A date which should live in infamy 164

Forty nine years ago, in mid April 1961, a small CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles invaded southern Cuba in a valiant attempt to overthrow the Castro regime. President Kennedy betrayed them.

Humbert Fortova’s vivid and maddening story about what happened in those few days is a must-read. Here’s a taste of it:

Fifteen hundred men crowded before San Roman at their Central American training camps that day. The next day they’d embark for a port in Nicaragua, the following day for a landing site in Cuba named Bahia De Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). Their outfit was known as Brigada 2506 …

“They fought like Tigers,” wrote a CIA officer who helped train these Cuban freedom-fighters. “But their fight was doomed before the first man hit the beach.”

That CIA man, Grayston Lynch, knew something about fighting — and about long odds. He carried scars from Omaha Beach, The Battle of the Bulge and Korea’s Heartbreak Ridge. But in those battles, Lynch and his band of brothers could count on the support of their own chief executive.

At the Bay of Pigs, Lynch and his band of Cuban brothers learned — first in speechless shock and finally in burning rage — that their most powerful enemies were not Castro’s Soviet-armed and led soldiers massing in Santa Clara, Cuba, but the Ivy League’s Best and Brightest dithering in Washington. …

When the smoke cleared and their ammo had been expended to the very last bullet, when a hundred of them lay dead and hundreds more wounded, after their very mortars and machine gun barrel had almost melted from their furious rates of fire, after three days of relentless battle, barely 1,400 of them — without air support (from the U.S. Carriers just offshore) and without a single supporting shot by naval artillery (from U.S. cruisers and destroyers poised just offshore) — had squared off against 41,000 Castro troops, his entire air force and squadrons of Soviet tanks. The Cuban freedom-fighters inflicted casualties of 30 to 1 against their Soviet-armed and led enemies…

No amount of heroism and pluck can offset those odds, however — not without air cover. And tragically, 80 percent of the pre-invasion sorties by the freedom-fighter planes from Nicaragua — the essential component of the plan to knock out Castro’s air force on the ground as originally devised under the Eisenhower administration — had been canceled at the last moment by JFK on the advice of his Best and Brightest. This was a Republican plan, after all, that had landed in their lap. And the New Frontiersmen suffered a guilty conscience about such “Yankee bullying.”

“The liberal cannot strike wholeheartedly against the Communist,” wrote early National Review columnist James Burnham, “for fear of wounding himself in the process.” ..

The canceled airstrikes made the Brigade’s lumbering B-26s easy prey for Castro’s jets and fast Sea-Furies — and the troops and supplies below them were even easier prey. It was a turkey shoot for the Castroites.

But the unequal battle raged furiously on the tiny beachhead. CIA man Grayston Lynch, just offshore one of the landing ships, finally learned about the canceled air strikes and figured the freedom-fighters he’d trained and befriended were doomed. “If things get rough,” he radioed Commander San Roman “we can come in and evacuate you.”

“We will not be evacuated!” Pepe roared back to Lynch. “We came here to fight! We don’t want evacuation! We want more ammo! We want PLANES! This ends here!” Repeated requests from the beachhead for air cover were transmitted to Washington — to no avail.

“See, Latin American ‘street?’” Camelot was saying with wide eyes and a smug little grin, like Eddie Haskell in front of June Cleaver. “See, U.N.? As you can plainly see, we’re not involved in this thing. We’re not the imperialist bullies Castro claims.”

This infantile and criminal idiocy had Adm. Arleigh Burke of the Joints Chief of Staff, who was transmitting the battlefield pleas, teetering on mutiny…

The fighting admiral was livid. They say his face was beet red and his facial veins popping as he faced down his commander-in-chief that fateful night of April 18, 1961.

“Mr. President, TWO planes from the Essex! (the U.S. Carrier just offshore from the beachhead)” that’s all those boys need, Mr. President. Let me …!”

JFK was in white tails and a bow tie that evening, having just emerged from an elegant social gathering. “Burke,” he replied. “We can’t get involved in this.”

“WE put those boys there, Mr. President!!” The fighting admiral exploded. “By God, we ARE involved!”

While the Knights of Camelot mulled over their image problems, the men on the beachhead had problems of their own…

“MAYDAY! MAYDAY! Have Castro jet on my tail! Request … I repeat! — Request …!”

“Sorry,” replied the Essex. “Our orders are …” The Cuban freedom-fighter pilot didn’t hear the rest of his death sentence. An explosion and his radio went dead. These messages went on and on, hour after hour, from different pilots — to no avail. By the second day, nearly half of these almost suicidal brave Cuban exile pilots had met a fiery death from Castro’s jets.

This was too much for their enraged and heartsick American trainers at the base in Nicaragua. Four of them suited up, gunned the engines and joined the fight. These weren’t pampered Ivy Leaguers. They were Alabama Air Guard officers, men with archaic notions of loyalty and honor. They were watching the decimation. They knew the odds. They went anyway.

All four died on that first mission…

Finally JFK relented and allowed some Skyhawk jets to take-off from the Essex. One of these pilots quickly spotted a long column of Castro tanks and infantry making for the Brigade. The Soviet tanks and trucks were sitting ducks. “AHA!” he thought. “Now we’ll turn this thing around!” The pilot started his dive…

“Permission to engage denied,” came the answer from his commander…

“This is crazy!” he bellowed back. “Those guys are getting the hell shot out of them down there! I can SEE it!!” Turned out, JFK had allowed them to fly and look — but not to shoot!

Some of these Navy pilots admit to sobbing openly in their cockpits…

“I wanted to resign from the Navy,” said Capt. Robert Crutchfield, the decorated naval officer who commanded the destroyer fleet off the beachhead. He’d had to relay Washington’s replies to those pilots.

A close-up glimpse of the heroism on that beachhead might have sent those Essex pilots right over the edge. As JFK adjusted his bow tie in the mirror and Jackie picked lint off his tux, the men of Brigada 2506 faced a few adjustments of their own. To quote Haynes Johnson [Pulitzer Prize winning  journalist and TV pundit], “It was a battle when heroes were made.”

Read what happened next, how they fought to the death and were defeated.

Ending on a note of justified bitterness and irony, Fortova recalls the promise Kennedy had made when he was inaugurated just three months earlier:

“We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty!”