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Author describes Alabamians role in ill-fated Cuban invasion

Published 10:23am Thursday, September 26, 2013

The ill-fated U.S. attempt to invade Cuba and remove Fidel Castro from power was not only one of the most embarrassing episodes in the annals of America’s military.
It was also a “little known, heroic and tragic moment in Alabama’s military history,” Warren Trest, co-author of “Wings of Denial: The Alabama Air National Guard’s Covert Role at the Bay of Pigs,” told Alexander City residents Monday.
“I still get a little choked up and a little bit mad about it,” he said of the April 17, 1961 mission to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
Trest shared the tale of Alabamians’ covert involvement at the Bay of Pigs as part of the Horizons Unlimited lecture series at the Alexander City Board of Education building.
For decades, the eight Alabamians’ roles in the failed invasion was veiled in secrecy. The true circumstances behind the death of four of the Alabamians was a closely guarded secret until the 1990s. Thomas “Pete” Ray, Riley Shamburger, Leo Francis Baker and Wade Gray died when their B-26 bombers were shot down supporting the unsuccessful invasion by an undermanned team of Cuban dissenters. Four other Alabamians took part in the mission, with dozens more involved in training or supplying the Cuban force.
Trest called the men “unsung heroes of the Cold War.” They were all volunteers, drawn from the Air National Guard fighter wings based in Birmingham and Montgomery. The joined the mission after then Gov. John Patterson OK’d on the urging of a CIA “spook” who approached him in the final months of the Eisenhower administration.
Unfortunately for the Cuban and Alabamian troops involved in the mission, secrecy was considered most important in the nuclear-tainted Cold War atmosphere of the early 1960s. The most important part of the planning process, Trest said, was to ensure the United States couldn’t be blamed.
“Plausible deniability of US involvement was a mission necessity and at every phase of the planning (secrecy) trumped the tried and true military tactics,” he said.
Trest details the totality of the mission’s failure in his book. He also describes the astounding lengths to which the government went to keep the poorly guarded secret. For almost four decades, Ray, Baker, Shamburger and Gray were officially considered “soldiers of fortune” killed in an unsanctioned mission. It was thirty-six years after their deaths, in 1997, before the CIA finally added stars for Ray, Shamburger, Baker and Gray to the Wall of Honor at its Langley, Va. headquarters, Trest said. Ray was the only Alabamian killed whose body was ever returned home. His body had kept frozen in a Havana morgue 16 years a sort of “war trophy,” Trest said, and it was only through pressure by his daughter Mary that the U.S. ever pressured Castro to send his remains home for burial in 1979. Gov. Patterson later said that if he had it to do all over again, “I wouldn’t have given that CIA guy the time of day,” Tress said. Trest is the former senior historian with the U.S. Air Force’s Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery. He authored “Wings of Denial” with Auburn Montgomery history professor Don Dodd. At Monday’s Horizons Unlimited lecture, Joyce Cauthen, executive director emeritus of the Alabama Folklife Association, will discuss the banjo and fiddle players who were Alabama’s first pop music celebrities.