My Own T-Shirt Hero: The Forgotten Story of a Bay of Pigs Pilot

July 22, 2014 | Print Print |

Clive Rudd Fernandez   (Cafe Fuerte)

Cuban Air Force pilot Douglas Rudd.

Cuban Air Force pilot Douglas Rudd.

HAVANA TIMES — I recall I was around 10 years old when my father used to take me from one ministry to the other to collect his salary. It could have been the Ministry of Sugar or Transportation. He didn’t work at any of them, but he would collect his full salary there every month. In fact, he didn’t work anywhere. He was paid on instructions from the Ministry of the Armed Forces.

That situation was difficult for me to understand. To me, a 14-year-old-child, my father was a Cuban hero and a pilot of the Armed Forces who risked his life for the country.

When I’d ask him something like, “Dad, what you know about sugar?”, or “Why do you get paid by the Ministry of Transportation if you don’t work there?”, he would reply with that cold, fixed gaze that characterized him. “It’s because Diocles is here now.” Then, he would turn away from me so as not to look me in the eyes and wince. That was his way of saying that was an “awkward question” and that I shouldn’t ask another. I had a lot of respect for him, so I would zip my lip immediately.

With “Diocles”, he meant Minister Diocles Torralba, a former officer of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. One of his tasks was seeing to the needs of the hero who had been chewed up and spat out by the revolution – Douglas Rudd, my father.

As a teenager, I began to realize that a number of episodes were missing from my dad’s story. My old man, who wasn’t very talkative (much less boastful), never spoke about planes or about his air combat at the Bay of Pigs or his involvement in Cuba’s Vietnam campaign.

From time to time, I would gather the courage to ask him when he would take me flying with him. Without looking at me in the eyes, he would always say: “One of these days.” Later, I would find out he hadn’t flown in years and would never do so again in his life.

The Douglas Plane

The void of my father’s silence was gradually filled by the anecdotes of his friends, who would tell me of his feats in the Air Force, about how he played a crucial role as war pilot during the Bay of Pigs invasion and his work as one of the military advisors the Cuban government had sent to Vietnam during the war.

The author next to the plane piloted by his father, on display at Havana’s Revolution Museum.

The author next to the plane piloted by his father, on display at Havana’s Revolution Museum.

They told me that, after being promoted up the ranks of the Air Force, he began to question decisions made by the high command and that the revolutionary leadership had given him a number of warnings, telling him to forget about his ideas and proposals and to follow the “strategy traced by the revolution and Fidel.”

Around 1968, my father, disillusioned with the Castro government, tendered his resignation to begin flying as a civilian pilot with Air France, where they had spoken to him about a job.

No sooner had rumors of his resignation began to circulate than he was detained for having “sensitive documents” at home. According to some of the old pilots I’ve spoken to, those national security documents were nothing other than flight manuals for some of the planes they were piloting at the time and it was routine to have copies at home to go over the technical specs of the plane.

Following a summary trial, he was sentenced to 30 years at Havana’s La Cabaña prison. He broke out of there by sea with two common inmates.

Waiting for Celia Sanchez

Many years later, my mother told me of the terrible days she spent at the State Security’s Villa Marista, where she was interrogated for hours about my father’s whereabouts, while still pregnant with my younger sister Yvonne.

While my mother was being tortured psychologically by the Ministry of the Interior, a police and military detachment was mobilized across Havana in search of the missing hero.

My father had set up camp outside the home of Celia Sanchez Manduley, Fidel Castro’s assistant, to demand an explanation for what the revolution was doing to the country and to him.

When they found him, Celia had his prison sentence commuted and he was sent home. From that point on, they strictly forbade him to work anywhere in Cuba. The island’s sole employer, the Cuban government, had condemned him to a virtual house arrest. He would remain in this situation for more than 25 years, until he was able to leave the country.

Flying with Rafael del Pino (right) near London, 2007.

Flying with Rafael del Pino (right) near London, 2007.

Years after having his sentence commuted, a high-ranking Air Force (DAAFAR) pilot showed up at his house in Vedado to tell him that Army General Raul Castro wanted to decorate him on April 17, during the commemorative ceremony for the 25th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion. My father kicked him out of the house, yelling a number of rude things at him. So many years without being able to have any kind of job had destroyed his meager “social skills.”

In the 1980s, I had the impression that my father had become delirious. One day, he said to me: “The Soviet Union is going to fall to bits and no one’s going to cry over it. Fidel Castro is going to turn Cuba into Haiti and no one’s going to stand in his way. Try and get out of this country while you still can. There’s no future here, neither for you nor any young person in Cuba who isn’t willing to submit to Fidel completely.”

In one of his last ravings, he said to me: “Clive, the Brigadier General and head of Cuba’s Air Force Rafael del Pino came to see me to tell me he was planning on fleeing the country in a two-engine Cesna and asked me whether I wanted to go with him. Of course, I said no. I’m sure it’s a trap to send me to prison again.”

