Bay of Pigs Vets Fight for Home

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

Eduardo called Elena one evening from a pay phone in New Orleans. He had been training with the other frogmen at an abandoned military depot. (Eduardo has a photo of the tan young men at a pool on the base.) It had been three months since the newlyweds had spoken, and she sobbed while they talked. Eduardo Jr. was growing up without him. "I don't want you to go to Cuba," she told him for the first time.

She had tried to understand, but the uncertainty wore on her. After a 10-minute conversation, they hung up. It was unclear if they would ever be together again as a family.

After heading out with his compadres for two days of R&R, drinking martinis, touring the city, and watching John Wayne in The Alamo, Eduardo returned to the base and his leader, Grayston Lynch. The retired U.S. Army captain bore a resemblance to the rugged actor. He was a veteran of the Normandy invasion who stood taller than six feet and had joined the CIA just a few months before. They knew him only as Gray. "Some of the CIA guys would say, 'I just don't want to get close to you,'" Eduardo says. "But Gray was a character. He was very friendly."

Eduardo Zayas-Bazán holds the metal cup and bowl he used in prison.
Andrzej Sobieski
Eduardo Zayas-Bazán holds the metal cup and bowl he used in prison.

Lynch led them on "swamp patrol," during which he turned over logs and poked through the swamp to draw out venomous snakes. In early April, the frogmen boarded a merchant marine ship and headed out of the Mississippi River before crossing the Gulf of Mexico and traveling six days to Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, where they anchored off a long pier about 500 yards from shore. They woke around 6 that morning to spy a handful of Nicaraguan women bathing nude near the shore.

"They put on their clothes and they were very nice girls," says Blas Casares, one of the frogmen who jumped overboard to greet the women in the sun. "We'd been training for seven months. We agreed to meet them later for drinks. Your mentality changes when you know there's a chance you could get killed."

Puerto Cabezas was a shabby port town of a few thousand people. It was about only a dozen blocks long. When the troops began arriving, all outgoing calls and telegraphs were blocked. Suspected Castro sympathizers were locked up.

Eduardo spent his days wandering through the humble town. He greeted arriving troops, which, to his surprise, included his younger brother, Rogerio. Most of the brigade had been trained in Guatemala. The frogmen had worked in isolation.

The exile fighters soon swarmed the town's bars, until the Nicaraguan National Guard declared the town off-limits. But that didn't stop frogmen like Amado Cantillo, dubbed "Crazy Horse" by the others, from dumping his clothes into a bucket and leading a few of the other frogmen in a half-mile swim from the ship to shore. Lynch spotted them at a bar but let them stay as long as they went easy on the booze; they had to swim back to the boat that night.

"They told [me] not to worry, that they planned to sleep on the beach under the dock," Lynch writes. "They did, and as far as we knew, no one ever discovered this last night on the town."

Ships left Nicaragua during the evening of April 13. Lynch convened the 11 frogmen and showed aerial photos of the landing site. Two frogmen who knew the area warned that some shadows in the water were live coral that could grind up a boat's hull. Lynch took the photos to CIA analysts, who assured him it was just seaweed or clouds.

Eduardo wasn't worried. "I trusted what the CIA was telling us," he says. "The Americans knew what they were doing, in my mind."

In Washington, the government backed off even further. On April 12, President Kennedy pledged at a press conference that U.S. troops would not be committed to Cuba. Then, the day before the attacks, he slashed the number of planes in the morning air strikes from 16 to eight, which was not enough to disable Castro's air force.

On the day of the April 15 bombings, Cuban Foreign Minister Raúl Roa called for a special U.N. session. Once the diplomats convened, they were shown photos of the B-26 planes the CIA had repainted. U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson claimed the United States was not behind the attacks.

President Kennedy scrapped further air attacks and restricted U.S. involvement. One of the two top CIA architects of the plan, Richard Bissell, would later say the CIA didn't inform Kennedy properly about the consequences of canceling the attacks.

Lynch received word of the cancellation as the frogmen prepared for landing. Though the American trainers warned of the danger, Eduardo knew he'd make it through. He was young and strong.

Eduardo carefully removed and stowed his wedding ring. The other frogmen covered with black tape anything that could catch light as they headed into the Bay of Pigs. "I was excited and looking forward to action," Eduardo says. "Our preoccupation was landing."

Just before midnight Sunday, April 16, Eduardo, Alonso, Llama, the Silvas, and Lynch crept down landing nets from the Blagar onto an 18-foot catamaran that towed a rubber boat with a silent motor. Eduardo and four commandos carried .45 pistols and Thompson submachine guns. After shoving off, they looked toward shore, where the seaside town of Girón Beach unexpectedly glowed like a carnival under high-intensity lights.

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