Msgt. Roy Wilson (Retired); Air Force B-26 Flight Engineer for the 1960's Air Assault into Communist Cuba's Bay of Pigs
The story has all the components of a cloak and dagger spy thriller, yet it is a true story. Just over fifty years ago, in April of 1961, a CIA operative entered the relatively small southern city of Birmingham, Alabama and began recruiting an army for an off-the-book invasion of Cuba. The operative met with an Alabama Air National Guard Commander first, and the two then approached the Governor of Alabama requesting his permission for the recruitment efforts. The politically tangled efforts that eventually brought this ill-fated invasion to fruition are much too complex to summarize in this article, and these matters have already been expertly documented by Warren Trest and Donald Dodd in their recent book entitled, " Wings of Denial: The Alabama Air National Guard's Covert Role at the Bay of Pigs ." But there remains stories to be told about this secret mission completed so many decades ago, and the first-hand experience of retired Master Sergeant Roy Wilson is one of these stories.
After four-years of active duty service MSGT Roy Wilson left active duty with the United States Air Force in 1953. Prior to this separation, Roy had been stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico and had developed a special relationship with his commander, George Reid Doster. The two, both from Birmingham, Alabama, shared flights home to the Birmingham Air National Guard location about once a month during their service in Albuquerque. Roy said that these trips allowed him to get to know the personnel at the Birmingham Guard Unit, and he liked what he saw there. Upon Doster's separation from the Air Force, Doster became the full-time Commander and Brigadier General of the Birmingham Air National Guard Wing. Roy, who was being discharged from Kirtland shortly after Doster left, immediately asked Doster for a full-time job of his own with the Birmingham Unit. Doster, now a good friend with his subordinate, approved the request. As Roy puts it, "I got out at noon on Friday and in on Sunday." It was a fateful assignment, and one that would eventually buy Roy a ticket to his participation in the doomed Bay of Pigs Invasion.
Roy was a Flight Engineer in the Air Force, and during his active duty assignment, he had developed a great deal of experience working with aircraft such as the Douglas B-26 Invader. This aircraft, used extensively by the United States during the Korean War, had been decommissioned by the regular Air Force in the late 1950's, and the Alabama Air Guard was the last Air Force Organization still using the aging planes. This experience with the B-26 made Roy a perfect fit for his duties as a Flight Line Supervisor at the Alabama Guard Airfield. Roy was soon in charge of seven B-26 Aircraft and ten subordinate enlisted personnel assigned the task of maintaining the aircraft.
MSGT. Roy Wilson Honored by Cuban Brigade 2506
Roy's history and personal connection with General Doster soon led to other duties being assigned to him. During the turbulent racial violence of the early 1960's Roy was assigned as a personal assistant to the General, and he accompanied him everywhere that he went in the course of official business. Roy mentioned that he was somewhat of a bodyguard for the General, as bricks were being thrown in the area during civil rights demonstrations, and the violence in the area was a security concern for the administration of the Guard Unit.
Roy said that right after President Kennedy took office, General Doster met with Governor John Patterson and a representative of the United States CIA. Shortly after this encounter, General Doster met with Roy and fifteen other individual members of the Alabama Guard Unit, and he told them that there was going to be an invasion. Roy said that the General told them he could not advise them of any details, but he said "If you want to go, I would like to have you." The General advised them that "This thing is top secret," and Roy said that he could not even tell his wife about the matter. Roy said that he accepted the assignment, and the General told him that he would be back in touch with him in three days. The General then went to Washington and Langley Air Force Base to work out the details with the CIA. "What I'm telling you now is unclassified," Roy added, "but before, I couldn't tell you anything."