Of course, I didn’t put much stock in that rumor and thought that, in addition to delirious, my father was also becoming paranoid. But then, through Radio Marti and other unofficial channels, I heard of the desertion of General Rafael del Pino and his family in 1987. Several years later, when I took out my private pilot license in England, I would fly with Rafael del Pino over the outskirts of London and I would finally confirm that he had indeed invited my father to leave the country with him. The paranoia they had injected into his DNA had made him miss the boat.

The Hero’s Image

My father was finally able to leave Cuba in 1990. He died two years later in the home of one of the pilots he had fought during the Bay of Pigs invasion. He had become reconciled with his combat enemies, but not with his past.

After leaving Cuba in 1992, it would take me fifteen years of coming to terms with my past and country to go back.

In one my trips in 2008, I traveled to Cuba with an English friend of mine who was a journalist for The Independent. I told him that, like many men of his generation, my father had given his life and youth to the revolution, and that many of these people had been devoured and thrown out the window by that same, insatiable beast they helped create, that they were now among the country’s enemies.

We did a basic tour of Havana’s Revolution Museum and made our way to the Bay of Pigs exhibit. There, I was surprised to see that my father, Douglas Rudd, a man who had been decorated and defenestrated by the revolutionary New Man, had his name inscribed on the wall as one of the heroes of that battle. After having destroyed and swallowed up the man, they had decided to leave behind the image of the hero, because it sells ideas and T-shirts at a museum and Havana’s tourist areas.

I continue to remember my father as I pictured him when I was a child, when I would imagine him flying, risking his life and going to battle for just and important causes – as a man of great courage. I’ve been telling my children, from a very early age, that T-shirt heroes do not exist.


What's your opinion?

  • Bob Michaels

    Sad that we sometimes forget the terrible toll that war and its aftermath sometimes takes such a toll on the survivors. The impact of the Revolucion certainly continues far longer that just about any other modern day war.

    On the other hand, last month a group of us were talking in the Miami airport while waiting to board our flight to Havana. Somehow one gentleman mentioned he had fought at Bay of Pigs. I had to ask which side. He chuckled and said he was on the side that spent 20 months in a Cuban prison waiting for the US to buy their freedom. Then he invited me to a conference in Miami that he was helping sponsor. The mission of the conference was to encourage the US government to accelerate the US normalization of relations with Cuba.

    • John Goodrich

      Too bad this gentleman didn’t see that back at Playa Giron he was supporting the devil.
      So it is with people like former U.S. Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara who late in life find that his conscience was torturing him for the crimes against humanity he committed .
      Killing people for no reason other than wanting freedom from colonialism and neo-colonialism does have a tendency to come back to haunt people who are merely sociopathic and not truly psychopathic.
      I makes me, an anti-theist, wish for the existence of a Hell where they could plead their case and be told they are fit only for the fire.
      Too little, too late IMO

      • Griffin

        It is too bad that this man & his comrades at Playa Giron were abandoned and left in the lurch by President Kennedy. The original plan included air support to be provided by US Navy pilots, as well as resupply from the US Navy. Kennedy called off the support at the last minute, leaving these courageous Cuban patriots to die. They had no chance against the Cuban revolutionary army.

        It would have been better not to have launched the attempted invasion at all, but the worse option was to do it the way they did it.

        Cubans on both sides died for no good reason, Castro used the incident to round up the last of the opposition to his revolution, and to get the Soviets to deliver more weapons. It was a stupid tragedy, compounded by Kennedy’s betrayal.

  • Moses Patterson

    If you believe in a heaven and a hell and that one’s actions have anything to do with which place you end up, you gotta’ know that if anyone deserves the eternal gnashing of teeth, it is Fidel Castro. At the very least, because of all the hardship and heartache that man has caused millions of Cubans like Douglas Rudd, when he finally gets to the Pearly Gates (hopefully soon), he certainly will have some ‘splainin’ to do. Nice post.

    • John Goodrich

      “If you refuse those in need, you refuse me” :
      Jesus Christ.
      You call for the further immiseration of every child, man and woman in Cuba by increasing the intensity of the embargo .
      Jesus says you’re going straight to the hot room reserved for that kind of person when you die.
      You’ll want to pack a big bag of marshmallows and some sticks for your welcome party.

      • Moses Patterson

        Hahahaha! I’d say my chances are better than yours.

  • Griffin

    A brilliant, thoughtful and deeply moving essay. Bravo!

  • George Munyan

    A revolution that eats its own is a fraud, and deserves to be eliminated.

  • Monzon Cubano

    Be proud of your father, we respect him. He chose not to be a
    slave and kept his freedom

  • Sankha Guha

    Beautifully written Clive. I am privileged to be the “journalist from The Independent” who accompanied you on that trip. Here is the story I wrote at the time: http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/americas/disappearing-caribbean-the-unique-cuban-way-of-life-1205884.html