April 18, 1975
By MIGUEL PEREZ
Herald Staff writer
It was just another humid, tropical night in the Caribbean, but it transformed the lives of thousands of people in Southern Florida. Juan Perez‑Franco was there.
He was 32, still tough and wiry, parachuting down near the town of San Blas, 27 kilometers inland from Giron Beach, the Bay of Pigs, Cuba.
Perez‑Franco was one of 1,400 Cuban exiles recruited, trained, armed and dispatched by the U.S. government. As he landed near the southern coast of Cuba, he saw the American war ships on the horizon, saw American planes flying overhead. He was, like the others, confident of victory, convinced they would drive Fidel Castro from power, assured that Uncle Sam's helping hand was right behind them.
They fought bravely, driving Castro's soldiers back, destroying tanks and artillery as they pressed inland. Then, the tide turned: Their food and ammunition began to run out.
Their radios pleaded: "For God's sake, send help." But the expected U.S. air support never came, the expected uprising inside Cuba never materialized.
Brigade 2506 had lost a battle, vanquishing the hopes of some 30,000 Cubans who by then had found refuge from Castro in South Florida.
THAT WAS 14 years ago, but the veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion remembered April 17, 1961 as clearly as yesterday. Thursday, Perez‑Franco stood be for e a monument erected by Cubans in memory of 200 who were
killed in the battle. As little children stood with their marching flags, as women wept and men bowed solemn faces, Perez Franco spoke harshly. "This country has been led by a group of traitors" to democratic ideals. "?hut those traitors have apparently forgotten the Cuban firing squads, the Cuban prisons, and the freedom" of the Cuban people."
The crowd started chanting: "Down with the traitors, down with the traitors . . ."
"This country may re‑establish relations with Cuba," he said, "but we want the world to know that the brigade will never he friends with the Castro‑Communist government. We will go on fighting until Cuba is free.''
Perez‑Franco is 46 now. He is president of the 2506 Brigade Veterans' Association. Pedro Encinosa, former president, is now 50. Ramon Orozco, military director, is 40. They spoke of the brigade in an interview earlier this week.
"The brigade knows perfectly that with 2,000 men whose strength has faded because of death or age, it cannot possibly achieve its objective," Encinosa said.
So the brigade is training younger men, knowing that despite government talk about detente, about lifting the Cuban economic embargo, that many Cubans still feel as does Perez‑Franco: "With Fidel Castro in Cuba, the only way I go back is with a rifle in my hand."
At the 2506 brigade's small headquarters on West Flagler Street, the "brigadistas" sit on rusted chairs by a wall covered with pictures of Bay of Pigs invaders killed in action.
There they reminisce about the CIA‑sponsored overthrow that didn't work, and they plan for the future.
It was there a month ago that the brigade voted to demand return of its company flag ‑ a flag given President John F. Kennedy at a rally of 30,000 in Miami's Orange Bowl after the Bay of Pigs survivors were ransomed for $50 million in privately contributed food and medical supplies and returned from Cuba.
The idea for the Bay of Pigs invasion had germinated during the Eisenhower Administration, but was put into effect under Kennedy.
President Kennedy had accepted full responsibility for the government's failure to back up the Cuban Invaders, but on that day m the Orange Bowl in December 1962 the crisp winter air was full of new promise.
"I can assure you (the flag) will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana," Kennedy said:
Brigade 2506 demanded return of the flag because Sen. Edward Kennedy proposed lifting the Cuban embargo.
"Fourteen years have. passed and Havana is not free, Cuba is not free, and we're still in exile, and Kennedy is dead," Perez‑Franco said. "We want to have our flag so that some day as a result of the efforts of the Cuban exiles and of our friends, we can take it like Kennedy falsely said, aid return it to Cuba in a free Havana."
Last week, Perez‑Franco received a letter from Kennedy Library director Dan H. Fenn, Jr., saying that the General Services Administration is still considering the demand.
Meanwhile, a flagpole without a flag stands in the middle of the brigade's headquarters between Cuban and American flags ‑ waiting for the return of the brigade's colors.
In this small headquarters, 80 young exiles ‑ many of them fathers, brothers and uncles of the children who marched in Thursday's parade, are being trained by Orozco who was a member of the brigade's infiltration team and was released from Eglin federal prison only last summer after serving a year for illegally leaving the United States.
Hugo Sueiro one of the brigade leaders and a wounded Army veteran of Vietnam, three weeks ago began courses in navigation, weapons, parachuting and commando training.
There is talk about opening memberships in the brigade to Cubans from other organizations.
"We want to fight elbow to elbow with any Cuban that is willing to fight against the Communist tyranny," Perez‑Franco said. “But what we will never accept . . is any type of coexistence with the Castro regime.”
"They, the Americans, Kissinger, if he continues in the State Department, perhaps will re‑establish relations with Cuba," he said. "But the Cubans will continue fighting. Perhaps we'll have to change our ways, but we will keep fighting because we reject coexistence with (the) Castro‑Communist regime. Because our nation, our liberty and our people cannot he sold by Kissinger . . . that's a Cuban problem, and as Cubans, we will solve our problems.
"The American people have not yet understood the implications that are deduced from April 17," Encinosa says. "April 17 was nothing but a defeat of a political function. Because of the U.S. government failure to provide the air support it promised, "a series of events followed which today are culminating with the yielding of Cambodia and Vietnam to international communism.
"So our criteria," Encinosa said, "is that the American people were betrayed that day in Giron Beach, because to the Cuban people it was only the fastening of the chains of slavery."
On the afternoon of April 17, 1961, Brigade 2506 had pushed inland, overwhelming spotty resistance. But on April 18, Castro moved thousands of seasoned troops and heavy armor, knocking the invaders back to the beach.
By April 19, Castro's fighter planes were unopposed in the air, and the invaders' own planes ‑ obsolete. World War II vintage B26s ‑ couldn't match the faster jets. Soon they were either downed or limping back to their base in Central America.
With Castro's ground forces closing in on the invaders, who by then had spent their food, water and ammunition, the brigade dissolved. It was each man for himself as they scrambled for the safety of distant hills, or the sea.
Thursday, with bitterness and with tears, they remembered. But they would not concede everlasting defeat.
"In Giron, we lost a battle," Perez-Franco said. "But we did not lose the war, because as long as there is a Cuban of dignity who fights for the principles of freedom, the war will net he lost."