On This Day 1961: As Bay of Pigs 'Sh*T Hits the Fan,' US Denies Involvement


Fifty-seven years ago today, CIA officer Grayston Lynch received a disturbing message: "Castro still has operational aircraft. Expect you to be hit at dawn."

Lynch was on a ship off the southern coast of Cuba with anti-Castro rebels on the third day of the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, what would become known as a deadly and embarrassing Cold War folly.

The operation had started at dawn on the 15th when U.S.-trained rebel forces flying from Central America bombed Cuban airfields in hopes of taking out dictator Fidel Castro's air force before it had a chance to get off the ground. At least one CIA official had been adamant that total control of the air would be critical to the invasion's success [PDF].

But prior to the bombing, then-President John F. Kennedy had requested the number of planes involved in the bombing be cut drastically. The rebel forces took off with half the planes they were originally planning and failed to take out all of Castro's planes. A second strike was canceled outright.

So on the morning of the 17th, Lynch and the Cuban rebels braced themselves, for good reason. The surviving Cuban air force struck the ships off the coast and, after a contingent of rebels made it ashore, struck there as well.

The National Security Archive at George Washington University notes that the freighter Rio Escondido is sunk after suffering a direct hit by a rocket. The ship had been carrying food, hospital equipment, gasoline and ammunition reserves for 10 days. It went up with an enormous blast.

"At Blue Beach, [CIA contractor] Rip Robertson shouts into his radio, 'God Almighty, what was that? Fidel got the A-bomb?' 'Naw,' responds his CIA colleague Grayston Lynch, 'that was the damned Rio Escondido that blew,'" the GWU archive says.

The air attacks, coupled with intense fighting on the ground, began to dissolve any remaining hope in the operation. The evening of the 17th, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy told a Florida senator, "The shit has hit the fan. The thing has turned sour in a way you wouldn't believe." In the CIA's official history, the section that begins with April 17, 1961 is titled "Where Cuba Was Lost." [PDF]

It was amid all this that U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk spoke to the United Nations and denied that the U.S. was behind the invasion, as Castro alleged. Rusk said the Cuban affair was "one for the Cubans themselves to settle but that the United States was not indifferent to the extension of Communist tyranny in this hemisphere," in the words of the UPI news service.

Rusk's comments would come to look increasingly hollow in coming days as the operation deteriorated further. First American contract pilots were enlisted to join the fight, and then U.S. military pilots -- four of whom were killed in action. Despite the more direct involvement, by April 20 the operation had failed and hundreds of rebels were captured or killed.

On April 21, Kennedy held a press conference where he said clearly that the U.S. -- the White House in particular -- was to blame for the disastrous scheme.

"As I said from the beginning, the operation was a failure, and the responsibility rests with the White House," he told reporters.

READ MORE: Pay of Pigs Timeline (GWU NSA)

READ MORE: CIA's Official History of the Bay of Pigs (CIA.gov)

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