The Fidel Fixation

Exactly 36 years ago the Central Intelligence Agency blew it at the Bay of Pigs. For an encore it created the biggest commando operation in U.S. history -- right here in South Florida. It's time for a sentimental tour.

Any organization that had so significant and interesting an influence on South Florida deserves some sort of lasting memorial, and any war so bitter (even a secret one) needs its monuments. But after the early Seventies shutdown of JM/WAVE, the Agency sold off its navy, locked up its safe houses, and vanished into the night, without offering a word about what it did in Dade County unless forced by congressional subpoena.

With the exception of Memorial Boulevard (SW Thirteenth Avenue) and the Brigade 2506 museum, there are no overt monuments to the covert anti-Castro war in South Florida. Veterans of the special missions keep their sea logs and charts stashed away in footlockers, or remember their gunboats with black-and-white photos on office walls. And so we decided to put together our own CIA anti-Castro tour of Dade County, taking in the high and low points of the secret war's home front. Our list is far from complete. For one thing, the total number of locations involved is staggering, and for another, memories have faded. But as a kind of historical smorgasbord, this is one outing we hope will whet your appetite for more.

A Guided Tour

1. Why not begin at the CIA's epicenter, easily accessible from Florida's Turnpike. For most of the Sixties, South Dade had its very own version of the Twilight Zone: the 1571 acres between Coral Reef and Eureka drives, just west of the entrance to Metrozoo. Formerly occupied by the Richmond Naval Air Station, and nominally under the control of the University of Miami (some contemporary maps show it as UM's "South Campus"), the property was leased in late 1961 to a mysterious outfit called Zenith Technical Enterprises, which sealed off the tract from its then-rural surroundings with high fences, gray-uniformed guards, and attack dogs. Zenith placed such a high value on its privacy for good reason -- it was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Central Intelligence Agency, a dummy corporation set up as a cover for the biggest Agency spy base anywhere in the world outside of its headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Code-named JM/WAVE (the acronym, as far as anyone knows, was meaningless), the sprawling complex quickly grew to include everything a secret warrior could desire. Buildings that had survived the navy blimp base's 1945 destruction by hurricane and fire were refurbished and turned into offices for hundreds of CIA employees. A gas station was installed to service the Agency's large motor pool. (Vehicles were doled out according to rank: Low-level case officers got Chevies, higher-ups got Pontiacs, and station chief Ted Shackley drove a Cadillac.) Powerful radio systems were installed, enabling secure communications all over the Caribbean. And World War II-era bunkers and warehouses were stocked with all the paramilitary necessities: automatic weapons and ammunition, high explosives, Cuban army uniforms, even coffins. Nothing was overlooked -- with the possible exception of the CIA charter's injunction against covert operations on American soil.

2. Now we head south to Everglades National Park and its southernmost tip, the camping and boating outpost known as Flamingo. When the CIA launched Operation Mongoose, it soon ran into a problem with its plan to infiltrate hundreds of agents into Cuba by sea. Most of the Agency's exile recruits were young men from middle-class families, not sailors or fishermen, and they were sorely lacking in the skills needed to pilot a small boat at high speed under cover of darkness and possible machine-gun fire. What the Company required, in short, were smugglers. And since those were in short supply, it set out to create some of its own in the mangrove mazes of the coastal Everglades. Down at the end of the park's main road, at the Flamingo marina, the Agency kept a small number of Boston Whalers moored. Arriving from safe houses in Homestead or Miami and accompanied by a case officer, trainees would load the boats with gear (guns and other obvious military hardware were concealed in duffel bags) and roar off, bound for the watery hinterlands west of Cape Sable. There -- in a part of South Florida that real smugglers have always found hospitable -- they would practice boat handling, emergency outboard repairs, map reading, and navigating at night by dead reckoning or radio direction-finder. Taking advantage of their isolation, they often would also run live-fire exercises with automatic weapons. Park rangers based out of Flamingo were apparently not a concern, which led to speculation that the CIA had smoothed the way in advance. "That's funny, those things were going on, and I didn't give it a lot of thought, you know?" one of the men who trained in the park says, chuckling. "And we used to go practice there regularly, with the AR-15s and everything. There was always an officer with us, but there were never any questions or anything."

3. Our next stop is north of the park entrance by a few miles, in an area near today's Fruit and Spice Park in the Redlands. Five teenage pranksters got more than they bargained for when they threw firecrackers up the driveway of a homestead at 26145 SW 195th Ave. on the night of August 25, 1960. The place was an Agency-sponsored anti-Castro training camp, and its Cuban-exile occupants had army-issue M-1 rifles. The recruits responded to what sounded like a sneak attack by opening fire into the darkness, grazing sixteen-year-old John Francis Keogh in the back of the head as he and his panic-stricken pals roared off in a pick-up truck. Keogh wasn't seriously hurt (conspiracy trivia buffs may want to note his initials, the location of his wound, and the fact that those responsible were CIA-trained Cubans), but his shooting brought Metro-Dade police down on the camp a few hours later. According to the Miami News, the cops "rounded up 15 toughened Cubans" who had been undergoing jungle-warfare training at the heavily wooded site, marching up and down what was then known as Comfort Road, brandishing machetes and conducting nightly rallies with a loudspeaker. The would-be commandos left behind a makeshift obstacle course and a man-shaped knife-fighting target scraped into the bark of a royal poinciana tree; the target survived until 1992, when Hurricane Andrew knocked down the tree. Alumni of the camp weren't so lucky. Bill Box, who bought the property just after the police raid, believes almost all were caught during pre-Bay of Pigs infiltrations. "They wiped that bunch out," Box says grimly. "One man showed up one Easter -- he said they'd made a vow to meet back here on Easter Sunday -- but he was the only one that came back alive."

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