After receiving U.S. congressional recognition, he became the ‘Granma’ helmsman
BY RAISA PAGES (Special for Granma International)
"WHEN you hear the whistle, raise your hand," Norberto Collado was
told by a group of U.S. officers looking for sailors to train as sonar
technician for a Cuban Navy submarine chaser during World War II.
The young black Cuban man, originally from a port town in
southern Havana, knew about more than the sea. His father, a
non-commissioned officer in the military, had taught him useful
lessons in telegraphy and infantry.
He left his hometown destined for the Mariel Naval School in northern
Havana and although the corporal on duty kicked him out of there,
his persistence led him to change his mind. He took him to a colonel,
who looked at his hands and – keeping in mind the urgency of
training sailors – did not judge him by his skin color.
After three months of training at the Mariel school, he was sent to a
ship in Casablanca (on the outskirts of Havana). During those times,
U.S. advisers held trials for potential sonar technicians on submarine
chasers, in order to fulfill the Cuban Navy’s need to guard the ships
destined for the United States and carrying merchandise.
During those times, German U-boats roamed the Caribbean Sea,
sinking Cuban ships. The day of the auditory trials with U.S. advisers,
more than 300 candidates appeared, from which only seven were
selected. Among that small group was Norberto Collado, the young
black Cuban sailor who, considering the highly racist climate,
wondered why he’d been chosen.
He was then sent to Miami to undergo a five-month training session
as a sonar technician. It was there that he discovered, after some
inquiry, why they had accepted him: he could hear the whistle only
dogs perceive, an auditory capability very few humans possess.
Of the 12 submarine chasers qualified for the job of protecting Cuban
ships, it was Norberto Collado who was put on the CS-113. On May
15, 1943, near Megano Key, located north of central Cuba, Norberto
sensed the close presence of the German submarine V-176, which
had sunk two Cuban vessels, causing several deaths.
His well-aimed shots destroyed that "steel shark." Collado suffered
auditory lesions due to the impact, from which he never recovered.
That risky mission earned him U.S. congressional recognition during
the Truman administration.
His work as a submarine chaser consumed a lot of his energy. He
worked long hours sitting in the heart of the ship, with over-sensitive
ears and under difficult conditions, and "it was killing me." He
requested a one and a half-year leave but was turned down.
Well-trained men like him were scarce.
As luck would have it, he found himself near the place where Cuban
President Grau San Martín was passing on one of his trips. Dressed
as a petty officer of the Cuban Navy, he yelled to the president, who
thought he was warning him of an assassination attempt. At that
point, Grau himself called out, "Tell me, sailor, what’s happening?"
That’s how Collado was able to request leave for his health and
Once graduated, he received the highest award in the Cuban Navy.
Then he returned to his origins, Sumidero de Batabanó, on the
southern Havana coast.
I DIDN’T LIKE BATISTA OR THE U.S.
At the Museum of the Revolution, located in the former presidential
palace, which once harbored satraps and tyrants before 1959,
Captain Norberto Collado tells the story.
At the age of 80, this thin and energetic man has a surprisingly quick
walk, with only the thickness of his glasses hinting at the time
passed. Although his auditory gift has diminished, he still hears
Granma International approached him not because of the story told at
the beginning of this article, but rather the most interesting part of his life,
which came after the Batista coup in 1952.
"I didn’t like Batista or the Americans. I began working with the
underground. Along with José A. Fernández, I joined a group led by
Aureliano Sánchez Arango. They found a list and put me in prison on
the Isle of Pines in 1953, the same year that Fidel and his movement
attacked the Moncada Garrison.
In prison, I realized I had chosen the wrong group. There were some
very ambitious people in that group; they were dividing up the power
even before defeating Batista, and had relations with Batista’s
guards, which I didn’t like.
"When they sent Fidel’s group to the penitentiary, I was separated
from them and couldn’t make contact. We were released with the
amnesty, but we still had not met. It was through a friend of the
father of Jesús Montané, one of the Moncada assailants, that I came
closer to the July 26th Movement. Their link was Héctor Aldama.
"One day I was on my way to visit my girlfriend in the Pogolotti
district and was picked up by Batista’s police. They tortured me, hung
me by my testicles and left me unconscious in a deserted tenement
in Marianao [west of the capital]. I regained consciousness at Calixto
García Hospital. Dressed in a nurse’s uniform, Concha Chada, from
the July 26th Movement, cared for me. They moved me to the
house of athlete Alejandrina Herrera. In January 1956 I departed for
Once on Mexican soil, he was taken to María Antonia’s house. "I
Fidel and began training, without knowing what type of mission it
would be, from January to November 1956, when we headed for
Cuba on the Granma cabin cruiser.
WE WERE SAVED BY THE EXCESS WEIGHT
When Collado first saw the Granma on the banks of the Tuxpan, he
thought it would take about 25 passengers. "I liked the boat, but I
thought we were going to have a terrible journey, due to the excess
of people, 82 in all. Due to my background, they assigned me as
main helmsman, with Ramón Mejías from the Dominican Republic,
also known as Pichirilo, to relieve me.
"The first five days were terrible. There was tidal movement between
5 and 6. The excess weight helped prevent the cabin cruiser from
sinking. Without it, the force of the waves would have thrown us into
the ocean, but later it died down a little. On the seventh day.
something happened that has always stayed in my mind. Roberto
Roque fell overboard.
"The search began. Many believed that because of the state of the
waves and the weight of his clothes, he had drowned. The delay
compromised the mission, but Fidel said, ‘I won’t abandon any of my
comrades,’ and after a great effort, we found him in the dark.
"Fidel’s humanist position really impressed me. It’s the same one
he’s maintained throughout the Revolution. The same one he has
had in the case of Elián González and with the compatriots unjustly
imprisoned in Miami."
The Granma helmsman recalls the landing at Las Coloradas on
December 2, 1956. They knew about the uprising of Santiago de
Cuba, which, due to the delays, did not coincide with the arrival of
He would later return to the cabin cruiser when it was transferred to
Havana Bay on January 7, 1959, and he was given the responsibility
of guarding and preserving it, and he has continued in that position all
these years. He sailed around Cuba on the Granma, until it found its
permanent home at the Museum of the Revolution in 1976.
Captain Norberto Collado considers the Revolutionary Armed Forces
a school of humanism, discipline and maturity. At the age of 80, he
continues relating his story to the younger generations and to
As the emblematic captain of the cabin cruiser, he commented that
he didn’t take on the task because it was a military assignment, but
rather for more personal and intimate reasons.
"I’ve gained a lot of affection for it, but even more for the history it