Bay of Pigs Invasion
Cuban rebels backed by the CIA try to topple Castro's regime
author Paul Boșcu, October 2017
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 should become a Communist-style state during the Bay of Pigs invasion. The Bay of Pigs invasion dashed all hopes that Cuba might stop its slide toward Communism.

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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.

The Bay of Pigs invasion dashed all hopes that Cuba might stop its slide towards Communism. The invasion took place on April 14, 1961. It involved about 1,400 anti-Castro Cuban refugees. President Kennedy permitted the US Navy to escort the invaders’ ships to Cuban waters but did not allow the use of US planes by anti-Castro pilots in the actual fighting.

The battle took place where the invaders disembarked, at the Bay of Pigs, just west of Cienfuegos. The fighting lasted three days. Castro’s troops and local militias killed more than 100 invaders and took the survivors prisoner. The defeat of the invaders made Castro a national hero for a second time.

When Castro took power, he was not a Communist. A series of events—involving the Soviet Union, Cuba, and the United States—moved him towards Communism and into the Cold War.

The Bay of Pigs invasion was the pivotal event in the early years of the Cuban revolution. It allowed Castro to consolidate his power and eliminate virtually all his opposition on the island. It gave Castro and the people of Cuba proof that the ultimate goal of the United States was to destroy the Cuban revolution. It convinced a reluctant Soviet Union that a relationship with Cuba could be very beneficial. Finally, it led to the decision to place nuclear missiles on Cuban soil.

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.

Castro and Castro-appointed judges threw countless other members of the opposition into prison or exiled them. Firing squads executed more than 600 people. Castro had the trials televised live.

Castro believed correctly that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was hatching plots against him in the US embassy in Havana. He told the United States to reduce its embassy staff from 300 to 11.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded to Castro’s actions by breaking off official diplomatic relations with Cuba, imposing a partial trade embargo, and banning US citizens from travelling there. This policy was in effect until President’s Obama administration.

As part of his agrarian reform, Castro seized the landholdings of large US companies, such as the United Fruit Company. In the summer of 1960, he seized US and British oil companies for their refusal to refine Soviet petroleum. The Cuban government seized the American-owned telephone and electricity companies and sugar mills.

Castro was the man of the hour in January 1959. The Cuban people absolutely adored him. This immense popular support gave Castro the power to radicalize the economy and challenge the powerful economic interests on the island, in particular the sugar industry and major US corporations. Although there would be a struggle within the new government to give the revolution its direction, it was clear to all that Castro would dominate the process.

The Fundamental Law of the Republic was passed, which basically gave all political power to the cabinet. Within a week, Prime Minister Miro Cardona resigned in favor of Castro. The cabinet consisted of communists and non communists, reformers and revolutionaries. Its initial goals were to diversify the economy, weaken the pervasive US presence and influence in Cuba and reduce the tremendous economic inequality on the island.

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.

After Castro’s visit, Vice President Richard Nixon, the State Department and the CIA came to the conclusion that the United States could not have friendly relations with Cuba. Efforts to overthrow the revolutionary government were supported and developed.

Castro did not want to become another Cuban leader who would discard his revolutionary principles, bow down and become dependent on the United States.

For the next year, Castro and his rebel army fought counter-revolutionary groups and Miami-based Cuban exiles who used air bases in southern Florida to engage in assassination attempts, provide arms to counter-revolutionary groups, burn crops, bomb sugar mills and attack ships bound for Cuba. The failure of the US to disavow these groups and prevent their activities was enough evidence for Castro to assert US complicity in these actions.

Fearing a US-led intervention, Castro organized the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs). These local organizations served not only to mobilize the population in support of the government, but also to report any activities against the government.

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.

Sugar mill owners, cane growers, rice plantation owners and industrialists opposed the wage increases for workers. The Labor Ministry mediated more than 5,000 labor management disputes in early 1959. These mediations were generally settled in favor of the demands of the laborers.

Vocal opposition to the perceived growing communist influence over the new government came from President Urrutia, who was forced to resign, and Pedro Diaz Lanz, head of the Cuban air force. Diaz defected to the United States, where the US Senate promptly gave him a public forum to tell how the communists were taking over the island.

