THE BOOK OF HONOR -- FAITH AND BETRAYAL
AT THE AGENCY it was often the elite who made the decisions and the good old boys who paid the price. So it was with Richard Mervin Bissell, Jr., and Thomas Willard Ray. Bissell was an intellectual, the son of Yankee privilege. Born in the Mark Twain House in West Hartford, Connecticut, he grew up in tailor-made shirts and attended Croton, Yale, and the London School of Economics. Ray was from Birmingham, Alabama, the son of a construction worker and a seventeen-year-old bride. A southerner through and through, he was soft-spoken and unassuming -- just "Pete," to his friends.
Bissell was cross-eyed and gangly, a poor athlete, and a man of eclectic interests. He was said to have memorized the nation's train schedules, its routes, and even the gauge of the tracks. Ray was short and stocky, a guard on the high school football team. His interests included a pet chicken -- until it was stolen.
Bissell was a wunderkind who would go on to teach economics at Yale and MIT and helped forge the Marshall Plan for Europe's recovery. He joined the CIA in February 1954 with the vague title of Chief of Development Projects Staff Soon after, he sired the U-2 spy plane, revolutionizing intelligence efforts. By July 1956 his eye-in-the-sky was flying over the Soviet Union, providing a long-denied view of that country's bomber, missile, and submarine production. Next he oversaw development of the sleek SR-71 Blackbird, a titanium spy plane that flew at two thousand miles an hour at a staggering 85,000 feet above the earth. In an hour its cameras could sweep 100,000 square miles of the planet's surface. And finally Bissell had a major hand in the Corona satellite project, which ushered in a whole new era in reconnaissance.
But in Bissell's mind his greatest achievement was the broad interpretation he gave to the doctrine of covert action. He had a major hand in the toppling of the government of Guatemala. In 1958 he was made the CIA's deputy director for plans, the vaunted chief of clandestine services worldwide and heir apparent to the fabled Allen Dulles, Director Central Intelligence.
Pete Ray had no such illustrious resume. He had joined the Air National Guard not long after turning sixteen. He had forged his mother's signature on the enlistment papers. By 1960 he was inspecting aircraft and spending weekends as youth director of a Methodist church. Flying was all he ever wanted to do, be it behind the stick of a lumbering bomber or a gnatlike Cessna.
Bissell was formal. Even his oldest son and namesake found him emotionally inaccessible. "I'm your man-eating shark," he once said of himself. Ray was down-to-earth. "Tenderhearted," his mother, Mary, would say of him.
The two were a universe apart. Hard to imagine such divergent paths would cross, but cross they did in a crisis that forever scarred the CIA.
These two lives began to converge in 1960. It was a time of portents that would shake public faith and chip away at the nation's naivete. A year earlier, in Birmingham, as elsewhere, Americans were shocked by congressional hearings into the TV quiz show Twenty-One. The audience had been had. The winning contestant had been fed the answers in advance. That same year, even the music became suspect as radio was rocked by a payola scandal. In Pete Ray's Birmingham, a listless and segregated town of coke and steel, the code of racial separation threatened to unravel.
And at the CIA it was the golden age of covert action. Emboldened by past successes in Iran and Guatemala, it increasingly saw itself as a source of action, not merely advice and analysis. It had deftly managed to embrace its triumphs and quietly slip its failures.
Notable among the failures was the case of Indonesia. In 1957 President Eisenhower had approved CIA covert actions to support rebel Indonesian army colonels in an effort to oust President Sukarno, who was seen as too cozy with the Communists. One plan involved embarrassing the Indonesian president by distributing photos of a Sukarno look-alike caught in a compromising position with someone posing as a "beautiful blond Soviet agent." The Agency even had a porno movie made featuring a man wearing a Sukarno mask. Such use of scandal as a psychological weapon dated back to the days of the OSS and remained an integral part of the CIA's kit to discredit those seen as ideological enemies. (One such ploy involved the distribution of defective condoms passed out in the name of a Philippine senator with leftist leanings.)
And as had happened before, Eisenhower would rely on the doctrine of deniability. He could remain aloof and statesmanlike while others at the Agency did his bidding in the shadows. On April 30 Eisenhower declared with reference to Indonesia: "Our policy is one of careful neutrality and proper deportment all the way through so as not to be taking sides where it is none of our business."
But the Agency's plan for Indonesia went well beyond psychological tactics. Arms were supplied to the rebels. B-26 bombers, scrubbed clean of U.S. insignia, were manned by American pilots and flew sorties in support of the rebels. In one instance a CIA aircraft mistakenly bombed a church, killing most of its congregation. On May 18, 1958, Agency pilot Allen Pope was shot down and captured. A week later he was presented at a news conference, along with documents implicating the CIA. Pope would spend four years in prison before Robert Kennedy could win his release. And Sukarno would long remain in power.
The CIA operation in Indonesia came to a close just as Bissell took charge of the division overseeing the clandestine service. Yet the failure in Indonesia was neatly contained and the Agency entered the 1960s full of self-confidence. The hard lessons of Indonesia -- presidential denials, a failed ouster, disguised aircraft, downed airmen -- were somehow lost on the Agency, though they would soon enough resurface with a vengeance.
