Cuba's Yankee Comandante
William Morgan stunned his family by leaving Toledo in 1957 to join the revolutionary forces of Fidel Castro, but met a cruel end
By MICHAEL D. SALLAH
BLADE NATIONAL AFFAIRS WRITER
Day One of a three-part series
Olga Goodwin picks through a pile of faded photos and documents in her
Toledo home and pulls out a letter from her late husband. She reads several
lines before she presses the worn pages to her chest and closes her eyes.
"This," she says in broken English, "sticks in my heart forever."
The two-page letter sent from Cuba's famous La Cabana fortress prison 41 years ago tells the story - a story so painful that not even her teenaged grandchildren know the details.
She told The Blade it was her husband's last letter to her before he faced a firing squad in 1961 - the 589th prisoner to meet that fate under the government of Fidel Castro.
But this wasn't just any prisoner: This was William Alexander Morgan.
"I do not want blood spilled over my cause," his letter reads.
It ended the night he was hauled before the machine-gun-toting firing
squad as he prayed in the darkness with an American priest. At the time,
Olga was hiding in the mountains hundreds of miles away.
As he was led to a spot called El Paradon - the execution wall - he turned and asked that his handcuffs be removed.
It wasn't supposed to end like this, not for someone who was hailed as a hero of the Cuban revolution just a year earlier.
He was the Yanqui Comandante, a charismatic tough man who stunned his
family by leaving his home in Toledo to join the revolutionary forces -
of fortune who vowed to fight for "freedom and democracy."
In just a year of fighting the blond-haired, blue-eyed guerilla was promoted to major - the highest rank bestowed on a non-Cuban in the rebel forces.
Leading a band of young guerillas, he captured the town of Cienfuegos in 1958 in one of the last battles of the revolution.
Mobbed on the streets of Havana by people wanting his autograph after the war, Morgan was a cause celebre.
"He was like a rock star," recalls Enrique Encinosa, a Cuban author
who met Morgan in the summer of 1959. "He had that joking, light-hearted
and he was very tough - very Cuban in his attitude."
Indeed, even Castro praised the tattooed warlord in 1959 as "the kind of North American that Cuba needs," and declared Morgan "a Cuban."
Both men appeared at a press conference after the war - their pictures
splashed in newspapers around the world, including Morgan's hometown
newspaper, The Toledo Blade.
For a man who was a high school dropout, Morgan's exploits in an international drama surprised his relatives and friends.
"One minute he's gone, and the next thing he's fighting in the Cuban revolution," says his sister, Carroll Costain of South Toledo.
Says retired Toledo businessman Bill Haas: "He was like a cowboy in an Ernest Hemingway adventure."
But the adventure didn't last long. The cocky Americano would soon get
caught on the chessboard of the Cold War and ultimately pay the price in
Four decades after he was escorted before executioners, the question
remains: What happened to William Morgan? How did a man go from being hailed
as a star in the revolucion to a target of a firing squad?
Officially, the Cuban government will say only that he was arrested
on Oct. 17, 1960, as a spy and operative for "foreign interests," a traitor
to his adopted
homeland. Charged with state treason, the penalty was death.
But four decades after his military trial in Havana, U.S. government
records and interviews with former associates, guerillas, and his widow
point to the
real reasons for his demise.
Records show the proven allegations against him would have drawn only a nine-year sentence under Cuban law.
Appeals to the Cuban government for leniency by Morgan's mother and Cardinal Richard Cushing were ignored.
In the years since his death, others have followed Morgan to the firing
squad - more than 7,000, according to United Nations' estimates - and eventually
faded from history.
Over the last 40 years, events like the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay
of Pigs, and the fight over young Elian Gonzalez eclipsed most reminders
legendary fighter who was only 32 when he was executed, say scholars who study Cuba.
"To the young generation, he has basically been forgotten," says Dr.
Lisandro Perez, director of the Cuban-American Institute at Florida International
University. "It's like he has fallen through the cracks."
