Bay of Pigs pilot honored
After 40 years, CIA flier finally breaks silence
BY THOMAS R. COLLINS
Cox News Service
PALM BEACH GARDENS -- He trained Cuban Americans to bomb their
homeland. He fell in love with the cause. He joined the assault on the Bay of Pigs
and flew for his life. Then Carl Nick Sudano barely mentioned any of it for 40
He'd let out a whisper now and then about his work in support
of "the agency.''
But for the most part, the CIA code of silence suited Sudano's need to downplay
himself, to go about his business and leave it at that.
On Jan. 20, the CIA honored him with a rare Agency Seal Medallion
of his support during the embarrassing failure to overthrow Fidel Castro in April
He was honored along with the man who flew the B-26 bomber he
nearly died in
and the families of two other men, an unusual public display about a chapter in
American history the CIA has good reason to try to forget.
The U.S. government said 114 Cuban exiles and four American pilots
died in a
mission that Washington portrayed as a strictly Cuban uprising that it had nothing
to do with. It was originally designed as a gradual escalation of anti-Castro forces,
with help from the U.S. It ballooned into an all-out invasion, its budget jumping
from $4 million to $46 million, in which the American-trained invaders were
trapped on the beach by Castro's men.
One of the American trainers, Sudano only had to keep quiet for
20 years, he
said. The next 20 was his decision alone. But secrecy doesn't come so naturally
Then 31, now 70, Sudano got involved, he said, when his friend
at the Alabama
Air National Guard, Riley Shamburger, told him pilots were wanted to help train
Cuban exiles how to fly in combat for some ``important'' government mission.
He'd do it.
"I was getting bored a little, sitting around in Birmingham, Ala.,''
Sudano said. He
told his wife he was going to technical school. Pilot Carl Nick Sudano became
civilian Nick Sudoli, so everyone could deny knowing him if things went wrong.
Americans were to have no acknowledged role in the invasion -- President John F.
Kennedy said so.
He arrived to a surreal atmosphere at the training ground in Puerto
Nicaragua. News had broken about the CIA's plan to organize Cuban Americans
to storm the shores of Cuba and eventually topple Castro, but no one, no one
official at least, ever said the words "Bay of Pigs.''
There was a divide, both culturally and psychologically, between
and the Cubans. But Sudano -- known simultaneously as drinker,
bar-room-brawler and heck-of-a-nice-guy -- made several Cuban friends right away
in a setting where some reports say the Cubans were treated poorly.
"You talk about families,'' said Sudano, "how homesick they might
be and their
cause to try to liberate their country. I became very attached to their cause, too
much so, I think.''
The Cubans trained by Sudano and many other Americans never had
Sudano said, because Kennedy decided to withhold U.S. air support that was
needed to obliterate Castro's air power. The invading forces were encircled by
Castro's troops a few days into the mission. The exile pilots, some having flown
10 or more missions, were dog-tired.
The Americans weren't, though. And despite the orders that they
not fly to Cuba,
Shamburger had another proposition for Sudano on the invasion's last day, April
"Our president said, 'No.' We said, 'Screw you, we're going,'''
Sudano said. He
and seven other men in four other planes got their superiors' blessings and took
off in bombers disguised as Cuban. Sudano paired with Joe Shannon.
It was a suicide mission. But Sudano was sure he'd be just fine,
said, you're always sure if you're in combat.
PLANE SHOT DOWN
After a three-hour flight, the bombers were descending toward
their targets. Then
their run stopped before it started. He heard Shamburger say over the radio, "I'm
hit. On fire.''
"I looked behind me and I saw Riley peeling off, going down toward
Caribbean,'' Sudano said. One of his best military friends was dead but Sudano,
to survive, had to ignore it. The Cuban T-33 wanted them next. Four of the group's
eight men didn't make it back, Sudano said.
Shannon guided the plane low, because his plane was more maneuverable
altitudes than the T-33.
"I didn't think we had a spitting chance in hell at that time,'' Sudano said.
Twenty feet above the Caribbean, Shannon zigzagged at 325 miles
per hour. The
Cuban fighter couldn't lock in on them. They lived.
At the ceremony in Birmingham, emotions came out.
"I had a frog in my throat about 3 pounds,'' Sudano said. He was
so moved he
couldn't bring himself to deliver his prepared speech, in which he would have
decried "the arrogance and stupidity of decisions made by political hacks,''
meaning, he says, primarily Kennedy.
The four who died were honored years ago. Sudano received little
about the choice to honor the survivors now. In a letter to him, the CIA wrote that
"we've located records'' identifying Sudano and others as having flown but never
having been honored. That's it.
His story told, he ponders the medallion's meaning. It'll be a
terrific heirloom for
the grandkids, he declares.
At last, he says, "I'm proud of it, no doubt about it.''