Riley W. Shamburger, Jr., the oldest of the four fliers, was born in Birmingham on November 17, 1924. He married Marion Jane Graves, his childhood sweetheart. They had dated for twelve years before their marriage, through grammar school and Woodlawn High. After Pearl Harbor, Shamburger quit high school to join the Air Force. (When the war ended he returned and got his diploma.) A combat pilot in World War II and Korea, Shamburger was a big breezy extrovert who loved to fly.
He was a 209-pounder, six feet tall, with 15,000 hours in the air and eighteen years of flying experience by 1961. A test pilot at Hayes, he was also a major in the Alabama Air National Guard, and was its operations officer at the Birmingham airfield. He was also a good friend of General [George Reid] Doster [commander of the 117th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Birmingham Municipal Airport in Alabama]. Shamburger did well; he owned a substantial home in East Lake.
The Shamburgers were part of a beer-and-barbecue, happy-go-lucky crowd of Air Guardsmen and their wives who frequently socialized together. Aside from flying, Riley liked nothing better than to sit in front of the TV set with a case of beer, eating his favorite food, "parched" (roasted) peanuts. And he liked to barbecue pork chops.
Early in 1961 Riley told his wife: "I'm going to be away at school for three months." He did not say where he was going, but about once a week he returned to Birmingham. He and Doster would fly in together.
Sometimes they would bring news of other Birmingham acquaintances -- such as Colonel Joe Shannon -- who were part of the mysterious operation. Once, when Riley returned for a visit, he told how the boys had rigged up a beer joint in Central America named after their favorite bar in Birmingham. Over the makeshift saloon a pair of red panties flew in the breeze as a cocktail flag.
Shortly before the invasion, Marion sent Riley a present -- a whole cigar box full of parched peanuts.
This, then, is the background of Riley and of how he came to be in Happy Valley on Wednesday, April 19, 1961. On that day four Alabama Pilots volunteered to fly B-26s over the beaches to relieve the exhausted Cuban pilots.
What happened has already been described: Shortly before they took off, the four CIA fliers were told they would receive air support from the carrier-based Navy jets. (The word had been flashed to Happy Valley by Richard Bissell after the President authorized the unmarked Navy jets to fly for one hour at dawn.) Because of the mix-up over time zones, the B-26s got to the Bay of Pigs after the Navy jets had already gone.
Exactly how the two planes were shot down is a subject of varying accounts, but most versions agree that Shamburger and Gray crashed at sea and that Ray and Baker crashed inland.
Part of what happened was told by James Storie, written by Allan T. Duffin, in "Above and Beyond--Mission: Cuba. Status: Top secret," Air & Space Magazine, May 01, 2011. He said that the major recruiter for the mission was Gen. Doster and that the personnel interviewed were from the Hayes Aircraft Corporation in Birmingham, or else active Guardsmen.
We used first names only. I was given a picture of a woman and two kids to go in my billfold—I had no idea who they were—along with other documents that would create a fake identity.
At first we were given just a few vague details about our mission. At each step, a candidate remained only if he continued to sign more secrecy documents. I became pretty sure that we were dealing with the CIA, but this was never acknowledged. We were told how we would be paid and that we could tell no one—not a soul—or we would be prosecuted for revealing classified information.
Finally I learned the truth, and why the Guard needed aircraft technicians: We would be training Cuban exiles to fly B-26s for an invasion of Cuba, with the goal of triggering a revolution to overthrow communist dictator Fidel Castro. Since Castro had B-26s in his air force, the theory went, the Cuban population would think that their own military was revolting against Castro and would join the uprising.
After a week of briefings and paperwork, we reported to Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola, Florida. We left Eglin at midnight in a Douglas C-54 with blacked-out windows, flying 50 feet above the water for a very long time. We still did not know where we were going.
The next morning we landed on a dusty airstrip. This was our base. There was nothing there except the runway. It turned out to be Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. I was told that the ground troops for the invasion were being trained in Guatemala while we trained B-26 crews here....
The pilots and crew volunteers were people I had worked with at Hayes Aircraft, except for Joe Shannon. In earlier days I had flown with two of them: Riley Shamburger and Pete Ray, whom I considered a friend.
On April 19, we launched six B-26s, four of them piloted by U.S. crews. Wade Gray was flying with Shamburger and was the first American to go down, in the water. The B-26 piloted by Pete Ray and Leo Baker was the second, going down on land. Both airmen survived but were shot by Castro’s soldiers. Only Shannon returned in one piece. The Cuban exiles were unable to sustain the beachhead at the Bay of Pigs and surrendered to Castro’s forces....
We returned to Florida in much the same manner we arrived, on a C-54. But the transport’s windows weren’t blacked out and it flew at a much higher altitude. We were reminded that the operation and our involvement in it were still top secret. We were to use the cover stories originally given us and had the name of a person with the Air Guard to contact in case we thought we were being watched or noticed something unusual. Otherwise, we were told to keep quiet and go on with our regular routines.Widows of four of the pilots killed reported they were receiving bi-weekly checks from a corporation called Double-Chek, headed by a man named Alex E. Carlson. Two years later it was revealed that the pilots had been in the Central Intelligence Agency, and that anti-Castro donors had set up a trust fund for volunteers who participated in the attempted coup to get rid of Castro.
