On January 8, 1959, Fidel Castro came down out of the Sierra Maestra Mountains into Havana, Cuba. Early in his revolution, Castro's promise of a new a better Cuba failed to materialize. Instead, it was replaced by the murder, imprisonment and expulsion of countless thousands and a turn to a communist state that to this day controls Cuba.
Before Castro took power, the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration and the CIA recognized his Soviet leanings and developed a plan to thwart his takeover of Cuba. Command passed on the next election to President John F. Kennedy and his administration, which history shows valued saving face over forestalling a Soviet satellite 90 miles off of America's shores. Though Kennedy's advisors took up Eisenhower's plan in fact, they neglected to follow it in spirit.
And so it was, at 11:45 p.m., April 16, 1961, that I, my CIA-counterpart, William "Rip" Robertson, and 1500 Cuban exiles - members of the 2506 Assault Brigade, trained and equipped by the CIA and U.S. Army Special Forces - lay anchored off the coast of Cuba, preparing to launch an invasion to retake their homeland from Fidel Castro.
Unbeknownst to us, we were about to embark on a mission that was doomed from the start.
The brigade's objective, as set forth by Eisenhower's original planned landing near the historic coastal town of Trinidad, were clear, logical and achievable. Take and hold an area of the beachhead and airfield until members of the Cuban government in exile could be transported to the island and establish themselves. This would allow the United States to recognize that government and legitimately provide it with military aid. Prior to the landing, the brigade air force would destroy Castro's air force ensuring dominance over the beachhead.
At zero hour, Kennedy and his advisors - Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Ted Sorensen, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy - reduced the air strikes by half. As a result, Castro's air force, including its jets, remained viable, placing the brigade, its ships and planes in danger and compromising the mission.
As the CIA point man, it was my job to secure the beachhead. My team of frogmen and I set out in rubber rafts from the command ship Blagar and were the first troops to arrive on the beach. A couple of patrolling Cuban militiamen soon spotted us. As the headlights of their jeep illuminated our raft, I opened fire with my BAR and took them out, thus firing the first shots of the invasion.
As the brigade came ashore in landing craft, I was summoned back to the Blagar. Arriving at the ship, I was told Castro still had aircraft and to expect an air assault at dawn. I quickly ordered that all ships be unloaded and all troops put ashore - easier said than done.
The original Trinidad landing site had docks at which to unload the ships and an airfield to which men and supplies could be flown and unloaded. More important, it was near the town of Casilda, home to many sympathizers ready to join in the fight. Surrounding Trinidad were the Escambre Mountains, a perfect place to escape should things go wrong.
The Kennedy plan offered none of this. Its landing point at the Bay of Pigs was a beach, surrounded by swampland and laced with coral outcrops, which impeded an efficient and speedy unloading process.
Thus, at dawn, when Castro's planes arrived, we were caught in the open with supplies and men still aboard. Our old, rusty ships were completely vulnerable, as the powers that be had deemed it unnecessary for them, and the landing party, to be equipped with antiaircraft guns. Our 50-caliber machineguns were no match for Castro's jets. Though we managed to shoot down five of his aircraft, we soon lost two of our ships and much of the brigade's ammunition and supplies. Headquarters ordered all remaining ships out to sea.
The covert air supremacy and possibility of assistance from the U.S. Navy were lost to the ill-conceived notion of "plausible deniability" demanded by the Kennedy administration. Given a choice between the nation's welfare and saving face, it seems that politicians all too often chose the latter.
Through it all, the men of the brigade fought bravely, inflicting numerous casualties and devastation on Castro's army. They fought until they were out of ammunition and left with no way out but the sea. After the battle, under enemy fire, the surviving frogmen, Rip and I rescued 41 survivors from the Zapata Peninsula swamps.
Had the Kennedy administration followed the Eisenhower plan, which included an exit strategy, the brigade would have lived to fight another day.
If I have learned anything from my involvement in the Bay of Pigs invasion, it is that, like so many military operations, it failed because politicians, remote from and not responsible for the actual implementation, tampered with good plans - a lesson those in charge should, theoretically, never forget.
Grayston L. Lynch is the author of Decision for Disaster; Betrayal at the Bay of Pigs, a firsthand retrospective of the Bay of Pigs invasion. - Republished by permission of Military History Magazine
Pic credit: Landing craft on the Blagar used by the author and the frogmen to make the invasion's initial landing - Francisco Montiel.