The CIA’s Cuban Air Drive Battles Communists within the Congo


After bitter defeat on the Bay of Pigs, the CIA despatched an “immediate air pressure” to Africa to battle communism…and Che Guevara.

Engines warming on the ramp, bombed up, weapons and rockets loaded, the Cuban Liberation Air Drive was raring to fly high cowl over the Bay of Pigs on April 16, 1961, when america misplaced its nerve. A minimum of a U.S. main common took a jeep out to the flight line at Puerto Cabezas on the Nicaraguan coast to present them the throat-slash, cut-engines wave, then threw his hat to the bottom in disgust. “That is straight from Washington,” he fumed. “We are able to’t make one other flight.”

At daybreak the day before today Cuban exile Gustavo “Gus” Ponzoa had flown the primary assaults on the air base at Santiago de Cuba. In a classic Douglas B-26B Invader bomber disguised with Cuban air pressure insignia, he’d blown up a DC-3 he as soon as flew for Cubana Airways and returned to base feeling “sky excessive,” optimistic he and his fellow exiles have been going to free their island from Fidel Castro’s Communist regime. 

On April 15, 1961, during the abortive Bay of Pigs operation, Cuban exile Gustavo Ponzoa destroyed this DC-3, which he had once flown for Cubana Airlines. Here Cuban workers remove the wreckage at Santiago de Cuba’s air base. (Gilberto Ante/Roger Viollet via Getty Images)
On April 15, 1961, throughout the abortive Bay of Pigs operation, Cuban exile Gustavo Ponzoa destroyed this DC-3, which he had as soon as flown for Cubana Airways. Right here Cuban staff take away the wreckage at Santiago de Cuba’s air base. (Gilberto Ante/Roger Viollet by way of Getty Photographs)

“You couldn’t get a greater bunch of men,” Ponzoa stated. “We have been sturdy as hell.” When the White Home grounded them, leaving their countrymen stranded on the seaside, “It was like a chilly bucket of water poured over my head….How can they do that?” The Cuban pilots, their U.S. navy advisers, the CIA officers working the present—all knew their counterrevolution was doomed. Cas­tro himself stated as a lot, when requested why the invasion failed: “That they had no air help.”

The Bay of Pigs left each the Communist dictator and the Firm, as CIA insiders known as the company, overstocked with Latino revolutionaries searching for bother. By means of a Miami entrance firm the company rehired its exiled vets to kind what the New York Occasions would later name an “immediate air pressure” that could possibly be despatched to any scorching spot the place Washington wanted believable deniability. 

That turned out to be Africa, the place Castro was already sending navy advisers and the newly unbiased former Belgian colony of the Congo was shaping up right into a Chilly Conflict battleground in 1964. Insurgent Simba tribesmen armed with spears and machetes relied on witch docs and savagery—together with cannibalism—to terrify their enemies, however considered plane with near-superstitious worry. Reluctant to change into mired in Africa, the U.S. despatched its Cuban proxies to assist the federal government put down the riot. Exile Félix Toledo was informed: “‘When this mission is accomplished, you should have our unconditional assist in the battle in opposition to the Castro regime.’ We believed this to be an ideological deal and therefore we accepted.”

At first it was adequate, of their unarmed ex-Italian T-6 Harvard trainers with Congolese colours, to buzz the Simbas at treetop degree and frighten them off. However when the rebels captured arms from feckless authorities forces, the Cuban pilots started taking floor hearth. They answered with hand grenades dropped in ingesting glasses to launch the protection levers on affect, till the CIA despatched machine gun pods, rocket launchers and more-powerful T-28 Trojan trainers fitted with .50-caliber machine weapons, 500-pound bombs and rockets. “As soon as the planes have been armed,” stated CIA Congo Station Chief Lawrence Devlin, “they turned a useful support to the federal government. With out them the federal government would have fallen.” 

Ground crew prepare a Makasi T-28 Trojan for a mission. (T-28 Trojan Foundation)
Floor crew put together a Makasi T-28 Trojan for a mission. (T-28 Trojan Basis)

It almost got here to that. By early August 1964 the Simbas had conquered half the nation, together with the jap provincial capital of Stanleyville, instigating a hostage disaster. Neither the T-6 nor the T-28 had the legs to cowl the Congo’s huge expanse, virtually twice the dimensions of France, Germany and Spain mixed. The Firm delivered up the outdated acquainted B-26, however the exiles refused to fly them. The Invaders had served from World Conflict II via Korea, and have been these days beginning to shed their outdated wings in laborious maneuvers. “The conventional B-26s weren’t appropriate for the Congo battle,” stated mechanic Segisberto Fernández. “…The truth is, our pilots most well-liked the T-28.”

