December 31, 1996


The Bay of Pigs operation was doomed by presidential indecisiveness and lack of commitment.

THIRTY-FIVE years ago, 1,500 exiled Cuban patriots landed on the south coast of their country, at the Bay of Pigs, in a gallant effort to free Cuba from Communist rule. They were abandoned on the beach without the supplies, protection, and support that had been promised by their sponsor, the Government of the United States. They had no chance of succeeding in their mission, and nearly all of them were captured or killed.

For 35 years, bound by my oath not to reveal classified information, I kept silent about the fatal errors in judgment that led to this disaster. Now this information is no longer classified, and I believe the facts should be reported.

My involvement with the Cuba Project began during the Eisenhower Administration. In late August of 1960, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David Shoup, told me that the CIA had requested the services of a Marine officer to assist in the landing of a small force of Cuban exiles. I had the required experience in amphibious operations, and also in guerrilla warfare (Philippines, 1943), and so he was assigning me to the job. I reported to the CIA on September 1.

At the CIA, I was assigned duty as Chief of the Paramilitary Staff of the Cuba Project, responsible directly to the Chief of the Cuba Project, Mr. Jacob Esterline.

I soon learned that the Cuba Project had been initiated by President Eisenhower in January 1960, when it had become clear that Castro was a Communist bent not only on establishing a Communist state in Cuba but also on subverting other Latin Arnerican countries. President Eisenhower decided that Castro should be overthrown and directed the CIA to prepare plans to that end.

The concept of the operation, developed by the CIA before involved training paramilitary teams of Cuban exiles to be introduced secretly back into their country for purposes of intelligence, sabotage, propaganda, and political and guerrilla activity. Each team would have a radio capable of communicating with the United States. It was planned also to form a small infantry force of 200 to 300 men that could be sent in to augment guerrilla activity fostered by the teams.

The project was flawed from the outset owing to diplomatic/political considerations. The safest and most efficient venues for both training camps and bases of operations would have been in the United States or Puerto Rico. However, the CIA was anxious not to have the operation appear to be run by the United States, and so training camps and airfields were established in Guatemala and Nicaragua, at extremely unsuitable locations. The training camp in Guatemala was located on the side of a remote volcano with very little level ground. Conditions there were extremely crowded and became health-threatening as additional recruits arrived. And from the airfield in Nicaragua chosen for tactical air operations, Cuba was just barely within range of the B-26 bombers procured by the CIA for the exile air force.

If the Cuban forces had been trained here, they could have been ready for action months earlier than they were, an important consideration. While the preparations continued, the Soviet Union was pouring great quantities of arms and other matCriel into Cuba, enabling Castro to organize and equip large militia forces and consolidate his security system for control of the Cuban people. In view of these rapidly growing capabilities, the Deputy Director for Plans at the CIA, Mr. Richard Bissell, decided that the planned infantry force of 200 to 300 would not be large enough; more like 1,500 men would be needed to establish a serious presence in Cuba. I expressed reservations about a force this large in view of the increased difficulties in recruiting, training, and providing support. However, President Eisenhower directed that preparations be made for a larger force.

In late 1960 and early 1961, teams of paramilitary agents were landed in many places on the Cuban coast. Most of the teams established radio communication with the CIA, but some were captured immediately and never heard from again. The surviving teams reported that there were large numbers of men in all provinces of Cuba who were willing to fight against Castro if they were armed. The CIA tried to supply arms and ammunition to some of the teams by nocturnal parachute drops, but without success. The Cuban pilots were not experienced enough for these difficult missions, and our request for permission to use American contract pilots was denied, again so that the U.S. would not appear to be too deeply involved. The only sizable delivery of arms through the efforts of the agent teams was made by sea to a 400-man guerrilla unit operating in the Escambray mountains of central Cuba. About 1,000 guerrillas operated in this area in separate groups for many months.

Soon after President Kennedy's inauguration, Mr. Bissell briefed him about the Cuba Project. The new President was interested and scheduled a series of meetings at the White House involving the Secretary of State, Mr. Dean Rusk; the Secretary of Defense, Mr. Robert McNamara; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer; and Mr. Bissell. Each of these officials brought assistants to these meetings, and I usually accompanied Mr. Bissell.

President Kennedy emphasized that operations would have to be conducted in such a way that U.S. involvement could be "plausibly deniable." This was the fundamental mistake underlying the other fatal errors that led to the failure of the operation. It should have been apparent to all concerned that the recruiting of large numbers of Cubans in Miami, followed by the landing of a well-armed Cuban exile force in Cuba with air support, would be attributed to the United States. If that was held to be unacceptable, the operation should have been canceled; if it was not canceled, it should have received the support required for success. As it was, the Administration neither escaped blame nor succeeded in liberating Cuba.

