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A Gringo and the Bay of Pigs Invasion

by Donald E. Kimberlin

It was 1961, a peak year in my first career as a radio broadcasting engineer working in my home territory of Florida's Tampa Bay area. Despite forays into Tampa's long-established Cuban community and plenty of Spanish to be heard on the radio, especially at night, I was a classic Gringo who really didn't understand a word of Spanish. (That would be cured in later years by a torrid romance with a Cubana in Miami, but that's not the point of this piece.)

Don Kimberlin in a 1959 WLCY picture

The AM radio station I was Assistant Chief Engineer at, WLCY, had been one of the "Big Four" of the Tampa Bay area for more than 20 years, a network affiliate with the news hourly; one of the stations the public knew would stay on the air in a hurricane to keep them informed twenty-four hours a day. We worked to keep it that way. Although we only ran 5,000 Watts on AM, we would occasionally get a reception report from Australia or New Zealand, where intrepid SWL's are common. It was near a sunspot peak, so we even ran a contest once, offering a small prize for the best tape of how we sounded in Australia or New Zealand, and got about 100 tapes. We turned around and used a bit of the winning tape in promotional announcements during our day programming, to impress the gullible public about how "powerful" our signal was. It worked, too.

One program bit I injected was to execute the simple "contract" required by FCC rules with the British Broadcasting Corporation, in order to tape and rebroadcast the excellent radio news actualities the BBC transmitted daily in their "Radio Newsreel." In that era, BBC had reporters who would file from foxholes in Rhodesia, where you could hear bullets whizzing by. They'd dispatch these with typical British reserve, coolly saying, "That was a close one," or something of the sort. It pepped up our local newscasts considerably.

Coincidentally, our evening programs took on two hours of Woody Garcia, a well-known Tampa Cuban radio personality. Woody did those two hours totally in Spanish, of which I at the time understood not a word. One evening after many months, I began to recognize what Woody was saying, "Sabe usted la hora? La hora es...." after every record he played. I asked him what that meant, and he laughingly told me it meant, "Do you know the time? The time is..."

With that thorough lack of understanding Spanish, one day two Cubans came knocking at my transmitter door instead of the business office of our combined plant along St. Petersburg's Gandy Boulevard one afternoon in April. They asked if I would take special pains to get them a visit with WLCY's Program Director; that they had heard we had short-wave receivers and that the Tampa Cuban community all knew of our station. Their thrust was that we could share in some significant news if we would cooperate with them. I went down to Marshall Cleaver, who agreed to meet with them, in Marshall's private office. I did not participate. In a short time, Marshall came out to say they wouldn't tell him what the event was, but that he would agree to let them set up shop in our place and use the short-wave receivers. I get them a table and let them have at it.

The two Cubans were indeed competent radio listeners. They began tuning in parts of the short-wave spectrum I knew were used by military and ships, but never listened to. One told me he had been a Commander in Batista's Navy, while the other had been a corporation lawyer in Havana, until Castro took over. After they listened for a while, they began to hear Castro's military, and remarked, "They don't know a thing! They're asleep at the switch!" The ex-naval type remarked after while, "They're still using Selecciones! Get over home and get some back issues!" The ex-lawyer took off and returned in about an hour with a load of back issues of the Spanish edition of Reader's Digest - titled Selecciones. The pair indeed sat before my eyes, cracking messages of the Castro military from a book code! Nothing unusual, they said, just routine and practice stuff.

They tuned one receiver to 6000 kHz, the frequency of Radio Swan, the CIA clandestine located on a dot of disputed island territory in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Honduras. Radio Swan was all in Spanish, broadcasting anti-Communist and anti-Castro propaganda, and its ownership was a poorly-covered secret. Suddenly, at the 6 PM station break, the Radio Swan announcer said very clearly in Spanish, "Attention Stanislaus -- The moon is red," several times. The Cuban listeners jumped for joy, telling me there would be very big news that night...that we would be first to broadcast it, but they couldn't tell me what it was yet. One of them took off in his car to "make a bunch of phone calls." At 10 PM, the watch of the Castro military channels showed they were still routine and not very busy. But the Radio Swan announcer changed his message to, "Attention, Stanislaus -- the fish are running." My Cuban guests fairly jumped through the roof, congratulating and hugging each other. When they calmed down, they told me the news would soon be that a freedom force was invading the south coast of Cuba, to drive Castro out and return Cuba to the non-Communist orbit. I told our newsman, who said he'd wait for the Associated Press wire to give him a story.

