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Hialeah Gardens Museum honors Bay of Pigs’ ‘freedom fighters’

HIALEAH GARDENS, Fla. – A large green tank known as the M41 Walker Bulldog is on display at the Hialeah Gardens Museum Honoring Brigade 2506. There is also a military twin-engined bomber aircraft — a Martin B-26 Marauder.

Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the CIA to recruit Cuban exiles in Miami. Félix Rodríguez joined. Former President John F. Kennedy inherited the clandestine warfare plan. The New York Times reported a story about the Cuban exiles training on April 6, 1961.

“This latest Cuban revolutionary army is reported by its leaders to include an air force, a navy, and paratrooper units,” the reporter wrote. “It is supported by commando-type groups of infiltrators, saboteurs, and guerilla specialists who have been landing in Cuba for months from hidden bases in the Florida Keys.”

Rodríguez, also known as Max Gomez, was 19 years old when he left the Keys for Cuba on a secret mission. He didn’t know it, but the Cuban exiles had already lost the element of surprise.

A squadron of eight B-26 bombers painted to look like Cuban planes was supposed to conduct a strike that would weaken the Cuban air fleet on April 15, 1961. Kennedy canceled the April 16 bombings. Fidel Castro was warned and later bragged that the squadron only destroyed planes that were out of service.

“The Bay of Pigs is a very unique situation,” said Rodríguez, 79, who was born in Sancti Spiritus.

The ground invasion to fight Communism in Cuba was 60 years ago on April 17, 1961. The 5,300-square-foot museum at 13651 NW 107 Ave., in Hialeah Gardens, has a collection of hundreds of photographs and replicas of some of the weapons on display.

Rodríguez and others who were part of an underground network and trained on counterinsurgency waited for a signal to detonate explosives and cut the telephone lines. Castro also knew about the saboteurs. Rodríguez was in tears when he realized it was all falling apart.

Coral reefs sank some of the ships. Paratroopers landed in the wrong place. CIA-trained civilians fought against Castro’s military. Kennedy authorized unmarked Navy jets for air cover for one hour on April 19. When the B-26 bombers arrived from Nicaragua, the U.S. air cover wasn’t there. Confusion about the one-hour time difference left four Americans dead.

“It did fail because we didn’t have the air support we were supposed to have,” Rodríguez said.

By April 20, the fatalities added to 114.

“Only 67 of our brigade members died in combat,” Rodríguez said.

Manuel Artíme Buesa, one of the leaders of Brigade 2506, and other fighters were captured weeks later in the swamp. Records show 1,189 surrendered. Castro released the prisoners of the Bay of Pigs invasion to the U.S. before Christmas Eve in 1962.

Rodríguez continued his work against Communism, and in October 1967 he was with the Bolivian troops who captured and killed El Che Guevara. He retired about eight years later. He worked on the Hialeah Gardens museum for years.

“There is a legacy that is going to be way beyond us after we die. This here will still be available for the public to learn what we did back in 1961.”

About the Authors:

In January 2017, Hatzel Vela became the first local television journalist in the country to move to Cuba and cover the island from the inside. During his time living and working in Cuba, he covered some of the most significant stories in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba. 

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.