By GLENN GARVIN
Herald Staff Writer
MANAGUA -- Almost 37 years after their plane, lost in the rainy night, crashed into the Nicaraguan jungle, the CIA is ready to bring home the bodies of two Miami pilots who flew bombing missions at the Bay of Pigs.
The same U.S. Army team that searches for the remains of servicemen missing in action in Southeast Asia is assembling here today to start searching the remote hilltop crash site where the men have lain in unmarked graves for nearly four decades.
``I can't even tell you how I feel,'' said Miami mailman Frank Garcia, the son of one of the pilots. ``I want to be on a plane for Miami with his body. This is what I've wanted for so long, to be able to visit my father's grave.''
His father, Crispin Garcia, and Juan de Mata Gonzalez were part of a small CIA-trained air force that flew bombing missions in support of the Cuban exile army that landed at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 in a disastrous attempt to unseat Fidel Castro.
But when their B-26 crashed as it attempted to return to a clandestine CIA airfield in Nicaragua, it took the agency seven months to find the wreckage. And then, still smarting from the embarrassment of the failed invasion, the CIA decided to leave the pilots' bodies where local peasants had buried them at the crash site.
``If there's anything the CIA doesn't like to talk about -- then or now -- it's the Bay of Pigs,'' said Janet Ray Weininger, whose own father died after being shot down during a Bay of Pigs mission for the agency. ``Believe me, I know.''
A five-year campaign
Weininger, who managed to retrieve her father's body from Cuba after a decade of badgering both the CIA and Castro's government, has spearheaded the effort to recover the remains of Garcia and Gonzalez.
For five years, she bombarded the CIA with letters and phone calls. And when the agency not only refused to mount a recovery mission but said it wouldn't even release information from its files about the location of the crash site, she announced that she'd find it herself.
In 1995, with a party that included Frank Garcia, she did just that, after a four-hour mule trek through the jungle. But although a day of hard digging turned up several fragments of the B-26, they didn't find any bodies.
Last year, after Weininger flew to Washington to plead her case in person, the CIA finally relented, agreeing to put up $70,000 for the mission and ask for help from the U.S. Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, which uses forensic archaeological techniques to identify remains of missing U.S. servicemen.
The Army identification team will make a preliminary visit to the crash site -- 12 miles north of the town of San Jose de Bocay -- today. The team will begin moving 13,000 pounds of equipment to the site by helicopter on Wednesday and start clearing vegetation from the area. The tedious and arduous work of digging and sifting, which could take up to a month, may start by Saturday.
Tackling a mystery
Besides looking for the remains of Garcia and Gonzalez, the Army team will try to clear up tantalizing hints of a mystery. A Nicaraguan soldier who says he visited the crash site shortly after it was discovered in 1961 claims to have seen a third body, possibly a woman, in the wreckage.
But recently declassified CIA records show nothing about a third body at the site, nor anything about other unaccounted-for personnel.
The CIA cables, declassified last year as part of an ongoing agency project to release Bay of Pigs records, do make it possible for the first time to sketch out the broad outlines of the story of the missing B-26.
Garcia and Gonzalez, short on fuel after patrolling the air over the invasion site for several hours, made an emergency landing at the Boca Chica Naval Air Station near Key West on April 17, 1961. CIA officials there -- who were putting out a cover story that the bombing missions were being flown by defectors from Castro's own air force -- were anything but happy to see them.
The two men were permitted to rest for a couple of hours, then ordered to fly back to the clandestine CIA airfield in northeast Nicaragua that was directing the air war over the Bay of Pigs.
But by the time the plane reached the Nicaraguan coast, it was dark, and they couldn't spot the airstrip. With their plane pounded by thunderstorms and apparently limping along on a single engine, they flew 140 miles past their destination.
Wing clipped off
As they flew over the fierce jungle-covered hill country of Nicaragua's Jinotega province, one of the plane's wings clipped a tall tree atop a 1,000-foot peak. The wing broke off and the plane slammed into the hillside a few hundred yards away.
Cables between the CIA's Nicaraguan air base, Miami station and Washington headquarters make it clear that the missing aircraft was just one more element in a mounting disaster, with the invasion force pinned down on the beach and transport ships being sunk off the Cuban coast.
The CIA's chief worry was that the two pilots might be working secretly for Castro. If so, one frantic official noted in a cable, they would be able to fly into the secret CIA air base in Nicaragua and bomb it before anyone realized that they were the enemy.
But when nothing more was heard from the plane, it was largely forgotten as the agency dealt with the collapse of the rest of the invasion. It wasn't until early November that the CIA station chief in Managua cabled Washington with news of plane wreckage spotted in Jinotega province.
And even then, the suspicion was that the wreckage was of a Cuban air force plane on a covert revenge mission directed against Nicaragua in retaliation for its help with the Bay of Pigs. Gen. Anastasio Somoza, later president but then commander of Nicaragua's army, flew out to inspect the wreckage with the CIA station chief.
What the CIA was told
They confirmed that the plane was the missing CIA aircraft. ``Of crew, found only three shoes, parts of parachutes, and one sheath knife scabbard,'' the station chief cabled Washington. ``Local who buried remains states bodies headless, limbless, barely recognizable as human remains. No clothing or identity papers. . . . Remains are buried at crash site.''
Meanwhile, officials at the CIA station in Miami had contacted Jose Miro Cardona, former Cuban premier and one of the top political leaders of the Bay of Pigs exile army.
Miro Cardona suggested leaving the bodies where they were, the Miami
station chief cabled Washington. If they were brought back, ``it could
very well generate reactions which could result in bad publicity. . . .
It would only serve to revive the `April business' again.'' Besides, Miro
Cardona told the CIA, ``families of crew members probably already have
given them up for dead.''