Bay of Pigs Vets Fight for Home

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

A pair of Castro militiamen sat up front. One pointed a gun toward the captives while the other drove. "Do you have a wife or children?" he asked Eduardo.

"Yes," Eduardo answered.

"What a pity, because you're never going to see them again."

Eduardo Zayas-Bazán spent more than two decades working on a fictional book based on his time as a frogman.
Andrzej Sobieski
Eduardo Zayas-Bazán spent more than two decades working on a fictional book based on his time as a frogman.
Blas Casares, a frogman, questioned President John F. Kennedy about why he pulled American support for the 1,400 exile fighters.
Andrzej Sobieski
Blas Casares, a frogman, questioned President John F. Kennedy about why he pulled American support for the 1,400 exile fighters.

They arrived at a Matanzas jail where hordes of Castro supporters paraded by to insult Eduardo and Toll. "Take off your shoes," one man needled. "You don't need your shoes. We're going to execute you."

On the morning of April 21, Eduardo, his fellow captured frogmen, and hundreds of other prisoners were shuttled on buses to Girón Beach. They waited there for hours. "We thought, This is it," Jorge Silva says. "We figured we were going to be shot."

But the captives were herded back onto the bus and driven to Havana, where they were shoved in front of TV cameras. Dazed, dirty, and dehydrated fighters appeared under a sign that read, "Fatherland or Death. We won."

Eduardo was not chosen. His clothes were bloody and torn. He remembers devouring Chinese fried rice and plantains, his first real meal after days of crackers and guava paste. Felipe Silva and Eduardo were then sent to a hospital, where an orthopedic surgeon put a cast on Eduardo's leg.

Soon after the men were captured, Casares and Cantillo, who were with Lynch and the U.S. Navy ships offshore, volunteered to return to the beach to search for survivors. They found about 30 men, naked or in underwear. A few had resorted to eating iguanas. Cantillo scooped up one survivor like a baby. The man whispered into Cantillo's ear: "¿Ganamos?" Did we win?

Cantillo felt like crying and asked Lynch: "What should I tell him?"

"Tell him we have lost the battle but not the war."

They gave up the rescue once American sonar spotted a Soviet submarine heading into the bay. The American fleet moved out to sea.

After 10 days in the hospital, Felipe Silva and Eduardo would join the 1,100 other prisoners at Palacio de los Deportes, a boxing and basketball arena in Havana, where the exile fighters would endure sleeping on bleachers for more than a week. They were given yellow shirts to wear. Castro called them "yellow worms," cowards who were enemies of his revolution.

In the end, the brigade lost more than 100 men in the invasion, including Blas Casares's 22-year-old half-brother, whose B-26 was shot down. Four American pilots were killed.

By June 1961, the prisoners ended up at Castillo del Príncipe, an 18th-century Spanish fort, where guards prodded them with bayonets. They spent their days praying the rosary, playing chess, and listening to a fellow prisoner strum a classical Spanish guitar someone had smuggled in. The meals were mostly rice and beans.

"When they took out a spoonful of black beans, everybody would say, 'Oh, there's a piece of meat,'" Felipe Silva recalls. "And when they started fishing around, it was rats."

Elena wrote Eduardo letters, but they were returned unopened.

The frogmen stayed in dungeonlike cells that held 16 people. Other brigade members were stuffed into rooms with 90 to 100 men. A mass trial was held March 1962 in the prison courtyard, where more than 1,000 inmates were seated.

"The Castro prosecutor was making all these speeches we had heard 20,000 times ... that we were worms, traitors, enemies of the revolution," Jorge Silva says. "Hell, I just thought it was boring. I thought, When is this going to end?"

The men were sentenced to 30 years. Ransoms from $25,000 to $500,000 were demanded for the gringos. The frogmen went for $100,000 each, and brigade leaders were tagged at $500,000. A 65-page sentencing document named each man and maintained that the United States had invested $45 million in the training. It accused the men of causing the deaths of innocents and being instruments of imperialism. (Eduardo keeps a fragile original copy stowed in his Coral Gables study.)

Eduardo was among the 60 seriously wounded men Castro agreed to free early for a pledge of $3 million. The frogman returned to Miami April 14. (A metal prison bowl and cup sit on a shelf in his home.)

A Spanish-language issue of Life magazine featured his homecoming. In a photo, a stoic Eduardo clutches his crying young wife and son under the headline "Reunion in Miami ... at What Price!" Five months later, most brigade members were returned when the United States forked over $53 million in medicine and food to Cuba. (Veterans maintain he was paid in cash.) On December 29, 1962, Kennedy visited the Miami Orange Bowl and spoke to exiles. After he was presented with the Brigade 2506 banner that had reached Cuban shores during the invasion, the president pledged, "I can assure you that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana."

Brigade 2506 returned for a final visit to the Orange Bowl on Saturday, December 29, 2007. Near the scoreboard, the American flag waved next to the brigade's banner under an azure sky.

About 450 graying fighters returned to the stadium, which will be demolished within months. They proudly sported the group's insignia on guayaberas, polo shirts, and hats. Some pushed walkers and toted canes.

Political leaders appeared on a makeshift stage near the 50-yard line and called the veterans heroes before more than 1,000 onlookers, who squinted in the sun from the stadium's metal bleachers.

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