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Wednesday, April 1, 1998
Section: A
Page: A1

Sue Mullin

OSKIWAS, Nicaragua - As the Black Hawk helicopter alighted on a remote hillside, a team of forensics specialists from the U.S. Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii strode forward to welcome the visitors.

With any luck, the military specialists speculated, the VIPs would be properly prepared for this trek. The climbing would be rugged and the chiggers thick and bloodthirsty; they also carry mountain leprosy.


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.

The visitors 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.

Then-dictator Anastasio Somoza, a CIA asset, visited the site shortly after the crash but decided to allow the bodies - and the story - to remain there unrecognized.

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 Pigs operation.

"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.

She badgered 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 Information Act.

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.

"When I 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."

Mrs. Weininger's next task was to win CIA support for her effort to, as she puts it, "bring these men home."

Finally, things fell into place. Documents were declassified, information was confirmed and new details were revealed.

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 search.

"Mr. Garcia 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.

"The agency 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.

"It's tough 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.



All content 1998 WASHINGTON TIMES

and may not be republished without permission.



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