In early 1961, the Navy Heavy Photo Squadron–62, in Jacksonville, Florida, had been flying almost routine high altitude mapping flights over the many south coast Cuban beaches. It wasn’t a surprise then when we received a top secret message ordering maximum photo coverage of a specific beach area on the south Cuban coast on 17 April 1961. Mapping was to 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 visible items on the ground below.

The flight went off without a hitch and the film – about eight or nine cans of it, each about 360 feet  long and 9 inches in width – 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 and they were classified Top Secret.

The photo interpreters read-out went on for the rest of the day and a preliminary report was written. It was now time to get the film to Washington which was sending almost constant urgent messages regarding the results. This was President Kennedy’s first foreign affairs involvement. The squadron had a Grumman F-9 jet fighter aircraft assigned to it and I was selected to fly the film cans and the written report to Andrews AFB that night. The cans were bundled into the various ammo bays on the plane (two on the wings and one in the nose) and I was off.

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

A few miles south of the field the relatively light aircraft I was flying began being bounced around and tossed in every direction. 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 sideways towards the field  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. In any situation this would be nerve wracking, but damn! There was 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 at about 80 knots 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.

His first question was: “Where’s the film?”

I smiled weakly. “There are five or six cans in those ammo bins in the wings.” 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’ve got to find them. They’re top secret and Washington is waiting for them.” (Waiting is hardly the word for that. As mentioned above, President Kennedy was tied in knots about the invasion that he had authorized and that was showing signs of going bad.)

The colonel dashed up to the navy duty officer at the desk. “Call out the marine guard. Start searching the field!”

Long and short of it. Futility! Couple of hours of night search in the lightning and pouring rain, out on the runways and taxiways with searchlights on jeeps and trucks and the film was never found. It was probably in the Chesapeake, and gone forever.

Somehow I wasn’t courts-martialed, though at the time things didn’t look that rosy. My guess is that the six surviving cans of film and the preliminary written readout plus radio reports from the insurgents were sufficient to describe the disastrous conditions on the beach. This was a failed CIA operation. But for my part, all I did was thank God for the intensive instrument refresher course I had just completed one month earlier in the Jacksonville replacement fighter group. Flying a small fighter-jet in a landing pattern in a thunderstorm is not for the faint of heart.