After 60 years, Bay of Pigs disaster still haunts veterans who fought

Their dream of a free Cuba was dashed in April 1961, but it has yet to die.

Anticipating a U.S.-backed invasion, Cuban militia units attend a rally in Havana in January 1961. The invasion wouldn’t happen until April 17.
Photograph by Alan Oxley, Getty Images

It was the dark of night, but sealed in a windowless van, bumping along back roads through the Everglades for three hours, the 10 men sweltered in the humid South Florida heat.

The van stopped. The door flew open to reveal a fishing pier. Scrambling into a launch, they headed out to sea, the breeze a welcome relief, the light of a quarter moon dimly illuminating their destination: a low, overgrown island. There they were met by three men with rifles who escorted them to a shack behind the remains of an abandoned resort.

This was Useppa Island, just off Florida’s west coast near Fort Myers. The date was June 2, 1960. And for these 10 Cuban exiles, it was the start of a daring, desperate, and ultimately doomed attempt to reclaim their homeland from communist rule.

For the next 10 months, these men would be among the leaders of the military assault that became known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. On April 17, 1961, a force of nearly 1,500 men—secretly aided by America’s CIA and Navy—would storm southern Cuba in an undercover operation with shockwaves that reverberate still, 60 years later.

On this windy spring morning, the dock where the 10 exiles landed still stretches like a gray finger into the brilliant blue waters of Pine Island Sound.

“There had been an inn out here, but it was abandoned during World War II,” says Rona Stage, curator of a small museum that traces Useppa’s long history of human habitation, dating back some 10,000 years. “A wealthy Cuban businessman leased the whole island on behalf of the CIA.”

The United States had largely stood by as Fidel Castro overthrew the government of Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista in 1959, hoping Castro’s promises to establish democracy were genuine. Soon, though, Castro declared himself a Communist and aligned himself with the Soviet Union, America’s Cold War nemesis. Worried that the Soviets would soon have a foothold in the Americas, in March 1960 President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a top-secret plan to enlist Cuban exiles to invade the island and overthrow Castro’s regime.

 Setting up residence in Useppa Island’s old bungalows—now multi-million-dollar vacation homes—those first 10 men were soon joined by about 60 more. Most of them would prepare here to serve as officers in the 1,500-man invasion force, which would be instructed in warfare skills at a rustic military base in the mountains of Guatemala. The exiles called themselves Brigade 2506, after the identifying number of the first member to die, during a training accident.

Jose Basulto trained on Useppa as an undercover radio operator. 

“I worked with the CIA, not for the CIA,” clarifies Basulto, who, like most Bay of Pigs veterans, lives in Miami. After training he re-entered Cuba on the pretense of studying at a university, but using two CIA-issued radios, he set up a resistance network. If caught, he would have been shot on sight.

“Yes, it was dangerous,” he tells me, “but we felt we could tap into a surging sentiment for freedom in Cuba.”

As memories fade over 60 years, many think of the Bay of Pigs invasion as a half-baked scheme perpetrated by a ragtag gang of unhappy exiles. But that was never true. Although Eisenhower, for political reasons, determined that only Cuban nationals would take part in the invasion, the former World War II Supreme Commander  envisioned an all-out D-Day type assault on a broad southern beach near the large town of Trinidad in central Cuba, complete with amphibious personnel and equipment carriers, tanks, offshore gunneries, and pounding air support.

But then John F. Kennedy won the presidency in November 1960. Not until November 29—three weeks after he was elected—was JFK briefed on the top-secret event his government was planning.

JFK agreed that the invasion should go forward, but from the start he reserved the right to call off the whole thing. Inexorably, the Kennedy administration whittled away at the plan: The grandiose Trinidad assault was nixed, largely because JFK’s State Department felt there would be too many onshore witnesses to U.S. involvement.  Instead, the invasion was moved to a deep, narrow bay known as Bahia de los Cochinos, the Bay of Pigs. To further conceal U.S. participation, the invasion was to take place before sunrise—even though no one could remember the last time a major invasion ever succeeded in the dark. 

More critically, the new site eliminated the CIA’s Plan B: If Castro somehow repelled the invasion near Trinidad, the exiles could have escaped into the surrounding mountains and gone underground. The Bay of Pigs, in contrast, was surrounded by impenetrable swamps. (Is the thawing arctic heating up a new Cold War?)

Still, as they sailed from Central America to Cuba in a mix of U.S. military and rented merchant ships—carrying enough ammo and supplies to support a 30-day operation—the Cuban exile force had one major advantage sitting on a runway in nearby Nicaragua: Sixteen B-26 bombers that could rule the sky and pound Castro’s forces rolling to the rescue.

"Nobody was fooled"

Brigade 2506 Veterans Association president Johnny Lopez, a paratrooper, is showing me around the Bay of Pigs museum and library in Miami’s Little Havana. We stop before an exhibit honoring the battle’s pilots.

“Originally, we had 17 B-26s, but they had other plans for one of them,” he says.

On April 15, two days before the invasion, 16 of the exiles’ planes roared over Cuba, bombing Castro’s air fields. But the 17th plane peeled off to fly directly to Miami International Airport. “The pilot climbed out,” says Lopez, “and announced he was a defecting Cuban Air Force pilot who was part of a rebellion to overthrow Castro.”

The CIA thought the ruse would convince everyone that the bombings and coming invasion were, indeed, completely from within Cuba. But while Castro did have a small force of B-26s, his were of a strikingly different design. “It was not a good fake,” says Lopez with a chuckle that is at once amused and sad. “Nobody was fooled.”

Quite the opposite: Castro now knew something big was coming. And the threat wasn’t from his own men.