Means forward of them, the U.S. Air Drive had revamped 40 Invaders to a brand new B-26K “Counter Invader” normal, with contemporary wings, upgraded engines, wingtip gas tanks and extra. Over the Congo their bomb bays packed inner gas for much more vary and loiter time, since bombs and napalm have been political overkill and eight nose-mounted .50-caliber machine weapons and 4 19-rocket pods have been greater than adequate in opposition to the tribesmen. For the Simbas it was an entire new battle. A Washington evaluation declared, “The comparatively closely armed B-26Ks characterize such an escalation of something ever skilled on this a part of Africa that they’ve precipitated a profound psychological shock.”

However air energy can solely achieve this a lot. To reclaim the Congo, mercenary Michael “Mad Mike” Hoare enlisted 300 troopers of fortune. His essential column of 200 vehicles and jeeps included Swedish armored personnel carriers and a German-made Ferret armored automobile on level, flying purple flags fore and aft. For the Cubans above, all the things forward of it was a goal. 

Mike Hoare (right) and his mercenaries help evacuate hostages from Stanleyville. (Priya Ramrakha/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
Mike Hoare (proper) and his mercenaries assist evacuate hostages from Stanleyville. (Priya Ramrakha/The LIFE Image Assortment by way of Getty Photographs)

“That was a thick jungle within the Congo, as you’ll be able to think about,” recalled Ponzoa, nicknamed El Mirlo, the Blackbird. “We needed to fly low—very low, often following the roads. That was the one solution to navigate over that jungle space. I’d spot the enemy and I’d radio right down to Hoare’s males: ‘Throw a smoke grenade, tell us the place you might be.’…Hoare would radio up, ‘We’re down right here! You guys are gonna hit us! You’re too shut!’…It took a few missions earlier than Hoare felt comfy with the Cuban CIA air help. He’d by no means had any that was fairly that shut earlier than.”

On November 1 the mercenary advance reached a insurgent headquarters upstream from Stan­leyville at Kindu. Ponzoa reported: “As we approached what gave the impression to be the city sq. we noticed that the rebels had taken all of the male hostages to the sq., stripped them to their underwear and ready to execute them. There was no time to ask [ground forces] for a choice; we strafed the would-be executioners and radioed

for the invading forces to maneuver.”

In his memoirs, hard-bitten mercenary Hoare remembered his air cowl with childlike enthusiasm: “The warplanes got here screaming down from 5,000 toes, every blasting off its eight Browning .50 machine weapons in a terrifying cruuuump! Now two Bravos got here out of the solar and loosed off their rockets in a silent swoosh to blow up on the goal with a sonorous didoom!”

“He noticed that we knew the right way to fly—and the right way to shoot,” stated Ponzoa. “From then on, he couldn’t do with out us. He was at all times slapping us on the again once we met, all smiles.”

Proof started to mount, nevertheless, that they have been up in opposition to greater than blood-mad tribesmen. Hoare’s mercs captured 60mm mortars bearing Chinese language inscriptions. Enemy floor forces lower in on copilot Reginaldo Blanco’s radio to commerce curses with him in Spanish. “I didn’t see Cubans from the Castro regime as my countrymen,” he stated. “I noticed them because the enemy.”

“We knew the Cubans have been making an attempt to get a stronghold in Africa,” stated Bay of Pigs veteran Frederico “Freddy” Flaquer, “and we knew not solely have been we going to battle the Communists nevertheless it was going to be Cuban in opposition to Cuban.” 

A U.S. Air Force C-130 from the 464th Troop Carrier Wing delivers Belgian paratroopers to free civilians in Stanleyville on November 24, 1964. (Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A U.S. Air Drive C-130 from the 464th Troop Provider Wing delivers Belgian paratroopers to free civilians in Stanleyville on November 24, 1964. (Photo12/Common Photographs Group by way of Getty Photographs)

However first got here rescuing Western hostages in Stanleyville. At 5:45 a.m. native time on November 24, 1964, two Counter Invaders led the way in which, destroying insurgent anti-aircraft weapons on the airport. Belgian paratroops arrived in USAF C-130 transports staged out of the British base on Ascension Island. The CIA’s Cuban floor fighters noticed to the rescue of captive People. Even with Simbas nonetheless threatening one finish of the runway, the air contingent landed that afternoon to take over. Hoare’s mercenaries liberated a Makasi (“sturdy” within the Lingala language) Beer brewery, and with typical fight pilot bravado the Cubans adopted the model’s snorting-buffalo brand as nostril artwork. 