Within the hour, my Cuban guests started tuning around to other frequencies, the ones they knew the invasion force would be on. There we were, up in Florida, listening to both sides via short-wave radio! The atmosphere in our little room was electric to say the least among the three of us. Shortly, the Cubans said the invasion force had landed its first wave, and caught the Castro forces by complete surprise.

WLCY subscribed to the Associated Press, which made us a "member," with an obligation to report news stories we came upon. There were stories about how the AP richly rewarded "stringers" with big news breaks. I called the Miami AP Bureau, and got a disinterested sort. He was unenthusiastic, asking me why he hadn't heard of a military invasion from some other source. He doubted he should do anything. I insisted he'd better start digging around for confirmation...that there was indeed something underway down in Cuba. He grudgingly said he'd take it under advisement.

There was about a half hour of unbridled joy, as we could hear the invasion force moving inland, mentioning obscure Cuban towns and locations my guests pointed out on detailed maps they had brought. Then, they began to ask, "Where are the planes?" telling me there was now supposed to be American naval air cover for the invasion force. The Castro forces were getting organized, giving the invaders some room to move. Instead, there were signs the invaders were getting bottled up by Castro in a swamp they had to traverse. Again and again, my Cuban guests asked where the planes were, saying they were crucial to the invasion plan. They tuned an AM broadcast channel, knowing where an invasion radio station was supposed to start up, telling the population about the invasion. We heard a few minutes of very faint Cuban patriotic music, then a virtual candle-sputter of a failing radio signal before our very ears. It apparently wasn't going well at all.

Some info from the AP wire service with Don's notations.

Meantime, I tuned in BBC to hear them announcing the invasion to the world while our American press slept. One item included the name of a British ship that was diverted to Cuba to pick up British nationals. I called the AP Miami Bureau again, to get the same disinterested individual. This time, since I could mention the English ship's name, I convinced him to check with British sources, and told him people could tune in the BBC to hear about the invasion. He agreed he would check it out, that maybe there was something newsworthy.

Back in our makeshift monitoring room, my Cuban guests were distraught. They told me the operation was doomed to be a failure; that the promised support of the Gringos had not occurred, and that people they knew as friends and relatives were being killed and captured by Castro. It was a two-hour roller coaster ride for their emotions.

Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, our AP printer jangled off seven bells, the signal for a major bulletin event...and hours after the Bay of Pigs invasion had failed, AP ran a bulletin, crediting me and misspelling my name and WLCY's call letters! I phone Miami again, and they said they'd run a correction, adding they had also confirmed the British ship. I told them they probably needn't bother. They did, anyway.

Needless to say, my two Cuban guests went sadly back to Tampa that night. A week later, I saw a copy of Time Magazine, read its Bay of Pigs story, and saw some lines that were exactly what I had reported to AP, word for word. I wondered where my great "stringer fee" was. Oh, well, there would probably be a VP of AP coming to town to buy me dinner, present the checks, and get it all reported by AP...I thought.

In November, 1961, I got two envelopes in the mail from the Associated Press. Each contained a five dollar check, with my name misspelled as it had first run on the wire that fateful night in April. So much for fabulous "stringer fees!" I did salvage the copy from our AP machine that night. It hangs in a frame on my office wall in case anyone wants to ask about the yellowing, tattered newsprint paper. Needless to say, few do. Most don't even know what country the Bay of Pigs is located in.

Donald E. Kimberlin's work in the field of telecommunications spans more than 3 decades in the public networks of more than 70 nations on 5 continents. After leaving the broadcasting business, he worked for AT&T, ITT and Western Union

International as well as developers of public communications equipment. A graduate of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg FL, he has delivered numerous lectures, seminars and speeches on topics of telecommunications and its management. His published papers run more than a hundred, and he's sure there's book in there somewhere.