In 1960 the CIA prepared to shed the decrepit temporary buildings clustered around the Reflecting Pool on the Mall left over from World War II. Soon it would withdraw across the wide Potomac to Langley, Virginia, and to a grand and gleaming edifice more befitting its new stature and ambitions. The cornerstone had already been laid. An aging President Eisenhower presided over the ceremony. The move represented the end of an epoch in Agency history. The mind-set of World War II and the OSS -- that radical threats sometimes required radical solutions -- continued on, but now the CIA was wholly a creature of the Cold War. Its new headquarters was a testament to its expanded authority and, as some would suggest, its hubris. No longer at the margins of foreign policy, Bissell's clandestine service was the primary arrow in the president's quiver against Communism.
Bissell's brilliance was beyond question. His projects catapulted the Agency into an entirely new era of intelligence collection. But they also carried with them their own unseen perils. The U-2, Bissell's crowning achievement, had been emblematic of American superiority and invulnerability, a spy plane assumed to be beyond the reach of the Soviets. Then, suddenly, on May 1, 1960, a Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile felled a U-2 at sixty thousand feet. Its pilot, thirty-year-old Francis Gary Powers, did not take the shellfish toxin given him by the CIA and contained in a hollowed-out silver dollar. Instead, he parachuted into the welcoming arms of the Kremlin. Eisenhower vehemently denied the existence of U-2 intelligence overflights, while a NASA spokesman announced it was merely a "weather research plane" gone astray. Then a gloating Premier Nikita Khrushchev paraded about his trophy, the American pilot. It was all too reminiscent of Indonesia, only two years earlier.
Another thirty-year-old pilot, Pete Ray, could not help but take note of the spectacle and watch aghast.
American credibility had taken another direct hit. The president had been caught in an outright lie, doubling the humiliation of the event. The CIA faced a barrage of unfamiliar and unwanted questions. Trust in government was shaken, and even the unflappable Bissell was momentarily at a loss. Undaunted, the CIA continued that year to expand its covert operations and to insert itself into myriad faraway places, including the Congo, Laos, and Vietnam. But it was closer to home that the Agency focused most of its attention.
Ninety miles off the Florida coast, Fidel Castro had set up a revolutionary government. Eisenhower had concluded that Castro had begun to "look like a madman," that he was a Marxist-Leninist intent upon using the island nation to export revolution throughout the hemisphere. On January 13, 1960, a year after Castro had assumed power, Eisenhower resolved that the Cuban leader must be overthrown.
It was nearly a year before that decision in Washington trickled down to Birmingham, Alabama, and to Pete Ray, then on leave from the Alabama Air National Guard to train at nearby Fort Rucker. Ray would be one of nearly one hundred Alabama guardsmen who volunteered for the top secret Cuban assignment. In the dark about the specifics of the mission, he confided what little he knew to his wife, Margaret, and an uncle, Mac Bailey. Several times he traveled to Washington for polygraph and psychological tests. Ray's mother, Mary, grew increasingly curious. "What are you going to Washington for?" she asked. He did not answer her. His next trip to the capital, she repeated the question. "I am going on a secret mission," he said. "What, for the CIA?" she joked. Ray answered with nothing but a smile.
That Ray should have responded to such a shadowy appeal from the government would have come as no surprise to those who knew him. Like many in his National Guard unit, he was no ideologue, but he had absolute faith in Cod and country. If the government said the Communists were atheists bent on world domination, who was he to say otherwise? "If we don't fight them on their land," he once said, "we'll be fighting them in our backyard." And the charismatic John F. Kennedy's January 20, 1961, inaugural address seemed to extend to Ray a personal invitation to service. "Ask not what your country can do for you," he had said, "ask what you can do for your country." That sort of appeal was irresistible to a man like Pete Ray.
A few days before his departure from Birmingham, allegedly to undergo training, he asked his uncle to help him "sanitize" what few belongings he intended to take with him. Together, they took out the labels from his clothes and buffed the brands from his belts. Ray even ground down the heels of his shoes to remove the manufacturer's name. He was to take nothing that might link him to the United States. Soon enough he would be assigned a pseudonym. He was said to be going to a special training school.
Before leaving, Ray told his wife, Margaret, that when she wrote him, she should address the envelope to Joseph Greenland. The address was Chicago. Unbeknownst to her, the other men of the Alabama Air National Guard were giving their wives the same instructions. Just before he left, Ray acknowledged there was an element of risk. "If I should stump my toe, take care of the children," he told her. Should anything happen to him, he said, he would want her to remarry. With that, he kissed his wife, seven-year-old son Tommy, and six-year-old daughter Janet goodbye.
A week later Margaret received the first of many letters from him. None of them disclosed anything of his location or his mission. "This is a very good school but it sure does take all of my time," he wrote on February 13, 1961. "I have bought two more suits and a hat. It has been very cold. The top coat sure has helped." These last two sentences were deliberate misinformation. When he returned home for a brief visit, his wife, assuming he had been in a northern clime, was startled to see that he had a deep tan. What he had not told her was that he was at a secret CIA base deep in Guatemala where he was training Cuban pilots.