On the morning of April 17, things went sideways from the start. Upon entering the bay, a troop ship ran aground on a sand bar after taking fire from quick-responding Cuban troops. An entire battalion swam for their lives, abandoning their heavy guns and ammunition. An unexpected coral reef—misidentified from aerial photos as seaweed—slowed troop landing to a crawl. 

But the battalion didn’t know of the greatest peril of all. At the last minute, bowing to political pressure, Kennedy had cancelled the second and third air strikes meant to wipe out Castro’s air force. That decision doomed the entire operation.

Eduardo Zayas-Bazan was a frogman who’d come ashore ahead of the invasion. As the brigade’s troops lurched onto the sand, he recalls, a B-26 flew overhead.

“We assumed it was one of ours," he says. "It even dipped its wing. But then it opened fire on us.” And then came another B-26. And then a T-33 jet, and a Sea Fury—all of them Castro’s planes. “We couldn’t believe it. We’d been told Castro’s air force had been destroyed.”

In moments, an explosion erupted at sea. The planes were destroying the Rio Escondido, a merchant ship carrying fuel and supplies. Desperate to avoid a similar fate, the remaining supply ships headed out to sea. 

Now the invasion force, including five light tanks, had only the ammo they could carry. For two days, their resources dwindling, the vastly outnumbered brigade heroically held off Castro’s soldiers, artillery, and tanks—always with one eye toward the sea, desperately hoping to glimpse American ships on the horizon.

Former frogman Zayas-Bazan sighs as he sits in the sunlit office of his Miami home, where today he authors collegiate Spanish text books. 

“I’ll tell you the moment I knew we’d lost,” he says softly. “It was the second night. I was sitting on the beach with another frogman. He turned to me and he said, ‘Eddie, the Americans have abandoned us. We’re going to die here.’”

The Bay of Pigs invasion ended not with a bang but with a flurry of final shots as the exiles ran out of ammunition. The brigade lost 118 men. They had killed more than 2,000 of Castro’s defenders, their countrymen.

Fidel Castro with fellow revolutionary rebels in Cuba, 1959.

Fidel Castro, 1959

Fidel Castro with fellow revolutionary rebels in Cuba, 1959.
Photograph via Universal History Archive / Getty Images

Demoralized and defeated, brigade survivors were rounded up and trucked to two notorious old prisons. Knowing the brigade felt betrayed by the United States, Castro soon made an extraordinary jailhouse visit for a bizarre town hall-type session.

“It was surreal,” recalls Zayas-Bazan. “He came into our galley and said, ‘Hi, guys!  How are you being treated? Any complaints?’”

If Castro thought he was going to win over this crowd, however, he was mistaken. At the Bay of Pigs Museum, Lopez points to a fuzzy news photo of that meeting. A black Cuban exile named Tomas Cruz Cruz is standing among his comrades and speaking. 

Castro had looked at him and asked in Spanish, “Hey, negro, why are you here?” Unlike in America, he boasted, “In Cuba, you are free to go to the beach.”

But the prisoner wasn’t having it. “Commandante,” he said, “I didn’t come here to go to the beach. I came to defeat communism!”

No one knows why, but Cruz got away with his impertinence. Another young man, an Asian Cuban named Jorge Kim, was less fortunate. A photo on the same wall shows him in intense conversation with Castro. No one knows what the two talked about, but the next day Kim was executed.

Of all the tales of courage that unfolded in those Cuban prisons, perhaps none is more remarkable than that of 10 men, elected by their fellow captives, who were sent to the United States to negotiate a ransom. There they were, safe and comfortable in a swank Washington, D.C., hotel, only to voluntarily return to the squalor of their Cuban prison—not once, but twice.

“Those men,” Lopez says, nodding toward their photo, “had balls.”

'We loved our country'

In the dark days after the catastrophe, Basulto, the radio operator, jumped the fence to safety on the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay. Wounded in the assault, Eduardo Zayas-Bazan was among 60 prisoners granted early release on April 14, 1962, almost a year after the invasion. And finally, the day before Christmas, 1962, most of the exiles were put on planes to Miami—in return for a ransom of $53 million in baby food and medicine. (See pictures from Castro's funeral procession.)

For his part, JFK accepted blame for the fiasco. In January 1963, before a crowd of 40,000 at Miami’s Orange Bowl, the president greeted the returnees. Accepting a replica of the brigade’s battle flag, he declared, “I can assure you that this flag will be returned to the brigade in a free Havana.” Today it hangs not in Havana, but in the Bay of Pigs Museum.

Basulto, like many of his fellow former prisoners, didn’t go to the Orange Bowl. To this day, he and many more Cubans still blame JFK for the mission’s failure. Eleven months after the Orange Bowl rally, Kennedy was dead. The dream of a free Cuba died a bit slower, and the embers of it still glow in the hearts of brigade veterans.

“We wanted only one thing—to create a free Cuba,” Lopez tells me as we walk toward the museum exit. “I think the young people today need to be proud of what these guys did in 1961—guys from 15 to nearly 60. We loved our country.”

I emerge to the hot South Florida sun and walk the streets of Little Havana. To the north of the main drag, Calle Ocho, modest homes huddle on quiet streets. Where SW 18th Avenue narrows to an alley, a man and a woman sit in the shade outside a robin egg-blue house, accompanied by a caged parakeet. To the south, the houses become large to opulent, the lawns manicured, the streets shaded by ceiba and royal poinciana trees. Wherever I wander I am followed by a steady soundtrack of Cuban music floating from open windows.

This, I imagine, is something like what those warriors had in mind when they set foot on the shore of the Bay of Pigs. And if not for the lack of a few airplanes, they just might have pulled it off. 

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