Adventurer's life offers look at a bygone Miami
BY JOHN DORSCHNER
Gerald Patrick Hemming, who died last week at 70, was one of those wild adventurers that only South Florida seems to produce: a self-styled Miami soldier of fortune who later became a key figure for conspiracy theorists around the world.
A shadowy figure who headed an anti-Castro commando group in the 1960s, Hemming was known in his later years for statements he made to investigative journalists about the Kennedy assassination. A Google search linking Hemming's name with Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald turns up 12,000 hits.
''Gerry was an especially charismatic guy who on first impression came across very well,'' said Robert K. Brown, publisher of Soldier of Fortune magazine, who knew Hemming in the 1960s. ``He was looked up to by a lot of Cuban exile groups. He was a big man, spoke fluent Spanish, a very intelligent guy. . . .
''But Gerry tended to get carried away with this conspiracy stuff,'' Brown said, ``and it was hard to tell where the fact ended and the fiction started.''
''He knew so many things,'' said Felipe Hemming, his only son, who works for Miami-Dade fire rescue. ``The secrets he took to his grave. . . . He was still researching when he died. . . . My dad was an operator. He wasn't a guy on the side of the road making up stories.''
Others disagree. Don Bohning, who was The Miami Herald's Latin America editor for many years, said, ``I never believed a word he had to say.''
Among his other exploits, Hemming was arrested three times, twice for drug smuggling and once for gun running. His only conviction was drug smuggling.
A huge man -- broad-bodied and six-foot-five -- Hemming served in the U.S. Marines from 1954 to 1958. An aviation control tower operator, his last duty station was in barracks at Annapolis. He was a sergeant when he received an honorable discharge. ''He was a very good Marine,'' a Marine spokesman told The Herald in 1976 after examining Hemming's record.
Hemming left the Marines just as Cuba was heating up in a revolution against strongman Fulgencio Batista, who fled the island in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 1959. Fidel Castro marched into Havana a week later.
In 1959, Hemming spent considerable time hanging out in Havana, often in the company of William Morgan, an ex-U.S. paratrooper who had joined with rebels fighting the Batista regime in the Sierra del Escambray.
A confidential U.S. Army report from March 1960 reports that Hemming was ``stationed with Cuban rebel air force in Pinar del Rio. Claims he is a T-33 jet pilot with mission to intercept U.S.-based planes which fly over Cuba bent on destroying cane fields. Was formerly stationed in Isle of Pines.
``Subject wears Army fatigues, is armed with a pistol, and wears a U.S. paratrooper badge. He states he has been in Cuba for two years. He wears no insignia of rank.''
Hemming said repeatedly over the years that he was once part of the Castro military. That claim is disputed by Jay Mallin, a journalist who was in Cuba in the late 1950s and early '60s and later authored the book Covering Castro.
Malin said Hemming's claim is ''total baloney. I was in touch with all these people,'' in Castro's 26th of July Movement.
Whatever he was doing, he was in Havana in 1959 and perhaps part of 1960. Olga Morgan, the widow of William Morgan, recalls Hemming warning her husband to leave Cuba or he would be killed by the Castro regime. 'He said, `Cuba is no good for you, with the new government. You need to get out. You have a family.' ''
Morgan didn't heed Hemming's advice. He was executed by a Cuban firing squad in March 1961.
By that time, Hemming was in Miami, often hanging out at Nellie's boarding house in Little Havana, a place where many would-be soldiers of fortune stayed, hoping to get in on some anti-Castro action. ''Gerry was always just a lot of talk,'' recalls Marty Casey, one of the Nellie's regulars at the time.
A Miami Herald story, however, noted: ``Hemming looked the way a soldier of fortune is supposed to look: six-foot-five, trim build, goatee, with a penchant for wearing an Australian bush hat, fatigue shirt and camouflage pants.''
Hemming told The Herald he frequently stayed at the Congress Inn on LeJeune Road, where various anti-Castro groups made available ``free meals, booze and what have you.''
But much of the time, he was at No Name Key, where he organized a commando camp, training young men for attacks on Castro's Cuba. He called his group the International Penetration Force, which he claimed had 30 or 40 paratroopers.
At one point, Hemming was arrested by Customs for gun-running, but the charges were dismissed.
Hemming moved the guerrilla training to a site near New Orleans, but in June 1962 The Miami Herald reported that Hemming was ultimately forced to close the camp on the north edge of Lake Pontchartrain at the behest of the Cuban Revolutionary Council's Miami headquarters. The reason: The group fretted it would get into trouble with the U.S. State Department and CIA.
In February 1963, Hemming wrote a long letter to Maj. Gen. C.V. Clifton, military aide to President Kennedy. The document was obtained under a freedom of information request by Bohning during the research for his book The Castro Obsession.
In the letter, Hemming repeated the story about serving in Castro's rebel army, but then changed sides and began working with exile forces.
