The Bay of Pigs Invasion was a failed military invasion of Cuba undertaken by Cuban exiles and sponsored by the US Central Intelligence Agency. The exiled Cubans formed Brigade 2506 with the intent of overthrowing the government of Fidel Castro. Launched from Guatemala and Nicaragua, the invasion was defeated after 3 days of fighting. Castro declared that Cuba would become a Communist-style state during the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Shortly after taking power, Castro made it clear that he was not going to create a government based on coalitions with Cuba’s wealthy elite, many of whom had close ties with the United States. He held ‘war crimes’ trials that targeted wealthy Cubans and the political opposition. As the news cameras rolled, Castro condemned prisoners to death. Hundreds of thousands of Cuban political refugees poured into the United States. Castro also nationalized US companies that operated in Cuba. In response, the US started isolating Cuba economically and diplomatically.
Relations with the United States began to deteriorate rather quickly. The US government opposed the summary trials and executions of Batista supporters. US corporations and businesses opposed the wage increases and labor and land reforms. This resistance inflamed popular opinion against the United States. Castro visited the United States and even though Cuba needed economic aid, he did not ask for it. After Castro left Washington, the CIA started hatching plans to overthrow Castro. The CIA developed at least eight different plans designed to assassinate Castro over the next five years.
Opposition to the agrarian reforms within Cuba began to appear among various groups. Sugar mill owners and cattle ranchers started a media campaign against the agrarian reform law. Opposition began to appear within the ranks of the revolutionary leadership. This struggle pitted the non-communists against the communists. The Socialist Party of Cuba (PSP) did not play a major role in the revolution. Yet, Castro saw several advantages in using the PSP. The PSP had ties to the Soviet Union and Castro knew that only the Soviet Union could possibly deter a US attack or action against Cuba. Castro’s opponents were dismissed from their positions.
The ship La Coubre, loaded with weapons acquired in France, exploded in Havana Harbor. Castro blamed the CIA and gave a defiant anti-American speech that day, which he ended with what would become the most important slogan of the revolution, ‘patria o muerte!’ (‘fatherland or death’). President Dwight Eisenhower approved the development of a covert operation designed to topple the Castro government. By this time, the United States and Cuba were on a spiraling path of mutual fear and hostility, heading toward an inevitable conflict, and there were small chances of reaching a resolution. Events began to take on a life of their own.
The swift and dramatic changes in US-Cuban relations were paralleled by the reorganization of Cuba's internal political and economic affairs, one consequence of which was a massive emigration to the United States. Washington favored this emigration through special programs aimed at discrediting the Cuban government. Most emigrants came from the economic and social elite. This upper middle and middle-class urban emigration was also disproportionately white. Henceforth, part of the history of the Cuban people would unfold in the United States. The CIA would recruit some of them for the invasion.
The group that eventually grew into Brigade 2506 originally consisted of just 28 men; the nucleus was ten former Cuban military officers who had been recruited by Dr Manuel Artime, head of the Movimiento de Recuperación Revolucionaria (MRR) or Movement to Recover the Revolution. The Americans tried to give Artime and his men the impression that an anonymous Cuban millionaire was paying the bills, but the Cubans eventually began referring to their benefactor as ‘Uncle Sam’. At secret camps in Florida, Panama, and eventually in Guatemala, the US government trained the core of future leaders in guerrilla warfare.
Cuban exile pilots were trained by American pilots. Most of the American aviators had extensive multi-engine experience, and most had flown in combat. Initially based in southern Florida, they had a difficult task: most of the Cuban students had less than 100 hours of flying time, and few had any experience with the heavy, multi-engine aircraft they would be flying. Nevertheless, a handful of Cubans with airline experience or who had served with Batista’s air force quickly became the leaders of the fledgling Liberation Air Force. The pilots were trained in Guatemala.
To transport Assault Brigade 2506 and its equipment to the beaches of Cuba, the CIA procured five cargo ships from the Cuban-owned García Line, whose owners were active in the anti-Castro underground; this satisfied the State Department’s request that only Cuban-owned and registered ships be employed. The invasion convoy would also include two converted Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) – the Blagar and the Barbara J – outfitted as command ships. These were owned by the CIA.
The plan for the invasion of Cuba was created by US-trained Cuban exiles and passed on to President Kennedy and his advisers. Cuban exiles who had been training in Guatemala boarded ships in Nicaragua and sailed for Cuba. A group of B-26 bombers based in Nicaragua attacked key airfields in Cuba. The military damage was insignificant but it prompted Castro to move against his opponents on the island. Castro received news of the landing of the invasion force at the Bay of Pigs. Cuban forces reacted quickly to the invasion. Eventually, Castro captured 1,180 of the 1,297 who had landed. It was the perfect victory for Castro.
The invasion flotilla arrived off the mouth of the Bay of Pigs and divided its formation, heading towards the assigned areas – the main landing on Blue Beach at Girón, and the supporting landing on Red Beach at Playa Larga, about 5 miles further up the inlet. The first element to land on Red Beach would be the frogman advance team for 2nd Battalion at Red Beach. As the exiles neared shore they were appalled to see that the Cubans had installed bright floodlights on construction sites for new resorts along the beaches. The advance team radioed the Blagar requesting assistance, and an intense fire-fight broke out between the frogmen and the militiamen guarding the beach.
