Bay of Pigs Vets Fight for Home
Around dawn on April 19, the sound of rocket fire abruptly roused Eduardo Zayas-Bazán from restless dreams. He lay in a trench with a submachine gun and a .45 on Girón Beach on Cuba's southern coast. A gray B-26 strafed Blanco's bar, a rustic, open-air bohío just 150 yards away.
It was a pleasant spring day, around 80 degrees. Blanco's had been a hideout and headquarters for Eduardo and his friends. The previous night they had shared a hearty ajiaco — vegetable and pork stew — before retiring to their foxholes.
After the plane passed, the muscular, dark-haired 25-year-old spotted four fellow fighters entering the bar. "I need to warn them," he told his compadres before rolling from the trench and sprinting toward the men. His face and hands were painted black for camouflage. He wore dark green khakis. The men mistook him for a Cuban militiaman. They began firing.
A bullet seared through his right leg and pummeled him like a heavy hammer blow. He crumpled to the ground and yelped, "¡Águila negra! ¡Águila negra!" ("Black Eagle"). His friends joined in screaming the code word.
The men stopped shooting, but the damage had been done. Eduardo joined the victims — whose wounds portended the day's outcome. Not far away, in a makeshift hospital, intestines spilled from the body of a man who begged for morphine. An officer's chest was hollowed out by a bullet. White sheets covered a row of rigid bodies.
Eduardo's friends ran from the foxholes and surrounded him. There was José Enrique Alonso, their fortyish leader, whom the young men called abuelo. Next to him was Jesús Llama, whom they called "Chiqui" (even though the six-foot-tall soldier in his twenties had long outgrown the boyhood nickname), and cousins Jorge and Felipe Silva; both young men had quit school to join the force.
They yelled for a medic, and minutes later, one arrived to clean and bandage Eduardo's leg. A doctor told them about a plane leaving soon for Nicaragua to evacuate the wounded. A dusty, beat-up pickup truck pulled up to the bar.
"You're a lucky man," the doctor told Eduardo. "You'll be able to get out of here."
His comrades carefully shifted the weakening Eduardo onto the truck bed and bade him farewell. Five minutes later, when the truck pulled into the isolated Girón airstrip, the plane had already left. Remembering the gold Virgin Mary medallion around his neck, he prayed for his life, his young wife Elena, and their son, his firstborn and namesake, just five months old.
Eduardo and four others in the advance force that day in 1961 — the Bay of Pigs frogmen, hombres rana — were later captured by Fidel Castro's army and paraded through the country. They and the 1,400 other exile fighters would be used as propaganda for almost a half-century to illustrate the gringos' atavism toward the Cuban revolution. Castro later built a museum on Girón Beach — on the Bay of Pigs — dedicated to their failure. Thousands of Cubans are bused there annually to celebrate.
Likewise, the men of Brigade 2506 and that band of frogmen want their story memorialized. They hope to be known worldwide as more than a botched attempt by homesick immigrants and American mercenaries.
And in Miami, cradle of the Cuban exile, they're being taken seriously. This past September, county commissioners agreed to study a plan to give Bay of Pigs veterans a prime, nearly three-acre slice of bayfront real estate behind the American Airlines Arena for a five-story museum dedicated to the Cuban exile experience. Supporters are confident they can raise the estimated $65 million needed to construct the 80,000-square-foot building.
Answers are expected soon.
They want everyone who comes here to know that Miami and Cuba would not be the same had the brigade and the frogmen succeeded.
"It was almost like a crusade," says Eduardo Zayas-Bazán, his impassioned voice rising. "We knew we were defending a just cause. Through the years, it's become almost like we were the bad guys. But we were fighting for democracy."
Eduardo was an All-American swimmer in high school. He began competing at age seven and toughened his body with 50-yard sprints. But that didn't prepare him for several minutes in an ice-filled pool behind a luxurious South Miami home in December 1960. Eduardo was among the stout 20 or so men who endured the chill until the Americans ordered them out. Less than six months before the invasion, Eduardo stood among the others, teeth chattering and clothes dripping.
