1961: Bay of Pigs Invasion

In 1959, Fidel Castro and his revolutionary forces overthrew Cuba’s government, establishing a revolutionary socialist regime in its place. Lands formerly owned by members of the upper classes and by U.S. companies were seized and redistributed, and many Cubans fled to the United States–primarily Florida–in exile.

In 1959, Fidel Castro and his revolutionary forces overthrew Cuba’s government, establishing a revolutionary socialist regime in its place. Lands formerly owned by members of the upper classes and by U.S. companies were seized and redistributed, and many Cubans fled to the United States–primarily Florida–in exile.

In March, 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), headed by Allen Dulles, to train and equip a Cuban exile guerrilla force for the purpose of infiltrating Cuba and joining the anti-Castro underground. With the cooperation of the Guatemalan government, the CIA soon established training camps in that country, and the training of Cuban exile volunteers began. By November, 1960, the CIA operation, under the supervision of Richard Bissell, had changed from the training of guerrillas to the preparation of an invasion force. After that date, guerrilla training ceased, and a small army was trained in conventional assault landing tactics.

Cuban Exiles

Meanwhile, in the Cuban exile community in Miami, Florida, the United Revolutionary Front was formed. Headed by Dr. José Miró Cardona, who would become provisional president of Cuba upon the exiles’ return, the group in Miami managed the recruitment of soldiers for the expeditionary force, although the operation was completely directed by the CIA. Volunteers were screened for political acceptability, and leftists were discouraged or rejected. Consequently, the force in training took on a conservative character.

The CIA-directed operation ran into severe problems from the start. Numerous political conflicts that threatened to undermine the entire operation erupted among the exile volunteers. U.S. involvement in the affair was supposed to remain covert, but in Miami the existence of the invasion force and the Guatemalan camps, as well as the CIA direction of the operation, were common knowledge. Increasingly, the American press reported on the preparations in progress for an invasion of Cuba. Castro, the premier of Cuba, also knew of the exile army being trained in Guatemala.

In February, 1961, the invasion plans underwent an important change. Originally, the CIA had specified the city of Trinidad as the landing point for the exile force. The newly elected president, John F. Kennedy, decided that the invasion plans could proceed, however, only if U.S. support troops were better camouflaged. The site at Trinidad was judged too risky. In its place, the Bay of Pigs, one hundred miles to the west of Trinidad on the south-central coast of Cuba, was chosen. Trinidad was the better of the two sites for one simple reason: In the event of failure, the invasion force could retreat into the Escambray Mountains with little difficulty. The beaches at the Bay of Pigs, on the other hand, were surrounded by the Zapata swamps. Escape to the mountains some eighty miles to the east would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. In the event that the exiles could not establish a defensible beachhead at the Bay of Pigs, the only realistic retreat possible for them would be in the direction from which they came: to the sea.

Invasion Plans

By April, 1961, the invasion plans had taken shape. Castro’s air force was to be destroyed on the ground by two scheduled air strikes against Cuban air bases. The invasion force of fifteen hundred troops would disembark under the cover of night and acquire the advantage of complete surprise. Meanwhile, paratroopers would be dropped to establish advance positions, from which they could scout approaching Cuban forces and cut off transportation routes. With the skies to themselves, the exile forces initially would be resupplied at the Playa Girón airfield, close to the Bay of Pigs. Simultaneously, a diversionary landing would occur on the eastern coast of Cuba in an attempt to deceive Cuban forces about the exiles’ real intentions. The main invasion force then would advance into Matanzas Province with the goal of securing a defensible area of Cuban territory. This accomplished, the leaders of the United Revolutionary Front would be flown to Cuba to establish a provisional government.

President John F. Kennedy examines the combat flag that the 2506th Cuban Landing Brigade carried during the Bay of Pigs invasion. (National Archives)

It was hoped that the local Cuban population might join the invaders in their fight against the Castro regime. With this possibility in mind, the supply ships accompanying the invasion force were to be stocked with arms and ammunition for a force of four thousand.

The Invasion

From the beginning, Operation Pluto, as the invasion plan was called, went badly. On April 15, 1961, eight B-26 bombers, supplied by the United States and disguised as Cuban air force planes, departed from Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, and attacked Cuban airfields in an attempt to destroy the Cuban air force. The bombing raid was unsuccessful. Although considerable damage was done to Cuba’s small air force, the attack left unharmed two or three T-33 trainer jets, three Sea Furies, and two B-26’s.

At the United Nations, Raúl Roa, Cuba’s foreign minister, charged that the attack was a prelude to invasion from the United States. Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, replied that the attacking planes were of Cuban origin. Because one of the planes had landed in Florida after the raid, Stevenson was able to produce photographs showing a B-26 bomber displaying the insignia of the Cuban air force. Stevenson actually believed the Cuban pilots to be defectors from Castro’s own forces; he was unaware of the deception. The trick was soon discovered, however, when reporters pointed out certain differences in the nose cones of the Cuban B-26’s as compared with the one that had landed in Florida. U.S. complicity in the air strike was apparent, and President Kennedy, at the recommendation of Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Special Assistant for National Security McGeorge Bundy, canceled the second air strike, scheduled for dawn on April 17.

