Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

COLUMN ONE

Bay of Pigs: the Secret Death of Pete Ray

The Alabama Air Guard pilot died during ill-fated Cuban invasion attempt. For years, the CIA hid his fate from his family. Havana, meanwhile, kept his body frozen.

March 15, 1998|MARK FINEMAN and DOLLY MASCARENAS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HAVANA — When Thomas "Pete" Ray's B-26 bomber was shot down by Cuban antiaircraft batteries near Playa Giron on April 19, 1961, he wasn't there.

So said the CIA.

And for decades, the U.S. government publicly denied that a top-secret squadron of civilians recruited from the Alabama Air National Guard ever existed, let alone was on a CIA mission to bomb Cuba in one of the agency's best-kept and most humiliating secrets. It was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, in which, officially, no Americans were involved.

But Ray was there. The 30-year-old Center Point, Ala., pilot was shot to death--pistol and knife in hand--by one of Fidel Castro's soldiers. They also killed his flight engineer, Leo Baker, after the two had bombed targets near Castro's field headquarters. Two other Alabamians also died when their plane was shot down during the invasion, which included napalm bombing by U.S. aircraft.

They were on a mission that Col. Joe Shannon, one of the few surviving pilots from the group, recently recalled was "a last-ditch effort" that, through its very secrecy, would change the course of many lives for decades to come.

Castro was so determined to prove the Americans were there that he froze Ray's remains--for more than 18 years.

For Ray's wife, mother and two children, those years were haunted by silent confusion and fear, as the U.S. government knew, but refused to tell, the whereabouts of a man who had simply vanished from the face of the Earth.

For the CIA, Ray's secret involved national security and image. To admit that the pilot was one of theirs was to concede the depth of the agency's involvement in a disastrous invasion that it insisted, until last year, was the work of dissidents within Cuba.

And for the Cuban government, which spent thousands of dollars preserving Ray's remains, the case was both frustrating and mystifying: How could any government lie for so long to the family of a soldier? After all, it had announced to the world on the day Ray died that it had the body of an American pilot.

In December 1979, after the Cubans learned of a personal mission by Ray's daughter, Janet Ray Weininger, to find his body--and after 19 months of painstaking diplomacy with a U.S. government that still did not want to claim him as one of its own--the Cuban government returned the pilot's body to Alabama.

The CIA still has not publicly admitted that it knew where his remains were all along. Just last month, however, the agency released a document confirming that U.S. pilots were, in fact, shot down over Cuba in 1961.

And last week, in response to detailed inquiries about the Ray case from The Times, agency officials acknowledged publicly for the first time that the Alabama pilot was one of theirs.

"Thomas 'Pete' Ray made heroic contributions to the CIA and to this country, serving with great distinction," CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said. "Given the passage of time and recent declassification of historic documents from this time period, his affiliation with the CIA can now be acknowledged publicly."

Documents obtained by The Times from the Cuban government, combined with the recently declassified CIA memos, cables and confidential reports on the Bay of Pigs, solve much of this extraordinary Cold War mystery of the lost Alabamians.

Official Deception and Mutual Mistrust

It is a story of official U.S. deception and of a mutual mistrust between the United States and the Communist government 90 miles off its shores--a regime the CIA has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to overthrow since Castro came to power in 1959.

As for the men of the secret squadron, "these were vortex people--the most important people in the world for a few moments--and then the government just cuts the strings and cuts them loose to drift," said Thomas Bailey, Ray's cousin and an Alabama journalist. "You're the front line between communism and the free world. . . . Then, at the end, the government ignores you.

"If there's a message beyond that, it's about government, about human lives, about how lives are changed by one event. In some ways, these people were never the same again. Some better, some worse. But it marked that moment when we all, who believed in the government, began to lose faith in that government."

Added Weininger, whose mother died years ago and whose Miami home is filled with boxes of documents and photographs of her father: "If we had to go back and do it all over again, I just wish they would have told me the truth when it no longer needed to be a secret."

In its formal statement to The Times last week, the CIA also confirmed for the first time that Ray was posthumously awarded the CIA's highest honor for bravery--the Distinguished Intelligence Cross.

"We plan to add his name to the book of honor which identifies individuals for whom a star has been inscribed in the marble facade of the foyer of the CIA headquarters building," spokesman Harlow said.

Until now, Ray's star has been marked only by a number.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|