Castro is Dead: But Cuba is Not Yet Free

By Ed Timperlake

This piece was first published on June 21, 2009, but the death of Castro reminds us of why the only new deal with Cuba the United States would really want is the freedom of the Cuban people.

It is not well known outside the Conch Republic, but a mini “hot war” between Castro’s Air Force and the Navy raged on and off between Key West and Cuba for decades.

Ever since Castro came to power, America has kept a watchful eye on his workers paradise. But the shining moment of President Kennedy’s administration was the successful resolution of the Cuban Missile crisis, which repaired the debacle of his green-lighting the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion by free Cuban forces that ended in disaster.

As America and Cuban forces maneuvered diplomatically and militarily during the Cold War, the U.S. Navy established a hot pad at its Boca Chica military airfield near Key West (and 90 miles from Havana). Navy and Marine fighter squadrons rotated assignments with the requirement that two fighters always stood fully ready for combat, capable of being scrambled and airborne and heading for trouble inside of five minutes.

As a young marine fighter pilot on my first squadron assignment, for me it was a great assignment. Blasting off in a F-4J Phantom II with wall-to-wall sparrow and sidewinder air-to-air missiles and two four-shot Zuni pods — equivalent of the main battery of a Navy destroyer — was a show of force. Two Phantoms could do serious harm to Cuban MiGs and patrol boats.

The rules of engagement gave us pause. If challenged by a MiG, we had to first let them demonstrate an “offensive” action before we could shoot them down. Since our squadron (at that point in my career I was with VMFA-451, the world-famous Warlords) had half new guys like me and half very experienced Vietnam marine pilots, we had an aggressiveness not understood by diplomats insisting on very conservative rules of engagement.

In our first brief, our skipper, who had significant Vietnam combat experience, said simply that if you see MiGs, kill them because they are “offensive” and we can sort it out when you come back.

Unfortunately the Cuban Air Force always ran away. Their patrol boats also would turn back inside Cuban legal limits before we ever got close. This was called deterrence on our part.

The sea between Key West and Cuba was filling with freedom-loving Cubans putting themselves and their families’ lives at risk on the high seas. A beautiful ocean as seen from Mach 1 or from the deck of a cruise ship can also mean death from exposure, sharks and storm-tossed rafts that break apart with everyone drowning.

Something had to be done to save lives. Enter Brothers to the Rescue, a group of unarmed and unafraid pilots who put their lives on the line to help those in peril on the sea.

It is easy to be fearless when strapped in a USMC fighter jet loaded for bear, but it takes undaunted courage to go up against the Cuban Air Force in a Cessna 337 Skymaster, a twin-engine, unarmed civilian plane.

“Betrayal” by Matt Lawrence and Thomas Van Hare tells with absolutely clarity how Cuban MiGs, in an act of cold-blooded murder, shot down two Brothers to the Rescue humanitarian planes in international airspace, killing four Americans.

There is no glory for a Cuban MiG pilot in murder. “Betrayal” tells the tale from the authors’ first-hand account; Thomas Van Hare could have easily been the pilot and Matt Lawrence flying with him that day. Fighter support was too far away to stop the shoot-down because the hot pad had been moved from Key West to mainland Florida.

A Cuban spy network that influenced America policy over Cuba made significant inroads during both Republican and Democrat administrations. Van Hare and Lawrence put the story in a bigger context by fingering as a spy the most senior Cuba authority within the U.S. government, the DIA’s top Cuba analyst Ana Belen Montes. She was an agent of Castro’s and she influenced U.S. Cuba policy for years. The FBI arrested her and the authors call her and the Cuban spy network an “extraordinary risk to U.S. national security.”

As Castro proceeds to wax status like Lenin and Ho Chi Minh did in their workers’ paradises, there may be an opportunity for a free Cuba to be born.

One of the first acts for a new democratic government should be to erect a monument commemorating the heroic actions of Brothers to the Rescue. At the cost of four very brave men, they saved nearly 17,000 lives.

Ed Timperlake is former commanding officer, Marine Fighter/Attack Squadron VMFA 321.


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