The Bay of Pigs Invasion
In April of 1961 the United States government sponsored an attempt by Cuban exiles to assault Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro and the communist government he led. The exiles were well armed and trained in Central America by the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency). The attack failed because of the selection of a poor landing site, inability to disable the Cuban Air Force and overestimation of the Cuban people’s willingness to support a strike against Castro. The diplomatic fallout from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion was considerable and led to an increase of cold war tensions.
Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Fidel Castro had grown increasingly antagonistic towards the United States and their interests. The Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations authorized the CIA to come up with ways to remove him: attempts were made to poison him, anticommunist groups inside Cuba were actively supported, and a radio station beamed slanted news at the island from Florida. The CIA even contacted the mafia about working together to assassinate Castro. Nothing worked.
Meanwhile, thousands of Cubans were fleeing the island, legally at first, then clandestinely. These Cubans were mostly upper and middle class who had lost properties and investments when the communist government took over. Most of the exiles settled in Miami, where they seethed with hatred for Castro and his regime. It didn’t take the CIA long to decide to make use of these Cubans and give them the chance to overthrow Castro.
When word spread in the Cuban exile community of an attempt to re-take the island, hundreds volunteered. Many of the volunteers were former professional soldiers under Batista, but the CIA took care to keep Batista cronies out of the top ranks, not wanting the movement to be associated with the old dictator. The CIA also had its hands full keeping the exiles in line, as they had already formed several groups whose leaders often disagreed with one another. The recruits were sent to Guatemala, where they received training and weapons. The force was named the Brigade 2506, after the enlistment number of a soldier who was killed in training.
In April, 1961, the 2506 Brigade was ready to go. They were moved to the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, where they made their final preparations. They received a visit from Luís Somoza, dictator of Nicaragua, who laughingly asked them to bring him some hairs from Castro’s beard. They boarded different ships and set sail on April 13.
The US Air Force sent bombers to soften up Cuba’s defenses and take out the small Cuban Air Force. Eight B-26 Bombers left from Nicaragua on the night of April 14-15: they were painted to look like Cuban Air Force planes. The official story would be that Castro’s own pilots had rebelled against him. The bombers hit airfields and runways and did manage to destroy or damage several Cuban aircraft. Several people working at the airfields were killed. The bombing raids did not destroy all of Cuba’s airplanes, however, as some had been hidden. The bombers then “defected” to Florida. Air strikes continued against Cuban airfields and ground forces.
On April 17, the 2506 Brigade (also called the “Cuban Expeditionary Force”) landed on Cuban soil. The brigade consisted of over 1,400 well-organized and armed soldiers. Rebel groups within Cuba had been notified of the date of the assault and small-scale attacks broke out all over Cuba, although these had little lasting effect.
The landing site which had been selected was the “Bahía de los Cochinos” or “Bay of Pigs” on the southern coast of Cuba, about a third of the way from the westernmost point. It is a part of the island that is sparsely populated and far from major military installations: it was hoped that the attackers would gain a beachhead and set up defenses before running into major opposition. It was an unfortunate choice, as the area selected is swampy and difficult to cross: the exiles would eventually become bogged down.
The forces landed with difficulty and quickly did away with the small local militia that resisted them. Castro, in Havana, heard of the attack and ordered units to respond. There were still a few serviceable aircraft remaining to the Cubans, and Castro ordered them to attack the small fleet that had brought the invaders. At first light, the airplanes attacked, sinking one ship and driving off the rest. This was crucial, because although the men had been unloaded, the ships were still full of supplies including food, weapons and ammunition.
Part of the plan had been to secure an airstrip near Playa Girón. 15 B-26 bombers were part of the invading force, and they were to land there to carry out attacks on military installations all over the island. Although the airstrip was captured, the lost supplies meant that it could not be put into use. The bombers could only operate for forty minutes or so before being forced to return to Central America to refuel. They were also easy targets for the Cuban Air force, as they had no fighter escorts.