Their trainers, "friends of the Cuban cause," had dumped the contents of an entire ice truck in the water. Mist rose from the surface as the frigid water clashed with steamy Florida breezes. "We thought it was weird because we were going to be swimming in the tropics," Eduardo says. "There was no need for that, but I suppose that was part of the psychological training period. "
Eduardo was born into a political dynasty. His great-grandfather was a member of the first Cuban senate after the island gained independence from Spain in 1902. His great-great-uncle was the first governor of Camagüey, a fertile, cattle-rich central inland province that includes a yawning Texas landscape. And his grandfather, Rogerio Zayas-Bazán, was a high-ranking official overseeing the police for the young republic. When Rogerio was killed in a gun duel in 1931, Eduardo's father, Manuel Eduardo, returned from studying at the University of Georgia and became a congressman three years later at age 22.
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.
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."
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."
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.
About 200 meters from the landing spot, the frogmen and Lynch left the catamaran behind and boarded a rubber raft. Then they smacked into the sharp coral. The frogmen cursed and began pushing the raft to shore. Suddenly a light in the boat accidentally switched on. A Jeep appeared on the beach.
¡Coño! whispered Eduardo and the others.
The Jeep turned and flashed its headlights toward the frogmen, now waist-deep in the water and some 40 yards from shore.
"Fire!" shouted Lynch, who emptied his Browning automatic rifle into the Jeep. The frogmen followed his lead. Once the headlights were extinguished, the frogmen and Lynch moved slowly toward the beach. They found a man dead there. Eduardo, a combat virgin, sensed a copper taste in his mouth. He believed it was fear.
"No one wants to see anyone die," Eduardo says. "We would have loved to clear the beach when no one was there."
The landing of the Cuban exile force was no longer a surprise; the frogmen were the first to land and the first to fire in the invasion.
Minutes later, militiamen from the village and the Blagar traded fire as the frogmen ducked for cover. Ten minutes later, the shots slowed and an eerie early-morning calm set in. Crewmen on the Blagar summoned Lynch back to the ship to receive this message from Washington: "Expect you will be under air attack at first light. Unload all the men and supplies and take the ships to sea."
After a pair of landing craft carrying dozens more fighters hit the coral reef, the full landing of brigade troops was pushed back to daylight. The coral would be easier to navigate at low tide. Around 7 a.m., as the brigade trudged through the water, Castro's planes opened fire. Rockets sunk one of the brigade's ships, the Río Escondido. Soldiers quickly steered rubber boats to rescue the crew before the vessel exploded.
"The landing was really a fiasco," Felipe Silva says. "In light, the planes were on top of us and shooting at us."
Lynch radioed Amado Cantillo, who was in a rubber boat, to pick him up. He told the remaining frogmen to stay on the beach and promised to return with supplies. That night the frogmen paced along the sand. It flashed in Eduardo's mind that they might be stranded.
The next night, Eduardo was among those who steered a rubber boat miles out to sea. By radio, they desperately pleaded for support. "Where are you? We need to contact you."
"Ammunition was all we needed," Chiqui Llama says. "We blamed Kennedy. I think Kennedy was yellow."
Cantillo stayed aboard the Blagar. "I will never forgive myself for not going back to help those guys, but it was not up to me. I follow orders."
American jets flew overhead during the battle but left without firing a shot.
On April 19, Eduardo took a bullet in the knee. Later that day, after the plane left without wounded passengers, Felipe Silva was shot in the left elbow by a fellow soldier. "We could see [American destroyers] on the horizon!" he says. "All our thoughts were that they were going to come in and pick us up."
But they didn't; the destroyers turned around.
Brigade Cmdr. Pepe San Román, stationed at Girón Beach, desperately radioed for U.S. support. Casares quietly copied the heaps of communiqués being sent from San Román to the Blagar on notebook paper. (Casares, now 67 years old, still has the papers. "It was history," he says. "This was proof of what happened at the Bay of Pigs.")
