USMC Colonel on the Bay of Pigs

August 9th, 2005  
Charge 7

Topic: USMC Colonel on the Bay of Pigs

I have seen many misconceptions about the Bay of Pigs cited on this board - both from the left and from the right. As someone alive at the time I have something of a different memory of it than do many of you folks. In an effort to clarify what did and did not happen, who was and who wasn't responsible I will now offer an article from the August 1998 issue of Military History that was written by Colonel Jack Hawkins, USMC who was an intimate part of that operation and is eminently qualified to discuss it.

The catastophic invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 caused the United States acute international embarrassment and severely blemished the reputation of the newly installed administration of John F. Kennedy. I was involved in that undertaking in a capacity that made me knowledgable of its full scope. During the many years since that event took place, I have not revealed information about the matter, but now, after much has been published about the Bay of Pigs - some of it inaccurate in important respects - I have decided to set the record straight.

Covert operations against the Cuban regime of Fidel castro began in January of 1960, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower directed the Central Intelligence Agency to prepare a plan to overthrow Castro, whom he saw as a Communist threat to stability in the Caribbean and Latin American region. For that mission, the CIA's deputy director of plans, Richard Bissell, formed a task force called the Cuba project, headed by Jacob Esterline, an able CIA veteran with wide experience in Latin America as well as Burma, where he had served as an Army captain with the Office of Stategic Services (OSS) during WWII. Bissell was given overall direction by the director of Central Intelligence, Allen Dulles.

Esterline prepared a plan to organize Cuban exiles into paramilitary agent teams for covert entry into Cuba, where they would commence intelligence, propaganda, political action, sabotage, and guerilla warfare activities. Esterline also planned to form a small infantry force of up to 300 men to augment and control guerilla activity in promising areas. Facilities were established in Miami, FL to recruit Cuban volunteers, and in Guatemala to train agents and the infantry force. An airfield was constructed at Retalhuleu, Guatemala, for logistical support of the training camp. Recruits, equipment and supplies were flown to Guatemala from the Opa Locka Naval Air station in Florida.

As agent teams were deemed combat-ready, they were landed on the Cuban coast. Some were captured almost immediately, but most of them eluded capture and began to report regularly by radio. Eventually, the teams established resistance cells in all provinces and reported that there were large numbers of men willing to fight against the Castro government if they were supplied with arms and ammunition. The CIA tried to supply the teams by nocturnal parachutedrop missions using cargo aircraft flown by Cuban pilots, but most of the attempts were unsuccessful. The CIA then requested authority to contract American pilots with experience in such operations, but permission was denied by higher political authorities on the grounds that it might violate the requirement for "plausible deniability" of US involvement. That was to be but one of many examples in which the requirement for deniability made operations difficult or impossible.

When it seemed that the agent teams were not yielding satisfactory results, the CIA shifted its strategy twoard landing the infantry force in an area where guerilla operations were already in progress. That change in strategy led to my involvement. In August 1960, I was assigned to the CIA on temporary duty by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David Shoup, who told me that the CIA wanted a Marine officer to help land a small force of Cuban exiles in Cuba.

Reporting on September 1, 1960 I was appointed chief of the paramilitary staff of the Cuba Project, responsible directly to Esterline. My staff section would organize, train and equip the Cuban troops and prepare plans for their landing in Cuba. My responsibility in regard to air support was limited to submitting recommendations to Bissell through Esterline. A seperate staff, responsible directly to Bissell, handled all air plans and operations.

Since the plan's initiation early in 1960, the situation in Cuba had changed ominously. The Soviet Union was pouring vast quantities of equipment into Cuba, including artillery, tanks, trucks, and inti-aircraft weapons. That enabled Castro to organize and equip large militia forces and consoldate his Communist-style system. In view of those rapidly growing capabilities, Bissell decided in the fall of 1960 that a larger force of about 1,500 men would be needed to gain afoothold in Cuba. I expressed reservations about the difficulties entailed in recruiting, training, landing and supporting such a large force, but Bissell was firm in his decision.