In that same letter he reminded his wife to file the income taxes, to repair the brakes on the family car, and to "tell Tommy and Janet Daddy loves them and for them to look after you."
Subsequent letters were postmarked Washington or Birmingham. He again sent his love to his wife, his son and daughter, and even their terrier, Chase. He fretted about his son's adjustment to school after the move from Fort Rucker back to Birmingham. "I know it is hard on Tommy to keep up in school due to the change, so don't be too hard on my little man," he wrote. Ray remembered that he had himself repeated a year of school as a boy, following a similar move.
Margaret sent him photos of herself and of Tommy and Janet. He marveled at Janet's long pigtails. But, much as he wanted to keep the photos, he returned them to his wife, in keeping with the security orders given him by the CIA. They were just one more item that could tie him to the United States. Often his letters were about the most mundane of concerns. He even reminded his wife to "have the septic tank and grease trap cleaned before warm weather sets in." Other times his letters reflected deeper concerns. He opened one letter with the question "Do you have all of the insurance policies paid up?"
For the first time, he was able to save a portion of his salary. "Tell Janet it is OK if you and her bought some new things," he wrote. Again he asked about the income tax. "Please get it filed because I will not be home before the deadline." What he did not mention was that the fast- approaching tax deadline, April 15, was also just two days before the invasion of Cuba.
In the year before Ray and the other men of the Alabama Air National Guard joined the mission, much had happened to affect its outcome. Bissell and his advisers had worked hard to devise a plan that they believed could work. The idea was to insert on the shores of Cuba a small but well- trained corps of Cuban exiles who would gradually be augmented by an anti-Castro insurgency within that country. They were to land near the town of Trinidad, selected because it was hoped that some of the twenty thousand residents might join the assault force, and also because, if things went poorly in the landing, the nearby Escambray Mountains would provide a safe haven where the men could disperse and later regroup for future guerrilla operations.
Encumbering the scheme from the beginning was a component of deception so grand and unwieldy that it would prove its undoing. At President Kennedy's insistence, the operation was to appear to the world to be solely the work of Cuban exiles. The hand of America was to be entirely invisible. This demand for so-called deniability evolved into a tortured fiction.
From the outset Bissell and his advisers agreed that success depended on domination of the skies over Cuba. Castro's meager airforce had to be destroyed or the exiles' landing would be doomed. Bissell found himself walking a constant tightrope between satisfying demands of deniability and the imperatives of a successful operation. To accommodate the former, he and his planners decided they would make it appear that any air support consisted of defectors from Castro's own air force.
That meant the planes used would have to be identical to those found in Castro's airforce. Bissell approved the idea of using aging B-26s, World War II planes mothballed in dizzying numbers outside Tucson, Arizona. The aircraft were painted with Cuba Air Force insignias and numbers. Most of the Cuban fliers in the CIA operation had no combat experience and were commercial or cargo pilots. They would have to be trained by men still highly proficient in flying the aging bombers. Enter the Alabama Air National Guard, the country's last unit to use B-26s. It was that thin thread of events that brought together Richard Bissell and Thomas "Pete" Ray.
But the project was dogged with grave problems early on. All CIA covert operations are compartmented, meaning only those who are deemed necessary to the planning or execution of the operation are brought into the loop. But this operation was deemed so close-held that not even the Agency's director of intelligence was consulted. Such extreme secrecy led to the anomalous situation that the very individuals planning the operation also assessed its chances for success, violating a basic tenet of intelligence. But even as the CIA took pains to ensure that the operation remained a secret, the magnitude of the undertaking guaranteed that rumors were already seeping out in Washington and Miami, where much of the recruiting and planning was taking place. Cynics would later suggest that everyone knew the invasion was coming -- except perhaps those who might have contributed to its success.
In late 1960 Bissell and CIA, desperate to bring down Castro, considered a number of harebrained schemes. One idea under serious consideration involved impregnating cigars with a depilatory that would make Castro's body hair and beard fall out. There was also a more deadly version of the scheme. In February 1961 the Agency delivered to Cuba a box of Castro's favorite cigars impregnated with the botulism toxin, though the box was apparently never delivered to the Cuban leader.
Another assassination plot involved the idea of contracting with the Mafia. Even as Bissell planned the upcoming operation, his CIA colleagues were exploring whether the mob's Joe Bonano could assassinate Castro. Bissell was too smart to take much of a direct hand in the scheme, though he secretly wished it well. "My philosophy ... in the agency," he later wrote, "was very definitely that the end justified the means, and I was not going to be held back."
Unorthodox as the Mafia solution might have been, it would have spared Bissell the need to plan a landing operation whose scope was without precedent in Agency history. The Joint Chiefs of Staff; while not opposing the plan, kept a wary distance. The State Department had grave misgivings and seldom missed an opportunity to undermine the effort, worried that it would create a foreign policy disaster. Kennedy, in office less than three months, was easily persuaded by his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, and others, who sought ever greater limitations on the operation in the name of deniability.