But not to Morgan's widow, Olga Goodwin. Now living in Toledo, she's
rekindling the memory of her late husband by making a rare request: She
bring his remains to America.
The spry, 65-year-old woman is petitioning the Cuban government to allow
her to remove his body from the Colon Cemetery in Havana and send it to
Toledo for reburial.
"This is where he belongs," says his widow, who was convicted in absentia
at her husband's trial in 1961. She was arrested two days after his death
spent 12 years in Cuban prisons.
Years after her release, she was given permission to join the refugees
who migrated to the United States in 1980. By the following year, she was
the city her husband always called home.
"I wanted to be here because of William," says the petite, dark-haired woman. "Ever since I was in prison in Cuba, I wanted to be here."
Now remarried, she lives in a modest townhouse in West Toledo, caring for three grandchildren, ages, 18, 17, and 11.
She has yet to receive an answer from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, but vows to press the Castro government for a resolution.
Luis Fernandez, a Cuban press attache, said such requests have been
granted. But when told this request was from Morgan's widow, he declined
comment, referring all questions to the Cuban consulate office.
In Miami's Cuban exile community - where Morgan is still revered - there
are doubts that Castro would send the body home. Those doubts come from
even Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, a moderate ex-patriot who met with Castro in 1995.
"This is the last thing the Cuban government wants," says Mr. Menoyo, 68, who fought with Morgan in the mountains.
"Cuba doesn't want to relive that memory. It's not a good time."
Asked to leave Central Catholic
In the faded photograph, Olga Rodriguez and William Morgan are standing on a spectacular peak of the Escambray Mountains, smiling at each other
as they grip automatic rifles.
She was from a peasant family in central Cuba; he, from an upper middle-class family in Middle America
She was the daughter of a civil servant; he, the son of a corporate executive.
What drew them together was a hatred for a dictator accused of catering to U.S. interests while keeping his people in poverty.
For Olga, it was easy to understand why she protested against the government of Fulgencio Batista.
The 59-year-old president was considered a brutal dictator, canceling
elections, using terrorist methods, and embezzling millions of dollars
country's treasury, say Cuban historians. He was accused of ignoring the poor while forging corrupt relations with U.S. corporations and mobsters.
Olga, the second oldest of six children in the city of Santa Clara,
recalls her mother weeping in the darkness of their home because she could
Olga and her siblings. On some days, there were single helpings of beans and rice.
"If we were lucky, we got a piece of fruit," she recalls. For many of
the farmers, it was a sharecropper's existence, she says. Those who were
critical of the regime were often tortured and jailed.
For Morgan, it was a much more complicated journey to the mountains - one that began as an adventure, but soon became a crisis.
Indeed, much of his life seemed to be a crisis.
Born in Cleveland on April 19, 1928, he was 1-year-old when his parents,
Alexander and Loretta, moved into a stately, gabled home at 2909 Collingwood
Blvd., in Toledo's Old West End.
By the time he was 16, he had run away three times and was arrested
for grand larceny. He once joined the circus, and another time, lived on
a ranch in
Records show he was asked to leave Central Catholic High School in 1944,
and it was arranged for him to attend a correctional school in Terre Haute,
Ind. He lasted five months.
He lied about his age in 1944 and joined the Merchant Marine, but returned home several months later.
By 1945, he had attended two more high schools - Macomber and Scott - spending less than three months at each.
His sister, Mrs. Costain, of South Toledo, remembers the brother who
was always leaving home. "He was restless. Always restless. He couldn't
one place too long."
She says William was a frequent source of anxiety to their father, a
Toledo Edison budget director. "You never knew what he was going to do
could turn up in a factory strike, or the circus," she says.
In the 1940s, her parents were in Florida driving home from a vacation
when they spotted their only son hitchhiking. "They had no idea he was
there," she says.
A year after World War II ended, William surprised his parents by joining
the army at the age of 18, and marrying a woman he met off base. The union
lasted less than a year.
While training in firearms and hand-to-hand combat, he made a much bigger mistake.
