A little-known tragedy is revisited

November 6, 2006

Miami Herald- Luisa Yanez

Captured during the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, more than 100 men and boys, some bleeding from battle wounds, were stuffed into a sealed semi-trailer bound for a prison in Havana.

As they all filed onto the trailer on that scorching hot day, two boys -- Humberto Martinez, 16, and William Muir, 17 -- remember the chilling words of a man they later learned was Osmany Cienfuegos, a Cuban military commander: ``If they die in there, that's fine; that way we'll save on bullets.'

Martinez, Muir and the others spent the next eight hours hunched together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in the dark with little air to breathe. Nine died, their bodies found sprawled on the truck's filthy floor.

Today, the little-known story of what happened on April 22, 1961, to a group of men who survived the tragedy is the basis for a lawsuit now being prepared against the Cuban commander who ordered the prisoners into the trailer.

The invasion veterans want their case heard in a Spanish court, which has asserted jurisdiction for retroactive human rights abuses the world over. A similar court indicted former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

They want charges brought solely against Cienfuegos, now in his 70s. Today, he is a respected member of Raúl Castro's inner circle and brother of a famous dead Cuban rebel leader, Camilo Cienfuegos.

'The time has come for Osmany Cienfuegos to pay for what he did to those men,' said Mario Martinez Malo, member of the veterans of Brigade 2506, who is helping the legal effort abroad.

Martinez Malo said the brigade has hired a Madrid attorney. They recently gathered survivors of the deadly semi-trailer ride to videotape their testimony of their experience that day -- and the role Cienfuegos played.

Among them: Martinez, now 62 and living in Kendall, who said memories of the incident haunt him to this day. He still becomes claustrophobic whenever he gets in a crowded elevator.

'It was one of the most horrible things I have ever experienced in my life,' Martinez said.

Muir, also 62, a computer consultant from Kendall, also plans to testify as a witness. He, too, rarely speaks of the events inside the trailer.

'I haven't really told my grandkids about it,' he said.

BRIGHT FUTURES

Martinez and Muir hailed from well-to-do Havana families. Both had bright futures and attended the prestigious Belen Jesuit School.

Martinez's father was a well-known architect; Muir's father, son of Scottish immigrants who settled on the island, was a teacher.

But by May 1960, both their families had fled Cuba to Miami. They believed it would be a brief stay, just until Castro's rule ended.

'We were in Miami just waiting to go back home,' Martinez said. ``We were just passing through.'

Three months later, in August 1960, word spread in Miami's small exile community of a planned CIA-led invasion to the island to overthrow Castro. A recruiting office opened in Little Havana -- all men were welcomed.

Martinez and Muir talked their parents into letting them sign-up for the mission. They were shipped to an invasion boot camp in Guatemala. Two weeks before the planned mission, in mid-April 1961, they gathered in Nicaragua -- the invasion's launching point.

Bad luck followed the two childhood friends. Martinez and Muir were assigned to a transport ship, the Houston.

As the men neared the island and began to leave their boats, the Cuban air force attacked. They fired on the Houston, partially sinking it, and leaving them without weapons, ammunition and food. The group had to swim ashore.

The men of the Houston -- via radio transmissions -- learned the invasion was turning into a flop. They were trapped alone on the other side of the fighting, closed in by mangroves and ocean. They hid for days in the brush.

'There was no food or water. We hardly had clothes,' Martinez said.

At dusk on April 21, Muir remembers, the men decided to come out from the mangroves to the shoreline. Cuban militiamen soon caught them.

At noon the next day, all the captured men were brought together to be taken to Havana.

Martinez and Muir stood in line waiting to climb on a truck in the caravan that would taken them first to a Havana sports stadium. All were questioned by Commander Cienfuegos, who set up a table and chair by the trucks.

'We were exhausted and depressed. All our hopes of freeing Cuba were by the wayside. We didn't understand why the U.S. air power had not shown up,' Muir said.

Martinez said he walked up to Cienfuegos, who asked him his profession. He replied: student. Cienfuegos realized he was only 16 and asked him his father's name. Recognizing the boy's family, he told Martinez: ``You're that s.o.b.'s son?'

Martinez and Muir were ordered into what they remember as a 35-foot long, 10-foot wide semi-trailer with a door on the side and a cab. Inside, rows and rows of men.

They remember officers warning Cienfuegos that the truck was overloaded and had no ventilation; that the men could die.

'`Let them die; I don't care,'' they recall him saying before the doors shut.

Said Martinez: 'The men were sweating so much that the condensation was accumulating on the roof of the truck and raining down on all of us. It was unbelievable. You couldn't breathe. There was panic. You couldn't move and you could only see the person next to you,' Martinez said.

'People were wounded and in pain,' Muir added. ``Through it all, we tried to help each other as best we could.'

One man, said Martinez, used the steel tongue of his belt to pry a hole in the truck's side -- where they took turns breathing the outside air.

As the hours passed, the men grew more desperate. At one point they tried to flip the truck over by rocking it side to side. Cuban forces stopped and opened fire atop the truck to stop the uprising.

Hours into the ride, Muir remembers being ankle deep in urine, human waste and sweat. 'That is what I remember most of the experience,' said Muir, who later served in Vietnam.

When they reached the Havana stadium, men dropped out and fell to their knees with leg cramps. Once in the stadium, Muir said the men had an unexpected visitor: Fidel Castro.

'He asked us who had done this to us, acting all like it was someone else's fault,' Muir said. ``But someone told him it had been Cienfuegos,'

MOST IMPRISONED

Most of the men were sent to Cuban prisons. A year after their capture, they were tried en mass and sentenced.

Martinez and Muir spent their next birthday at El Principe prison. Around Christmas 1963, eighteen months after the invasion, they were among 1,200 prisoners released as part of an agreement between the United States and Cuba. President John F. Kennedy had struck a deal with Fidel Castro that allowed the prisoners to be freed in exchange for $62 million in food and medicine.

The nine men who died inside the trailer were simply listed as being among the 104 who were killed during the invasion.

Today, nearly a half century later, Bay of Pigs veterans have begun speaking openly about the tragedy.

Martinez hopes the lawsuit turns the spotlight on Castro's cruelty to Cubans who opposed his regime. 'I don't think exiles, in all these years, have effectively conveyed that to the rest of the world,' he said.

Muir has even stronger feelings, especially about Cienfuegos.

``To me, what happened to us was an example of man's inhumanity to man -- and it's on his hands. We don't want it to be forgotten.'


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