Huber Matos, the commander of the rebel army in Camaguey Province, also expressed his concerns and opposition to the communists. Camaguey Province was the heart of the counter-revolutionary forces in Cuba. Matos, a former teacher who had fought with Castro in the Sierra Maestra, had publicly spoken against growing communist influence in the government. He resigned when Raul Castro was named minister of the armed forces. Matos was tried for ‘uncertain, anti-patriotic and anti-revolutionary’ behavior and sentenced to twenty years in jail.

Castro began to centralize the revolutionary power structure and emphasize loyalty, unity and survival. Loyalty to Castro became the primary criteria for all future appointments. Revolutionary unity was defined as opposition to the United States and the Cuban elite, meaning the economic class with its historic ties to the United States. Unity also meant that the members of the PSP were to be included in the revolution.

The anti-communists were moderates, not revolutionaries, and Castro swept them away. With the moderates gone and the revolutionary leadership unified, the US hope of controlling the revolution faded. It is ironic that the US opposition to the initial economic reforms helped to undermine the legitimacy of the moderates in the revolutionary government and paved the way for Castro to purge them and radicalize the economy — the very thing the US did not want to happen.

It was the arrival of Soviet deputy premier Anastas Mikoyan that confirmed the suspicions of many in the United States that the Cuban revolution was clearly communist.

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.

Castro announced there would be no elections. He indicated that the Cuban people had already spoken. Given his tremendous popular support, there is no doubt that if he had held elections, he would have won easily.

All US businesses such as Sears and Roebuck and Coca-Cola, as well as all sugar mills, petroleum refineries, public utilities, tire plants, ranches and banks were nationalized. This also included the US government-owned nickel deposits at Moa Bay. The Eisenhower administration allocated $13 million to provide guerrilla warfare training to between 400 and 500 Cuban exiles in Guatemala.

Cuba strengthened its ties with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, expressed a willingness to defend Cuba from ‘unprovoked aggressions’. By the end of 1960, the Cuban state controlled the primary means of economic production on the island. Cuban capitalism had come to an end and its ties with the communist world were becoming stronger.

Nikita Khrushchev declared that Soviet missiles were prepared to defend Cuba ‘in a figurative sense’. The first formal military agreement between the two countries was signed within weeks as the Soviet Union pledged to ‘use all means at its disposal to prevent an armed United States intervention against Cuba’. This increased military collaboration between Cuba and the Soviet Union predictably heightened US government hostility towards Havana.

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 first wave of emigrants experienced relative economic and social success over the next thirty years, in part because they could transfer their skills to new workplaces. Politically, they constituted a strong anti-communist force, which was often sharply at odds with prevailing political opinion among other Spanish-speaking communities in the United States.

The exiles were deeply divided. Those who were once close to the Batista government were rejected by those who had worked with Fidel Castro during the rebellion or in the early months of his government, even though they had broken with Castro over the question of communism and other issues; this antipathy was fully reciprocated.

Several key exile leaders agreed to form the Cuban Revolutionary Council, presided over by Jose Miro Cardona, who had been the first prime minister of the Cuban revolutionary government.

Prominent members of the Cuban Revolutionary Council included Antonio ‘Tony’ Varona, former prime minister, as well as Fidel Castro’s former Minister of Public Works, Manuel Ray. Manuel Artime, a former lieutenant of the rebel army, was to be the political chief of the invasion force and Jose Perez San Roman the military commander. Upon the overthrow of the revolutionary regime, the Council would become the provisional government of Cuba under the presidency of Miro Cardona. The exiles’ Brigade 2506 completed its training in Nicaragua and Guatemala.

As the United States and Cuban governments came to blows during the second half of 1960, Washington became more interested in assisting the exiles to overthrow the Castro government.

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.

Dr Artime’s MRR organization in Miami was the principal recruiting apparatus for Brigade personnel. The group had been told that Americans, claiming no association with the US government, would supply generous amounts of arms, equipment and funding.

The chosen military leader of the Brigade was José ‘Pepe’ Peréz San Román, a graduate of Cuba’s military academy who had also undergone US Army officer training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He had been freed by Castro from a Batista prison, but later re-imprisoned by the new regime before escaping from Cuba.

While Radio Swan continued to broadcast propaganda into Cuba, an agreement was reached with the government of Guatemala whereby a large plantation belonging to Roberto Alejos was leased and transformed into a training camp. Known as ‘Base Trax’, this was the primary training site for ground forces for the Bay of Pigs.

