By LIZ BALMASEDA
Herald Staff Writer
The hero’s funeral Catherine Baker had planned for her husband 21 years is off. Last week the State Department broke the news to her: Leo Francis Baker, an Alabama Air National Guard pilot killed during the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, already has been buried.
His body was secretly dumped into a common grave years ago. The remains lie together with other bodies in the Cristobal Colón cemetery of Havana. The Cuban government says it is impossible to separate the remains, far less return the body.
Baker, a community newspaper columnist in Hamden, Ohio, was told this a year after Cuban authorities said the body of Leo Francis Baker would be returned "in the next few days."
"I think it’s a real shame that she had her hopes built up for the past several years," said Jim Webb, a spokesman for the State Department consular affairs office. "Now she learns that there is nothing that can be done."
Leo Francis Baker, a 33-year-old World War II flying ace who ran two pizza parlors in Birmingham, was one of four Alabama airmen killed during the invasion of April 17, 1961, the CIA-organized mission that threw 1,400 Cuban exiles against a Castro force of 100,000 armed troops.
The CIA, in search of pilots experienced on the old B26 bomber, had enlisted the help of the Alabama Air National Guard in training the anti-Castro brigade in Florida and Central America.
The American pilots who participated in the invasion were sent out without President John F. Kennedy’s authorization. Kennedy was not told about their participation until nearly two years later.
Two of the Alabama airmen, Riley W. Shamburger and Wade C. Gray, were shot down and apparently died when their aircraft crashed into the water at Giron Beach. Their bodies have never been found.
Leo Baker flew in the other doomed plane, piloted by Thomas Willard Ray. Both are believed to have survived the crash, only to be killed on the ground by Castro’s milicianos.
Baker was found dead on the beach, wearing gray pants, a white T-shirt and tennis shoes. He was 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 160 pounds. In his pockets were a buffalo nickel: a U.S. pilot’s license, No. 0832321-M; a Social Security card, No. 014-07-6921, in the name of Leo Francis Bell, 148 Beacon St., Boston.
Shortly after the invasion, the International Red Cross issued a news release about the physical description of the dead pilot. It said the address in Boston, the city where Baker grew up, was nonexistent.
By that time, Baker now knows, the Cubans had registered an unidentified body that fit that description: #425-E. It was buried in square 5, second class, row 10, grave 18 of the Cristobal Colón cemetery in Havana.
The first years after her husband’s death, Catherine Baker recalls, were the most disturbing.
Facts about the U.S. role on the beaches of Las Villas Province in 1961 remained under tight cover.
For the widows of the four American pilots, there were many afternoons that seemed to dissolve in aimless talk and alcohol, says Baker. The women didn’t know each other before they became widows. Suddenly they were companions, drawn awkwardly by a historic blunder.
There was Jane Shamburger, wife of star pilot Riley Shamburger; Margaret Ray, wife of Thomas Ray, whose body was returned in 1979; and Violet Gray, wife of pilot Wad Gray. All of them had children.
Their only contact with the United States government was a team of government-hired attorneys in Birmingham, Baker said. It was the attorneys who told them their husbands had died.
She was behind the counter of one of her pizza shops when two lawyers came in with the news. They followed her home and told her Leo Baker was found dead in plane wreckage in the Caribbean. That was all.
One time at the attorneys’ office, Baker said, she saw her husband’s death certificate.
"It said he met his death in an accidental drowning," she said.
The American widows clung to each other as an odd sort of sorority.
"We had lost our husbands in this historical event, and nobody wanted us to admit it and nobody wanted us to talk about it. ‘Don’t make waves,’ the said, ‘or they might cut your income off.’ "
In 1966, Baker left the widows’ circle in Birmingham, fearing she would become "a basket case and a drunk." She moved to Hamden, next door to her mother.
In her efforts to retrieve her husband’s body, Baker wrote her congressman and every embassy she could think of, asking for intercession with the Cuban government.
The first promising response came from the State Department last April, the 20th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
The communiqué said:
"In a diplomatic note...we asked the Cuban foreign ministry to assist the Baker family as a humanitarian gesture. ...A foreign ministry official advised in a follow-up telephone conversation that the matter would be looked into."
The next communication came shortly afterward. It said the government of Cuba "advised officially that it will return the body of Bay of Pigs pilot Leo Francis Baker in the very near future."
"The final details of positive identification are now being completed. The government of Cuba will wrap the formalities up in a few days and coordinate arrangement with the U.S. Interests Section for the return of the remains to the Baker family."
On Feb. 19, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana asked the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Relations (MINREX) about the status of the Baker case.
Last week, MINREX responded, saying it was impossible to deliver the remains of Leo Baker:
"This in spite of the recent investigations by the Institute of Legal Medicine using data provided by the relatives, which coincides with that of the cadaver registered as #425-E in 1961."
Cuban authorities said they had ordered the cadaver exhumed several years ago for identification.
"Subsequently the administration of the cemetery informed us that said remains, due to the passage of years, had already been transferred to the common grave and identification of them was now impossible.
"From what we have explained in the [identification report], we can conclude that the body #425-E was indeed that of Leo Francis Baker, but that those remains can no longer be identified, as they are in the common burial plot of the cemetery together with the remains of others."
Catherine Baker was married to Leo Baker for two years before he was killed. They met at his pizza parlor one night when she came in, ordered a beer and struck up a conversation.
She didn’t know much about the man she married, Baker says. She knew he was unpredictable—"he would always gripe about my smoking, but for my birthday he got me a silver cigarette lighter"—that he was a pilot, that he was divorced and had one child.
She didn’t know he had been a flight engineer in World War II, wounded in one leg, that he had been awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, and an Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters for excelling in an air offensive against Japan.
She did know where her husband was going the Sunday morning in March 1961 when she drove him to the Birmingham airport. It was the last time she saw him. She knew he was involved in a secret mission to help a brigade of Cuban exiles overthrow Fidel Castro.
"Helping the Cubans get their country back was something he believed in. He thought his government was behind him," said Catherine Baker.
The husband and wife talked at length about the future before they said goodbye. He told her to deep an eye on the newspapers in the early part of May for new about Cuba. He said to make sure his oldest daughter—by a previous marriage—practiced her piano, and that their 1-year-old "stay on her toes."
He told her to take care of herself and not to spoil the baby. When they said goodbye, Catherine Baker was four months pregnant. Their youngest child was born in September 1961, five months after her father was killed.
The 21 years after Leo Baker’s death have unraveled bittersweetly for his widow. In two decades, she became a grandmother five times. She lost one infant grandchild and she lost her father. She never remarried.
"This may sound tacky to say, but I owe it to him," she says.
A few months ago she applied for a visa to travel to Havana, where she plans to "lay some flowers on a common grave."
Before she goes to Havana, Catherine Baker wants to stop in Miami. She’s heard there is a monument to the fallen on SW Eighth Street and 13th Avenue and she wants to place a bouquet of margaritas—daisies—on it.
She says she feels a special bond with the Cuban exiles, the Bay of Pigs veterans an their families.
"They lost so much. I lost my husband. They lost a country."