By Angel Christopher
When Frank de Varona landed on April 17, 1961, along with other young Cuban patriots, on the beaches of the Bay of Pigs, he was a 17-year-old “teenager”, with little military training for a mission of that magnitude -like many of his comrades from Brigade 2506-, but very convinced of his ideals of freedom.
That same day, month, and year, I was 5 years old, and therefore, I have very little memory of that time, except the experience of a distant cousin, who worked in April 61 at a Shell gas station and was accused of trying to sabotage the military trucks, full of militiamen, who were heading for Playa Girón and Playa Larga. He served 5 years in prison in Santa Clara and Sagua la Grande prisons. Later I grew up hearing and reading history backward: teachers, journalists, and historians described the invaders as “mercenaries”, and the geographical name Bay of Pigs was erased from the geography of Cuba.
The photograph of a Castro getting off a Russian war tank inaugurated the era of the false iconography of the Cuban revolution: until an Italian, smarter than the Cubans, arrived and turned the face of Che Guevara into “the photo of the 20th century” from a negative he bought from Korda for a little bit price. The Italian became a millionaire and the photographer died in Havana plunged into poverty…
Frank de Varona is a very friendly man with a fluid conversation. He greeted us with a smile and then he told us that he has written 28 books and more than 500 articles, in addition to being an expert on national security issues.
Bay of Pigs: My Story is his second book on the historic battle. “You should take my book with you,” he told me, and so we began a brief interview at the Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, where there was no need to ask questions, as we conducted ourselves down the path of conversation.
“If the original plan for the landing in Trinidad, which contemplated five attacks by the Air Force of the Brigade with all 16 B-26 planes, had been carried out, the history of Cuba would have been changed and the Brigade 2506 would have triumphed, and eradicated communism. If the Brigade had triumphed, the people of Cuba would not have suffered more than half a century from the bloodiest and cruelest tyranny in the Western Hemisphere. Hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved not only in Cuba but throughout Latin America and the world.”
Today Venezuela would not have had a Cuban occupation army committing all kinds of crimes and human rights violations. There would not have been a Hugo Chávez, a Nicolás Maduro, an Evo Morales, a Rafael Correa, or Daniel Ortega implanting tyrannies in their respective peoples. The whole world would not have been in great danger of nuclear war, as it happened in October 1962 and threatens to happen in our times of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Castro brothers would have spent the rest of their lives in prison and today, Cuba would be one of the most prosperous countries not only in the Americas but also in the entire world.”
Next, Frank De Varona described D-Day or April 17, 1961, as “the longest day of my life”. De Varona belonged to the Fifth Battalion of the 2506 Brigade that was aboard the ship Houston, a Liberty-type cargo built during World War II, which entered the Bay of Pigs on Monday, April 17.
“In the Brigade my brother Jorge de Varona, my first cousin Oswaldo de Varona, my distant cousins José Fernández Rovirosa, José Raúl de Varona, Abel de Varona, Carlos de Varona, son of the former prime minister and senator of Republican Cuba Manuel Antonio de Varona, fought. Varona”.
In the Houston and other obsolete ships that traveled from Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, the brigadistas were not allowed to cook on board since the old ships were loaded with gasoline and oil for the planes, and tons of ammunition, which turned those ships in floating bombs. The brigade members had to walk on wooden planks.
“The Houston arrived at Playa Larga at around 2:00 in the morning. The more experienced soldiers began to disembark first in the small boats with outboard motors that we brought. The crane used to lower these ships into the water made an infernal noise that woke up the enemy soldiers at Playa Larga, and soon we were under fire from the enemy on land.”
He continues his account of Varona, narrating that the Houston countered the enemy fire with 50 calibers and that at 6 in the morning they saw a B-26 plane flying in their direction and everyone shouted for joy – they thought it was the air support that the Americans they promised him – but the plane fired at the ship from bow to stern, injuring and killing several brigade members. The nightmare was just beginning, very soon more B-26, Sea Fury and T-33 jets arrived from Castro’s air force that everyone thought had been destroyed before landing.
“At about 9:00 am, a rocket from a Sea Fury hit us astern and put a big hole about ten feet in the keel and damaged the rudder. The Houston began to sink rapidly and her captain, Luis Morse, ran her aground a mile west of the Bay of Pigs.”
Many brigade members began to jump into the water and try to swim to land. At first, de Varona did not want to do it because he had seen sharks in the water; finally, he jumped from a height of three stories, with 360 bullets and grenades around his chest -he says “in the style of Pancho Villa”-, and he did not drown by a miracle; because the weight of the ammunition sank it to the bottom of the coastal sea, more than 25 feet: “With great effort I took off all the weight, sinking and coming to the surface several times. In the end, I was left with only my pants and a knife in my hand”…
After being captured days later, Frank de Varona served 2 years in prison in the Isla de Pinos model prison, the same one where, 8 years earlier, Castro and his group of Moncada assailants had remained for only several months. While Castro received gourmet food in his private cell, had a library, received visitors, smoked cigars, and watched movies with the prison director (Castro himself later described it in a book), the members of the freedom Brigade 2506 had to drink water contaminated with dead mice.