Above and Beyond

Mission: Cuba. Status: Top secret.

Media coverage of the Bay of Pigs fiasco was unbridled. Far right: the narrator, as a staff sergeant in the Alabama Air National Guard in the 1950s. (Proquest Historical Newspapers; University Of Texas, Austin; George Teichrib; Radio Netherlands; Bay Of Pigs Museum; James Storie; Photo Illustration By Théo)
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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?

Due to the canopy arrangement and the proximity of the propellers, the B-26 was a difficult aircraft to climb into and out of—worse if you had to bail out. I wish someone had had a camera that day to take a picture of an idiot—wearing only a towel and shower clogs—climbing up to the cockpit with propeller blades spinning mere inches from his head.

I squirmed into the cockpit and had a look at the radio equipment. The Cuban crew was very tense, probably scared. A submachine gun lay at their feet. I found a loose cannon plug. Once I reconnected it, I asked them to try their radio. It worked, and I managed to get back on the ground without losing my towel or breaking my neck.

After the first bomb run, Washington sent word to stand down until further notice. The lull lasted three days, then another bomb run was attempted. By then Castro had managed to get a Hawker Sea Fury fighter-bomber and an armed T-33 jet trainer airborne. Our B-26s had no chance against them. It was a turkey shoot.

When we resumed the bombing missions, most of the Cuban pilots were shot down. Morale was very low; the Cuban pilots said they would not go back unless Americans flew with them. We learned about the situation at a meeting of all U.S. personnel at Puerto Cabezas and were asked if there was anyone willing to volunteer.

As far as I can recall, eight American advisors stepped up. I wasn’t one of them. As a crew chief, I could offer only moral support and another pair of eyes. I couldn’t see myself sitting there getting shot at with no way to retaliate. But it was not an easy decision. If I had been offered a mounted machine gun, I might have volunteered. But the only guns on our B-26s were in the nose, and those were controlled by the pilot.

The pilots and crew volunteers were people I had worked with at Hayes Aircraft, except for Joe Shannon. In earlier days I had flown with two of them: Riley Shamburger and Pete Ray, whom I considered a friend.

On April 19, we launched six B-26s, four of them piloted by U.S. crews. Wade Gray was flying with Shamburger and was the first American to go down, in the water. The B-26 piloted by Pete Ray and Leo Baker was the second, going down on land. Both airmen survived but were shot by Castro’s soldiers. Only Shannon returned in one piece. The Cuban exiles were unable to sustain the beachhead at the Bay of Pigs and surrendered to Castro’s forces.

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