After three days, General Doster told Roy and the men that they would be leaving for Miami, and that was where they would be doing their training. Roy knew nothing else when he departed. Roy said that they actually arrived in Ft. Lauderdale, and they had twelve men there with three full crews. CIA personnel were also sent there, in order to check the flight crews out. Roy then trained in Ft. Lauderdale for four months. The men flew training missions eight hours a day until they became acceptably proficient in their jobs. Roy noted that some of the men there did not have experience with the B-26 Aircraft. Once Roy passed his own inspections, he was required to train one of the men with no B-26 experience. Roy said that after the training period, they were all skilled with the aircraft and ready for the assignment. He remembers seven of the personnel being trained at Ft. Lauderdale as being from the Alabama Guard Unit. He believes the other crew personnel were from the Florida National Guard. Roy added that he and his fellow crew members were not involved in the training of a brigade of Cuban exiles known now as Brigade 2506.
From Miami, Roy's Unit moved to Guatemala and Nicaragua, where they spent approximately twenty-five days preparing for the invasion of Cuba. Roy stated that during this time, he made five trips back to Birmingham in order to pick up physicians and other equipment in preparation for the assault. There were also early morning reconnaissance missions flown into Cuba. These missions would cover a three-hundred and sixty-degree circle around a specific area that was fifty-miles in diameter. Roy said that they were looking for ships, or anything out of the ordinary within the circle. His plane would take numerous photographs during these raids in preparation for the impending assault-force landing. When asked if the appearance of his plane had been altered to resemble a Cuban Aircraft, Roy confirmed that it was, but he said that he took no part in this aspect of the plane's preparation.
A Wall of Honor
They Started Firing Like a Chinese Christmas:
The actual invasion of the Cuban beach began early morning on 19 April, 1961. The first group of aircraft to arrive in support of the beach landing were piloted by members of Brigade 2506, all Cuban exiles fighting for the democratic freedom of their country. Up to this point in the assault, no United States Aircraft had been allowed to participate in combat activities, as there was a legitimate fear that one of the planes would be shot down and expose the covert involvement of the United States in the mission. But all of this changed when the beach assault ran into serious resistance, and defeat appeared imminent for the Cuban exiles.
Roy stated that he and his crew were flying into the beach area to drop a load of "small arms" supplies (rifles, handguns, and other munitions) for the Cuban fighters. His plane was not equipped with its own defensive weapons, but a Cuban crew member in the back of the plane (known to Roy as PDO Jack) did have a small weapon that he could swing around if necessary. The crew was also expecting cover fire from a United States Navy Carrier that was stationed in the area. "They were supposed to protect us," Roy said. But they didn't.
As Roy and his crew descended their plane and exited from cloud cover, Roy estimates that they were about a mile and a half from the beach and about five-thousand feet in the air. "When we got there, all hell broke loose," Roy said. "They started firing like a Chinese Christmas."
"I had already set up power to make our drop," Roy continued. But the plan to drop the supplies was interrupted almost immediately. "We saw the airplane that shot our two boys down, right on our wing." It was a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, an American built plane that the Cuban Government had converted into their own all-purpose fighter. Roy admits the closeness of the encounter scared him. "Why he never did shoot us down, we never knew," he said. Roy remembers looking back in the cargo hold and seeing PDO Jack praying to Mother Mary for help. PDO Jack had the only weapon on the plane, and Roy said that he could have swung it around to fire on the T-33. But he didn't.
About two minutes later, Roy heard Major Riley Shamburger, the pilot of another B-26 about two miles away, make a distress call on the radio. "I'm hit! I'm hit! We're going in." Roy then knew that his friend Shamburger was in serious trouble. "I never did hear nothing from Pete," Roy added, referring to T.W. "Pete" Ray, who was killed in a seperate plane crash further inland. Roy said that the same T-33 that had flown so closely to his aircraft was the same plane that shot down Major Shamburger moments later.
"Joe Shannon was the third 26," Roy said as he continued to recall the air assault and spoke of another Air Guard Pilot involved in the assault. "He was supposed to follow in and escort us, but he didn't do nothing but haul ass,..excuse me. If he was still living today, he would tell you the only way I got out was I dropped down and headed into the sun where they couldn't see me." Roy said that the beaches were supposed to have been cleared, but the Cuban Government Troops, "They had rockets, napalm, everything."
