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Yanks Executed by Castro
STAG - MAGAZINE
Vol. 12, No. 6
THESE YANKS WERE EXECUTED BY CASTRO
On Oct. 13, 1960, the First American faced a Cuban firing squad. Two days later his friends were captured and suffered the same fate. This is the story of their fatal adventure-that began in a Miami bar and ended in front of a bullet-pocked wall.
By: Henry Durling and Felix Painter
BATTERED by the downpour, the little Piper Aztec skittered through the wild, rainy night like some se bird seeking shelter. The pilot fought the controls as the tiny plane bucked the tropical storm. To the east, off Miami Beach, sheet lightning made visible the ocean, lashed by the wind and rain to a white capped green froth. It was ideal weather for his purpose. No sensible pilot would be up tonight, Miami International Airport would be shut down, and his arrival would be almost unnoticed.
Homing in on the powerful Miami International radio beacon, he turned short of the big airport, made a dogleg to the southwest. There, five miles off, lay Tamiami Airport, a small field for corporate and transient planes. Its control tower was unmanned from 10 P.M. to 6 A.M. he knew. Even on a good night a small plane could land there unnoticed, and certainly tonight no one would see him.
As he came in low over the darkened field, auto headlights flashed out three times on the ground below, then blazed steadily to show the end of the runway. He let down his flaps, and ghosted down onto the blacktop. Without hesitation, he taxied to a parking strip and cut his engines. He clambered out into the downpour, a dispatch case under his arm. A black Ford station wagon pulled up beside the plane and stopped, its motor idling. Head down against the rain, the pilot hurried to it.
In the wagon, three men were waiting. The pilot gave each a quick nod. Then, as he settled into his seat, he patted the dispatch case and smiled grimly. "It's all set. I have the maps, and they're waiting for us with open arms. The burn is on."
The driver stepped on the accelerator, and the car headed toward Miami. They were an assorted crew in the station wagon that night. All four of them were to become world-famous. Some would call them mad, others, heroic. Nearly everyone would agree that they had set a mark in tragic futility.
They had only one thing in common: a hatred of Fidel Castro, and a desire to help destroy his Communist beachhead in Cuba.
The driver was lanky, rawboned Allen Dale Thompson, 32, a Korean war veteran with a whiplash temper and the uncoiled ease of a bushmaster. With him was stocky black-thatched Anthony Zarba, 27, who laughed at excitement and was driven to prove himself through action. Then there was blond, wiry Robert Fuller, 25, a tight-mouthed young ex-Marine with anger in his blue eyes. The pilot, Air Force veteran Hugh Davidson, had a small white (Continued on page 70)
Continued from page 25
scar on his cheekbone from a would inflicted by the ill-tempered Fidel himself while Davidson was still flying in Castro's air force.
Each one had his own personal motives. Anthony Zarba had been plagued by asthma during his childhood in the semi-slum Boston suburb of Somerville. His ailment had made him leave school at 16, kept him out of the Army, and sent him on a search for adventure by which to prove himself. Cuban-born American Bob Fuller bore a grudge against Castro–he had seen his father's rich cattle holdings grabbed by the Communists, and his family sent into exile. Thompson's war experiences had given him a taste for action he hadn't been able to satisfy since leaving the army. And Davidson bore that scar. The adventure in which these four men were now involved had begun one night when Allan Davidson had met agents of Fulgencio Batista, the ousted dictator of Cuba, in a little bar in Southwest Miami, the city's Latin quarter. It was the fall of 1959.
Miami has long been a center of activity for the revolutionaries of Latin countries and their American friends and mercenaries. It was from there that Castro had launched his successful revolution, and received most of his support while fighting his way to Havana. Today those supporters still loyal to him tangle almost daily with the disenchanted from their own movement, and with the followers of the deposed Batista. Riots are commonplace; beating, stabbings, kidnapings, and even murders are regular events.
"Hell," says one Miami police officer, "there are almost as many revolutions fought right here as there are in any of the banana republics."