The plan conceived in the Eisenhower administration was repeatedly revised with an eye to ensuring that the United States would not be implicated. With officials still smarting from the U-2 shoot-down of eight months earlier, Kennedy was adamant that no American personnel take a direct role in the operation. To seasoned Agency officers under Bissell it seemed that the success of the operation was becoming less important than the ability to immunize the United States and the administration from embarrassment.
With each passing week the outlook was more bleak. Intelligence reports indicated there was no well-organized anti-Castro underground to come to the aid of the exiles. The CIA's original vision of a tiny guerrilla operation had become an unwieldy full-scale invasion. Six weeks before D-Day, the odds against preserving the element of surprise, essential to the operation's success, had risen to 85 to 15, according to advisers.
The original assault plan -- of dubious merit itself -- was now being hastily dismantled. In response to Kennedy's misgivings, Bissell halved the initial air assault on Castro's air force, from sixteen planes to eight. On March 15, a month prior to the invasion, even the landing site was changed. Kennedy deemed the proposed landing at Trinidad "too noisy." He wanted something "less spectacular." The site selected, because of a nearby airstrip, was Bahia de Cochinos -- the Bay of Pigs.
Then came the coup de grace. Kennedy canceled the second air strike, scheduled for April 16, the eve of the operation, intended to wipe out whatever of Castro's air force had survived the first attack. No one understood the implications of that decision better than Bissell. Yet whether out of personal ambition, presidential pressure, or the sheer force of momentum that had gathered behind him in the preceding months, Bissell never gave serious thought to aborting the mission.
From the beginning, the U.S. government had tripped over its own lies. On Apri112, 1961, Kennedy pledged in a speech to the American Association of Newspaper Editors that the United States would not intervene militarily in Cuba. Then, three days later, following the first bombing raid against Cuba, pilots landed in Florida posing as fresh defectors from Castro's air force. In the United Nations an outraged representative of Cuba lashed out at the United States. The esteemed U.S. representative, Adlai Stevenson, vigorously answered the attack, assuring the international body that the United States had nothing whatsoever to do with the bombing. Inadequately briefed on the Cuban operation, Stevenson discovered to his chagrin later that same day that he had been had. American credibility at home and abroad was about to sustain a mortal wound.
But it fell to the likes of Pete Ray and the fourteen hundred Cuban exiles to move forward with the plan. Ray had not been expected to leave the Nicaraguan base from which the Cuban exile pilots were flying their sorties against Castro. But with a part of Castro's air force left intact, the men on the beach and the supply ships they counted on were now easy targets for Castro's pilots. Two vital support ships, one that carried ammunition, the other communications, were sunk. Other vessels withdrew out of range. Out of ammo and cut off from their communications, those left on the beach were subjected to a withering ground and air assault.
The Cuban pilots Ray and the other guardsmen had trained gave an able accounting of themselves. But they were forced to fly a grueling three and a half hours from the Nicaraguan base to Cuba, conduct their attack, and then return, switch planes or refuel and rearm, and take to the air yet again. Those planes that returned -- and there were many that did not -- were riddled with ground fire. After a full day of sorties, the pilots were bleary-eyed with exhaustion, their nerves frayed, their aircraft suspect. On the beach at Bay of Pigs, the situation was deteriorating by the second.
On April 18, at 10:00 P.M., after unsuccessfully pleading for air cover, the brigade commander sent a message. "I will not be evacuated," he said. "We will fight to the end here if we have to."
It was then that Ray and some of the other pilots of the Alabama Air National Guard were called into a tent near the runway at the Nicaragua base for a briefing. Informed of the dire position of the invasion force and of the collapse of the air wing they had trained, Ray and the others were told they could fly the B-26s in aid of the assault landing.
Ray was paired with thirty-five-year-old Leo Baker, a former flight engineer who owned two Birmingham pizza parlors. He had recently sent his wife flowers for Easter Sunday. She was expecting their second child. Ray and Baker readied one B-26, while two other Alabama guardsmen, Riley Shamburger and Wade Cray, prepared another. Before taking off, Ray gave his wallet to a fellow airman but tucked the cash into his pocket, telling him with a wink that he might be spending the night in Havana.
Shortly after midnight, Ray and Baker took off.
Earlier at the White House, Admiral Arleigh Burke had pleaded with the president to provide additional air cover and to allow navy fighters from the Essex to wipe out Castro's remaining air force. Kennedy refused, saying he could not permit the United States to become involved in the assault.
"Goddamn it, Mr. President," fired back an irate Burke. "We are involved, and there is no way we can hide it."
Kennedy begrudgingly authorized a single hour of air support and cover from navy jets. Ray and the others counted on that support to fend off Castro's smaller but more nimble air force. But as Ray and Baker arrived off the coast of Cuba, there were no jets to protect them. The Agency had calculated the strike on Cuban time; the navy had relied on Greenwich mean time. Now Ray and Baker would be easy prey for Castro's agile T-33s and for ground fire. Exactly what happened next is not clear, but this much is known: Ray's B-26 was hit and crashed inland, not far from a sugar mill and Castro's headquarters. Baker was killed in the crash, Ray survived. Some would report later that Ray exited the plane and put up a valiant fight against Castro's militiamen. One account, unsubstantiated, had it that he died with a gun in one hand and a knife in the other.