THE crucial point at issue was air support. Throughout my participation in the Cuba Project, I frequently emphasized, both orally and in formal correspondence, the absolute necessity for complete destruction of the opposing air force at the outset of the operation. In January 1961, in a memorandum to higher CIA authority, I recommended that the landing operation be canceled if sufficient air operations were not to be allowed. In another memorandum in early 1961, I stated flatly that if Castro's aircraft were not all destroyed before the troop transports arrived at the landing beaches, a military disaster would occur. An unarmed freighter cannot approach a hostile shore, drop anchor, and unload troops, supplies, and equipment while under fighter and bomber attack. Mr. Rusk did not seem to grasp this point. At the White House meetings, it became clear that he was unalterably opposed to any air operations whatsoever. To my surprise and chagrin, neither Mr. McNamara nor Gen. Lemnitzer spoke up in these meetings in defense of the necessity of eliminating Castro's air force completely by preliminary air strikes. And so, when the recommendations of the State Department conflicted with those of the CIA, the President usually adopted Mr. Rusk's position.

Absolute control of the air was essential not only for the landing but also for further operations in Cuba. Our Cuban Brigade was small and could not be expected to undertake operations beyond its initial lodgement unless the strength of the opposing militia was seriously reduced by combat losses-or by defection to our side. Many of the militia were of dubious loyalty to Castro and might well have turned against him had this operation been properly launched.

As the spring of 1961 approached, the Brigade, now up to planned strength, and its supporting tactical air force of 16 B-26s were nearing readiness for combat. Commercial freighters were chartered for the operation, four for the assault phase and three for follow-on delivery of supplies. Meanwhile, the time element was becoming critical. The Soviet Union continued delivering arms and equipment to Cuba and was training jet pilots for Castro in Eastern Europe. Soon Castro would have a modern jet air force, and a paramilitary effort to overthrow him would have no chance of success.

After long study, the Paramilitary Staff had concluded that by far the best place, and probably the only place, where a successful landing (i.e., one likely to lead to the overthrow of Castro) could be made was at Trinidad near the middle of the southern coast of Cuba. Good landing beaches were available very near the Escambray mountains, where, as noted above, anti-Castro guerrillas were already operating. The Brigade could quickly establish itself in these mountains and incorporate the guerrillas already there.

Trinidad itself had a population of about 18,000, offering the possibility of recruiting additional volunteers. Our agent teams had informed us that most of the people in the area were opposed to Castro.

The Paramilitary Staff prepared a complete plan for the Trinidad operation, which was presented to the President and his advisors. Mr. Rusk strongly opposed the plan, saying that it was too much like an invasion and too easily attributable to the United States. He thought the Soviet Union might be provoked to the extent of taking action against the United States in Berlin o elsewhere in the world.

Once again, the President agreed with Mr. Rusk. He rejected the Trinidad plan and directed that a plan be developed that would be less noisy and less like an invasion. He also adopted the restriction advanced by Mr. Rusk that an airfield capable of supporting B-26 operations would have to be captured on the first day so that all air operations could be attributed to that field.

This was the first fatal error made by President Kennedy:

rejecting a plan that offered a good chance of success and placing "plausible deniability" ahead of military viability.

Pursuant to Mr. Bissell's oral instructions to me, the Paramilitary Staff studied the entire coast of Cuba in an effort to find a landing area that would satisfy the President's requirements. We found that the only place on the Cuban coast which did so and could be held even for a minimal time was at the Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs).

I reported this orally to Mr. Bissell and briefly described the area. Behind the beach lay a long narrow strip of flat, scrub-covered land from three to six miles in depth and forty miles wide. This land was cut off from the interior by a great swamp, impassable except for three narrow causeways approaching the beach from the north and a coastal road from the east, all of which could probably be blocked for a time by the Brigade (and on the other side of the swamp by Castro's militia).

I pointed out to Mr. Bissell that the Brigade could hold on there for only a limited time and would have no hope of breaking out through the swamp and reaching guerrilla country in the Escambray mountains eighty miles away. However, since the Bay of Pigs was the only place that met the President's requirements, Mr. Bissell decided on the spot that we would have to go ahead on that basis. This was another fatal error, as Mr. Bissell later acknowledged, lamenting that he had never informed the President that landing at the Bay of Pigs ruled out the possibility of guerrilla warfare in the Escambray mountains.

Our plan for the Bay of Pigs landing provided for an attack on three Cuban military airfields by 16 B-26 bombers on April 15, the landing itself during darkness in the early morning of April 17, and a second 16-bomber attack against the military airfields at first light on April 17. The President approved the plan and directed that all preparations continue. However, he also stated that he would not finally decide whether to execute the operation until 24 hours before it was scheduled to begin.

Not long after this, the Chief of the Cuba Project, Mr. Esterline, and I had a serious talk about the outlook for the Bay of Pigs operation and found ourselves in complete agreement that it was certain to fail. We went to Mr. Bissell at his home on a Sunday to attempt to dissuade him from continuing with the operation. We even went so far as to say that we did not want to be parties to the disaster we believed lay ahead.

