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A Forgotten Site in Florida Where the Bay of Pigs Invaders Trained
Don Bohning, a retired Miami Herald Latin America editor, is author of The Castro Obsession: US Covert Activities Against Cuba 1959-1965.
It’s been a half century since a U.S.-trained Cuban exile brigade landed at the Bay of Pigs on Cuba’s South Coast on April 17, 1961, in a failed attempt to oust Fidel Castro; a controversial operation still being debated today.
The main reasons for that failure have been well-chronicled: a change in the landing site from Trinidad to the Bay of Pigs and the last minute cancellation of air cover as the brigade landed.
Largely ignored as part of the operation, is the small, but important, role played by Useppa, a tiny island off Florida’s Gulf Coast.
A large percentage of the early recruits arriving in Miami came from Agrupacion Catolica Universitaria, a student group tied to Havana’s Villanova University and followers of Manuel Artime, a disaffected, one-time Castro revolutionary considered by the CIA as a key to what was to become the Bay of Pigs. Others were mostly disaffected Cuban army troops.
Carl Jenkins, a CIA officer and former Marine who had been training infiltration teams in Saipan to help bring about the eventual downfall of Indonesian’s President Sukarno, was recalled and sent to Miami to start putting together the Cuban exile brigade.
When he arrived in Miami, Jenkins told the author in a 2008 interview at Jenkins’ home in Texas, “we came to an understanding that Artime would provide the students and he would establish contact with ex-Cuban army people. They knew each other, but they weren’t prepared to work together at that point.”
Meanwhile, the CIA was arranging cover and setting up a covert training facility on Useppa Island, a hundred acre plot of land with a vacant resort hotel located 15-to-20 minutes by boat off Florida’s Gulf Coast, near Ft. Myers. It was to become the first covert CIA base in Florida.
Freddie Goudie, a well-to-do Cuban businessman of Scottish descent, along with a half dozen others, provided the cover, leasing Useppa Island under Goudie’s name. Jenkins was listed as the company manager.
“The idea,” said Jenkins, “was that Goudie and his group had contracted with a personnel company which would assess the abilities of all the people that they sent over there and try and assign them to jobs that they fitted…based on language abilities and so forth.”
President Eisenhower signed off March 17, 1960, on what was to become the Bay of Pigs. Jenkins and another CIA agent started ferrying recruits from Miamito Useppa a month later.
In two rental cars, he and a CIA colleague would pick up the exile recruits in the afternoon at a White Castle parking lot on Brickell Avenue in downtown Miami. Others were picked up from a safe house in Fort Lauderdale. They would then drive on the old Tamiami Trail through the Everglades to the departure point by boat for Useppa, returning the same night; a round trip of some 300 miles, or about six hours.
Jenkins estimates it took a couple of months to ferry the 80 exile recruits—Artime among them—to Useppa where he decided “we needed to have serial numbers if we were going to have a semi-military operation. We would start with 2,500…if they were picked up in Cuba and asked for their serial numbers it would indicate there were 2,500, or more than there actually were…the first number went to Goudie, the front man.”
Once the recruits arrived on Useppa, they were subjected to intense personnel assessments. Each recruit was given a physical examination, along with intelligence, psychological and general aptitude tests, a lie detector test. Some were also trained as radio operators.
“Before we were finished, we knew more about these people than their parents,” said Jenkins. It was the beginning of what eventually was to become Brigade 2506, although at that time there was no intention of a brigade or an invasion. “It was August, 1960, before that idea was ever sold…and I opposed it from the start,” said Jenkins.
In June, 1960, about 30 of the 80 or so recruits at Useppa were sent to Panama for training in guerrilla warfare as well as intelligence gathering and propaganda. Most of the others went to a newly opened training base in Guatemala, where they received additional military training. Jenkins was to become the first commander there as well as Useppa.
As for Useppa, today it is an exclusive home for the well-to-do, with, according to its website: “140 privately owned home sites, two marinas, two food and beverage facilities, a retail store, a wide array of island accommodations, a service department and a utility company.” Its motto: No Bridges, No Cars, No Crowds. The island is administered by The Useppa Island Club.
Useppa, as its website proclaims, “is a truly private club, dedicated to the pure art of relaxation and recreation of our members.” The island also maintains a small historical museum, in which a bit of history of the Bay of Pigs training can be found, along with a history of the island itself.
The old Collier Inn, originally known as the Tarpon Inn, and where the Bay of Pigs recruits were housed, still stands as the island’s social center. To get to the island as a visitor, advance permission is required.
For centuries, until the Bay of Pigs recruits showed up, the island had seen only occasional use by fisherman and adventurers, before being acquired in 1894 by John M. Roach, a Chicago streetcar magnate.
One of Roach’s guests was Baron G. Collier, a New York advertising executive and wealthy Florida Land Owner, who developed much of Southwest Florida and built the Tamiami Trail highway between Miami and Tampa, over which the Bay of Pigs recruits traveled.
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