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.

10. Hop back in the car for a short jaunt over to Little Havana and a specific address: 1925 SW Fourth St. Today five stories of pinkish-peach stucco apartments have completely obliterated the site of one of the neighborhood's weirdest landmarks -- Nelli Hamilton's paramilitary boardinghouse. What JM/WAVE was for the official CIA effort against Castro, the widow Hamilton's place was for the freelance fringe, the amateur adventurers and mercenaries manque who lurked around the edges of the early Sixties secret war, hoping to be let in on the CIA's action. Latter-day cowboys like Gerry Patrick Hemming, leader of the so-called "Intercontinental Penetration Force" (Interpen, for short), and his pals Little Joe Garman and Howard K. Davis used Nelli's as their bunkhouse, packing parachutes on the sidewalk, cleaning weapons in the back yard, and occasionally practicing close-order drills with their mascot, a midget known only as Pete. The Interpen boys' main income derived from training commando wannabes in the mangrove swamps of No-Name Key, southwest of Marathon. They shared the boardinghouse with others at a similar remove from reality, among them recently released mental patients easing their way back into society. Nelli -- a stout, motherly woman in her early sixties -- cooked for them all, asking only that they respect a few simple rules: no cussing, no drinking, and no guns at the dinner table.

11. No tour of the landmarks of Dade's CIA history -- or understanding of its human cost -- would be complete without a visit to the Brigade 2506 museum, a spooky shrine to the men who paid the price for the Agency's folly at the Bay of Pigs. Located at 1821 SW Ninth St., just a few blocks from Nelli Hamilton's boardinghouse, the museum is a modest one-story bungalow that somehow manages to feel like a church. Its holy of holies lies in a large room toward the rear of the building, where glass cases hold relics of the Brigade: photos from the beachhead and Guatemala's Base Trax, fading olive-drab uniforms and broken pieces of communications gear, even spoons used during the nineteen months the men spent in Castro's prisons. Despite its unavoidable kitschiness (the department-store mannequin in Brigade camos and an Australian bush hat is a bit much), the place does its job. Surrounded by images of the men condemned to fight that unwinnable battle, you can't help but ponder the stupidity of the people who put them there.

12. The next several stops are in Miami Beach, so head for the MacArthur Causeway, but slow down as you cross, just long enough to gaze over Government Cut to Dodge Island. There's a story here. Pediatrician-turned-terrorist Orlando Bosch finally went a bridge too far in the early morning hours of September 16, 1968. From a spot along the MacArthur opposite the docks of Dodge Island (when sheltering pine trees grew wild on the causeway), the former leader of the CIA-supported Movement for Revolutionary Recovery fired a homemade "bazooka" at the Polish freighter Polanica. The captain of the 400-foot "communist" ship had been warned that he might come under attack from anti-Castro zealots, so crew members and two U.S. Coast Guardsmen stood watch during the night but were startled by the attack. The damage done was minor -- a dent in the ship's hull seven feet above the water line -- but it proved enough to send Bosch to federal prison, where he passed the time going on hunger strikes to rally community support. Bosch went on to greater fame as a prime suspect in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that resulted in 73 deaths. While being held in a Venezuelan jail in connection with that terrorist act, the Miami City Commission saw fit to declare March 25, 1983, "Dr. Orlando Bosch Day" in honor of the boom-happy baby doc. In 1988 the U.S. government, which had once supported his activities through the CIA, arrested him on parole violation charges.

13. Now turn south on Alton Road and pull in at the Miami Beach Marina. Perhaps following the principle that the best place to hide is right out in plain sight, the Company chose to base part of its secret fleet here, one of South Florida's busiest pleasure-boat ports. For close to a year, the docks of the Miami Beach Marina were home to the Explorer II, a 150-foot mother ship supposedly engaged in "oceanographic research" for Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. A typical infiltration mission saw the Explorer rendezvousing at sea with a specially modified V-20 speedboat based in the Keys. Taking the V-20 in tow, the mother ship would approach to within a few miles of the Cuban coast. There the smaller, faster raider would begin the dangerous run in to the beach, its pilot doing his best to avoid being shot up by the Cuban coast guard. Despite the illegality of her missions under the Neutrality Act, the Explorer had no such problems with the American authorities, of course; one former crewman remembers regularly exchanging friendly waves with Coast Guardsmen at the base directly across from the ship's Miami Beach dock.

14. From the marina it's just a couple of blocks to Joe's Stone Crab restaurant. This venerable Miami Beach landmark has certainly seen its share of the famous and infamous over its 84-year history, but for sheer coincidental weirdness it would be hard to beat the clientele it hosted one night in early April 1961. It was the eve of the Bay of Pigs, and a nervous E. Howard Hunt was having dinner with exile leader Tony Varona after another evening spent wrangling with squabbling anti-Castro politicians. In the middle of the meal, Hunt recalls, Varona caught a glimpse of someone across the room and smiled conspiratorially. "Look, there's your boss," he whispered. "Aren't you going to say hello to him?" Hunt froze. He turned slowly to look, perhaps flashing back to another Miami Beach near-disaster seven years earlier, when he had taken conspirators in the CIA's pending Guatemala coup out for a wild and all-too-public night on the town. But instead of meeting the disapproving gaze of CIA director Allen Dulles, he saw the bullfrog-ugly features of J. Edgar Hoover. "That relieved me considerably," Hunt says today. "I thought, 'If [Varona] thinks I'm working for the FBI, so be it.'"

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