Bay of Pigs Vets Fight for Home

Betrayed by the U.S. government and their own country, they want to be remembered.

The oldest of six, Eduardo was born in November 1935 and raised on his family's estate, which was centered around a nine-bedroom, two-story home with striped awnings and lush vines tumbling down trellises. When he was 13 years old, his parents sent him to the United States for school and then, four years later, brought him back to Havana, where he earned a law degree in 1958.

Eduardo didn't fight on either side during the revolution. He knew his father, then a Camagüey governor, was no Fidel Castro fan. "It would have killed my father if I would have gone up in the hills with Castro," he says. (His father was later forced out.) Like many others, Eduardo believed Cuba would improve after the toppling of President Fulgencio Batista's regime. "I was very happy at the beginning of the revolution," he says. "I really thought there would be a total change in the mentality of the people."

Soon after the 1959 overthrow, Eduardo began to fear Castro's rise. People he knew were executed, and then, in March, Castro ordered a retrial of Batista pilots whom a court had cleared of war crimes. "This was such an obvious disregard for the law," he says. When the government confiscated private property, including his father's farm, two houses, and a pair of shrimp boats, "an atmosphere of fear started to develop in the country," Eduardo remembers.

Amado Cantillo still regrets not being able to rescue his fellow frogmen during the invasion.
Andrzej Sobieski
Amado Cantillo still regrets not being able to rescue his fellow frogmen during the invasion.
Frogmen Andrés Pruna (left), Jorge Silva, Amado Cantillo, Eduardo Zayas-Bazán, Octavio Soto, and Carlos Fonts line up near a pool during their CIA-led training at an abandoned military depot shortly before the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
Courtesy of Eduardo Zayas-Bazán
Frogmen Andrés Pruna (left), Jorge Silva, Amado Cantillo, Eduardo Zayas-Bazán, Octavio Soto, and Carlos Fonts line up near a pool during their CIA-led training at an abandoned military depot shortly before the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

In December of that year, he married Elena Pedroso, an elegant 19-year-old English major he had met at the Havana Yacht Club. He was 22 years old and earned a living as a swimming instructor, an ability that would play a decisive role in his future.

Eduardo soon joined the anti-Castro underground and began recruiting friends and posting propaganda on street corners. He kept this hidden from his father, but his clandestine activities didn't escape the notice of the secret police. "You need to be careful," a family friend told him.

In March 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a secret CIA plan to train Cuban exiles to invade the island. Six months later, Eduardo landed in Miami on a tourist visa and headed to Little Havana, where he met Tony de Varona, a former Cuban prime minister and a friend of his father, who told him the brigade needed swimmers for an underwater demolition team. "This was where I belonged," Eduardo says. "I volunteered."

Elena, who was pregnant, came to Miami less than two weeks later, and their son Eduardo was born an American citizen November 1, 1960. The young family and six of Elena's relatives crammed into a three-bedroom home on NW 37th Avenue near 10th Street. Eduardo worked as a busboy at a Collins Avenue hotel and washed cars for $35 a month to scrape by.

The newly elected president, John F. Kennedy, soon agreed to move forward with Eisenhower's plan to invade Cuba. Though it was top secret, "it was a known thing [the CIA] was behind the recruitment meetings," says Felipe Silva, who would join the frogmen. "Every Cuban knew in Miami."

Eleven fighters were eventually selected to join the frogmen, an elite force that would clear the way for the first landing and perform maritime sabotage. Among them were Felipe's older cousin, the bespectacled Jorge Silva, who had quit Georgia Tech to join the brigade at age 19. Blas Casares dropped his University of Oklahoma studies to volunteer. Then there were Amado Cantillo, an air force cadet in Cuba who had come to the United States in 1959; and Chiqui Llama, who washed floors at a Miami department store before signing on.

Soon they boarded the Blagar, a World War II assault landing craft, on the Miami River. It would be the command ship in the invasion. They learned underwater navigation techniques on the way to Vieques, an island near Puerto Rico, where they pitched tents on a beach near a U.S. military base. They'd wake at 6 a.m. to learn underwater sabotage and combat technique, as well as how to flip from a boat moving 60 miles per hour. They'd fall asleep, exhausted by 9 p.m., some fully clothed to evade pesky sand flies.

In March, Kennedy approved Cuban invasion plans — but warned that American backing must be disguised. Diplomats suggested a night landing, which had never been attempted by U.S. armed forces, to avoid press coverage; the CIA painted B-26s to look like Cuban aircraft. And the landing — which was originally proposed for the town of Trinidad, on Cuba's south coast, partially because it had an escape route — was moved to the Bay of Pigs. Secretary of State Dean Rusk advised Kennedy to scrap the Trinidad plan, writes Grayston Lynch in Decision for Disaster: Betrayal at the Bay of Pigs. It looked too much like U.S. invasions during World War II.

In late March, a plane arrived to pick up the frogmen in Puerto Rico. They'd invade at midnight April 17. The fighters didn't know where they were going, but trusted the Americans. "I was exhilarated because I was always thinking that Castro had just a few days left," Eduardo says. "I was in a state of euphoria."


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