Recruiting efforts in Miami intensified, but progress was slow. The training camp in Guatemala offered only limited space - situated as it was high on the side of a remote volcano and with little level ground for expansion - but we were forbidden to train the Cubans in the uNited States or Puerto Rico because of the plausible deniability requirement. As new recruits continued to arrive, conditions became crowded and a threat to health. Moreover, use of even that unsatisfactory camp was questionable, since the State Department continued to urge the CIA to remove the Cubans from Guatemala on the grounds that their presence might trigger a revolution against President Miguel Ydigoras. The CIA did not have the capability to train that many troops, so after some delay, we obtained the services of about 40 or 50 U.S. Army Special Forces trainers.

Finding an airfield from which tactical support for the landing force could be provided proved to be a problem that was never satisfactorily resolved. Retalhuleu was about 750 miles from central Cuba, beyond the range of the Douglas B-26s the CIA had procured for the exile air force in the belief that such bombers - which were in the inventories of several Latin American countries, including Cuba - would contribute to plausible deniability. Esterline wanted the exiles to have fighter planes, but there seemed to be no hope of obtaining a base close enough to Cuba for fighter operations. I suggested using a base in Florida, but that was not approved.

Searching for a base on foreign soil, CIA agents were repeatedly rebuffed until Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza agreed to allow the use of an airfield at the coastal town of Puerto Cabezas. The State Department objected to that for political reasons, but the CIA continued preparations there nonetheless. At a distance of about 500 miles from Cuba, Puerto Cabezas was barely within the B-26's range, but it would have to do.

With Kennedy's inauguration approaching, we wondered what his reaction to the Cuba Project would be. When Bissell briefed him, he expressed interest and scheduled a series of weekly meetings at the White House to discuss plans with Bissell, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Lyman Lemnitzer. Assitants to those officials also attended, and I usually accompanied Bissell. In addition to the White House meetings, Bissell briefed the President from time to time in more restricted settings, and I was not included on those occasions.

Kennedy said that operations would have to be conducted in such a way that U. S. involvement would be plausibly deniable. All concerned should have realized that an amphibious assault involving 1,500 armed troops, several ships and a squadron of bombers would be attributed to the United States. At the outset, Kennedy should have either supported the operation more openly and agressively or cancelled it altogether.

At the White House meetings, it became clear that Rusk opposed the landing and thought that no air operations whatsoever should be conducted. The positions of the State Department and the CIA on that and other important policy questions were almost always diametrically oppposed. The CIA wanted to accomplish its assigned mission, while the State Department wanted plausible deniability at any cost. The President usually sided with Rusk.

To my surprise and chagrin, McNamara and Lemnitzer did not speak up in support of the necessity of destroying Castro's air force completely on the ground in a single surprise attack. Bissell later said that Lemnitzer sent a memorandum to McNamara stating that a single fighter could sink the entire invasion fleet, but whether McNamara passed that information to the President is not known.

In a memorandum to Esterline early in January 1961, I recommended that any move to reduce the number of aircraft be firmly resisted or else the landing should be canceled. Esterline concurred and passed that on to Bissell. In another January memorandum, I stated flatly that if all of Castro's Hawker Sea Fury fighters and Lockheed T-33 armed jet trainers were not detroyed before the troop transports approached the beach, a military disaster would occur. Each B-26 could only make one sortie per day from Nicaragua with only one hour over the target, since the round trip required an exhausting nine hours. Castro's aircraft, on the otherhand, were based close to the proposed landing area and could make repeated attacks all day.

As the spring of 1961 approached, the brigade was brought up to planned strength, and the bomber suadron was almost combat-ready. Seven commercial freighters were chartered - four for use in the assault phase and three for followup delivery of supplies. Aluminum boats with powerful outboard motors were procured for landing troops, as well as a few reconditioned Navy landing craft. Supplies of all kinds were assemled at embarkation points.

During that time, the paramilitary staff developed a plan for landing the brigade on the south coast of central Cuba, near Tinidad, a town with a population of 18,000. Our agents reported that the people there and in the surrounding country were anti-Castro and would welcome the landing. About 1,000 guerillas were already operating in the nearby Escambray Mountains and could be incorporated into the brigade.