In the early-morning hours of Monday, April 17, the invasion force (now named Brigade 2506) began to disembark at two beaches on the Bay of Pigs: Playa Girón and Playa Larga. Contrary to advance intelligence reports that the area was virtually uninhabited and that militia in the area had no communications with Havana, the invaders were spotted almost immediately, and the news of invasion was relayed quickly to Castro’s headquarters. Thus, the dangerous night landing was conducted under fire from the very start. The unloading of troops and arms progressed more slowly than planned, and at dawn there were still invasion forces on the ships. The element of surprise had not been achieved, and the force of the undestroyed Cuban planes soon would be felt. Throughout the day on Monday, events continued to go against the invaders.

Cuba’s air force, particularly the jets, proved to be the decisive factor in the battle. Two of the exiles’ escort ships, the Rio Escondido and the Houston, were sunk with arms, ammunition, and supplies on board. The exile air force (the Free Cuban Air Squadron), which consisted of sixteen B-26 bombers, lost half of its planes. Flying from Nicaragua, the B-26’s carried extra fuel and had no tail guns. Unable to maneuver quickly, they made easy targets for the T-33 jet trainers. At sea, the escort vessels that were not sunk by Cuban planes were forced to withdraw from the invasion area. On the ground, the invasion forces fought well but were hampered by wet communication equipment and a scarcity of ammunition. Only one of the paratroop drops succeeded. The other failed because the paratroopers were dropped too close to the invasion area and because their heavy equipment was dropped into the swamps, never to be found again during the remainder of the battle.

Bay of Pigs Invasion, 1961


The Bay of Pigs region was politically one of the worst possible sites for a successful counterrevolution in Cuba. What before 1959 had been an exclusively agricultural zone peopled by woodcutters was being developed by the revolutionary government as a future tourist haven. New roads, markets, and schools had won Castro the support of the populace, and few welcomed the invaders, who represented the middle and upper classes of Havana. Once the invasion foundered, the men of Brigade 2506 could not count on the local inhabitants to give them refuge. The U.S. planners of the invasion, through wishful thinking, had misread the mood of the Cuban people in the spring of 1961. Almost all of those dissatisfied with the revolution had already departed for the United States, and the bombing of Cuban airfields by the exile air force rallied public opinion behind Castro.

The national uprising that the CIA was counting on to coincide with the debarkation of the exile force never occurred. The Cuban army and militia remained loyal to the regime, and between April 15 and 17, Castro ordered the arrest of more than one hundred thousand opponents of his government, eliminating dissident elements in the Roman Catholic Church and the Cuban press and destroying the CIA’s underground network of agents. With all of these problems at the Bay of Pigs, it probably made no difference in the final result that the diversionary landing on the eastern coast of Cuba never took place.

In Washington, the discouraging news from the Bay of Pigs led President Kennedy to reinstate the second air strike, which earlier had been canceled. The planes of the Free Cuban Air Squadron based in Nicaragua were to strike the San Antonio de los Banos airfield at dawn on Tuesday, April 18. The following morning, six B-26 bombers piloted by Cuban exile pilots were over the designated target, but the bombers were forced to return to Nicaragua without dropping a single bomb because of fog and cloud cover.

On the ground, Castro was moving twenty thousand troops toward the Zapata swamp region as Brigade 2506 was running out of ammunition. Because the Cuban air force still commanded the skies, there was no chance to unload the remaining arms, supplies, and troops aboard the two remaining escort ships at sea.

In the early-morning hours of Wednesday, April 19, President Kennedy authorized an “air-umbrella” at dawn over the invasion area. He gave permission for six unmarked jet fighters from the USS Essex in the Caribbean to protect a B-26 attack from Nicaragua and to cover the unloading of the exile escort ships at sea. This final attempt to help the invading forces also proved to be a failure. Probably because of confusion about the difference in time zones between Cuba and Nicaragua, the B-26 bombers from Nicaragua arrived an hour early over Cuba and were shot down by the Cubans; only one escaped. The jets that were to have provided air cover never left the Essex.

Later on April 19, 1961, the invasion was crushed. Facing overwhelming opposition and out of ammunition, the leaders destroyed their heavy equipment and ordered a retreat into the swamps. Only a handful of exiles escaped to the sea; the remainder were rounded up by Castro’s forces and imprisoned. Of 1,297 brigade members who had come ashore, 1,180 were captured. Cuban losses are difficult to estimate. Although Castro admitted to losing fewer than a hundred men in battle, a more accurate estimate would be 1,250.