May 1, 2016

 In early 1961, VAP-62, the AJ-2P heavy photo squadron out of Jacksonville, had been flying almost routine high altitude mapping flights over the many south coast Cuban beaches. It wasn’t a surprise then to receive a top secret message ordering maximum photo coverage of a specific beach area on the south Cuban coast on 17 April 1961. Begin at first light – no further specifics. The mission looked  routine and was to be flown at 20,000 feet to obtain photos with a scale of 1:10,000. Ideal for identifying most routine items on the ground below.

The flight went off without a hitch and the film- about eight or nine cans of it, each about 10 inches long and 8 inches in diameter – was run through the huge automatic processing machine in the photo lab, dried and then turned over to the photo interpreters for read-out.

Almost immediately they discovered that this was no ordinary photography. These were pictures of a military action – a burning ship, small landing craft,  some ashore, some hung up on hidden reefs. a crashed B-26, a column of tanks sending up plumes of dust as it headed for the beach. It was the ill-planned and unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion. The pictures were important.

The film read-out went on for the rest of the day and a prelim report written. It was now time to get the film to Washington which was sending almost constant urgent messages regarding the results. The squadron had a Grumman jet fighter, an F-9, aircraft assigned to it and I was selected to fly the film cans and the written report to Andrews Air Force Base that night. The cans were bundled into the various ammo bays of the plane and I was off.

The plane was winging its way north on this moonless night when I received a report that Andrews was closed because of a thunderstorm there and they suggested that I go to the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Maryland,  instead. No problem, with one exception. Someone failed to realize that cumulo-nimbus (thunder)  storms are not static and migrate eastward as they develop. This one migrated to Patuxent River. It was there to greet me.

Welcome Don! I was being bounced around and tossed in every direction while lightning was flashing continuously, but I contacted the tower and received landing instructions. Landing or no I was practically doing all the flying on instruments since I didn’t want to be blinded by the lightning. I kept myself oriented by occasionally glancing out the side to insure that I was lining up with the landing runway. Suddenly the aircraft was slammed by a hard down-and-side draft which caused  a particularly severe lurch. Then I felt and heard it  – bang – -bang, bang – followed by a wild ratatatatatat. Three cans of top secret film had broken through the locked ammo door in the nose, hit the wing and disappeared. The door to the ammo compartment was left slamming up and down in the slipstream. Damn! But nothing I could do about it. Landing that bucking bird was the priority so I fought my way around the pattern, crossed the end of the runway, set her down and taxied into the ramp in pouring rain. A Washington intelligence guy, an Army colonel from the Defense Intelligence Agency, was there to greet me.

“Where’s the film?”

I smiled weakly. “There are five or six cans in those ammo bins.” Then I pointed at the black void in the pouring rain. “And three somewhere out THERE. They fell out.”

“What? They fell out?” He was practically shouting. “Exactly where?”

“I have no idea, I was trying to survive.”

“We gotta find them. They’re top secret and Washington is waiting for them.” (Waiting is hardly the word for that. President Kennedy was tied in knots about the invasion that he had authorized and that was showing signs of going bad.)

To the duty officer at the desk. “Call out the marine guard. Start searching the field.”

Long and short of it. Couple of hours of night search out on the runways and taxiways with jeeps and trucks and futility! The film was never found. Probably in the Chesapeake. Somehow I wasn’t courts-martialed. The preliminary written readout was undoubtedly sufficient to describe the disastrous conditions on the beach. This was a failed CIA operation. And I was thanking God for the intensive instrument refresher course I had just completed in the Jacksonville replacement fighter group.


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