home for the last
       time: Feb. 5, 1961. She was 6. None of the families of the dozen or
       so local pilots knew the men were heading to Nicaragua to prepare
       to bomb Cuba. The men's "cover story," Col. Shannon says, was that
       they were going to pilot training school.
            "My dad was just an average guy who loved to fly," Weininger
       said. "But he firmly believed in what he did. He had told his
       mother that if he dies flying, he'll die happy. But he also said
       that if we don't stop communism in Cuba, someday we might have to
       fight it in our own backyard."
            Shannon concurred. The Birmingham resident flew another B-26
       morning Ray was killed; Shannon escaped a Cuban fighter jet that
       shot down his best friend, Riley Shamburger, that day.
            "This was a last-ditch effort, a desperate mission to save the
       guys on the ground," recalled Shannon, now 76. "We weren't supposed
       to fly at all. We were told we wouldn't be able to fly even if we
       wanted to. But we were so close to the Cuban [exiles], their cause
       sort of became our cause. And in a last moment of desperation, they
       [the CIA] let us fly."
            The declassified CIA documents show that the final invasion
       did bar the U.S. pilots from joining in the bombing runs. But the
       exile pilots, who had been attacking Cuban airports and other
       targets for three days before the invasion collapsed on April 19,
       "were exhausted and dispirited," according to the documents.
            By the time Ray took off from the Nicaraguan base at 3:55 a.m.
       April 19 for the 700-mile flight to Cuba, the invasion already had
       failed. At the last minute, Kennedy canceled U.S. air cover in a
       further effort to deny Washington's role, and the 1,500 Cubans the
       CIA had sent to invade were being torn to pieces on the beachhead.
            Initially, the CIA blamed the lack of air cover for the
       invasion's failure, but the CIA inspector general's report blamed
       the CIA itself--its arrogance, poor planning and "almost willful
            A CIA telegram to its personnel in Nicaragua authorizing Ray
       his colleagues to attack Castro's forces that day foreshadowed the
       decades of mystery that would follow:
            "Cannot attach sufficient importance to fact that American
       must not fall into enemy hands. In event this happens, despite all
       precautions, crews must state [they are] hired mercenaries,
       fighting communism, etc.; U.S. will deny any knowledge."
            And that it did--despite Cuba's best efforts. 
            Jet Downed After Several Strafing Runs
            Cuban Gen. Oscar Fernandez Mell, who was in charge of field
       operations the morning Ray was killed, described in a recent
       interview how Ray's B-26 was shot down after it made several daring
       strafing runs.
            "The airplane fell in a cane field. We ran toward it. Then
       was an explosion and fire," he said. "I gave orders to recover
       everything inside the aircraft."
            But Ray and flight engineer Baker had already fled their
       Witnesses told Fernandez that the pair ran into a nearby cane
       field. Baker was found holding a grenade; a Cuban soldier shot him.
            Another soldier told Fernandez that he found Ray hiding in a
       nearby forest, wounded but alive and armed. The soldier said he
       killed Ray in self-defense.
            Foreign Minister Raul Roa made headlines worldwide later that
       when he announced to the U.N. Security Council that Cuba had the
       body of a U.S. pilot shot down during the invasion; "Proof of the
       Yankee Intervention," the daily Revolucion declared the following
            The United Nations never pursued the issue after the U.S.
       publicly denied its involvement.
            Baker, whose features appeared Latin, was buried along with
       unclaimed Cuban invaders soon after. But Ray, whose features did
       not, was sent to Havana's Institute of Forensic Medicine, where
       mortician Juan Menendez Tudela, now 75, recalls embalming him.
            Menendez says he placed the body in a freezer, where it
       at about 5 degrees below zero for 18 years and eight months.
            "I never questioned why he was there; there were orders about
       him, and that was enough for me," said Menendez, who cared for the
       body the entire time. "Of course, I knew he was an American pilot,
       but my orders were to take care of him, to watch over him."
            Cuban officials conceded that they did not know the identity
       the body until soon after they learned of Weininger's search for
       her father. That information came through diplomatic notes sent to
       Cuba's Foreign Ministry from the U.S. Interest Section,
       Washington's diplomatic mission in Havana, which opened in 1977, 16
       years after the United States broke off diplomatic relations with
       Castro and closed its embassy.
