Patriotic boys
by Jennifer Cohron
May 29, 2011 | 1716 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Janet Ray, daughter of Alabama Air National Guard pilot Thomas “Pete” Ray, is interviewed in “Playa Giron,” a documentary produced this semester by the University of Alabama Honors College’s “Lights Camera Alabama” program. - Photo Special to the Eagle
Janet Ray, daughter of Alabama Air National Guard pilot Thomas “Pete” Ray, is interviewed in “Playa Giron,” a documentary produced this semester by the University of Alabama Honors College’s “Lights Camera Alabama” program. - Photo Special to the Eagle
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No one was supposed to know that seven members of the Alabama Air National Guard fought at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. For decades, few did.

The four pilots who died were called renegades publicly by their own government.

In fact, it was the CIA who had recruited them for their final mission and paid their widows thousands of dollars in exchange for silence.

Now, on the 50th anniversary of the infamous invasion, the true story of their ultimate sacrifice is being told.

The Alabama Air National Guard's role at the Bay of Pigs is the subject of a new documentary called "Playa Giron," which is the latest production of the University of Alabama Honors College's "Lights Camera Alabama" program.

Students in professor Billy Field's film classes have made many movies about Alabama history.

This semester, they chose to tell the story of the pilots from the Birmingham-based 117th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing who were involved in the invasion.

"We had gotten an interview with the last living pilot who saw combat. We decided to take that and start building on it," Field said.

Samuel Dotson, who led the work on the film, spoke with the pilot, Joe Shannon, before the Walker County native's death in 2010.

Dotson said the subject of the documentary appealed to him because his maternal grandparents are Cuban exiles. However, their past was rarely brought up during family discussions.

"It was a pretty touchy subject," Dotson said.

Dotson's grandmother, Dr. Maria Vega de Febles, was involved in the internal resistance movement and was one of at least 250,000 Cubans arrested at Fidel Castro's orders prior to the invasion. She and her brother Angel Vega, who was also a former internal resistance member, agreed to be interviewed for the film.

Others included in the documentary were Julio Pestonit and Captain Amado Cantillo, members of the Cuban invading force; UA history professor Howard Jones, who has written a book about the Bay of Pigs invasion; and Janet Ray, the daughter of the pilot whose body Castro kept as a war trophy.

Thomas "Pete" Ray was killed when one of Castro's men shot him in the head at close range. Castro kept his body frozen for decades in Cuba as evidence of America's involvement in the failed coup.

Ray's remains were returned to the U.S. in 1979, 18 years after his death.

Janet Ray fought for years before government officials told her the truth about her father's involvement at the Bay of Pigs.

"Their mission was not to fly. Their mission was to train the Cuban exiles who wanted to retake their country," Field said.

Field added that the CIA wanted Cubans, not Americans, to participate in the actual battle so that it would not be evident that the U.S. government was behind the plot to oust Castro.

Pete Ray was among 39 members of the 117th as well as 11 Guardsmen from another unit and 40 civilian pilots and technicians who were involved in the covert operation.

The CIA intended to disguise some B-26 bombers, which were used by the Cuban air force, with Cuban markings and use them in the attack to make it appear that Cubans were using Castro's own planes against him.

Pilots from the 117th were recruited, with Governor John Patterson's permission, to train the exiles on the B-26's.

"Throughout most of America, the B-26 bombers had been retired. Alabama's Air National Guard was the last unit to have some in operation," Dotson said.

The airmen were asked to resign from the National Guard and given fake I.D's and a fictitious employer by the CIA to help hide their involvement.

However, Field said President John F. Kennedy was "terrified" that the truth would come out and began taking steps to create "plausible deniability."

By the time the invasion began in April 1961, several critical and disastrous decisions had been made.

The original invasion site,Trinidad, was replaced by the Bay of Pigs. The number of planes to be used was cut from 16 to eight and air support that had been promised was withdrawn.

On April 19, Cuban soldiers on the ground found themselves being battered by Castro's forces. The CIA commander of the mission at Nicaragua authorized but did not order the American pilots to fly.

"They felt like they were a part of it and those guys were getting killed on the beach. So they jumped in the planes and took off," Field said.

Seven Alabama pilots went into battle that day. Only three came back.

Their families were told various stories, including that they had been killed while working on a weather station.

The widows received monthly payments from an anonymous entity now believed to be the CIA but were warned that they would be cut off if they asked too many questions.

When the families were finally given medals in honor of their loved ones' sacrifice, they were told that they were not to tell anyone about it.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government continued to distance themselves from the men by claiming that they were mercenaries working for rich Cuban exiles.

However, Field said Shannon and others who had survived the Bay of Pigs refused to betray their country by exposing the truth.

"All they were were patriotic boys who wanted to do what their country asked them to do," Field said.

"Playa Giron" can be viewed for free at www.lightscameraalabama. com.