This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, an unsuccessful action by a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles to invade southern Cuba, with support and encouragement from the U.S. government, in an attempt to overthrow the Cuban government of Fidel Castro. The Bay of Pigs would go down as one of the United States’ biggest strategic blunders: More than 100 men were killed, including four U.S. pilots, and Castro remained as the leader of Cuba.
But it took nearly four decades before the government would recognize the deeds of those four U.S. pilots–Major Riley Shamburger, Captain Thomas W. Ray, Wade Gray, and Leo Baker, all Alabama Air National Guardsmen–who died at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Their names were finally made public and memorialized at the CIA’s Wall of Honor in Langley, Virginia.
Major Riley Shamburger and Wade Gray were killed when a T-33 shot them down a few hundred yards offshore. Captain Thomas W. Ray and Leo Baker were shot down while attacking inland targets near Castro’s headquarters at the Australia sugar mill. Eyewitnesses stated that the two guardsmen survived the crash but were killed by Cuban militiamen. The body of Captain Ray remained in Cuba, where it was frozen as a war trophy and evidence of U.S. involvement in the invasion, until 1978.
The stories of these men are told in Wings of Denial: The Alabama Air National Guard’s Covert Role at the Bay of Pigs, by Warren Trest and Donald Dodd (NewSouth Books). We at Blair would like to honor them today, fifty years later, just like Congress did last week when it offered a congressional salute to eight Bay of Pigs veterans. “Though the operation was not successful, the dedication and commitment that these brave individuals illustrated during the conflict was exceptional,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said on the House floor. “The men who fought courageously on that historic day came from many backgrounds, but all cared for the freedom and liberty of Cuba.”