            The only identification found at Ray's crash site in 1961 was
       fake CIA documents for Baker.
            It wasn't until 1979 that Cuban and FBI officials positively
       identified Ray's body by matching it with fingerprints and dental
            The day after Ray's death, a Defense Department spokesman in
       Washington flatly denied rumors that the Alabama Air Guard had
       taken part in the attack. President Kennedy, under fire from U.S.
       allies and enemies alike, told reporters only: "I think that the
       facts of the matter involving Cuba will come out in due time."
            Though shattered and forever changed, the survivors of Ray's
       small group of Guardsmen quietly went home to Birmingham and kept
       Kennedy's secret--for decades. The word went around town that Ray
       and the others had died in a cargo plane crash in an unrelated
            "They were about as good of secret keepers as you'd want to
       have," said Bailey, the cousin who joined forces with Ray's
       daughter. "The community soaked them back up, and the community
       helped them keep their secret."
            Asked why, Bailey said: "First, you've got the South, the way
       are. . . . We're not always very forthcoming. Then, I think there's
       the issue that the government scared the crap out of these people.
            "The fear of God was just put in a lot of people here; the CIA
       came to the houses of every one of my grandmother's 11 kids and
       interviewed every one of them to see what they knew."
            Among the stories that made the rounds in the family but were
       never confirmed by the U.S. government, Bailey added, was that
       Ray's wife was told that she would be committed to a mental
       institution for life if she continued pressing to learn her
       husband's whereabouts.
            "But thirdly," Bailey said, "sometimes you handle the pain of
       something like this by just not talking about it." 
            Families Petition to Get Real Story
            In the late 1970s, Bailey and Weininger sent 100 questions to
       CIA under the Freedom of Information Act, asking it to explain
       Ray's fate.
            The agency never answered in writing. Instead, it sent two
       to meet them in Selma, Ala., in the spring of 1978. There, Bailey
       and Weininger recalled, the agents told the truth about Ray and
       handed over two medals and a citation posthumously awarding Ray the
       Distinguished Intelligence Cross.
            But when the agency did provide the posthumous award,
       said, "they told us not to mention anything about it to anyone."
            Even after Ray's body went home the next year to a funeral
       drew many of the Air Guard veterans, along with Cuban survivors and
       even one of the CIA agents who had briefed Bailey and Weininger,
       the CIA did not acknowledge publicly that Ray and the other men had
       ever served their country--until its statement to The Times last
            Weininger and Bailey say--and the CIA papers declassified last
       month confirm--that documents they have accumulated show that the
       agency set up a front company that paid each dead pilot's family a
       regular stipend and financed children's college
       educations--including Weininger's. Relatives were told that the
       money was from a Miami company--not the government.
            One of the CIA documents states that the fake company created
       settle "the legal and moral claims arising from these [airmen's]
       deaths has been costly, complicated and fraught with risk of
       disclosure of the government's role."
            The document adds: "In spite of the invasion failure, the
       of the American pilots has never gotten into print, although its
       sensational nature still makes this a possibility. In dealing with
       the surviving families, it has been necessary to conceal connection
       with the United States government."
            Clearly, however, the costs were not financial.
            As for her own life, Weininger said: "You can say it's an
       obsession, but to me it's an opportunity to look through somebody's
       window at a moment of history and then be able to share it with
            "Everybody has to confront pain in their own way. No one gets
       of it without scars, but the difference is how those scars heal."
            For Cuban officials, who say Castro's forces lost far more
       in the Bay of Pigs than did the invaders, the CIA's recent
       admissions are a vindication. But the case of Thomas "Pete" Ray,
       most say, remains one of sadness.
            "To me, dead people--even enemies--make me feel sad and
       said retired Lt. Col. Arnelio Loynaz, who was assigned to check on
       Ray's body in the mid-1970s.
            "I feel sorry for him, and for his family."
                                       * * *
            Times staff writer Fineman reported from Havana, Washington,
       Miami and Birmingham, Ala. Times researcher Mascarenas reported
       from Havana.
    Ann Rosenthal, Ph.D.
    Columbus State University
    Columbus, GA 31907

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