By Doug MacPhail - LAAHS Canada and Chuck Acree - LAAHS USA
By the middle of 1960, the novelty of Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution was wearing thin and many of those who had first zealously supported him began to leave for the United States. Scarcely more than a year after Castro had unseated the dictator, Fulgencio Batista, the American government under Dwight D. Eisenhower was making plans to overthrow the bearded leader and the influx of discontented Cubans offered a ready-made invasion force - with a little help from their friends, the Central Intelligence Agency.
The story of the battle which took place on the beaches of Girón and in the Zapata Swamp has already been well documented. The intention of this article is to offer an insight into the defensive operations from the standpoint of the multi-national Cuban Revolutionary Air Force (Fuerza Aérea Revolucionaria) - something which appears to have been steadfastly avoided, by all parties, for over 40 years.
In the pre-dawn hours of April 15th, 1961, a force of Douglas B-26 bombers initiated a series of surprise attacks against Cuba's three major military airfields: Ciudad Libertad (formerly Camp Columbia) in Havana, San Antonio de los Baños, southwest of the capital and Antonio Maceo International Airport at Santiago de Cuba, at the country's eastern tip. The attacks were intended to be pre-emptive, effectively rendering the island nation defenceless against the coming land and air assault by almost 1500 CIA-backed guerrillas.
"The attacking aircraft were reasonably identical to those used by the FAR and carried essentially the same national insignia and markings. This attempt at confusing the defenders worked to some degree but would have been more effective if the insurgent machines had not also been decorated with broad blue wing stripes, to safeguard them from attack by their own forces. One also suspects it would have been better if their intelligence had told them that FAR aircraft were currently wearing two-tone camouflage, not natural metal schemes!"
Lt. Alberto Fernández, flying a T-33A armed with two M3 machine guns, was the first pilot to get airborne during the attack on San Antonio and the only one with any reasonable chance of catching the attacking aircraft. On guard duty when the first explosions occurred, he ran for aircraft '715', but it took a direct hit and disappeared before his eyes. Choosing a second aircraft, he got airborne as quickly as he could but the B-26s had hit hard and fast and were out of visual range before he could intercept them. Lt. Gustavo Bourzac, a Sea Fury FB.11 pilot, probably made air combat history by being the first man to scramble against enemy forces wearing only his 'jockey' shorts. Awakened from a sound sleep, he wasted a few seconds looking for his flight suit and parachute and then simply raced to the flightline and jumped into the first available aircraft. Like Fernández, although he searched as far south as the Isle of Pines (now the Isle of Youth), he was too late.
Incredibly, there were no further air attacks. In fact, the main invasion force did not arrive on the beaches of the southern coast until the 17th, giving the FAR two complete days in which to prepare for the coming fight. While pilots sat ready in the cockpits of the serviceable aircraft - a T-33A, 2 B-26s and 2 Sea Furies - the technical staff worked feverishly to bring others up to flying standard. By the end of hostilities, 4 Sea Furies, 5 B-26s and 5 T-33As had seen action.
In time, the Cuban Air Force would become the most powerful in the Caribbean and Latin America, but at the moment of these first attacks, it was but a pitiful shadow of a true military force. Pilot training was almost non-existent, given the fact that virtually all aircraft in the inventory were unserviceable. Those aircraft that could be flown were only barely capable of air combat missions - even if there had been adequate stores of starter cartridges, spare parts and ammunition.
None of the pilots had flown at night - they had no radar. None of the pilots had undergone any real combat training and only a select few had ever fired their machine guns, much less a 5" rocket. However, in his book 'Operación Puma', Brigade pilot Eduardo Ferrer acknowledges the skills and experience of the three eldest defenders: Enrique Carreras Rolas, 38 - qualified on props, jets, fighters, bombers and transports, with 5000 hours accumulated, including advanced training in the United States; Luis Silva Tablada, 35 - an experienced bomber pilot with 4000 hours, also including advanced training in the U.S.; Alvaro Prendes Quintana, 32 - an experienced fighter pilot, with 2000 hours. 27 year old Douglas Rudd had been training in the U.S. in early 1959, but the other younger pilots, Rafael del Pino, 22, Alberto Fernández, 24 and Gustavo Bourzac, 27, were relatively inexperienced.
Aside from these native Cubans, the roster also included three Nicaraguans - Alvaro Galo, Carlos Ulloa and Ernesto Guerrero, as well as a handful of Chileans, including Jack Lagás, who had been contracted to provide training. Rafael del Pino had to be recalled from his duties as Deputy Commander of the Mariel Naval Base, west of Havana, where Douglas Rudd had recently completed five months in a non-flying post. Alvaro Prendes had just returned from three months of infantry duty in the Escambray mountains, where he had participated in actions against gangs of counter-revolutionaries.
The state of repair of the FAR aircraft, inexplicably, had not been a high priority for the Cuban High Command and Captain Evans Rosales, Chief of Maintenance, came close to paying the price for that lack of concern. On the afternoon of April 16th, as a result of grounding all aircraft for not meeting minimum standards to guarantee crew safety and furthermore, putting his report in writing, he was arrested and charged with high treason. When he finally came to trial, the single greatest piece of evidence against Rosales was the fact that the pilots and crews had proceeded to defeat the incoming force, with surprising ease and a minimum of losses. If there had been any truth to Rosales' assertions, these events could hardly have transpired, as far as the government was concerned. Initially condemned to the firing squad, he was eventually reprieved and freed as a result of the intercession of the pilots that he had attempted to safeguard.