During the botched Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, the US sent civilians from the Alabama Air National Guard on a CIA mission to support the attack. As the US was not officially involved, their presence was a closely guarded secret. The invasion would become one of the CIA’s most embarrassing failures, amplified by the discovery of an American airmen’s body, which the US refused to claim for decades.
Bay of Pigs Invasion
In 1961, the US-funded and planned an invasion on Cuba’s southwestern coast that would be carried out by Cuban exiles. The original plan was meant to employ both air and naval power to ensure success, but when the 1,500-strong invasion force arrived, they received minimal support. The international community learned about the attack, and President John F. Kennedy decided to limit the use of airpower. The invasion ended in complete failure.
The US went to great lengths to hide its involvement in the invasion, even going as far as painting aircraft in Cuban colors to create confusion. The invading party and pilots were trained by US forces and the CIA.
The aircraft that were to be used by the exiled Cubans had to be the same as those used by the Cuban air force. As they used the B-26 Invader, this was the aircraft that would be used in the attack.
However, by 1961 this aging 1940s era bomber was only used by the Alabama Air National Guard. Pilots from here were chosen to train and supervise the invaders but were under strict orders to not participate in any missions themselves.
Thomas “Pete” Ray
Lieutenant Ray of the Alabama Air National Guard was shot down while piloting a B-26 bomber during the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The aircraft was hit by Cuban anti-aircraft fire shortly after attacking Fidel Castro’s field headquarters. In similar attacks, these aircraft dropped napalm onto targets below.
Although US pilots were originally prohibited from participating in the invasion after the situation became desperate the CIA reluctantly allowed them to fly. According to a 1998 Los Angeles Times article, the CIA reinforced the secrecy of the operation to the crews: “Cannot attach sufficient importance to fact that American crews must not fall into enemy hands. In the event this happens, despite all precautions, crews must state [they are] hired mercenaries, fighting communism, etc.; U.S. will deny any knowledge.”
After landing, Ray and his flight engineer Leo Baker were discovered by Cuban soldiers and shot.
Ray’s body was then collected and placed on ice.
Although the US was desperately refusing to take any responsibility for the attack, Castro knew they were the ones pulling the strings. He wanted to prove without a doubt that the US had been involved, and Ray’s body was the best way to do it.
But the US would not budge, and the CIA continued to deny US involvement and therefore would not repatriate Ray’s body. To Ray’s family and friends, he had simply vanished without any explanation, unaware that the government knew exactly what had happened.
If they wanted to repatriate Ray’s body, the CIA would have to admit their involvement. Even the Cubans were confused by the US’ cold treatment for one of their war dead.
After his disappearance, Ray’s wife began trying to find answers about his death, which was successfully kept as a secret by those associated with the Alabama Air Guard. A number of rumors have circulated since then about the CIA’s bullying of those not letting the topic die. One of these mentioned in the LA Times article details how the CIA threatened to place Ray’s wife in a mental institution for the rest of her life if she continued searching for answers.
Ray’s body is returned
In 1979 Cuba became aware that Ray’s daughter, Janet Ray Weininger, was trying to recover her father’s body. As a result, the return of his body took place in 1979. It was around this time that the CIA privately informed Weininger that Ray had participated in the invasion, and had actually been awarded the agency’s highest award; the Distinguished Intelligence Cross.
Although Ray’s body had been returned and Weininger had answers, the CIA still refused to publicly confirm Ray’s involvement in the Bay of Pigs until 1998, when The Times pressured the agency to finally admit his presence.
In addition to this, it was revealed that the CIA also set up a fake company to pay the dead pilot’s families a regular sum of money, and even funded their children’s college educations.
Once this information had been released to the public, Ray’s name could finally be added to the Book of Honor in the foyer of CIA headquarters.