''Upon arrival in the U.S. I contacted the Central Intelligence Agency and forthwith spent long hours typing reports for their operatives,'' Hemming wrote. ``Upon completion, I made myself available for reinfiltration into Cuba. After a period of weeks with no orders from the CIA, I decided to drop my cover and proceed to the Miami area to aid former Cuban associates that needed instructors.''
Hemming wrote that many anti-Castro Cubans were willing to fight but needed support. ``We would appreciate it very much if you could find time to pass on some advice and constructive criticism.''
According to another government document, Hemming did meet with Gen. Clifton, Coordinator of Cuban Affairs Sterling Cottrell and Gen. Victor Krulak, the Joint Chiefs of Staff's counterinsurgency specialist.
Clifton asked an assistant, Thomas A. Parrott, to do a report on Hemming. Parrott checked with Orrin Bartlett, the FBI's liaison with the White House. On March 5, 1963, Parrott wrote a memorandum for the record that Bohning obtained:
'According to Bartlett, Hemming is personally `very unacceptable' to Cuban refugees. These people, particularly the serious minded ones, consider him nothing more than a 'thorn in the flesh.' He is viewed as an adventurer and a soldier of fortune. He heads a 'would be anti-communist group.' '' The memo noted that the FBI ``did not trust him.''
Several months after that memo, in June 1963, five members of Hemming's Penetration Force were arrested for having an unregistered submachine gun. Hemming himself was not charged.
After the Kennedy assassination on Nov. 23, 1963, WQAM radio personality Alan Courtney told investigators that a year earlier he had interviewed Hemming and three others on his radio show about their training camp in the Keys, according to an FBI document from the Kennedy assassination files released in 1992.
''At the conclusion of the program, a telephone call was received at the radio station from a young man who said he was from New Orleans, was formerly in the U.S. Marine Corps and wanted to volunteer his services,'' the FBI document stated. ``Courtney recalled that this young man gave a name such as Harvey Lee, Oswald Harvey or Oswald Lee.''
After the Kennedy assassination, U.S. authorities clamped down on what was left of the anti-Castro commando activities, but some adventurers, including Hemming, kept hanging around South Florida, hoping for action.
Some of these soldiers of fortune became involved in two highly publicized episodes in the late 1960s. One was the so-called CBS Invasion of Haiti in 1966. Its name came from the network unwittingly financing the aborted effort in return for exclusive coverage. The other was the attempted firebombing of Papa Doc's presidential palace in 1969 (the bombs missed). Casey participated in both efforts. He said Hemming was close to the participants of both episodes, but took part in neither.
By 1976, Hemming had settled into an office in the Jose Marti Building on Southwest Eighth Street. The sign in the lobby directory said merely ''Hemming.'' He arrived for work about 2:30 p.m. He told a Herald reporter then that he was working for a trucking company, but gave the reporter a business card saying he was ''operations director'' of Parabellum Corp., a group started in October 1971 by Cuban adventurer Rolando Masferrer and others for the sale of military armaments to domestic and foreign markets. The corporation had been defunct for three years.
In 1977, Hemming was arrested for conspiring to import marijuana into the United States. He was convicted. The case was overthrown on appeal.
In 1980, Hemming was caught at the Lantana Airport in Palm Beach County with a plane loaded with 723 pounds of marijuana and a cache of Quaaludes. Hemming defended himself, saying he had been working for the U.S. government in an undercover operation. The government put on a witness who said that wasn't true. He was convicted and sentenced to 35 years. State records indicate he served seven.
In his later years, Hemming enjoyed talking to journalists. But he made it hard for them, making the most astonishing revelations ''off-the-record'' and then making them work hard before he allowed snippets to be attached to his name.
He had a virtually encyclopedic recall of data -- knowing, for example, the CIA station chief in Havana in 1960 was Jim Noel -- and he often would drop names without explanation, forcing journalists to do research to connect the dots.
If reporters lacked knowledge -- such as the details behind Lee Harvey Oswald visiting the Cuban consulate in Mexico City in the fall of 1963 -- Hemming would insist they do their homework before they could appreciate his revelations.
Hemming's suspected link to the Kennedy assassination is continuing and often changing. The key links are that Hemming told researchers that he had met Lee Harvey Oswald in 1959 and sometimes hinted that Oswald had been connected to American intelligence sources during his service in the U.S. Marines.
Some conspiracy theorists are fascinated that a man who knew Oswald, who became enamoured with communism and went to the Soviet Union to live, also had connections with right-wing Cubans in Miami. In the 1997 book, Bloody Treason, Noel Twyman devoted an entire chapter to Hemming and his suspected links.
Sometime in the 1990s, Hemming moved to Fayetteville, N.C. His son, Felipe, said he was found dead in his apartment on Jan. 29.
Hemming is survived by his wife, Patricia, and six children.
A graveside service was held Monday at Sandhills State Veterans Cemetery in Spring Lake, N.C. His son, Felipe, said a memorial service may take place later in South Florida.
Herald investigations editor Mike Sallah contributed to this report.