A MAJOR activity in Miami, and along the serpentine coastline that stretches south from it, is the smuggling of arms and men to the anti-Fidel elements in Cuba–a reversal of the previous order that has changed Castro's attitude from smiling friendship for US agents, in Miami to one of snarling hostility. Mostly, these are two-bit operations involving a few dozens obsolete weapons, or some half-dozen fanatics recruited from the thousands of exile who stream into Miami each day. But some of the ventures are more ambitious, better financed, better planned, and organized by some of Cuba's former rulers. Such was the scheme that was proposed to Allen Thompson that night in Miami.
Thompson had come to Miami nearly four years ago, drawn by the excitement he knew was brewing there. A native of Mooringsport, La., he had marked time since Korea by working in fishing camps an brawling here and there along the Gulf. Once in Miami, he let it be known that his services were available to anyone who had enough cash to make it worth his while. His record in Miami is spotty, but he was involved with Nicaraguans, Haitians and Cubans in gun-running operations and in the training of guerrilla troops. It was inevitable that after the Castro coup he would be sought out by agents of Batista.
The plot they proposed was simpler. After two years of Castro land reform and business confiscation, a sizeable opposition had grown up in Cuba. Throughout the island–even in the very Sierra Maestra mountains that had once been Fidel's stronghold–small groups of counter-revolutionaries were springing up. What they needed to overthrow Castro was a sizeable force of trained, experienced men under aggressive American leadership to provide a nucleus of command. There was plenty of money and a good-sized supply of Cuban manpower. Would Thompson take on the job?
"It sounds good," he answered. "But I can't do it alone. I'll need more Americans." Nothing was simpler to arrange, they told him. The Batista supporters had connections throughout the city, and knew of half a dozen Americans who would be eager and willing to join such a band.
In the next few days, Thompson met most of them, sized them up with his flat grey eyes, and picked two: Fuller and Zarba. His reasoning was simple: of the six men who had volunteered, only these two knew Cuba, and both had a special ax to grind, not just a mere thirst for adventure. Zarba had worked for an American sugar company in Cuban until its properties were confiscated by Castro. Fuller had a large number of Cuban friends on the island, especially around the important city of Holguin.
The three Americans began to make their plans, Fuller raised a vital question. "I don't doubt we can get there," he said, "or make it to the mountains. But we need connections ready for us in the countryside. We can't just go in blind."
Again, the answer was reasonably easy. American pilots for years had been flying light planes in harassing raids against Cuba, first for, and then against, Castro. One of them was recruited into the conspiracy: Hugh Davidson, a man with a special reason of his own for hating Castro–"a fist in the face."
They agreed the best place to make their sea-borne invasion was on the northeast shore, near the Sierra Maestra, where counter-revolutionary forces were the most active. First, agents would go by boat to Cuba, get in touch with anti-Castro forces, and lay the groundwork. Then Davidson, drawing on knowledge of the terrain he had gained as a pilot for Castro, would fly a courier mission, and make final arrangements for the landing. Davidson would also accompany the invasion group to supervise building an airdrop area for supplies and later on an airstrip for other supporting planes.
While Davidson made his contacts in Cuba, Thompson, Fuller and Zarba were busy getting their force into shape. At a farm
outside Miami, a score of young Cubans had been assembled by the backers of their venture. Fuller and Thompson set up a program to teach them guerrilla fighting, based upon their own military experience. Meanwhile Zarba went north to meet with one of the New Jersey and New York gun dealers who are the main source of arms for operations such as their own.
"We'll need weapons for at least a hundred men," instructed Thompson. The order was a big one, but Zarba was able to assemble enough old Springfields, a few M-1s and sidearms, and a couple of Tommy guns as well as a good-sized shipment of grenades.
WITH the training program under way, Thompson made a trip to his old Gulf Coast stamping grounds, were men live as much in boats as they do ashore. There he located an old surplus PT boat, stripped of its armament, but still one of the fastest–if most temperamental–craft afloat. He also hired a crew.
"We'll use it for our landing," he told them. But the PT had two Allison V-12 with an enormous appetite for gas. They would need refueling on the way. So he also lined up a small commercial fishing boat to carry fuel from the keys.
