|Looking as spiffy as
they could in the jungle heat, the seven men and two
women from the lab were about to begin sifting dirt
in search of the remains of two Cuban-American
fliers who crashed during the Bay of Pigs invasion
37 years ago.
At the crash site,
hundreds of bits and pieces of a B-26 jutted from
the ground. Vegetation was still being cleared by
Nicaraguan farmers hired especially for the task,
some of them former Sandinista soldiers and some of
them former Contras.
included Cuban-born U.S. Ambassador Lino Gutierrez,
Nicaraguan Defense Minister Jaime Cuadra and a Miami
housewife whose relentless efforts gave rise to this
search: Janet Ray Weininger.
"The goal is
to bring back the remains with honor and
dignity," said Mrs. Weininger. "It's a
code of loyalty that you have for those who have
gone before you."
Those who went
before were Crispin Garcia and Juan de Mata
Gonzalez, two Cuban exiles from Miami who were on a
bombing mission during the 1961 Bay of Pigs
operation when their B-26 crashed into a
mountainside during a nighttime storm.
Anastasio Somoza, a CIA asset, visited the site
shortly after the crash but decided to allow the
bodies - and the story - to remain there
The agency was not
eager to let it be known just how involved it had
been in the Bay of Pigs invasion; that it was
training Cuban exiles and using secret bases in
Nicaragua; or that it had the cooperation of Somoza.
Most details of the
crash remained secret until last year, when they
were declassified by the agency. In the intervening
years, however, an Alabama girl from a military
family was growing up and asking questions for which
there were only vague answers.
For 18 years, the
questions revolved around her father, Pete Ray, who
was killed in a separate incident during the Bay of
"What was my
dad doing there? Why had his plane been shot down?
Where was he buried?" Those were the questions
that plagued Mrs. Weininger.
congressmen and senators in every state where she
lived with her pilot husband. She queried the U.S.
military, the CIA, Cuban exiles in Miami. If they
refused to talk to her over the phone, she flew at
her own expense to meet them. She became an expert
at seeking documents under the Freedom of
With her honeyed
Southern accent and beaming smile, she got old
buddies of her father to put her onto other contacts
from whom she gleaned new details about her father's
military record and - as she would slowly learn -
his CIA background.
After 18 years, she
discovered that her father's corpse was still being
preserved in a Havana freezer. She then got the U.S.
government to put pressure on President Fidel Castro
until he authorized the release of the body.
Mrs. Weininger was
finally able to bring her daddy home.
brought him back to the States, I wrote him a long
letter and I said `I will always love you and I will
always need you, but I want you to know that if you
had it to do all over again, I would want you to do
it just the way you did.' "
Through her long
association with Cuban exiles, Mrs. Weininger
learned there were others looking for lost loved
ones. And she went to work on the cases of Crispin
Garcia and Juan de Mata Gonzalez with the same
fervor that allowed her to ferret out the facts
about her father.
Three years ago,
Mrs. Weininger put together the final piece of the
puzzle and found this site. The son of one of the
pilots, Frank Garcia, was with her at the time.
"It was this
intense feeling," she remembered on her latest
visit to the site. "It was exactly 34 years
from the day the plane went down. I wondered what
was going through Frank's mind to be at the place
where his father died."
next task was to win CIA support for her effort to,
as she puts it, "bring these men home."
fell into place. Documents were declassified,
information was confirmed and new details were
The U.S. Embassy in
Managua agreed to help her. The Nicaraguan
government of President Arnoldo Aleman agreed to do
all it could. And just a few weeks ago, the CIA
announced it would spend $70,000 on the gravesite
and Mr. Gonzalez distinguished themselves by their
valor and their patriotism and made the ultimate
sacrifice while serving our nation," CIA
Director George Tenet said in a statement.
recognizes the sacrifices their families have made.
Returning our fallen colleagues to the United States
for burial is not only a humanitarian gesture, but
also is the right thing to do."
Just a few days
later, Mrs. Weininger was on her way from Miami, the
identification lab team was making its way from
Honolulu, and the Black Hawk helicopters were
winging in from a U.S. installation in Honduras.
U.S. Army forensic
experts say the painstaking task of sifting for
bones and teeth should be finished early in April.
It will be several months more before DNA testing
can positively identify the remains.
But for Mrs.
Weininger, who will spend Easter in a tent here far
from her husband and two children in Miami, the goal
has been realized.
conditions, but it's something my heart tells me to
do. The story is not about me. It's really not about
the families per se. It's about two guys who did the
right thing. It's about the U.S. government. . . .
"When I first
got on the Black Hawk this trip, the tears were just
streaming down my face, and someone said, `What is
it? Are you afraid?' And I said, `No, I'm just so
proud of our country and what they really can do.'
As she spoke,
members of the identification lab team listened
respectfully, and a soldier reached out to shake her
hand. Around his wrist was a bracelet honoring the
memory of American MIAs.