At Blue Beach, Pepe San Román decided to begin landing the Brigade anyway, and was in one of the lead landing craft. The Brigade soon had enough men ashore to establish a small beachhead, but trouble began when the first wave of the main force headed ashore from the Caribe. The small boats carrying them began striking the reefs at full speed; many of them sank on the spot, and most were at the least delayed. The invasion schedule was slipping, and the advantage of surprise had been lost even though the beach was secured.
Fidel Castro received news of the landings. The Comandante alerted the forces in the area. The Revolutionary Air Force was ordered to attack the ships at Playa Larga and Girón at dawn; Castro’s plan was to crush the landing at Playa Larga first, since it was the furthest inland. His forces would attack the beachhead at Girón from there, moving down the western flank of the swamps, since these were crossed by few roads. The landing of the exile provisional government must be prevented at all costs. Castro departed Havana for the Bay of Pigs after outlining his plan and issuing initial orders. The exiles were then forced to land under heavy fire from the air.
The equipment and some paratroopers landed in the swamps, making them ineffective for a considerable time. Others landed under fire and some fell behind enemy lines, several being killed while still under their parachutes. The other elements of the lift, further to the east, landed safely without opposition, and proceeded to take up positions along the roads to Covadonga and Yaguaramas. The paratroopers came under attack shortly after getting into position, and performed well. The airborne drops had secured two of the three main roads; but the road north of Playa Larga remained open, permitting Castro’s forces to concentrate, and posing a major threat to the Brigade.
The second wave of air attacks now hit the flotilla, and off Blue Beach a direct hit by a Sea Fury on the Rio Escondido, loaded with 200 barrels of aviation fuel stored above decks, forced the captain to give the order to abandon ship. The loss of the Rio Escondido dealt a staggering blow to the Brigade; she was carrying not only fuel, but the first ten days’ supplies of ammunition, food and medical supplies for the entire force. Also aboard was the radio truck that was the heart of the Brigade’s communications system, which provided the only link with the Liberation Air Force.
By noon on D-Day, San Roman was beginning to get a grasp of the situation. His men were pinned down in the beachheads and their supply lines were temporarily cut when the ships put back to sea. Communications were limited, with most messages being sent by runners. The Brigade leaders had assumed that Castro’s main thrust would be from the east through San Blas to Girón. However, it was becoming obvious that Castro was sending his main force from the north, down the road and railroad bed from Central Australia to Playa Larga. Red Beach, with only one battalion ashore, could not withstand a sustained attack.
As D-Day drew to an end, the Brigade held beachheads around both Red and Blue Beaches, as well as the airfield at Girón. The force at Red Beach was bearing the brunt of the action, with high casualties and decreasing ammunition and supplies. The Cubans were threatening to push down the road into Playa Larga, under the umbrella of Castro’s air force. Brigade air support had been weak, and four aircraft had been lost; two ships had been sunk, and two more had completely departed the area. The CIA’s failure to notify the network of infiltrators and the Cuban underground of the invasion, even after it had begun, wasted a potentially useful asset.
Pepe San Román ordered his men to prepare for the night defense of Blue Beach. San Román sent three tanks and six mortars toward Red Beach to reinforce Oliva; nothing was kept in reserve as Oliva prepared for what would become fierce fighting. Olivia had to retreat when his men ran out of ammunition.
The men from Red Beach arrived at Girón, where Oliva and San Román met and studied the situation. They had troops in contact along the road to the northeast, and expected at any time to come under attack by forces following Oliva down from Playa Larga to the northwest. All units were low on ammunition, and mortar rounds had been rationed since midnight. They felt that if the Brigade could hold out until nightfall resupply would certainly arrive, either from the ships or by airdrop. San Román made the decision to hold the beachhead as Castro’s forces renewed their attacks.
In the morning some much needed supplies finally arrived. Under constant attacks by the Fidelistas, the Brigade’s supplies and ammunition were, once again, quickly exhausted. The last organized fighting of the campaign took place around the town of Girón where the Brigade was dispersed or destroyed. When the destroyer USS Eaton came in close enough to the beaches to evaluate the situation, Assault Brigade 2506 was gone and the beachhead had fallen.
It was the perfect victory for Castro. His often-predicted invasion by the United States had finally occurred. The Cubans had won a victory against the United States. The United States and its indecisive young president were humiliated by world public opinion. Castro’s popularity among the Cuban people skyrocketed. After the invasion, Castro declared the socialist nature of his revolution - an obvious attempt to encourage the Soviet Union to develop closer ties to Cuba.
Today, tourists laze in the sun on the Cuban beach where one of the most famous battles of the Cold War was fought. The swamps where the brigadistas hid after they were routed on Playa Girón are now part of a wildlife sanctuary, home to rare birds and crocodiles. A more traditionally militant slogan greets visitors at the village itself: a billboard showing a brandished rifle and the words ‘Playa Girón, the first imperialist defeat in Latin America.’