By mid-September 1960, the invasion force was nearly in fighting trim. The arms had reached Miami, and immediately became a problem. Such a cache couldn't be kept in one place long for fear of discovery by Customs agents–or by even more aggressive and dangerous hijackers from other gun-hungry factions. Thompson resorted to a trick used often by the trade: the guns were loaded into a big, unmarked truck and kept moving along the highways around Miami, with stops only for refueling and a change of drivers.
By now the operation was beginning to get expensive, even for their well-heeled backers, who started to press for action. But there was a snag–no satisfactory liaison had yet been made with the existing anti-Fidelistas in t he Sierra Maestra.
"There aren't very many of them, and they're scared to show themselves for fear of a Castro trap," explained Davidson. "We've made a half-dozen sorties, but no luck yet."
Finally, however, things were looking better. Davidson got word of someone in Santiago de Cuba who said he could make a connection with the forces in the hills. A week later, the pilot reported he was ready to fly to Cuba for a meeting with them.
They've located a small group who haven't gone into the bush yet," he said. "But they're all ready to move, once we supply arms and more men. It doesn't look like the best deal, but the only one we have now." Under pressure from his bosses, Thompson agreed.
Three days later, Davidson returned from his mission, and reported to the others. The plan called for a landing at a fishing village called Nibujon, midway between Baracoa and Moa Bay on the northeast shore of Oriente province, 100 miles from Santiago, and just across the mountains from the US naval installation at Guantanamo Bay. At Nibujon, the anti-Fidelistas from Santiago would join them, and together they would head for the mountains before any sizeable force of militia could get word of the landing.
"We'll be in the mountains before they
know it," said Thompson. "Then," he told Fuller, "we can start using your connections."
On September 25, the four men–Thompson, Fuller, Zarba and Davidson–launched their invasion. At dawn, the gasoline-loaded fishing boat took off from the Keys, headed for a rendezvous in the Bahamas. Six hours later, the PT, loaded with 22 Cuban guerrillas and the four Americans, eased out of a little cove south of Miami and headed at half-speed for the same point.
Fall weather is uncertain in the Caribbean. This is the season of hurricanes, and of tropical storms that tend to develop without warning, then die out as fast as they arise. Thompson, skippering the PT, watched the weather closely, remembering the rampaging hurricane "Donna" that at the beginning of the month had almost smashed all of their plans, along with the two boats.
But so far the expedition was blessed with good luck. Th sun shone from clear skies as they reached the Bahamas. Then their luck turned. Black clouds came up on the horizon, and for two days both boats had to lie to in the lee of a lighthouse, in waters too rough to refuel the PT, off a shore where they could not afford to land for fear of discovery by Castro agents.
Finally, the storm died down. By then the crowded company in the PT boat was ill-tempered, seasick and nervous. Thompson knew he would have to move fast. First he transferred gas to the PT. Then, with the smaller boat lightened, he put some of his crew aboard her, and both boats took off for the landing place. Only one thing was wrong. They were now a good 48 hours behind schedule–and couldn't be sure that their friends would be waiting for them.
Another problem developed quickly. Driving through the still-choppy waters, the PT was subjected to a pounding vibration that threw one of its temperamental engines out of order. Despite frantic effort in the engine room, the swift, shallow-draft boat was forced to proceed at half-power.
It was early morning as the two craft eased along the Oriente coastline toward Nibujon. The village was quiet, the shore deserted.
"Doesn't look like anyone's there," said Fuller. "Think we ought to try it?"
"We'll wait awhile and see," said Thompson. "But whatever we do, we'll have to use the little fishing boat. This PT is just about ready to conk out entirely." The last of the gasoline drums were hoisted aboard the PT, and the men and weapons were hastily transferred to the other boat. While this was going on, figures began to appear on the beach, attracted by the sound of boat engines. Thompson studied them, then commented, "They look friendly enough. I don't see any uniforms anywhere."
Soon a small boat put out from the shore. As it came near, the Americans could see its occupants were Cubans fishermen. Fuller, the most fluent in Spanish, went forward to talk with them as they drew alongside the boat.