Shortly after his transfer to the occupation forces in Japan in 1947,
he went AWOL. He was given a court martial and sentenced to three months
labor, but the following month he overpowered a guard and fled.
He was caught and sentenced to five years at hard labor at Camp Cook, Calif.
"Subject has a poor civil record, is nomadic, has a poor employment
and military record," said a prison report in June, 1948. "He is irresponsible,
impulsive and untrustworthy."
He was eventually sent to the federal prison in Milan, Mich., less than
35 miles from Toledo, and was released with a dishonorable discharge in
1950, three years before his sentence was complete.
He returned to Toledo, where his mother found him a janitor's job at Rosary Cathedral. But he rarely showed up for work.
"He couldn't stick with anything, and I mean, anything," said his brother-in-law,
Edric Costain. "He didn't want to work. He'd get a bug, and he'd just take
for days, and you wouldn't see him."
Twice, he tried to clear his army discharge record, even volunteering to sign up again, but he was refused.
Wandering the city, he was known to hang out at the B & L Cafe at Collingwood and Delaware, downing shots and beers.
He worked briefly for gambling kingpin Leonard "Chalky Red" Yaranowsky, collecting bets. But he eventually left Toledo for the warm climes of Florida.
He joined a carnival, where he met his second wife, Ellen May Bethel, whom he called Terri. He was a fire eater; she, a snake charmer.
In 1955, she gave birth to a daughter, Anna, and the couple moved to Toledo to live with Morgan's parents. A son, William, was born two years later.
Between 1955 and 1957, the events of his life are sketchy, but some
information has emerged that suggests Morgan was secretly involved in an
that led him to Cuba: gun running.
One former Toledo friend, who asked not to be identified, says Morgan
had teamed up with others in the Florida Keys to supply guns to the rebel
1956. "He was piling up guns between here and Florida," the source says.
A former Toledo street figure, Donald Van Gunten, recalls that Morgan was trying to buy arms in Toledo in the late 1950s.
"I had a British machine gun at the time, and I remember him asking
me where he could get 100 or 200 of them," says Van Gunten. "I looked at
him like he
was crazy, but he was serious."
There's no evidence to prove the allegations, at least in declassified State Department and military records reviewed by The Blade.
But according to ex-guerillas and published interviews with Morgan in
1959, he joined the revolution to avenge the death of a friend, Jack Turner,
killed by Batista soldiers in 1957.
His friend, Morgan said, was smuggling guns to Cuba.
'The young fighters looked up to him'
When Morgan showed up in the jungles of the Escambray Mountains in March,
1958, he was a curiosity. The young rebels were not used to seeing an
American so deep in the highlands.
Wearing fatigues and a beard, he could barely understand Spanish, says the commander, Eloy Menoyo.
But through a translator, it was clear he wanted to join their cause. "He told us a story about how his friend was killed," says Mr. Menoyo.
The rebels were in a unit known as the Second Front of the Escambray, a group trying to overthrow the government.
The band of 2,500 men was part of a loose federation of rebel forces
across Cuba, including the army of Fidel Castro and legendary communist
Unlike those forces, the Second Front was made up mostly of anti-Communist
farmers and workers who wanted
Castro's army - 26th of July Movement - and the Second Front set aside
their differences to fight for the same cause, but there was tension between
them, say Cuban historians.
To Morgan, "the commies," as he called them, were not worthy of ruling a free Cuba, he said in later interviews.
In the summer of 1958, Che Guevara wanted to take over control of the
Second Front - with the backing of Castro - but Morgan and others refused
allow him, Mr. Menoyo says.
"This created great friction," he says. It also pitted two of the groups' leaders against one another: Morgan and Guevara.
In fact, Morgan sent notes to his counterpart, demanding that guns be
returned to the Second Front that were swiped by a defector, according
to the 1997
biography, Che Guevara.
An enraged Guevara responded by ordering his men "not to hand over a
single weapon," and later noted the growing differences between the groups
"of crisis proportions." A pact was reached in November, 1958, but the differences between the groups persisted.