Mr. Bissell tried to reassure us and implored us not to let him down. He said he thought he could persuade the President to permit an increase in our air capability to ensure destruction of Castro's air force. But he gave no assurance about other weaknesses of the plan.

I thought that after hearing unequivocal predictions of complete disaster from his two principal staff officers who were most familiar with the military aspects of the plan, Mr. Bissell would re-examine the whole operation. It had become obvious that the military requirements for a successful operation and the President's insistence on plausible deniability were in irreconcilable conflict. However, Mr. Bissell could not bring himself to give up on the plan. This was another fatal error.

On April 14, devastating instructions me from the White House. The President informed Mr. Bissell that he wanted the number of participating aircraft reduced to the minimum. Mr. Bissell, without consulting Mr. Esterline or me, volunteered to cut the number by half, from 16 to 8 -- although 16 was considered the minimal number for destroying 18 opposing aircraft scattered on three different fields. The President accepted Mr. Bissell's offer. Military failure was now virtually assured.

The attack was carried out the next morning with only eight B-26s, and our fears were confirmed when post-strike photography revealed that half of Castro's military aircraft, including five fighters, had escaped destruction. These posed a deadly threat to the landing and to our B-26s as well.

News of the attack spread rapidly. At the United Nations, Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, a leading figure in the Democratic Party, who had not been informed about the operation, denied U.S. involvement. When he learned the truth, he was outraged and protested to the President that this affair was extremely embarrassing both to the President and to him. He was reinforced in that position by Mr. Rusk.

This led the President to make another decision, which made disaster absolutely certain. I was in the CIA operations room at about 10 P.M. on April 16, three hours before the troops were to commence landing, when Mr. Esterline hurried in with an ashen face and told me that the President had canceled the second attack on Castro's air force, the one scheduled for first light the next morning. Appalled, I rushed to the telephone and called Mr. Bissell, who was at the State Department, and urged him in the strongest terms to call the President and explain that the invasion force faced certain destruction unless the order was reversed. I predicted that our troop transports would be under air attack and some or all would be sunk.

After my plea, Mr. Bissell and General C. P. Cabell, the Deputy Director of the CIA, spoke to Mr. Rusk. He telephoned the President, who had left Washington, and told him that the CIA wanted to reinstate the air strike that he believed the decision should be changed. McGeorge Bundy, the National Security Advisor, seconded Rusk's advice. The cancellation remained in effect.

This final incredible mistake doomed Brigade 2506. The President himself had initially approved the original operation plan, which provided for forty B-26 sorties in preliminary air strikes. After his last-minute cuts, only eight sorties were flown, a reduction of 80 per cent.

While Washington floundered, the troops of Brigade 2506 landed successfully in darkness. But when morning came, Castro's fighters and bombers attacked, and they continued to attack all day. Unloading supplies from the ships was impossible. Two ships were sunk, and the remaining two had to flee at top speed.

The Brigade fought hard and well for three days and was not overrun or driven from its position. With their supply ships either sunk or chased away, the troops eventually ran out of ammunition and had to surrender.

During three days of combat, from 3,000 to 4,000 casualties were inflicted upon Castro's hard-core militia, mostly by B-26 attacks on troop convoys. The hard-core militia, the only troops trusted by Castro, were limited in number and could not long have endured casualties of such magnitude.

Before the surrender, Admiral Arleigh "31-knot" Burke, the Chief of Naval Operations, requested permission from the President to have carrier aircraft eliminate the rest of Castro's air force and fly cover and support for the Brigade, and to use Navy landing craft to evacuate the troops from the beach. The President refused.

It was noteworthy that when the Brigade landed, the defending militia unit fought little and surrendered quickly. About 150 men were captured, and nearly all volunteered to join the Brigade and fight against Castro. Civilians in the landing area also volunteered to help the Brigade.

THESE facts confirmed that our concept of the operation had merit, and that, if the landing had been made at Trinidad as recommended, and with adequate air support, the objective of overthrowing the Communist government might well have been accomplished.

But, as things turned out, Brigade 2506 was left stranded on the beach, shamefully misled and betrayed by the Government of the United States. The last message from JosC "Pepe" San Romxn, the Brigade Commander, was, "How can you people do this to us?"

Less than four months into the Kennedy Administration, the Bay of Pigs fiasco caused the U.S. Government to be perceived as weak, irresolute, and inept. Undoubtedly, Chairman Khrushchev was reassured that he had little to fear from the United States as he pressed on with his plans to turn Cuba into a Soviet armed camp.

If those plans had been aborted at the outset, there would have been no missile crisis bringing us to the brink of nuclear war, and Cuba would be a free and prosperous country today.

Jack Hawkins is a retired colonel in the United States Marine Corps.