"They're friendly all right," he reported. "The whole village is in sympathy with us. But they say the men from Santiago got nervous last night and took off, afraid that so many strangers in the village would attract attention from the gendarmes."
Zarba looked disturbed. "Then we'd better not land. Let's cut out and try again later, after we've had a chance to set it up better."
THOMPSON turned on him, eyes stormy. "Are you crazy? What do you think the boys in Miami will do? They've sunk a lot into this."
"So have we," said Zarba. "Though I guess none of us has a big stake in this as you. How much are they paying you?"
Thompson's hand lashed out, caught the young man in the face.
"You bastard," gritted Thompson as Zarba staggered back, mouth bleeding. "You keep you damned mouth shut. You're in this with the rest of us, and you'll do as I say. Any more questions?"
Still stunned Zarba shook his head and turned away.
"We're landing," said Thompson. "If the village is friendly, we can recruit men from among the fishermen. We've got plenty of arms for everyone. Let's go."
At first it seemed ridiculously easy. Thompson eased the fishing boat up to the shelving beach, dropped anchor in four feet of water. The men went over the side and began to ferry the guns ashore, with the help of the fishermen.
One of them brought a truck down to the
beach, for the guns. By now the whole village was awake an buzzing. When Fuller asked for volunteers, he got 50.
"That's good," said Thompson. "Line them up and issue guns." Fuller and Zarba started handing out the rifles, while Davidson and two men remained on the boat. In half an hour, Thompson had the volunteers in a ragged formation on the beach. With his trained Cubans in the lead, he was about to march them off the beach toward the mountains. Suddenly, a small boy dashed out of the brush along the beach.
"Barbudos, Barbudos!" he cried. They fell silent. From the road beyond the trees could be heard the grumble of truck motors in the distance, and the thin wail of a siren.
"This is it," said Thompson. "Get these men deployed. If it's a small force coming, we might be able to fight them off and get their trucks. If it's a big one, we'll pull back to the boats." While Fuller and Zarba barked commands at the men, he signaled for the PT boat to move in closer. Davidson, on the fishing boat, shouted something he couldn't hear.
Turning back to the men on shore, Thompson realized they were in real trouble. The newly-recruited Cubans were standing huddled together with fear-filled eyes, not responding to the orders of Fuller and Zarba. While the invaders were desperately digging in on the beach, the villagers hesitated, looked at each other. As the truck motors drew nearer, one of them threw down his gun and ran. At once, the others followed suit. In a moment, they had vanished from the beach.
"Yellow bastards," shouted Thompson. "Not a cojone among the lot of you." Then there came a screeching of brakes, shouting, and scattered gunfire from the shore. The Castro militia broke out of the trees and all hell broke lose.
Thompson and Fuller took cover behind the truck, firing their automatics at the green-shirted militia. Zarba, in a sandy fox-hole a dozen yards away, seemed paralyzed. The Cubans returned the Fidelista fire, but raggedly. Thompson shot a glance at the boats and cursed again. The PT was close inshore, unmanned and drifting. The fishing boat, with Davidson and the PT crew aboard, was rapidly pulling away.
"They're going without us!" Yelled Fuller.
"To hell with them," said Thompson.
"We'd better move fast."
The militiamen were firing at the boats. Suddenly a chance shot caught the gas drums on the PT. A sheet of flame shot upward as the high-test aviation gasoline caught fire, and the drums exploded. A wave of heat swept over the beach, forcing the militiamen to cover their eyes.
"This is it," said Thompson, lobbing a grenade over the truck. "Let's go." Under cover of the flames and explosions, the two Americans dashed up the beach and into the trees.
"Head south," said Fuller. "We'll try for the mountains ourselves." Looking back, he could see t hat all resistance on the beach had crumpled. Castro's soldiers were advancing cautiously on the invaders, most of whom were standing, hands up, on the beach. Among them he recognized Tony Zarba.