One of the communiqués reads, "To Base: Do you people realize how desperate the situation is.... Do you back us up or quit. All we need is low jet air cover and close support. Enemy has this support. I need it badly or cannot survive. Please don't desert us."
On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 19, San Román sent a desperate message to Lynch on the Blagar and then to Washington: "Fighting on beach. Send all available aircraft now! In water, out of ammunition. Enemy closing in."
Later he said, "I can't wait any longer. I am destroying my radio."
The radio clicked dead. The frogmen decided to stay together and surrender. They handed their weapons to soldiers who were fleeing into nearby swamps. The beach fell into chaos. There was no escape. "Everybody was out for themselves," Felipe Silva says. "That was the end."
That the able-bodied frogmen chose not to leave their wounded comrades, "that was the most beautiful part," Eduardo says.
Later that day, the radio in a 1956 Buick cruising along a road near Cuba's southern coast was tuned to Radio Swan, a 50-kilowatt station based on a tiny island off Honduras. The CIA had covertly constructed the station to spread anti-Castro propaganda to Cuba beginning in May 1960.
An announcer boldly proclaimed the Miami exiles were victorious and Ché Guevara was dead.
What a travesty of truth, thought Eduardo, disgusted as he watched the road pass from the Buick's back seat. Beside him was another wounded brigade fighter, Rolando Toll, whose body was seared by shrapnel. Eduardo's mind drifted from the dull pain of his leg to the uncertainty that he would live beyond this day.
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."
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.
Robert Chisholm, a Cuban-American who heads the architecture firm designing the project, then unveiled a model of the hoped-for Bay of Pigs Museum. It will include a full research library, a 300-seat theater, and a Cuban restaurant. Near the main entrance, a granite memorial wall will point toward the latitude and longitude of the Bay of Pigs. Other features include splashes of colonial architecture, as well as six columns in the roof structure to represent Cuba's six original provinces.
Eduardo, now an active 72-year-old with a white mustache and wire-rim glasses, believes the planned museum is still needed to mend open wounds among the exiles. "The thing that I'm proudest of participating in is the Bay of Pigs invasion," asserts Eduardo, a retired Spanish professor who now writes textbooks. "We need to preserve history, and the only way to do that is through a museum. History has been twisted so much in Cuba that the museum would be a way of setting things straight, a testimony."
For two decades he worked on a fictional book steeped in the facts of his time as a frogman, El Pez Volador, which was recently published by Ediciones Universal. A copy sits in the brigade's tiny library in the Bay of Pigs Museum's current cramped Little Havana quarters. "This book is the most important thing I've done in my life," he says.
It's still unclear whether the museum will be built. Miami-Dade commissioners praised the project when they unanimously decided to study it in early September. Seven of them, as well as the county mayor, were either born in Cuba or are of Cuban descent. Commissioner Javier Souto, a brigade veteran, recused himself. "I know it'll be a beautiful thing,'' Commissioner Natacha Seijas said at the time.
William Muir Celorio, a 63-year-old brigade member who is the current museum's executive director, says he hopes to receive news from the county this month. "We all have grandkids and we want them to understand that if they don't protect their country, something terrible could happen," he says.
Adds Juan Blanco, a 70-year-old veteran who barked Brigade 2506 to attention for the last time at the Orange Bowl: "It's something to show the world and the youngsters that we tried to make Cuba free. It will be a place to be proud of. It will be everybody's house."
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Eduardo Zayas-Bazán chaired the foreign language department at East Tennessee University from 1973 to 1993 and returned to Miami in 1999. He and Elena divorced in 1982. He married his wife, Lourdes, in January 2003.
Blas Casares became a Navy SEAL and retired a lieutenant. He later headed a company that built luxury yachts.
Amado Cantillo, who participated in dozens of CIA missions to Cuba after the Bay of Pigs, flies a helicopter for the county's public works and is president of the Cuban Pilots Association.
Jorge Silva lives in Ocala. His cousin, Felipe Silva, moved to Caracas in the Seventies. And Chiqui Llama resides in Puerto Rico.
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