When our plan was presented to the President, Rusk opposed it strongly, saying it was too much like an invasion. He feared that the Soviet Union might be provoked to take action against American forces in Berlin or other parts of the world. Kennedy agreed with Rusk and added a new restriction, advanced by Rusk, that an airfield capable of supporting B-26 operations would have to be captured on the first day, so that all sunsequent air operations could be attributed to that field. He allowed only four days for the new plan to be presented.

After poring over maps and intelligence reports for two days and nights, we located the only place on the Cuban coast with an airfield from which B-26s could operate and which could be seized on the first day - the Bay of Pigs, about 90 miles west of Tinidad. Behind the beach lay a narrow strip of flat, scrub-covered land from 3 to 6 miles deep and about 40 miles wide, cut off from the interior by a great impassable swamp. There were four approaches to the beach - three narrow causeways through the swamp and a coastal road from the east. I gave my opinion that the brigade could seize a beachead there, including the airfield, but could hold it for only a short time and would not be able to reach the relative safety of the Escambray Mountains, 80 miles away. For those reasons, I said the Bay of Pigs was not suitable for the mission, but Bissell decided that we would have to accept the area, since it was the only place that satisfied the President's requirements. He told me to give him a landing plan within two days.

The paramilitary staff prepeared a brief outline, which Kennedy approved for further development. The completed plan provided for a dawn attack on three military airfields by 16 B-26s on April 15th, landing the brigade under cover of darkness in the early morning hours of April 17th, and a second 16 bomber attack on the airfields at first light.

The President approved the plan and directed that all preparations continue, including embarkation of troops at Puerto Cabezas, but said that he would not decide whether to execute the plan until 24 hours before the operation was scheduled to begin. His final instructions were to prepare plans for diverting the ships at sea if he should so order. Thus, as invasion day approached, we continued to face the same uncertainty, indecision and lack of commitment that had charactorized the President's handling of the matter from the very beginning.

Soon afterward, Esterline and I met Bissell at his home and pointed out that the brigade could neither hold a beachhead there against Castro's tanks and much larger infantry forces nor break out through the swamp and fight its way across 80 miles of flat, open country to the mountains. We bothe stated unequivocally that an operation at the Bay of Pigs offered no hope of overthrowing Castro and was certain to end in disaster, but Bissell insisted that it was too late to stop it now. He should have reported our opinions and recommendations to Kennedy but he said nothing. To our further consternation, on April 14th Bissell told Esterline that the President had cut the number of our attacking aircraft in half.

The attack was carried out the next day with only eight bombers, and our expectations were confirmed when poststrike photographs revealed that half of Castro's B-26s, Sea Furies and T-33s had escaped destruction. The element of surprise was lost, and it would be difficult to catch them on the ground again.

News of the attack spread rapidly. At the United Nations, Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, who had not been fully informed about the operation, denied U.S. involvement. When he learned the truth, he protested to the President that the situation was politically embarrassing.

That led Kennedy to make another decision that made disaster certain. At the CIA operations room at about 10:00 pm on April 16th, Esterline hurried in and told me that the President had cancelled the airstrike that had been scheduled for first light. I telephoned Bissell and urged him to tell the President that Castro's aircraft could sink our ships if we did not atatck the aircraft as planned. Bissell and General C. P. Cabell, the deputy director of the CIA, spoke to Rusk. He, in turn, telephoned Kennedy, who had left Washington, and told him that the CIA wanted to reinstate the airstrike but added that he believed the decision should not be be changed. Neither Bissell nor Cabell spoke to the President at that point, even though Rusk offered them the opportunity.

The President's decision stood, dooming the Cuban Brigade. Kennedy had originally authorized forty B-26 sorties against Castro's air force, but after his last-minute cuts, only eight were flown.

