Invaders for Cuba

Last revised August 26, 2000


Since March of 1952, the Carribbean island of Cuba had been under the control of Fulgencio Batista Zaldivar. Batista's influence over Cuba dated back to 1933. In an uprising known as the "Revolt of the Sergeants," on September 4, 1933 Batista and a group of followers took over the Cuban government. The coup overthrew the liberal government of Gerardo Machado, and marked the beginning of the army's influence as an organized force in the running of the government. On January 14, 1934, Batista forced provisional president Ramón Grau San Martín to resign, and he appointed Carlos Mendieta to the presidency. Within five days, the U.S. recognized Cuba's new government.

For the next decade Batista ran the country from the background, pulling the strings of a succession of puppet presidents. On March 10, 1952, almost twenty years after the Revolt of the Sergeants, Batista took over the government once more, this time against elected Cuban president Carlos Prío Socorras. The coup took place three months before the upcoming elections that he was sure to lose. Batista suspended the constitution and dissolved the congress. He held a sham election in 1954, with him as the only candidate, and was elected president of Cuba.

Once president, Batista entered into relationships with mobsters such as Meyer Lansky, which opened the way for large-scale gambling in Havana, and he reorganized the Cuban state so that he and his political appointees could harvest the nation's riches. Under Batista, Cuba became extremely profitable for American business and organized crime. Havana became the "Latin Las Vegas," a playground of choice for wealthy gamblers, and Batista's family and cronies regularly skimmed profits from the casinos. In exchange for bribes, Batista granted lucrative contracts to dozens of US corporations for massive construction projects. Opposition was swiftly and violently crushed.

In 1952, Cuba signed a military pact with the USA, which involved an extensive program of American assistance to the Cuban military. Under US Mutual Defense Assistance Program Grant Aid deliveries, the Fuerza Aerea del Ejercito de Cuba (FAEC) received 16 transparent-nosed B-26Cs in 1956, followed by two replacement aircraft in 1957. Two pilots came to the USA in 1956 to received B-26 advanced training so that they could act as instructors. The B-26s were stationed at Campo Columbia, located near Havana. They were serialed in the range between 901 to 935, with even numbers being skipped, perhaps to give people the impression that the FAEC had more Invaders than it really did.

The first B-26 accident took place on March 19, 1957, when Lt. Sardiñas's plane lost an engine on takeoff and crashed. US-sponsored Mobile Training Teams were scheduled to come to Cuba and assist in training. However, revolts and insurrections inside the Cuban military repeatedly interrupted these plans. Nevertheless, the Mission did manage to complete a training program in August of 1957 for 23 pilots. On September 5, 1957, the FAEC took part in the suppression of a Cuban Navy revolt at Cayo Loco Naval Station in Cienfuegos, located on the southern coast of the island. Only two of the B-26s actually took part in the action, one flown by Capt Zuniga, the other by Capt Pinera. Capt Zuniga had one of his engines put out of action by ground fire. One of the B-26 pilots and some of the fighter pilots refused to take part in the attacks and were subsequently imprisoned.

Fidel Castro Ruz, a tall, bearded attorney in his thirties who had been in exile in Mexico following a failed attack on the Moncada Army Barracks in Santiago on July 26, 1953, landed in Oriente Province in Cuba on Christmas Day 1956 with a band of 81 fellow revolutionaries. Although most of them were quickly captured or killed, Castro and a few others evaded Batista's soldiers and set up headquarters in the jungled hills of the Sierra Maestra range. By 1958 his force had grown to about 2,000 guerrillas, for the most part young and middle-class. Castro's brother Raul, and Ernesto (Ché) Guevara, an Argentine physician, were his top lieutenants. Businessmen and landowners who opposed the Batista regime gave financial support to the rebels. The United States, meanwhile, cut off arms shipments to Batista's army. Growing criticism of the US role in supporting the corrupt and repressive Batista regime led to a suspension of further arms deliveries to Cuba in November of 1957.

The FAEC had lost two of its B-26s in accidents prior to the beginning of the Castro insurgency. Actual FAEC B-26 operations against the rebels began in early 1958, with most of the attacks being individual sorties carried out against targets of opportunity. Operational utilization was inhibited by the almost total lack of cooperation between Cuban army units on the ground and the air force, which made intelligence on the location of rebel positions and units so old as to be essentially useless by the time an air attack mission could be staged. The B-26 crews were unable to stop the rebel supply lines along the northern coast. The Cuban military was used more as a personal force loyal to President Batista rather than to the country as a whole, and Batista's political cronies often replaced professional officers in both the Army and the FAEC. Corruption and ineptitude spread rapidly through the ranks. As the situation got worse, the FAEC could not respond effectively because of the lack of spares and the shortage of ordnance. Contrary to some reports, the B-26 unit was never actually grounded and only one pilot defected to Miami--Lt. Crespo who flew his B-26 to Miami in December of 1958.

Following the Castro victory in January of 1959, the surviving FAEC aircraft were organized into the Fuerza Aerea Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Air Force, or FAR). This included a motley collection of F-47Ds, Hawker Sea Furies, Lockheed T-33As, C-54s, C-46s, and C-47s, plus the surviving B-26s. Most of the former FAEC aircrews which had flown these planes had already fled the country, fearing reprisals from the victorious Castro forces. One of the first acts of the new government was to arrest and jail the B-26 unit's pilots who had remained in Cuba. They were placed on trial, but were found not guilty. Annoyed at their acquittal, the government ordered them retried and this time they were found guilty and sentenced to long prison terms. In order to fill in the gap, a few former FAEC transport pilots as well as some civilian airline pilots were hastily recruited to operate these planes, plus a few opportunists with more enthusiasm than useful experience. Usually only three or four B-26s could be made airworthy at any one time. One FAR B-26 crashed at Camaguey in 1959 when an inexperienced pilot lost control on takeoff.

It soon became obvious to Washington that the Cuban revolution was taking a definitely Communist turn, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began a series of clandestine operations designed to overthrow Castro's regime before it could consolidate its power. These culminated in the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961, carried out by a brigade of Cuban expatriates and supported by an air force made up of aircraft acquired in secret out of USAF surplus stocks.

At the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961, the FAR could muster only six airworthy B-26s. Five of them were based at San Antonio de los Banos airfield south of Havana. The other one was based at Santiago de Cuba, along with several grounded examples. Castro had the foresight very early in his rule to disperse his air force, more because he did not trust his air crews than for any strategic reason. During the initial rebel air strike on April 15, 1961, the B-26 based at Santiago was destroyed, and two FAR B-26s were disabled at San Antonio de los Banos. On April 17, a FAR B-26 attacked invasion support vessels and was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. On April 18, a FAR B-26 overflew some of Castro's own troops and was shot own by friendly fire. This last sortie was the last known instance of a FAR B-26 being flown.

There is a B-26 on display in an open-air museum at Playa Giron, painted as FAR 933. However, it is likely that this aircraft is actually a war prize returned to Cuba from Angola, and painted to commemorate the defeat of the Bay of Pigs invasion force.

Sources:


  1. United States Military Aircraft Since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

  2. McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Since 1920: Volume I, Rene J. Francillon, Naval Institute Press, 1988.

  3. American Combat Planes, Third Enlarged Edition, Ray Wagner, Doubleday, 1982.

  4. Foreign Invaders--The Douglas Invader in Foreign Military and US Clandestine Service, Dan Hagendorn and Leif Hellstrom, Midland Publishing, 1994.

  5. US Library of Congress Country Study--Cuba

  6. E-mail from Estaban Bovo.