The liberation of Stanleyville infuriated the rebels’ Soviet and Chinese language supporters. Castro’s right-hand man, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, considered Western victory within the Congo as a setback of their international revolution. He quickly departed for Africa to guide the marketing campaign himself, however just like the exiles would discover it fairly completely different from combating in Cuba. “At the very least two of our guys have been shot down within the Congo,” Blanco recalled, “and each of them have been eaten.”

By mid-1965, as confirmed by captured paperwork, Guevara commanded 200 Cuban fighters in-country, with weapons getting into the Congo from Tanzania throughout Lake Tanganyika. In response the CIA arrange a “Makasi navy,” together with a pair of radar-equipped Swift boats imported in sections aboard C-130s. With Cuban exiles overhead by day and gunboats patrolling the water by evening, supplying Guevara turned exorbitantly costly. Swift crewman Generoso Bringas recalled, “We confiscated a cargo of Chinese language weapons to Congo which was valued at $2 million in 1965 [$16.5 million today].”

“We had overwhelming superiority on the water and within the air,” stated Hoare, who assembled a ver­itable invasion fleet on the lake. “…The convoy made a formidable sight as six T-28s and two B-26s flew overhead….2 hundred voices raised a cheer, as they dipped their wings in salute.”

Dangerous climate, nevertheless, grounded the air pressure when the troops hit the seaside. Insurgent opposition, combating in disciplined European type from fastened positions with heavy weaponry, pinned the mercenaries down till the skies cleared. Then, Hoare recounted, “Six T-28s swooped down low over our place and started to strafe the enemy. As if to make up for his or her absence the day before today, the Cubans placed on a present of aerobatics to beat any flying show, their white wings flashing within the daylight.” After a number of days of air assaults Guevara’s males deserted the battle. The Simbas went again to counting on magic, made an old school cost and have been slaughtered.

 “This little air pressure,” Guevara wrote Castro in October, “is sowing terror among the many Congolese comrades.” His Soviet and Chinese language suppliers by no means gave him what he wanted most: anti-aircraft weapons. The rebels’ AA defenses got here to simply 10 12.7mm machine weapons—little greater than was carried within the nostril of 1 B-26K. Harried from the air and on the bottom, in November 1965 Guevara made a compelled retreat again to Tanzania, and by the top of the yr the Simba riot was strangled. 

Hoare went house to South Africa, however among the authorities’s French and Belgian mercenaries had been lording it over jap Congo too lengthy to present it up. In July 1967 they staged their very own revolt. For a couple of weeks it was mercenary versus mercenary, however the insurgent commandos made the identical mistake the Simbas and Guevara had. Strafing and rocketing, the Makasi air pressure drove them overseas. 

The exiles hadn’t fought for cash. Bringas took a pay lower to affix and obtained his bonus pay in nugatory Congolese francs. “The one bonus we acquired on the finish of our tour of responsibility was a big disappointment,” he stated.

On their return from Africa the Cubans discovered a modified world. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet chief Nikita Khrushchev had made a mutual hands-off settlement about Cuba, and although each have been gone, their successors caught to it. “After we returned from Congo, our leaders have been informed that situations had modified, and that they have been now not ready to assist us,” Félix Toledo stated. “The rug was pulled out from beneath us.” 

Like many Cuban People, the Makasis longed all their lives for a free Cuba. Nobody can say they didn’t do their half. “For me it was a privilege to fly with these folks, those who died—the People, the Cubans,” stated Gus Ponzoa on the 2004 groundbreaking for the Bay of Pigs memorial at Miami Government Airport. It features a restoration of the B-26 he flew within the aborted liberation try. For him and all the opposite Cubans who flew and fought within the Congo, the Makasi air pressure at the very least helped to even that rating.  


Frequent contributor Don Hollway recommends for additional studying Chilly Conflict within the Congo, by Frank R. Villafaña. For extra in regards to the Simba Revolt, see “Mad Mike and His Wild Geese” at

This characteristic initially appeared within the January 2021 subject of Aviation Historical past. To subscribe, click on here!



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