Above and Beyond
Mission: Cuba. Status: Top secret.
- By James Storie
- Air & Space magazine, May 2011
Proquest Historical Newspapers; University Of Texas, Austin; George Teichrib; Radio Netherlands; Bay Of Pigs Museum; James Storie; Photo Illustration By Théo
In early 1961, after I had been out of the Air National Guard for five years, I heard that Brigadier General George Reid Doster, commander of the 117th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Birmingham Municipal Airport in Alabama, was looking for me.
When I met with him, he laid it on pretty thick. “We have a very important classified mission I’d like you to consider,” he said. “That’s all I can tell you, other than that you can be of great service to your country.” I would attend a series of meetings with other people contacted for this hush-hush mission. Most of the personnel being interviewed were from the Hayes Aircraft Corporation in Birmingham, where I was working at the time; the rest were active Guardsmen.
Back then, few technicians were familiar with the old Douglas B-26 Invader bomber; fewer still were qualified in its maintenance and electronics, as I was. General Doster asked me to make a decision right then and there. Because I knew most of the guys, I figured I was in good company. I took the job.
Some 40 of us were brought on. We used first names only. I was given a picture of a woman and two kids to go in my billfold—I had no idea who they were—along with other documents that would create a fake identity.
At first we were given just a few vague details about our mission. At each step, a candidate remained only if he continued to sign more secrecy documents. I became pretty sure that we were dealing with the CIA, but this was never acknowledged. We were told how we would be paid and that we could tell no one—not a soul—or we would be prosecuted for revealing classified information.
Finally I learned the truth, and why the Guard needed aircraft technicians: We would be training Cuban exiles to fly B-26s for an invasion of Cuba, with the goal of triggering a revolution to overthrow communist dictator Fidel Castro. Since Castro had B-26s in his air force, the theory went, the Cuban population would think that their own military was revolting against Castro and would join the uprising.
After a week of briefings and paperwork, we reported to Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola, Florida. We left Eglin at midnight in a Douglas C-54 with blacked-out windows, flying 50 feet above the water for a very long time. We still did not know where we were going.
The next morning we landed on a dusty airstrip. This was our base. There was nothing there except the runway. It turned out to be Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. I was told that the ground troops for the invasion were being trained in Guatemala while we trained B-26 crews here.
At one time we had as many as 18 B-26s, but the count varied, since airplanes came and went. Where they came from I don’t know. I just did my job, keeping the aircraft operable.
We spent a week or so practicing and preparing, then launched our first bombing mission on the morning of April 15. Eight B-26s, piloted by Cubans we had trained, were tasked to destroy all of Castro’s aircraft on the ground as well as runways and other critical targets. They were then expected to provide close air support to the invasion force. Each aircraft had bomb-release capability and eight .50-caliber nose-mounted machine guns but lacked gun turrets.
We worked all night readying airplanes. When I finished my work and left the flightline, the pilots were just starting their engines. I headed for the shower tent to wash off the grime.
Halfway through my shower a guy came running up, looking for me. “One of the bombers is waiting at the end of the runway and wants you to check their radio now!” he said.
I wrapped a towel around my waist and with shower clogs on my feet rushed out to the runway, where I expected to see a B-26 with its engines shut down. But both propellers were churning. The crew was worried that if they cut the engines, they might not get them restarted, and would I please try to fix their radio?