| 39 years after Bay of Pigs, bodies of two pilots to be returned to Miami for burial
By VANESSA BAUZÁ Sun-Sentinel
Web-posted: 1:13 a.m. Oct. 18, 2000
With no body to mourn and no gravesite, Frank Garcia clung to the hope that someday his father would come walking through the door again. Garcia knew, of course, that his father, pilot Crispin Lucio Garcia Fernandez, had crashed his B-26 into a mountaintop in Nicaragua in 1961 after a Bay of Pigs mission over Cuba. But beyond these stark facts lay a vast, empty space with no answers. So, sometimes Garcia would allow himself the luxury of
imagining his father was not dead, only gone. Garcia Fernandez became a man reconstructed from photographs, memories and a letter sent to his son less than a month before the crash that killed him and his co-pilot, Nabel Gonzalez Romero. "In a few days you'll have your 5th birthday and your father will not be by your side," Garcia Fernandez wrote to his young son. "You will receive the gift from your father when you return to Cuba and are able to think freely without fear of repression, when you will be able to be with your grandparents and see that in Cuba there is liberty. That will be my gift to you, a free homeland."
These words made living without a father easier, but Garcia could not reconcile himself to the fact that his father's body, and that of Gonzalez Romero -- two men who had been on a U.S.-engineered mission -- were lost, mired in bureaucratic red tape and mountain mud. Finally, on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, almost 40 years after their deaths, their remains will be buried in Miami in a ceremony with full military honors from the Cuban American Veterans Association.
The ceremony, officiated by the Rev. Sergio Carrillo, himself a Bay of Pigs paratrooper, will be held at St. Michael the Archangel Church. The remains of the two men, which rested together in obscurity all those years, will be placed in one coffin and buried at Dade South Memorial Park. "We are glad to have these bodies here and give them the honor they deserve," said Carrillo, who discovered his calling during the 18 months he was imprisoned in Cuba after the invasion. "We're also thinking about all those family members who don't know where their
Though their families had searched for answers for years, the quest for Crispin Lucio Garcia Fernandez and Nabel Gonzalez Romero, who died at age 25 and 26 respectively, began in earnest in 1994, when the families met Janet Ray Weininger. Weininger's father, Thomas "Pete" Ray, was shot down near Playa Giron on April 19, 1961. Eager to prove that the U.S. government engineered the failed attack, Fidel Castro had kept Ray's body frozen in a morgue for 18 years.
Weininger became a cause celebre in the exile community when, after persistently lobbying congressmen and government officials, she managed to bring back her father's body and bury him in his Alabama hometown.
Weininger swore then that if she ever encountered a family in a similar situation she would help them recover their dead.
"After 18 years of looking for my dad I said if anyone is in this boat again I'm going to help them," Weininger said.
"I'm a firm believer that when someone gives his life serving his country you must return those remains to the country."
In time, Weininger, the Garcia family and Isaac Rotella Gonzalez, Gonzalez Romero's nephew, would become a formidable, single-minded trio.
The bodies of their three relatives would be the only ones returned to the United States from Brigade 2506, the group of about 1,500 U.S.-trained exiles who invaded Cuba. More than 100 died and about 1,100 were captured after President John F. Kennedy withdrew promised air support.
"Many people don't understand us," said Nora Garcia, widowed at 24. "We realize many people don't like us. Janet does. I call her La Cubanita. If I hadn't met Janet my husband's remains would still be on that mountaintop."
Garcia Fernandez, an avid pilot, fled Cuba in 1960, after Castro took power. Soon after coming to Miami he met a group of exiles who were planning an invasion on the island. He began training with Brigade 2506 in Guatemala. There he met Gonzalez Romero. In Cuba, Gonzalez
Romero had loved to fly Cessnas with his nephew over the sugar and tobacco fields that surrounded their town of Camajuani, in the province of Las Villas.
"He was our idol," Rotella Gonzalez said. "He would do acrobatics with that plane. He was intelligent and a great mechanic, very versatile."
When Castro and his band of rebels started to assemble in the Sierra Maestra mountains, Gonzalez Romero helped by bringing them supplies. But soon after the revolution succeeded he felt betrayed by Castro's turn toward communism.
When they began their search, the men's families knew only that Garcia Fernandez and Gonzalez Romero's B-26 had gone down on a densely wooded mountaintop near the rural Nicaraguan town of San
Jose de Bocay. Weininger made the first of five trips to the mountaintop in 1995 and managed to narrow down the crash site by talking to villagers in the area and researching classified CIA documents. During her second trip that year she was accompanied by Garcia. Together they found the B-26's wing buried in the mud. They also found the plane's engine and even a wheel hub which had become a wash basin for the villagers.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would see that crash site and what my father had been through," recalled Garcia. "I said a prayer for them."
The bodies were not found on that trip. They would remain elusive until the spring of 1998 when the U.S. Army, persuaded by evidence from Weininger's previous trips, joined the mission and conducted a
month-long excavation."It was quite a feat to pull it off," recalled Lino Gutierrez, the Cuban-born former ambassador to Nicaragua, who visited the site at the time. "Some people had doubts as to whether this operation could be brought about because there had been bandits in the area."The excavation site made strange bedfellows: Nicaraguan police and army officials, mostly with Sandinista roots, guarded the area alongside former Contras. "The day we found those remains everyone hugged," Weininger said. "There were tears in everyone's eyes. We all became brothers."
In 1998 the remains of Garcia Fernandez and Gonzalez Romero were flown to the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii for positive identification. The process took nearly a year, and the families since have been waiting for the right time to bring them home.
Weininger, who financed many of the expeditions to Nicaragua with her family's savings, is reaching out to exile groups to raise the $6,000 needed to bring the bodies from Hawaii to Miami and to pay for the funeral. As they have in the past, the families have full faith in Weininger.
Both families say if Castro's government falls in their lifetimes they plan to take the remains back to Cuba. This is the promise they have made to their dead.
Vanessa Bauzá can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 305-810-5007.
For more information on Janet Ray Weininger's organization please contact www.wingsofvalor.org
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