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Honoring Fallen Bay of Pigs Airmen 55 Years Later

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jonathan Russell
  • 117th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
It was a warm and sunny afternoon in late April in Birmingham, Alabama. As I approached the grave site at Forrest Hills Cemetery near the airport, I could hear a bagpipe playing in the background. I looked for the grave marker that read "1st Lt. Pete Ray" where a wreath laying ceremony was about to begin. There were four of the Bay of Pigs survivors from the Alabama Air National Guard and their family members to my left. These four Airmen, along with approximately sixty other Airmen from the Alabama Air National Guard, were recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency to train the Cuban pilots how to fly the B-26 bombers to overthrow Fidel Castro. Standing next to them was Mr. Herrera, a former Cuban exile, POW and survivor from the Bay of Pigs invasion, and his family. A group of about 30 Airmen were to my right. On the hill behind them, was the Base Honor Guard standing at attention like statues with their rifles in hand.

The ceremony began as Maj. Adams, a pilot from the 106th Air Refueling Squadron, addressed the crowd. The chaplain followed him by saying a prayer. Then, the 106 ARS Commander, Lt. Col. Metcalf walked to Ray's grave, laid a wreath next to it and raised a salute. Taps began to play as the honor guard gave their three round volley. Everyone in uniform saluted Ray's grave during the entire playing of taps.

This was the fifth year that the 117th Air Refueling Wing has performed a similar ceremony at Ray's grave site. The first ceremony was held in April 2012, on the 51st Anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion. This year's ceremony was held on April 19th, the 55th Anniversary.

The Airmen from 117th Tactical Reconnaissance Group were selected as they were the only remaining pilots flying the B-26. The CIA wanted the Cubans to believe that it was Castro's pilots and aircraft attempting to overthrow him. The Airmen trained the Cuban exiles in secrecy in Guatemala and Nicaragua. On April 19, 1961 Pete Ray, Riley Shamburger, Wade Gray and Leo Baker volunteered to lead the attack on Cuba. These four brave Airmen were shot down and killed in action as they led the way for the exiles they had trained. The Airmen who returned home were sworn in secrecy to not talk about where they had been. The families of the four who were killed were told that their loved ones had died in a test flight over the Caribbean. Castro preserved Ray's body in a freezer for 17 years to prove that America was involved in the invasion. In 1978, the CIA declassified the mission and acknowledged that the Alabamians were involved in the invasion.  Ray's body was released back to his family in 1979 to be buried in the U.S. To add insult to injury, Castro sent a bill of $36,000 to the family for the storage of the body.

Following the grave site ceremony, the Southern Museum of Flight held a ceremony to honor all of those involved during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Mr. Herrera gave a presentation about his experiences being trained by the Americans and storming the beaches of Cuba.

"We believe heroes like Leo Baker, Wade Gray, Billy Goodwin, Thomas Ray, Riley Shamburger... from the Air National Guard paid the price along with our Cuban pilots, and we'd like to thank Gen. Reed... for the support that they gave us, because they helped us stay alive even if they lost their life," said Herrera.

After the ceremony, the "Jennys to Jets" exhibit was unveiled. The exhibit depicted the almost 100 years of aviation of the 117th Air Refueling Wing. The entire room displayed each era of aviation, starting in 1917 on the left side of the room where the unit began flying the 1-A-2 and later began flying the JN-4D Jenny in 1922. It transitioned to the 1930s where the unit flew the O-47. The WWII era section depicted where the unit flew the B-25 and C-47. Seventy four Airmen from the 100th Bombardment Squadron were killed between 1943 and 1945 flying the B-25. The next section gave tribute to the Bay of Pigs invasion where the unit flew the B-26. The unit also flew the RF-84 during this period. The next section featured the RF-4C that the unit flew during from 1971 to 1994. The last section showed the KC-135 era. The unit began flying this aircraft in 1994 and is still flying it today.