Ray was one of 114 men killed in the operation. The rest, 1,197, were thrown into prison, where they would remain for two years. Their release would come at a humiliating price -- a ransom of more than $50 million worth of food and medicines. In Birmingham, Alabama, as elsewhere throughout the world, news of the failed invasion was headlines. But it would be a week before the Agency would dispatch two of its own to break the news of Pete's death to the Ray family. They found Margaret and her brother Charles at the Sloan Avenue home of their mother. Charles, too, had taken part in the secret operation and had only recently returned from Guatemala. What they told Margaret Ray was that her husband had been killed in the crash of a C-46 cargo plane during a training mission and that his body was not recoverable. It was the same story told the other four Birmingham widows.
But Margaret Ray knew better. She had read the newspapers and could put two and two together. She suspected all along her husband had been a part of the Cuban operation. She told the men from the Agency that she was not about to let such a lie stand. The moment they left, her ashen-faced brother told her she should not have voiced such accusations. Nor, he said, should she disclose whatever she might know. It was dangerous. It could even get her killed.
Eventually, all that would be returned to Margaret Ray of her husband's possessions was a plastic bag containing dozens of packs of chewing gum, a small transistor radio, and some items of clothing.
She was shattered. She had to contend not only with the loss of her husband but also with the lies that surrounded his death and with the implicit threats that she was not to attempt to contradict the White House in its denials of U.S. involvement at the Bay of Pigs. Later the government would try to persuade the public that the Alabama guardsmen lost over Cuba were merely mercenaries, "soldiers of fortune" there for the money alone. Margaret Ray took that as a personal slap in the face. But she was frightened of the government and what it might do to her. She had nearly stopped eating, was put on heavy sedatives, and fell into a deep depression. It was a week before she could bring herself to tell her son and daughter, Tommy and Janet, that they had lost their father.
She waited that day until the children came home from school, then sat them down next to her in a rear bedroom on the lower bunk bed, Tommy to her right, Janet to her left. They had known something was wrong. So many strangers had come and gone and there had been so much whispering. When Margaret Ray finally told her children, Tommy sat speechless. Janet became hysterical, jumping up and down and yelling at her brother. "Our daddy's dead!" she screamed. "Why aren't you crying?"
But Tommy would not let himself cry in front of his sister and mother. Instead, he got up and walked out of the house and found the stoop of a neighbor's porch, where he sat down and let the tears stream down his cheeks. Tommy had a gift for momentarily distancing himself from events. His sister did not.
Over the course of the ensuing weeks and months, the government's version of events would change. Mysterious checks for $225 would arrive twice each month drawn on an account with the Bankers Trust Company of New York. There was no explanation of their origin, and none was needed.
The Bay of Pigs was not simply a stinging defeat for the CIA but the end of an epoch. For a time, a disgusted President Kennedy stopped reading the Current Intelligence Bulletin provided him by the Agency. The CIA's credibility was clouded at best, and Agency confidence in the president fared no better. Allen Dulles tendered his resignation that November. Three months later, on February 28, 1962, Bissell resigned. Days later Kennedy bestowed upon him the National Security Medal. Bissell posed for an official photograph in the Oval Office, flanked by a grim Allen Dulles, no longer with the CIA, and by Kennedy, his hands tucked into the pockets of a dark suit. In the photo an owlish-looking Bissell wears the medal pinned to his chest and clutches the citation in his hands. But as Bissell looked into the lens of the camera, standing ramrod straight, he looked like a man facing a jury, as if awaiting the judgment of history. He had changed and so, too, had the CIA. No longer could the Agency believe that moral superiority and victory inevitably went hand in hand, that it would prevail as a matter of destiny. That belief, a quaint legacy of World War II and the OSS, was now part of the detritus of history. The time for blind faith was over.
The Bay of Pigs was what historian Theodore Draper called "a perfect failure." It shattered the myth of infallibility and helped usher in a more skeptical era, not only at the Agency but in the country at large. Whatever lessons were to be gleaned from that debacle would have to be learned again and again. Cuba would not be the last time the Agency would miscalculate the willingness of indigenous insurgencies to follow its lead. Nor would it be the last time that covert operations would have to factor in deniability on a par with strategic and tactical objectives, even if it meant undertaking the impossible. Each succeeding president would be insistent that he be able to distance himself from covert actions, particularly those pursued in contravention of law or principle. Not only America's enemies were to be deceived, but Americans as well, because they might not support or tolerate such undertakings.