Suddenly there was a crashing in the palms nearby. Thompson and Fuller pulled their automatics and crouched, waiting tensely, ready to shoot. Two men plunged out of the foliage, stood rooted as they faced the automatics of the Americans. Fuller and Thompson recognized them as two of their band.
"We'll," said Thompson, "four's better than two. Let's go men."
Back on the beach, Tony Zarba, faced the beard-fringed grin of a major of Castro's militia. "You say you are American?" The barbudo said. "Well, that is very interesting, sir. I am sure we can arrange to entertain you well, now that you are a guest of the new Republica of Cuba."
He turned to where all the Cuban invaders except one stood huddled under the guns of his men. "Take them away," he ordered. Then, noticing that one man lay sprawled on the beach in the awkward posture of death, he added, "And have them carry their comrade. We will bury him later."
While the trucks were roaring toward Santiago with Tony Zarba and the rest of the band aboard, Thompson, Fuller and their two Cuban companions crouched behind a fisherman's hut down the beach. A brief scouting expedition showed them two things: the fishing boat was already hull-down on the horizon, and a patrol of barbudos posted by the major guarded the truckload of arms they had brought.
"No chance there," said Thompson to Fuller. "You're right. We've got to head for the mountains."
"Maybe," said Fuller, "we can make it across to Guantanamo. It can't be more than 50 miles. And we've got guns. We can shoot our way out of a trap if we have to."
Thompson inventoried their arms. In addition to sidearms for him and Fuller, there was the Tommy gun he had carried from the beach, a carbine Fuller had grabbed, and a rifle carried by each of the Cubans. Plenty of guns. But not much ammunition. Twenty of third rounds each.
"It better not be a very big trap," he said grimly, as they set off through the fields.
A FUGITIVE in Cuba is helped by broad stretches of plantation where the fields are virtually deserted except at harvest time, and the foliage of cane, citrus and wild growth along the edges is dense enough to hide an elephant. Also, the primitive communication system makes news move slowly.
After a few hours the group broke out onto a main highway. Watching from the roadside, they spotted a farmer's rickety truck. While the rest stayed hidden, one of the Cubans flagged him down. A brief conversation established that he had not heard of the incident at Nibujon. He was quickly informed of it when the rest of the quarter emerged and offered to accept his hospitality–at gunpoint if need be–in driving them into the mountains. The frightened peasant quickly complied with the order.
But this luck didn't continue. A half-hour later, while speeding along the highway, the truck encountered a militia patrol, going in the opposite direction. Seeing the load of grim-faced soldiers, rifles in hand, the farmer panicked, and drove his truck into the ditch. The patrol sped past in the opposite direction, but the damage was done. The farmer's truck had a broken axle. The four took to the fields again.
Meanwhile, in Santiago, Zarba was undergoing questioning.
"You could not have done this by yourself," the major shouted. "You had accomplices. And you were a leader of the party.
"I was not," said Zarba. "I was merely a member of the boat crew, hired to take out a fishing party. When the boat headed for the Bahamas, I first knew something was wrong. I tried to get out then, but I was forced to stay on at gunpoint. I was ashore only because I was forced to help with the unloading."
With a snort of disgust, the major gestured that he should be returned to his cell. There, a few hours later, Zarba was visited again by the officer.
"Well," he sneered. "You were alone, eh? You were forced to go along, eh? One of your traitorous accomplices has talked, my friend, and we now know that two more Americans escaped. What is more, we have a report that they were last seen heading for the mountains, after commandeering a farmer's truck. It will not be long now. This will put an end to you Yanquis invading Cuba." He paused thoughtfully. "But I am not sure we will await your friends' capture before we try you."
But they did wait, almost a full week. Then, one evening, Zarba was summoned to hastily set up military courtroom. An American consular agent was there–the first American he had seen since his capture. It did not look good. His lawyer was a Cuban, appointed only moments before. The court was a military tribunal. With whirlwind speed, Tony Zarba heard the prosecution deliver a political harangue that had little to do with the case. Then he told his own story. After only a 15-minute deliberation, the judges pronounced him guilty. The sentence: death. With military speed, he found himself in another room where an appeals court–with some of the same judges–was already assembled. The verdict: decision upheld.
