The counterrevolutionary forces, known as Brigade 2506, were assembled at Retalhuleu, on the west coast of Guatemala, where U.S. engineers refurbished the airport especially for the mission. Six ships sailed from Nicaragua's Puerto Cabezas on April 14, cheered by Nicaraguan president and U.S.-friendly dictator Luis Somoza, who jokingly urged the soldiers to bring him some hairs from Castro's beard.
The Cuban government knew an invasion was coming, but could not guess exactly when or where the attack would take place. When teams of U.S. B-26 bombers began attacking four Cuban airfields simultaneously on Saturday, April 15, the Cubans were prepared. Castro later testified that the few planes belonging to the Cuban Air Force had been dispersed and camouflaged, with some obsolete, unusable planes left out to fool the attackers and draw the bombs.
As part of the CIA cover story, the attacking B-26 planes were disguised to look as if they were Cuban planes flown by defecting Cubans. An exile Cuban pilot named Mario Zúñiga was presented to the media as a defector, and photographed next to his plane. The photo was published in most of the major papers, but the surprising omission of several serious details, and the overwhelming amount of information already gathered by reporters, helped bring out the truth much sooner than anyone expected.
Before the operation began, CIA operatives were sent to Cuba to aid the invading forces. Their task was to blow up key bridges and perform other acts of terrorism that would make it appear as if the people of Cuba were joining the invasion. José Basulto was one of those operatives. He flew straight into Havana airport posing as a student from Boston College coming home on vacation.
Shortly after the attack started, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, flatly rejected Cuba's report of the attack, telling the General Assembly that the attacking planes were from the Cuban Air Force and presenting a copy of the photograph published in the newspapers. In the photo, the plane shown has an opaque nose, whereas the model of the B-26 planes used by the Cubans had a Plexiglas nose. Within a few hours the truth was revealed, and Stevenson was extremely embarrassed to learn that Kennedy had referred to him as "my official liar."
The landing began shortly before midnight on Sunday, April 16, after a team of frogmen went ashore and set up landing lights to guide the operation. The invading force consisted of 1,500 men divided into six battalions, with Manuel Artime as the political chief.
Two battalions came ashore at Playa Girón and one at Playa Larga, but the operation didn't go as smoothly as expected. The razor-sharp coral reefs, identified as seaweed by U2 spy photos, delayed the landing enough to expose it to air attacks the following morning. Two ships sank about 80 yards from shore, and some heavy equipment was lost.
Cuban militia commander José Ramón González Suco was one of five men stationed in Playa Larga when the invasion began, and the first to report the invasion.
On Monday, April 17, as the invasion was well under way, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk gave a press conference. "The American people are entitled to know whether we are intervening in Cuba or intend to do so in the future," he said. "The answer to that question is no. What happens in Cuba is for the Cuban people to decide."
Basulto was never told when the invasion would begin. He was surprised to hear the attack had started and didn't have time to get around to completing his assignment. Instead he drove out to Guantánamo and jumped the fence into the U.S. Naval Base.
By 3 a.m. Monday morning Castro knew about the landing, and the Cuban government responded almost immediately, taking a superior position in the air during the early morning hours. Cuban pilot Captain Enrique Carreras Rojas was able to quickly sink the command vessel "Maropa" and the supply ship "Houston."
After Ambassador Stevenson became aware of the true facts, he was so outraged that he publicly urged Washington to stop the attack and avoid further embarrassment. Soviet Ambassador Zorin said, "Cuba is not alone today. Among her most sincere friends the Soviet Union is to be found."
At 12:15 Kennedy received a letter from Khrushchev in which the Soviet leader stated: "It is a secret to no one that the armed bands invading this country were trained, equipped and armed in the United States of America. The planes which are bombing Cuban cities belong to the United States of America; the bombs they are dropping are being supplied by the American Government.
" It is still not late to avoid the irreparable. The government of the USA still has the possibility of not allowing the flame of war ignited by interventions in Cuba to grow into an incomparable conflagration.
"As far as the Soviet Union is concerned, there should be no mistake about our position: We will render the Cuban people and their government all necessary help to repel an armed attack on Cuba."
The expected supporting air cover by the U.S. Air Force never came. In a political environment full of posturing, threats and confusion, Rusk advised Kennedy to back off, concluding that additional strikes would tilt international opinion too far against the U.S.
"At about 9:30 p.m. on April 16," describes L. Fletcher Prouty in Bay of Pigs: The Pivotal Operation of the JFK Era, [URL below] "Mr. McGeorge Bundy, Special Assistant to the President, telephoned the CIA's General C.P. Cabell to inform him that the air strikes the following dawn should not be launched until they could be conducted from a strip within the beachhead."
Prouty, the first "focal Point" officer between the CIA and the Air Force for Clandestine Operations, quotes the report by General Maxwell Taylor, a member of the Kennedy-appointed Cuban Study Group: "From its inception the plan had been developed under the ground rule that it must retain a covert character, that is, it should include no action which, if revealed, could not be plausibly denied by the United States and should look to the world as an operation exclusively conducted by Cubans. This ground rule meant, among other things, that no U.S. military forces or individuals could take part in combat operations."