Carlson had been born to a Swedish emigrant named Alex Gottfried Carlson who arrived in the United States at the Juarez border-crossing in El Paso, Texas in 1911 with his father, Henrik Leopold Carlson, and a brother. By 1930 Alex G. was married to a fellow Swede Olga Josefina Johansson and lived in Coronado, San Diego County, California, working as a horse trainer. Their Cuban-born son (Alex E., the eventual Double-Chek executive), was five years old in 1930, with two older sisters (Olga and Florence) who had been born in New York in the early 1920's.
The family moved to Marquette, Michigan after 1930, where Alex E. met his wife, Katherine "Kay" Hornbogen, daughter of Dr. Daniel P. Hornbogen; but they were divorced in Miami in 1954. He died in 2005 in the Miami area.
It seems unquestionable that Carlson was working for the Central Intelligence Agency as paymaster of the operation, since Air America and Civil Air Transport were also involved:
It is known that most of the pilots who flew the B-26s in the Bay of Pigs operation against Cuba in April 1961 were Cuban exiles who had been engaged by the Double-Check [sic] Corporation. It is also known that the Cuban exile pilots were trained for the Bay of Pigs operation at Retalhuleu, Guatemala (“Rayo Base”) between July 60 and April 61, using at least 6 of the 8 B-26s delivered to the Fuerza Aérea Guatemalteca in the summer of 1960 (Source: Hagedorn / Hellström, Foreign Invaders, pp.89-91, for details and for the identities of those B-26s; a Cuban pilot, whose log book is in the possession of Leif Hellström, notes FAG 400, 404, 408, 412, 420, and 424 as training aircraft: e-mail dated 22 February 2004, kindly sent to the author by Leif Hellström).
Other documents equally published by the CIA, however, reveal that CAT/Air America pilots Connie Seigrist, William Beale, and Douglas R. Price also flew B-26 missions. While William Beale seems to have flown the B-26 only on training flights out of Retalhuleu, Guatemala (“Rayo Base”) on 14 and 15 November 1960, Connie Seigrist flew B-26 training missions out of Retalhuleu on 14 and 15 November 1960 as well as attack missions during the Bay of Pigs invasion, that is on 18 and 19 April 1961, and Doug Price also flew combat missions on 18 and 19 April 61.
Bem Price and Theodore A. Ediger, Associated Press Writers, on April 16, 1963, described the "Flop at the Bay of Pigs" as follows:
When we review a map of the area around Miami Springs, it is impossible not to notice that, just as Curtiss Parkway bisects the Miami Springs Country Club, which is situated directly north, almost abutting, the Miami International Airport, a short distance to the west of the country club is a divided boulevard designated north and south Melrose Drive--leading us to wonder whether that name may have been derived from Paul Helliwell's law partner at Helliwell, Melrose and DeWolfe--Mary Jane Melrose. The two partners are mentioned in numerous books about the CIA's real estate activities in Florida:After a series of diplomatic humiliations in which the movements of U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Philip Bonsal, were restricted to a small area of Havana and all but 11 U.S. Embassy employes ordered to leave, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower severed relations with Cuba Jan. 4, 1961 [less than three weeks before JFK's inauguration]. Now reports of military activities began flowing out of the gossipy refugee colony in Miami with the persistence of truth. These reports—later confirmed—said anti-Castro refugees were training in Guatemala; paratroopers and pilots at the 5,000-foot-long airstrip at Retalhuleu; infantry at Trax, La Finquita and Garrapatinango.
During January 1961, unmarked planes began making frequent night flights from long unused airfields at Clewiston and Opa-Locka, Fla. As it turned out, they were carrying volunteers to Guatemala. It was in January that four members of the Alabama National Guard, all former pilots of the World War II light bomber, the B26, were recruited. These men were paid $2,250 a month each, plus $200 monthly for expenses, so their survivors reported.
In all, apparently, about 21 pilots were hired to train Cubans. Gov. Orval E. Faubus of Arkansas disclosed just this year that most came out of his state's Air National Guard. The Alabama fliers were hired by a man who identified himself as Alex E. Carlson of the Double Chek Corp., of 1045 Curtis Parkway, Miami Springs, Fla. [near the Miami Springs airport and where the country club is today. The street was named for "Glenn H. Curtiss [who] thought the area desirable for starting a flying school in 1916 with his partner, James Bright. Together they purchased 17,000 acres of scrub and pasture land that years later would become Miami Springs, Hialeah, and Opa-Locka."]. Double Chek was formed May 12, 1959, by Carlson with a capital of $500 to engage in a wide variety of business activities. After the invasion Carlson said he was simply acting as an employment agency for an unidentified Latin-American concern.
- Masters of Paradise by Alan A. Block;
- Nemesis: The True Story of Aristotle Onassis, Jackie O, and the Love Triangle That Brought Down the Kennedys by Peter Evans;
- In Banks We Trust by Penny Lernoux;
- Married to the Mouse by Richard E. Fogelsong; and
- American War Machine: Deep Politics, the CIA Global Drug Connection, and the Road to Afghanistan by Peter Dale Scott.
The Double-Chek Corporation would be accused of being the paymaster for the the assassination of President Kennedy by a man who long used the alias of William Torbitt to cover his true identity. In the next post, his identity will be examined.