"I flew with Riley many hours," Roy recalled sadly, referring to the time he and Major Shamburger worked together in the Birmingham Air Guard Unit decades ago. Roy also remembered the other Alabama Airmen that lost their lives in Cuba in 1961. He knew them all, and praised them as fine human beings. "They were my roommates," he said compassionately. "We slept in the same tent."
When asked if the invasion was the right thing to do, Wilson replied conditionally, "If they would have let us carry it out the way we were supposed to." He followed this statement by explaining, "We were briefed three days before to go in and bomb Castro's house, but they were afraid that he had kids. He had eight young kids, and they wouldn't let us do that." Roy said that the he believes the assault failed because the Cuban Government knew the invasion was coming, and the U.S.-backed assault force was not given enough support by the United States Military. Roy firmly believes that the assault would have been successful if they would have simply allowed the Guard Pilots to go in first, instead of directing them to fly in after the Brigade 2506 Pilots had failed in their assault. According to Wilson, the Brigade Pilots were not effective with their strike on the beach. ""They just quit," Roy said bluntly, referring to the Brigade Pilots, who were themselves exhausted from days of relentless flying missions. As for the Alabama Guard's follow-up assault, Roy said that the effort was too late in the engagement to be effective.
Roy and his crew were lucky to escape the Bay with their lives, and he knows it. Their aircraft lost the use of one engine on the way back to base, and had trouble with another engine. Still, they made it in ok. Waiting for them at the airport was their somber guard commander, General Doster. Roy said that Doster met them on arrival and cried as he advised his team they had lost four members in the assault operation.
Roy retired from the National Guard in 1981, but prior to this, he had become a full-time mortician at a local funeral home in the Birmingham, Alabama area. Partly because of his new occupation, Roy was allowed to view and identify the corpse of fellow Alabama Guard Member T.W. "Pete" Ray when his body was finally returned to the United States in 1979 by the Castro Regime. He didn't like what he saw. He noted with disgust that the only thing the Cuban Government had done to prepare the body was to stick cotton in the bullet hole entering the head and freeze the body for their own public display. Other reports have stated that Cuban officials even removed the frozen body on occasion and mocked it by placing their feet upon the head of the corpse. Ray's daughter, Janet R. Weininger, later won an 86 million dollar settlement against the Cuban Government for this and other terrorist-like behavior.
Roy and his second wife, Mrs. Jean Wilson, still live in the Birmingham area and are enjoying their retirement years in a lovely home on the city's east side. The couple recently attended an anniversary and dedication ceremony for veterans and family members of the Bay of Pigs Invasion in Miami, Florida sponsored by an organization representing the Cuban Brigade 2506.
Although the City of Birmingham played a significant role in this historic invasion, the incident seems all but forgotten in the city center of Birmingham. Amongst the dozens of references to Civil rights Leaders mounted on plaques throughout the City, the only mention of the City's role in the Bay of Pigs Invasion is made miles away from downtown at the Birmingham Museum of Flight, and on a plaque in the interior of the now well-secured Birmingham Air National Guard base.
Mr. Wilson and his wife would like to see a monument dedicated to this event constructed near the Birmingham Airport that would allow the public to easily visit and learn more about the City's role in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. For a hero such as MSGT Roy Wilson, and all of the other fine young men that sacrificed so much in this operation, such a monument would be a fitting and well-deserved tribute. These men answered the call for our Country without hesitation when they were needed, yet we, as a society, still seem to hold back our thanks for their heroic sacrifice.
It is time to recognize these men for the heroes that they were, and accept that the poor judgement of our government in this matter has nothing to do with the outstanding heroism and bravery of these men when they took up the challenge of this assault and gave their all to accomplish the mission.
A special thank you is offered to the Honorable MSGT. Roy Wilson and his devoted wife Jean for their gracious hospitality and the permission to conduct this interview in their home on 28 September 2011. It was an honor to speak with this gentleman.