By September 1960, the initial cadre had grown to 160 men undergoing vigorous conditioning in the treacherous, densely forested Sierra Madre in Guatemala. That month one of them, Carlos Rodriguez Santana, was killed in a training accident, and in his honor his comrades decided to name the Brigade after his serial number: 2506. Training in guerrilla tactics continued, with approximately 300 Cubans receiving instruction.

The CIA sent a cable to Base Trax officially cancelling guerrilla training for all but 60 of the Cubans, and specifying that the force would now be trained for conventional warfare, with an emphasis upon amphibious assault tactics. This cable indicated a major escalation of the type of operation to be mounted in Cuba. It came only four days prior to the presidential elections of 1960, which were won by Senator John F. Kennedy. President-elect Kennedy was briefed on the plan; he was disturbed only by the small size of the Brigade.

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.

The CIA negotiated the establishment of two secret bases, one for training the Brigade’s soldiers (codenamed ‘JMTrax’) and the other its aircrews (‘JMMadd’). JMTrax was located on the La Helvetia coffee plantation in the foothills between Quetzaltenango and Retalhuleu Departments; at first the Cuban pilots were also located there while their base was constructed, but two weeks later they moved to JMMadd (known to the Cubans as ‘Rayo Base’). The air base was close to Retalhuleu city, right between the road to Champerico port and the railroad to Mexico.

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 vessels were the Atlantico, Caribe, Houston, Lake Charles and Río Escondido. Four of these would be loaded with the ammunition and supplies required to support a force of 15,000 men for 30 days. The fifth ship, Lake Charles, was to carry 15 days’ worth of supplies and unload after the fifth day of the landings; she would also transport the men of Operation 40 Group – the staff of a military government that would administer the beachhead and other liberated areas in Cuba.

These ships proceeded to New Orleans, Mobile, and other Gulf Coast ports, where they took on board the majority of the Brigade’s provisions, ammunition, aviation gasoline and other supplies, and then sailed to Puerto Cabezas. Upon arrival there, the crews were notified that they were to deliver the men and equipment of the Brigade to the shores of Cuba, and were given the opportunity to quit. One captain and six crewmen did, but they were quickly replaced without problems.

The smaller landing craft of the brigade consisted of four Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP), three Landing Craft Utility (LCU) and one Landing Craft Mechanized (LCM). These would carry five M41 (Walker Bulldog) light tanks, ten trucks with trailers of ammunition and supplies, a bulldozer with crane attachment, six jeeps, a water trailer, and a 7,000-gallon tanker truck filled with aviation fuel.

Each LCI carried a crew of 30 men; the officers, engineers, radio operators and mates were all Americans, on loan to the CIA from the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS). According to Grayston Lynch, a CIA case officer attached to one of the LCIs: ‘They were well qualified and experienced, but they were civilian merchant marine sailors, not US Navy combat men. They were not trained for combat. Their service had all been on merchant ships that sailed charted sea-lanes, and in their minds the safety of their ship always came first.’

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.

Luis Somoza, the president of Nicaragua, encouraged the Cuban exiles before the invasion and asked them to bring him back some of the hair from Castro’s beard.

John F. Kennedy’s administration inherited the plan for the invasion when it came to office. President Kennedy agreed to let the CIA-trained invasion force go ahead, provided that US forces were not used.

In Cuba all dissidents, both real and imagined, including all bishops, many journalists, the vast majority of the urban underground resistance and most of the CIA’s 2,500 agents and their 20,000 suspected sympathizers were rounded up and thrown in jail. Castro used the air attacks to mobilize the Cuban public against the United States.

The towns near the Bay of Pigs had been the recipients of many of the initial benefits of the revolution—new roads and tourist centers had been built, a literacy campaign was in progress and the standard of living had increased. It was an unlikely place to start a counter-revolution against Castro. Two Cuban T-33 jet trainers and a B-26 bomber attacked the landing forces, sunk two ships and chased away the supply ships.

Brigade 2506 landed at Giron beach on the Bay of Pigs in south-central Cuba. The Cuban government mobilized both its regular armed forces and the militia. Led personally by Fidel Castro, they defeated the invasion force within forty-eight hours. The prisoners were held for trial and interrogation by Castro and others on Cuban national television; they were eventually ransomed for shipments of medical and other supplies from the United States.

Khrushchev threatened Kennedy: ‘The government of the United States can still prevent the flames of war from spreading into a conflagration which it will be impossible to cope . . . any so called “small war” can produce a chain reaction in all parts of the world.’ Kennedy hesitated to authorize air strikes from the USS Essex to support the invasion.