Ultimately the Bay of Pigs fooled no one. The price of preserving the fiction of deniability had led not only to defeat but to a wider loss of standing in the world. Such duplicity cost the United States more of its political credibility and moral authority than any outright assault on Cuba. The decision had been made by Kennedy, but it was the CIA that would bear the brunt of public rancor and suspicion. Such chicanery and deceit would prove fertile ground for those who saw CIA conspiracies behind every word and deed. As covert warriors, CIA officers were expected to fall upon their own swords in defeat, even as the architects of those disasters wagged their fingers knowingly. In the postmortems that followed the Bay of Pigs, the most unsettling finding was that men like Pete Ray had died to preserve an implausible fiction -- what CIA Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick called "a pathetic illusion."
On September 23, 1961, a shaken CIA moved into its new headquarters building at Langley. On the wall in the marble lobby were engraved the scriptural words from John: "and the truth shall make you free." The Agency, practiced in the art of deception, had itself become the victim of deception. In places like the Congo, Laos, Vietnam, and Nicaragua, covert objectives would again run headlong into the doctrine of deniability and limits imposed by fictive political aims. If political sensitivities sometimes reduced missions to quixotic pursuits, it did not diminish the courage of those dispatched to carry them out. It did, however, make it harder for some families of the bereaved to find meaning in such sacrifice.
For the children and widows of the Birmingham pilots killed in the Bay of Pigs operation, there was neither closure nor consolation. There were no bodies and no answers forthcoming from the government -- only lies. Some would go about their business, vainly attempting to put it behind them. But that was something Pete Ray's daughter, Janet, could not do. Instead, she consecrated herself to learning all she could about her father, his mission, and his fate.
In some ways she appeared to want to duplicate her father's life. She married a fighter pilot -- Michael Weininger -- and named their son Pete, after her father. She even named her dog Chase, after the dog she had as a child. She allied herself to the cause of freeing Cuba and spent countless hours interviewing veterans of the Bay of Pigs, searching for clues to her father's mission and death. Never was she without her small pink vinyl suitcase, the sort a child takes on a sleep-over. It held her father's dental impressions, notes, tape recordings, newspaper clips, photos, and every document she could lay her hands on related to the Bay of Pigs.
For Janet Weininger and the other family members from Birmingham, the tragedy of death was only the beginning of their suffering. Over the ensuing years, the Agency steadfastly refused to acknowledge that Pete Ray and the others had worked for the CIA, albeit on contract, or that they were anything more than mercenaries.
Worse yet, the Agency had retained a local representative, ostensibly to provide assistance and moral support to Margaret Ray. But instead of providing comfort, remembers her son, the man threatened Margaret Ray, telling her that if she tried to publicly link her husband's death with the CIA she would lose her benefits and face financial ruin and even possible criminal prosecution and psychiatric institutionalization. He informed her that he knew where she shopped, who her friends were, and what her daily routine was. He also, Margaret later told her son, made crude and unwanted sexual advances toward her.
Margaret Ray, already shattered by the loss, now believed she was under constant surveillance. She was frightened, sometimes hysterical. She never did fully recover from the trauma of loss and the pressures, both real and imagined, to keep her silent. Amid such deception, Margaret Ray could not even be certain that her husband was dead. There was, after all, neither a body nor a grave. And there was irrefutable evidence that the CIA had already lied to her about other matters. Five years after Pete Ray's death she remarried, but she was haunted by a recurring nightmare in which Pete Ray returned from his ill-fated mission, demanding to know how she could have abandoned him and remarried. For a brief time in 1969 Margaret Ray was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. Thereafter she was placed on antidepressants.
Pete Ray's mother, Mary, was embittered and distrustful of the U.S. government. She had but one object that had belonged to her firstborn son. It was a schoolbook, a small red dog-eared volume entitled Presidents of the United States, which ended with Franklin Roosevelt. But for her, it was just one more bitter reminder of the government's perfidy and lies. A year and a half after Bay of Pigs, when Kennedy was assassinated, Mary was almost ashamed of her reaction. "I was sorry he was killed but I didn't cry about it," she would say. "I grieved for his children but I didn't cry for him because he was the cause of Pete's being killed."
More than twelve years after Ray's death, on November 14, 1973, William Colby, Director Central Intelligence, quietly conferred a posthumous Distinguished Intelligence Cross upon Pete Ray. The accompanying citation read: "In recognition of his exceptional heroism in April 1961 when he undertook an extremely hazardous mission of the highest national priority. Although fully aware of the dangers he faced, Mr. Ray un-hesitatingly volunteered to fly the mission on which he lost his life. In doing so he demonstrated his greatest personal courage and outstanding loyalty to his country. Mr. Ray's selfless devotion to duty and dedication to the national interests of the United States uphold the finest traditions of our country and reflect the highest credit on him and the Central Intelligence Agency." It was a marked turnaround.
But for the family of Pete Ray it was too little too late. The Agency continued to refuse to release to them any information about Ray's mission or his death, and maintained for another six years that he had been killed in the crash of his plane, when they knew otherwise.
For Ray's daughter, Janet, grief had long before transformed itself into a crusade to unearth all she could about her father. In 1978 her quest took a bizarre turn when she learned that her father's body might still be recoverable. She had been told that a body, believed to be her father's, had been preserved, perhaps even frozen, by Castro, as a kind of trophy of war.