In the weeks after Morgan arrived, it became clear to the others he was an accomplished fighter, says former guerilla Andres Nazario Sargen.
He was skilled in Judo and in the use of Browning automatic rifles. "The young fighters looked up to him," says Mr. Sargen.
During a skirmish with government troops in the mountains, he showed the behavior that would define him: He refused to retreat.
As Morgan and fellow rebels were attacked by soldiers, the rebels fell
back, but "Morgan kept going," recalls Mr. Menoyo. "I never saw him turn
kept going. He was very focused, very controlled."
The man who washed out of the U.S. Army would prove to be adept at guerrilla
combat, earning recognition for his efforts in battles with government
troops in the towns of Banao, Trinidad, and Diana. "Many times, he put his life on the line for us," says Mr. Menoyo.
Second Front takes control of mountains
A month after joining the rebels, he met Olga.
The feisty, young president of her senior class at Santa Clara College was an ardent supporter of the revolution, leading several protests against Batista.
Her actions attracted the attention of the secret police, and on April 9, 1958, she says, she was forced to flee to the mountains with escorts.
When they reached the town of Jibacoa, she was introduced to the strapping American in the combat fatigues.
"He joked with me from the start," she recalls. "I had short hair, and
I was wearing fatigues, and he'd pull the cap over my head, and say, ‘Hey
She began working in the town of Nuevo Mundo in a medical camp, and in the ensuing weeks, Morgan visited her on breaks.
She spent hours talking to him about the hardships of her people and
the need to help the poor, especially in the countryside, she recalls.
He watched as
the injuries mounted among his men.
She remembers his rage after government troops swept through the countryside, terrorizing peasants who were assisting the rebels.
"I could see that he knew about our problems, and felt for my people. I know that he had many troubles in his life, but he had a big heart."
After five months of fighting, Morgan decided to contact his family in Toledo in a letter to his mother, dated July 21, 1958.
"I know that you neither approve or understand why I am here - even
though you are the one person in the world - that I believe understands
me - I have
been many places - in my life and done many things of which you did not approve - or understand, nor did I understand myself - at the time.
"I left in December because I believe it was the wisest thing to do. ... I am here with men and boys - who fight for freedom for their country that we as
Americans take for granted - they neither fight for money or fame - only to return to their homes - in peace ..."
He went on to describe how elderly farmers were being attacked by 1,200 Batista soldiers, with 16 homes burned.
In one instance, he wrote of the killing of a 60-year-old woman who
tried to run away from government troops to protect her grandchild. In
he wrote, the soldiers cut out the tongue of a 72-year-old "senile" man who refused to let them into his home. Later, they hanged him.
"And if it should happen that I am killed here - you will know it was
not for foolish fancy - or as Dad would say a pipe dream.''
At the end of the letter, he noted the pain he must have caused his wife and children by leaving, saying he expected his wife to divorce him.
Morgan's assumptions were correct: She filed for divorce on March 12,
1958, on grounds of desertion and other charges in Lucas County Domestic
Relations Court. The divorce was approved in August.
By early fall, the Second Front won control of the mountains, and Morgan was promoted to major.
In an interview with the New York Times, he proclaimed the Batista regime
"would fall from power tomorrow if it were not for American aid." In another
interview, he said the dictator "could build hotels, but he can't feed his people."
In his last letter to his mother from the mountains, he warned her about a man who phoned her asking questions.
"The man who called you was a spy for the Batista government and because
of him, six men were killed and a trap laid for me - this man came to the
mountains and said he came to fight, but he went down the mountain and turned into a stool pigeon for the army ... Do not give out any information about
me ... if I live through this, I know I will never walk out of problems in my life again."
In October, during a break from the fighting, he made a decision that would change his life: He proposed marriage to Olga, who was still tending to injured
fighters in the camp.
On Nov. 17, 1958, they were wed in a farmhouse in the mountains. She
was 22; he was 30. The next morning, he was forced into battle again, but
were quickly taking place that would end the war - and Morgan's life.
TOMORROW: Powerful forces begin to work against Morgan