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.

When the frogmen disembarked from the Blagar they were surprised to find that one of their CIA advisors, Grayston Lynch, had decided to accompany them as far as the beach to see them safely ashore. The frogmen got out into waist-deep water, and were wading in when they heard a jeep coming down the beach. The vehicle stopped opposite them and swung its headlights around onto them. Lynch and the frogmen opened fire with their automatic weapons; there was no return fire from the riddled jeep, and its lights went out. The first shots in the Bay of Pigs invasion had been fired.

At Red Beach, the frogmen were able to place their marker lights despite being under fire from militiamen, and they radioed back to the Barbara J and the Houston to expedite the landing. Erneido Oliva, the commander of the Red Beach force, saw the need for his leadership ashore earlier than expected, and landed with his staff in one of the first waves. Oliva ordered what men he did have to seize and destroy the radio station in Playa Larga; when it was captured it was discovered that the alarm had also been broadcast from there.

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.

The beachhead at Girón was secured, the orderly unloading of vehicles and supplies from the landing craft commenced, and San Román set up his headquarters. It was assumed that Cuban militiamen had been able to transmit an alarm to headquarters in Havana before the Brigade had destroyed a radio microwave antenna in the area. Acting upon this assumption, San Román decided to cancel the follow-up landing at Green Beach and to consolidate the Brigade’s troops, equipment and supplies at Blue Beach.

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.

Beachheads were being established at both Red and Blue Beaches, and San Román and Oliva established their headquarters and command posts. Upon hearing that Castro still had operational aircraft, the Brigade leaders advised that the ships pull back to sea before the attacks began, expecting them to return the following night, but there was no time to coordinate such a change to the plan.

The Houston was crippled by air attack and her captain beached the vessel on the west shore of the Bay of Pigs, approximately 5 miles below Red Beach. The 5th Battalion was aboard her when she was hit, along with ammunition, fuel and a field hospital. Most of the men of the 5th were able to get ashore eventually, but many were unarmed, and due to a lack of leadership they were never a viable unit from that point.

The Brigade claimed to have shot down two B-26Cs, but they suffered great losses themselves. With many of the medical supplies lost when the Houston was sunk, the doctors on the beaches were soon overwhelmed with casualties.

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.

A 1998 Cuban article recounted one peasant’s experience during the first hours of the battle: ‘Victor Cepero, a leathery 68-year-old who worked fields in the area, remembered the battle well. He was working as a night watchman when the big guns opened up. “I thought it was a thunderstorm. Then I saw the parachutists landing,” he said, speaking in a hamlet called Pamplona. He ran home to make sure his family was safe. “We took down our picture of Fidel, just in case.” The paratroopers asked him to join them in fighting Castro’s forces, but he declined.’

San Blas was the only area where the populace showed any real support for the Brigade; a number of local citizens offered assistance to the paratroopers, volunteered to carry supplies and water and worked as nurses. Five civilians volunteered to fight; they were given uniforms and weapons and integrated into the unit.

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.

The crew were taken off successfully with only one man sustaining any injuries. After she was abandoned, the ship was destroyed by three tremendous explosions, the sounds of which were heard right across the bay.

The lack of communications prevented the leaders of the Brigade from forming an accurate picture of the situation. San Román could not contact any of the units outside of Blue Beach; he never had any radio communications with the paratroopers, nor even with the ships. It was 10 AM before he made radio contact with Oliva at Red Beach. The latter reported that 2nd Battalion were all ashore and involved in heavy fighting, but that 5th Battalion was nowhere to be seen; that he had no communications with 1st Battalion, who had dropped to the north of him, but felt that something had gone wrong, since Castro’s forces were coming down the road that the paratroopers were supposed to be blocking.

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.

Scouts reported that a column of militiamen and troop-laden trucks were advancing down the road towards Oliva’s position. Without knowing how close they were to 2nd Battalion’s position, the militiamen of the 339th Battalion from Matanzas halted and began setting up their mortars. Oliva’s force opened fire on the unsuspecting militiamen with every weapon they had. Only a handful of the 968 men of the 339th Battalion were left to creep away into the nearby swamps. In Cuba this episode has been remembered as ‘the Slaughter of the Lost Battalion’.

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.