So it was that in the cold dawn light on October 13, 1960, Anthony Zarba of Somerville, Mass., walked in a grim little procession from the military prison in Santiago de Cuba to a bullet-pocked wall and stood, hands bound, facing a Fidelista firing squad.
A priest murmured a few words to him, then stood aside. The officer in charge barked a command.
"Peloton, atencion." The soldiers snapped to.
"Apunte." The rifles came up.
Nobody will know what went through Tony Zarba's mind as he faced those seven round black barrels that morning. It is probable that his thoughts flitted to a good many things, perhaps to his two comrades still fleeing from Fidelista patrols in the Sierra Maestra. Then the command "Fuego!" made him the first American ever to be executed in the Republic of Cuba.
As the militia dumped Tony Zarba's body into a common grave somewhere on San Juan Hill and scattered lime over it, Thompson and Fuller and their two companions were crouched in a hut on the rugged north flank of the Sierra Maestra, anxiously scanning the undergrowth below for any sign of pursuit. All four showed the wear of a week of plunging through the jungle growth. With a little help from farmers, sought hesitantly, for fear of leaving a trail, they had made barely half the distance to what they hoped would be the safety of Guantanamo. Ahead lay the hardest part, the drive over the mountains and then down through country alive with patrols.
Now, seeking a little rest, they kept a lookout for the hunters.
They hadn't rested long, when they saw swaying leaves on the mountainside below, marking the progress of a patrol on their trail. Thompson woke Fuller and the two others.
"This is the fight you talked about," he grated. They took their places at the door and the windows. As the patrol broke through the foliage across the little clearing, they fired. One of the militiamen threw up his hands and fell. The others dived for cover, then began to return the fire. Bullets slapped through the leaves from both sides, and sang through the leaves from both sides, and sang through the flimsy walls of the shack. The acrid smell of gun smoke hung over the clearing. Thompson, nursing his Tommy gun with only a half-drum of ammo left, said to Fuller, "We can't fight them off here. Maybe we can make it out the back."
"Those guys thought of it first," said Fuller, jerking his head toward the rear of the shack, where the second of the two Cubans was just vanishing over the windowsill. Like scared rabbits, the two ran across the open space between cabin and brush. Suddenly, hidden guns spoke, and both fell, one wounded in the leg, the other with his brains scattered on the ground.
"We're surrounded," said Thompson. Just then another bullet crashed through the hut. He jerked, turned sharply in pain and grabbed his left hand.
"That one got me," he gritted. "Take the Tommy gun."
"No sense to that," said Fuller. "We might as well give up now." Then he turned and shouted into the clearing. "Hod your fire. We surrender."
Silence settled uneasily over the area. A voice shouted, "Throw out you guns and come out after them!"
Fuller chucked out the two automatics and the Tommy gun. Then, helping the wounded Thompson, he stumbled out into the sunlight. At once they were surrounded by grinning peasants, and peasants, and prodded by rifles. A bearded green shirt swaggered up to them.
"So, he said. " Your little adventure comes to an end, eh?"
THE news of Tony Zarba's execution was already on the wires, and a shocked U.S. was beginning to react. The same routine now followed for Thompson and Fuller. In less than twenty-four hours they were tried, sentenced, and executed, despite the urgent protests of the U.S. State Department.
The major was wrong. While the families of the three men grieved, an American, working with another band of Cubans in Miami, told a reporter: "Their execution won't stop Americans from going into Cuba."
As if to prove his words, less than month later a Beechcraft Bonanza piloted by two Americans took off on another stormy night from an airport near Ft. Pierce, Florida. Aboard, with the two men, were three 100-pound surplus practice bombs crammed with dynamite and fused with homemade detonators. Each bomb had a name written on it: Dale Thompson; Bob Fuller; Tony Zarba.It was another wild night. The little plane tossed perilously in the high winds. It has not been heard from since. No one knows whether it crashed before it could accomplish the mission of dumping its three lethal memorials on Havana's power plant, or whether it is now sitting on some Caribbean Island, awaiting an opportune moment to make its run.
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