The Cuban exiles landed successfully under cover of darkness, but when morning came, Castro's fighters and bombers attacked and the air attacks continued all day. Unloading supplies from the ships was impossible, and some of the troops were unable to land. Two ships were sunk, and the remaining two had to retire from the area. Two of our control boats shot down three of the attacking planes with .50 caliber machineguns, but the two Sea Furies and three T-33 jets that remained defeated the operation.

After the President's disasterous cancellation of the dawn airstrike, the B-26 squadron flew without constraint and proved very effective, even though enemy fighters shot down or damaged several of our planes. On invasion day, they flew 12 sorties against a long convoy of tanks and troop-laden trucks approaching the Bay of Pigs. Ina radio message that we intercepted, the convoy commander reported 1,800 casualties. Our final estimate was that at least 3,000 casualties were inflicted on Casto's militia.

The brigade bravely held its position for three days, but with their supply ships either sunk or driven off, the troops ran out of ammunition and had to surrender. It was noteworthy that when the brigade landed, the 150 man militia unit defending the area quickly offered to join it. Civilians also offered to help. That confirmed my belief that some of the militia could be turned to our side and that a landing at Tinidad, with adequate air support, might have overthrown the Castro government in due course.

The dismal failure at the Bay of Pigs resulted from the President's indecision and lack of commitment and from the poor advice he received from top-level advisers. He subordinated military requirements to political considerations - in particular, the unrealistic notion of plausible deniability. Secretary of State Rusk, instead of cooperating in the effort to overthrow Castro, obstructed almost every initiative of the CIA. Secretary of Defense McNamara and General Lemnitzer did not give the President the fundamental military advice he needed.

The CIA's deputy director of plans, Bissell, was the principal provider of information and advice to the President about all aspects of the Cuba Project, including military operations. Unfortunately, he did not coordinate his briefing papers with Esterline or the paramilitary staff and kept us in the dark about what he said to the President. Esterline and I assumed that he was reporting fully and accurately on our estimates, plans, and recommendations, but that assumption proved incorrect.

Thirty-five years after those events, Esterline and I obtained copies of the now-declassified papers used by Bissell for his final briefing of the President three days before the attack. The briefing, designed to reassure the President that the landing would be less like an invasion, said that our ships would unload at night and would be gone from the beach before dawn, that our attacks would be reduced in intensity and that no more than two of our aircraft would be seen together at one time. Esterline and i did not know that he had made those statements, none of which was in accord with the operation plan.

The declassified papers also revealed that Bissell had agreed with the President about reducing the number of aircraft by half, several days before the air attack. He had delayed informing us until one day before - too late for us to try to have the decision reversed.

Determined to go ahead with the Bay of Pigs operation regardless of the emphatic advice to the contrary that Esterline and I had given him, Bissell succeeded in pushing a reluctant President into a foolhardy and hopeless military venture. The result was a major foreign policy debacle, which led to the establishment of a threatening Soviet military presence in Cuba, the Cuban missile crisis and thebrink of nuclear war.
My summation:

So was Kennedy to blame for the Bay of Pigs? He certainly shared in the blame, but so did many others including Eisenhower (under whom the goal of "plausible deniability" started), Dulles, Rusk, McNamara, and Lemnitzer. But if you want to single any one man out far more than any other for fault in its planning and failure that blame clearly lies, as the author shows, with CIA deputy director of plans, Richard Bissell.
August 10th, 2005  
Again the failure of this was as much to do with press freedoms as any thing else, I remember before this invasion happened all thje news reel footage of the invasion force training. All Castro had to was to stake out a few likely landining sites and put in a holding force with a larger mobile force to rush to place that the actual invasion took place. It was one of those things that was doomed from the start.
August 10th, 2005  
Charge 7
As the Colonel stated, the demand for "plausible deniability" was what doomed it from the start. It inheritantly crippled the operation from day one. Bissell's fault was in pushing Kennedy into a decision he did not want to make and hiding the truth from him to do so.
August 22nd, 2005  
Yep, another great example of politicians causing more problems than they solve, and costing lives in the process. Maybe somebody was sore about the way the operation went and they were the one who assassinated Kennedy.