Washington knew that ammunition was running low, and ordered airdrops from the Nicaraguan base for the night of April 17. Missions were flown by four C-54s and two C-46s; of these, five of the drops were successful but the cargo of the sixth was blown out to sea. In addition, the Barbara J and the Blagar were ordered to resume resupply after nightfall. Some supplies were delivered ashore, but the limited remaining landing craft were not able to sustain the needs of the Brigade.

One infiltrator later reported that around noon of D-Day he finally received a message that the invasion had begun and he should blow the bridges between Central Australia and Playa Larga. He could not do this in daylight because of the massive Cuban mobilization – and it would have made little difference anyway, since the militia had crossed the bridges six hours earlier. The failure to use the covert forces available to the CIA cost them the opportunity to divert Castro’s forces, and allowed them to focus solely on the beachheads.

The American Joint Chiefs had taken all steps to be ready if called upon to intervene in the battle, and were prepared to offer any support ordered by the president. They had moved several aviation units inside striking distance, to bases in the South, and the Navy was prepared to assist with air cover, escort or naval gunfire as soon as the word was given; but the word never came.

At the old Opa Locka Naval Air Station just outside Miami, the Cuban exile officials of the provisional government were still waiting – under strict guard in the barracks – to be transported to the beachhead. They had been furnished with a radio by their guards, and heard the optimistic claims of Radio Swan that the invasion force was winning the battle.

The CIA public relations office in New York released what they called the Cuban Revolutionary Council’s Bulletin Number 3; the announcement read: ‘The Cuban Revolutionary Council wishes to announce that the principal battle of the Cuban Revolt against Castro will be fought in the next few hours. Action today was largely of a supply and support effort to forces which have been mobilized and trained inside Cuba over the past several months. The tremendous army of invincible soldier-patriots has now received its instructions to strike the vital blow for the liberation of their beloved country. Our partisans in every town and village in Cuba will receive, in a manner known only to them, the message that will spark a tremendous wave of internal conflict against the tyrant.’

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 first attack of the night soon occurred, but it did not come from the expected direction: the Brigade’s advanced guard from San Blas made contact with an armored column. The Castro force overpowered the small unit, and its survivors evacuated by trucks in the face of the advancing column. When they had fallen back to a safe distance the brigadistas were joined by a mortar unit. They observed the Fidelistas coming down the road, and held their fire until the enemy was well in range; the mortars halted any further advance toward San Blas for the rest of the night.

Castro’s batteries brought down fire upon the brigadistas holding Playa Larga. When Oliva learned that the enemy was being reinforced with 40 tanks, he immediately deployed his bazookas to the front lines closest to the road. The artillery bombardment stopped after delivering more than 2,000 rounds – with little effect, due to the long, narrow front and entrenched positions of the Brigade. A column of T-34 tanks then rolled through the crossroads; the M41s fired from fixed positions, knocking out the first two. When a third T-34 came around the two disabled tanks an M41 rammed into it, backed away, and then fired point-blank, damaging its track and forcing it to withdraw.

Throughout the evening San Román expected the ships to return, and had a large working party standing by to unload the much-needed supplies, but no ships or landing craft arrived.

Oliva called in mortar fire on Castro’s infantry, with deadly results; but, out of ammunition, the Brigade tanks were forced to pull back. Castro’s tanks kept coming, working their way past the wreckage; as one was knocked out by a Brigade bazooka man another took its place, and the ammunition continued to dwindle.

San Román’s position had come under heavy artillery fire. He split his reserve and placed the troops in blocking positions along the two roads coming in from the east and northeast, as well as establishing a blocking position along the road from Playa Larga to the northwest. He figured that Oliva would be falling back on Blue Beach to consolidate the Brigade.

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.

The only fighting still continuing that morning was in the area of San Blas, where a Fidelista column was still stalled by the paratroopers.

Castro’s forces began another push at San Blas. The Brigade was under continuous air attack, with Castro’s planes making strafing runs throughout the beachhead. Brigade aircraft also flew missions that day, but some were flown by American CIA pilots; the Cuban pilots had made the aborted early morning mission, and many were too exhausted to fly the six-hour round trip again. The American advisors were authorized to fill in for them by CIA officials without the knowledge of President Kennedy.

Oliva suggested that they break out to the east through Cienfuegos and try to reach the Escambray Mountains, where they could conduct guerrilla operations. San Román opposed this idea, considering that the mountains were too far away – especially since there were too few trucks to transport the men.