Over the course of the next two years, she worked ceaselessly to confirm that report and, if true, to win the return of her father's remains. She sent Castro telegrams and letters asking for information. Through Cuban representatives in Washington, the State Department, and sympathetic members of Congress, she learned that if she could substantiate that this body was indeed her father's, Castro would be willing to release it to her. The Cubans took fingerprints of the cadaver, which were then sent to the FBI. In September 1979 the FBI compared those prints with microfilmed prints taken at Ray's enlistment in the Alabama National Guard in 1947. The conclusion: the Havana morgue did indeed have the remains of Thomas "Pete" Ray.
Janet, pregnant with her son Pete, stood in the drizzling rain as the plane carrying the body of her father touched down at the Birmingham airport in December 1979. It was the same runway from which Ray had taken off for the mission eighteen years earlier. But before Ray's remains would be buried, she and her brother, Tom, insisted that it be autopsied. They hoped that it might yet yield some final secret of how Pete Ray died.
On the afternoon of December 6 a medical examiner at the Jefferson County Coroner's Office set about removing the five screws, sealed in red wax, that fastened the lid to the gray pine coffin. Inside, the body was in a zinc metal container with a small window over the face. It was lined with white cloth. Ray's head rested on a white pillow. As the coroner examined the body, one thing was obvious. Ray had not died in a plane crash, as the CIA had originally told the family. His body was riddled with bullets and marked by at least ten wounds -- to his head, abdomen, arm, shoulder, ear, and wrist. As the procedure continued, the coroner carefully removed several fully jacketed slugs. Ray's son, Tom, then twenty-five, stood by and watched in silence.
Two days later, on Saturday, December 8, 1979, some two hundred people gathered on a Birmingham hillside to bury Ray with full military honors. Ray would have liked the view from that hill that overlooked the airport and the planes of the Alabama Air National Guard. Among those who came to remember him were family members, old friends, officers of the Cuban men he fought beside from Brigade 2506, former governor George Wallace, and even a camera-shy case worker from the CIA. As the coffin was carried to the open grave, some of those who had served with Ray in the Alabama Air National Guard saluted him. Ray's widow, Margaret, confined to a wheelchair by a recent heart attack, stared at the flag-draped casket and a black-and-white photo of her late husband. There were few words spoken.
Janet had already written a five-page letter to her father and slipped it into the uniform in which he was buried. At the funeral her remarks were brief. Said Janet, "I'm so glad my father's home."
Richard Bissell, too, had been changed by the Bay of Pigs. His name, once synonymous with brilliance and promise, was now forever welded to the Cuban debacle, like Napoleon and Waterloo. Following his CIA service, he spent two unhappy years at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a think tank, then returned to Farmington, Connecticut. There followed ten utterly unfulfilling years as marketing director of the United Aircraft Corporation. Then he retired. At his modest office his assistant, Fran Pudlo, decorated the walls with photos and keepsakes of his career.
He had mellowed and grown reflective. Pudlo and he would read to each other from passages of Greek or Roman history. One of his favorites was The Greek Generals Talk: Memoirs of the Trojan War: He liked to listen to the broader sweep of history, as if it might give him some perspective on his own life, if not outright absolve him. As he listened to Pudlo reading, he sipped coffee from a white china mug decorated with five gold stars and the letters "RBAF." It stood for "Richard Bissell's Air Force" -- a gift from those who had worked with him on the U-2.
But at his home Bissell had almost no reminders of his CIA days. Somewhere in a drawer was a pair of titanium cuff links, a forgotten memento of the SR-71 project. He occasionally spoke of his Agency days but rarely of the Bay of Pigs. It was a reservoir of regret he would not allow himself to revisit. By the early 1990s, as he entered his eighties, he was no longer the imposing and sometimes volatile figure that loped down the long halls of Agency headquarters, already a legend. He was now frail and easily winded. He was wearing himself out trying to collect his thoughts into a memoir, a kind of footrace with his own mortality. When completed, it was unsparingly candid about his own culpability in the Bay of Pigs, but also placed much blame on Kennedy.
More and more he spent his days in the bedroom, surrounded by books and journals. In the winter of 1993 he was a sickly eighty-four-year-old man, his mind still keen, but no longer able or willing to fend off the limits of age.
It was on January 17, 1994, that Janet Weininger, daughter of Pete Ray, came to visit him in Farmington at the Bissell home, a three-hundred-year-old converted farmhouse. Bissell rarely turned down a request for an interview or a visit from a stranger. But the man Janet Weininger met that evening was a ghost of the robust Cold Warrior who had sent her father and so many others into the fray against Communism. Short of breath from pneumonia and suffering from circulation problems, he shivered in a recliner, a green plaid blanket draped over him and his feet warmed by slippers. For hours he listened as Janet spoke of her father and of the Cuban brigade. It was the least he could do, part of an endless penance.
Even Janet did not fully grasp the nature of her feelings toward this man whom she might well have hated as the architect of the fiasco that had claimed her father's life. But instead, she came to him seeking answers about her father and the mission and to pay homage to the man who had overseen the U.S. attempt to unseat Castro. With her, she brought a plaque from Brigade 2506, which she presented to him. The plaque had been made up by the Cuban veterans three years earlier as part of a thirtieth-anniversary observance. They had hoped to present it to him in person in Miami.
