Glory, pain of Bay of Pigs remembered

August 18, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

GIRON, CUBA * — GIRON, Cuba -- Photos of the dead hang in three rows in the museum that stands a block from the Bay of Pigs. There is Ulloa the pilot and O'Connor the soldier and Moreno the 15-year-old boy. There is a carpenter, a medical student, a reporter. And there is Garcia, the 26-year-old with the light mustache and the haunting eyes, the one who wrote in blood a name on a door: Fidel.

Thirty years later, they still celebrate a victory and mourn for the dead at Bahia de Cochinos, a tongue of turquoise sea hemmed in on three sides by sandy white beaches. This is Cuba's Valley Forge and its Pearl Harbor. This is the place where Cuba repulsed an ill-fated, ill-timed invasion and where Fidel Castro strengthened his grip on a revolution without end.

Once, there was a battle here that raged sporadically for 65 hours in April 1961 and ended with the surrender of 1,197 CIA-backed Cuban exiles. Now, sunbathers lounge on a beach surrounded by almond trees and palms that bend to the breeze. Waves pound against a crumbling sea wall. A nearby pool is crowded with screaming children. Vacationing families sit on the porches of white stucco bungalows, looking at the surf, eating lunch, drinking rum.

"It's very peaceful here," said Maria Gonzalez de Abreus, a market researcher in Cuba's Foreign Trade Ministry.

Concrete slabs dot the flat two-lane road that cuts through swamps and sugar cane fields and ends in Giron, a beach town on the southern coast, 150 miles from Havana. The tombstones honor the 156 soldiers who died defending Cuba. A sign dominates the town's main street: "Primera Derrota del Imperalismo en Americana Latina," the First Defeat of Imperialism in Latin America.

"Something aches here," said Mercedes Davila Hernandez, director of the Giron Museum. "We lost many Cubans, but we feel proud in a certain way."

She is an energetic 27-year-old who learned of the battle from her father, a soldier at the Bay of Pigs. She studied the invasion while receiving her degree in history and social science at the University of Havana.

"We are much more interested in real history than in propaganda," she said. "Propaganda can change -- history cannot."

The museum is a simple shrine to the victory. A propeller plane with 10 bombs under its wings stands guard in the front, and a twisted U.S. B-26 engine lies by a door. Inside, M-1 rifles lie in cases. Soviet-made mortars sit alongside an anti-aircraft battery from Czechoslovakia.

The history of the battle is told through pictures and charts. One look at the invasion map, and it becomes clear the exiles of the 2506 Brigade never had a chance to turn the Pluto Operation into a success. Invading Cuba via Giron was the equivalent of trying to take over Washington via Ocean City, Md.

There are photos of Mr. Castro bounding off a tank, of three civilians lying dead by the side of a road, of the invading forces being roundedup, of Cuban soldiers raising their weapons in victory.

The personal effects of some of the dead are in cases that line the museum's walls.

In a corner is a pair of ripped white pumps. They belonged to a 12-year-old girl named Nemesia Rodriguez Montano, who fled her home when the fighting began and returned hours later to find her mother lying dead, clutching the shoes.

The poet Jesus Orta Ruiz wrote an elegy to the shoes and the girl: "She knows that nothing in the world, no Yankees, could put down the light in her country. So all the girls have white shoes."

The tour ends when a 15-minute black-and-white newsreel winds through a 50-year-old projector. Time seems always to stand still Cuba.

Somber classical music and a funeral. Drums and a bombed-out airport. Voices singing and Mr. Castro showing up with that wild beard and those black horn-rimmed glasses and an ever-present cigarette in hand. Fifties jazz and close-ups of defeated exile soldiers. A folk song and a victory parade.

Fifty thousand visitors pass through this museum each year. Few Americans have ever come here. Fewer still have watched the movie. Every April, Cuban veterans of the battle journey back to the beach and the museum, giving lectures, remembering the dead.

There are no easy lessons to learn from the battle, Mrs. Davila Hernandez said. Cuba won. The United States and its surrogates lost. A mistrustful relationship continues between two countries bound by history and divided by ideology.

"I take my 1-year-old son for walks on the beach often," she said. "While he plays, I wonder, 'What would have been if things had gone differently?' But I am not afraid."

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