The ammunition situation was critical; luckily the Fidelistas, although superior in numbers, had been bloodied badly each time they had mounted a major thrust. They continued to apply pressure on the shrinking perimeter of the beachhead, but were not anxious to mount an all-out attack on any front; this lack of aggressiveness reflected the respect they had gained for the Brigade during the initial battles.

Radio contact was finally established with the Blagar at 10.30am; San Román requested resupply of food, ammunition, medical supplies and communications equipment, and he was promised that it would be delivered that night. The Blagar told him that if things really got bad they would evacuate the Brigade from the beaches. San Román replied: ‘I will not be evacuated. We will fight until the end here if we have to.’ This sealed his decision to remain at Girón.

At one point during the night San Román thought the Fidelistas were massing for an attack on his western front, but the attack never materialized. The only actions during that night were light skirmishes as the Fidelistas probed the Brigade’s line.

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.

A C-46 landed at Girón airstrip, delivering bazooka rockets, ammunition, maps and communication equipment. Three aircraft had taken off, but two had turned back. The C-46 picked up a wounded pilot who had crashed in the area days before, and left after being on the ground for about ten minutes. This would be the only aircraft to operate from the strip at Girón throughout the entire operation.

The captain of the Blagar radioed a request for a destroyer escort to take him in to the beach, claiming that without it his crew would mutiny. The CIA ordered the Blagar to abort, and rendezvous at a point 60 miles south of Blue Beach. This ended the last opportunity to resupply the Brigade.

Castro’s troops entered San Blas and pushed through toward Girón. There was nothing to stop them until they reached the blocking positions just outside the town. The brigadistas were reinforced there by two tanks, and held out until they too ran out of ammunition; they then fell back into the town of Girón.

On the western front of the beachhead, a tank action developed. Oliva held the line there and directed mortar fire onto the oncoming T-34s, forcing the Castro troops to retreat and regroup. The Fidelistas renewed their attack; just as the Brigade lines were starting to fail Oliva ordered a counterattack, thereby successfully holding the line. He eventually pulled his force back into Girón to establish new fighting positions.

San Román heard the T-34s rumbling into Girón, and realized the Brigade could not hold. He sent a final message to the Blagar reading: ‘Am destroying all my equipment and communications. Tanks are in sight. I have nothing left to fight with. Am taking to the woods. I cannot wait for you.’

As Oliva pulled his men back to Girón he went to look for San Román, but the commander had already wrecked his headquarters and gone. Oliva found abandoned tanks, equipment and machine guns on the beach; men were wandering around aimlessly, with nowhere to go, or trying to get out to sea in small boats and rafts. Oliva formed a small unit of the men he could find and marched them to the east in the direction of Cienfuegos. A short distance out of Girón the column was strafed; it broke up, and men fled individually into the swamps. This ended the last organized fighting of the Bay of Pigs campaign.

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.

If the making of a radical revolution in Cuba required a break with the United States, the defence of a radical revolution in the face of a US attack demanded support from the Soviet Union. Fidel Castro proclaimed that he was a Marxist-Leninist and that he would be so until death. Raul Castro, the armed forces minister, travelled to Moscow to secure additional Soviet military backing.

For weeks following the battle, the remnants of the Brigade were hunted down and captured, or managed to escape from Cuba by one way or another. The captured brigadistas were detained at first at the Sports Palace, and later in the Spanish colonial-era fortifications and prisons of Havana.

On the Soviet side, the possibility of stationing strategic missiles in Cuba seemed to be a political and military coup. A Soviet strategic base in Cuba would parallel US bases ringing the USSR, and the reaction time and accuracy of a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States would be improved.

During a series of show trials the brigadistas were paraded in front of the press, being questioned about their role in the Brigade and why they served as pawns of the CIA. Approximately five were put on trial for war crimes committed during the Batista period. During these long months the Castro government and the United States began negotiations for the release of the POWs, whom the Cubans had termed as mercenaries. After 20 months in captivity, the majority of the POWs were allowed to leave Cuba.

The victory of Fidel Castro’s forces at the Bay of Pigs propelled the dictator to declare Cuba a socialist country at the May Day rally a couple of weeks after the battle. This became known as the Second Declaration of Havana, and no longer left any question about the political affiliation of the Cuban government.

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.’

Along the roads heading south to Playa Girón are monuments raised where Cuban government soldiers fell; schoolchildren in white and red uniforms and red bandanas troop into a museum full of weapons and battle memorabilia, to learn a lesson in revolutionary heroism. Across the Florida Straits, the memories of the battle are still painfully remembered.