Bissell declined the brigade's invitation in an eloquent letter dated thirty years to the day after the invasion. "Looking back," he wrote, "one can see there were many reasons for the failure and many persons who must share responsibility for it. There were errors of planning, particularly the failure to foresee and plan for contingencies for which I accept with profound regret a share of the blame. There were equipment defects. There was a faster and more effective response by Castro than we expected. But above all there were restrictions imposed on the way the operation was designed and conducted in an attempt to maintain an unattainable secrecy about the role of the U.S. government."
But even in his later years Bissell never conceded the ultimate defeat. He closed his letter with these words. "I wish I could be with you on this occasion to drink a toast to the brave men who risked and those who lost their lives trying against all odds to overthrow a tyrant. I am confident that theirs is the wave of the future, and an increasingly isolated Communist dictatorship will collapse and that Cuba will again be free. May that day come soon." It was a remarkable exhortation considering that by then Castro had outlasted seven U.S. presidents and become the longest-serving leader in the Western Hemisphere -- thanks, in no small part, to the CIA's failed attempts to oust him.
The plaque Janet carried with her that day was inscribed with the words "In Recognition and Appreciation for Gallant Services Rendered During The Bay of Pigs Military Operations. You Are One of Us." Bissell was visibly moved, though perhaps not nearly as much as Janet wished to believe. They spoke for several hours. After being subjected to years of government lies and evasion, Janet felt that at last she was getting the truth about the campaign that claimed her father's life. She would remember their meeting as a moment when a tremendous burden was lifted from her shoulders. Bissell, too, seemed to feel a sense of liberation. In coming together on a blustery winter day in Connecticut, the two had managed, at least momentarily, to exorcise some of the demons that had tormented them both for so many years.
Bissell's health continued to deteriorate, but it was his spirit more than his body that capitulated. On February 6, 1994, he was told that it might be necessary to place him in a hospital or nursing home. He did not voice any protest, but there was no concealing his disdain for his own disabilities and growing dependence on others.
That night he did not awaken from his sleep. He was found in his twin bed in a large bedroom painted red and flushed with sunlight. The newspapers said it was a heart condition, but his family knew better. At age eighty-four Richard Bissell had simply decided to let go of life.
His body was cremated, but it was not until June 26 that there was a memorial service for him. That had always been his favorite time of year. For such a public figure, once the standard-bearer of the Cold War, it was a decidedly private affair. That was how Bissell would have wanted it. It was a brilliant sunlit day. Only about thirty people were to gather to pay their remembrances, none of them from his Agency days. But among those who were in attendance was Janet Ray Weininger. A short time before the memorial service, members of Bissell's immediate family and Janet gathered in the living room, a long two-story room filled with books on politics, military history, economics, and mysteries, and even some Mark Twain. Once again, Janet had come with a gift. This time it was the blue and gold flag of Brigade 2506, which she presented to Bissell's widow. There were few words spoken.
After that, the thirty or so family members and close friends assembled on a sunlit hillside overlooking the Farmington River. Across the river was a quiltwork of cultivated fields. Bissell's ashes were placed beneath a simple granite stone that lay flush with the grass. The marker bore nothing but his name and dates of birth and death.
Neither the return of her father's body nor the hours spent with Bissell brought any lasting peace to Janet Weininger, so consumed was she by the loss of her father. But for opposition from other family members, she would have had her father's body exhumed and moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to Miami -- closer to her home. And in the spring of 1997, three years after her time with Bissell, she could be found trekking through the jungles of Nicaragua in an effort to find and recover the bodies of two Cuban pilots who had crashed after taking part in the Bay of Pigs operation.
That operation had been a tragic comedy of errors, a futile quest concocted by men of great power and intellect and carried out by men of unquestioning courage. At least in part, it was the contemporaneous demand for deniability that had doomed the mission, and subsequent decades of denials and secrecy that kept public fascination with the fiasco alive. All but one of the original twenty copies of the CIA inspector general's scathing reports examining the Bay of Pigs were destroyed. The lone surviving copy was for thirty-six years securely locked in the CIA director's safe, as if it were the last of some virulent strain of pox that could once again wreak havoc on the world. Not until February 1998 did the Agency release the remaining copy, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Visitors to the CIA, perusing the pages of the revered Book of Honor, would find four nameless stars beside the year 1961, one for each of the Alabama Air National Guardsmen who died in the Bay of Pigs. Long after their names had appeared in the national press and histories of the invasion, the Agency still steadfastly refused to publicly acknowledge the men or to inscribe their names in the Book of Honor. It was as if by refusing to utter their names, the Agency did not have to look them or itself in the eye, as if accountability could be so easily sidestepped. This, too, is a fiction.
One of those four stars belongs to Thomas "Pete" Ray. His daughter, Janet, is still in pursuit of answers as if they might fill the void of her grief. In this way, she, too, has come to be counted among the casualties of the Bay of Pigs.