WASHINGTON — Fifty years ago, a group of Cuban exiles who eagerly volunteered for a clandestine mission to topple Fidel Castro were left largely abandoned in Cuba when U.S. support for the mission evaporated.
The Bay of Pigs would go down as one of the United States' biggest strategic blunders: More than 100 men were killed, including four U.S. pilots. And Castro remained at the helm — his brother, Raul, succeeding him only five years ago.
But the survivors of Brigade 2506 have never lost their resolve, and on Wednesday eight of the estimated 1,100 surviving members basked in a congressional salute that included a resolution put into the Senate record and remarks from the House floor.
"Though the operation was not successful, the dedication and commitment that these brave individuals illustrated during the conflict was exceptional," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, said on the House floor. "The men who fought courageously on that historic day came from many backgrounds but all cared for the freedom and liberty of Cuba."
The men were in their teens and 20s when they left to fight Castro. Their hearing has faded now, and they're not as spry as the infantrymen, paratroopers and frogmen they once were. But they beamed as Ros-Lehtinen took them around the Capitol, introducing them as "proud patriots" to everyone — from Capitol police officers to her fellow members of Congress.
"These guys are ever at it, their fervor ever present," Ros-Lehtinen said to a colleague in an elevator. "The flame of liberty is still burning bright."
The veterans mark the anniversary of the invasion each April 17 and honor those who died. But they said it's the first time they've been so celebrated in Congress.
"In 50 years we've not had anything like this," said Max Cruz, 73, as he sat at lunch listening to a series of senators and House members thank the veterans for their service. "This one is really special."
They heard from Cuban-American members of Congress, including Miami Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and David Rivera, and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., as well as Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who called them "an inspiration."
"I'm leaving the Senate in two years," Lieberman noted. "And I'll tell you, I'd sure like to see Castro go before I leave."
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Miami Republican who was born in the United States to Cuban parents a decade after the Bay of Pigs, credited the veterans for "keeping watch over this issue."
"Younger people, like myself, who have never known Cuba, have never visited there, feel aligned with that cause because they kept it alive," Rubio said.
Amado Cantillo, who trained as a frogman for the assault, said he never expected the CIA-trained, U.S.-led exile group to lose to Castro — though at one point the 1,300 men faced 60,000 members of Castro's military.
"Unfortunately we all know what happened," he said, referring to the U.S. decision not to order more air raids. "I always thought we were going to go back."
With the Castros still firmly in power, some said they're pessimistic about changes to Cuba but buoyed by the explosion of Cuban bloggers and activists taking on the government. Several said they remain confident they'll see democracy in Cuba in their lifetime — or that of their children and grandchildren.
"This event has given us hope that Washington is still wanting Cuba to be free," said Julio Rebull Sr. "It's late for us, but there's another generation."
The optimistic include Jorge Gutierrez-Izaguirre, who showed the curious the bullet wound in his chest, sustained a month before Bay of Pigs when his unit was in Cuba doing surveillance for the operation. After Cuban troops shot him in the side, the bullet exited his chest and left a gaping wound. He was captured after the shooting. Fidel Castro commuted his death sentence, but he spent 18 years in a Cuban prison.
Still, the 75-year-old said, "I never have lost my hope, not at all. That's the last thing they can take away."
Lesley Clark can be reached at [email protected]