Fidel Castro lined the walls of one of Cuba’s most notorious prisons with five tons of explosives after the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961, but three CIA agents trapped inside embarked on a tremendous effort to ensure that the bombs never ran out in a remarkable tale that was first declassified.
By the fall of 1960, David Christ, 42, was a senior CIA officer. Considered more a scientist than an officer in the field, he was liable for developing much of the bugging gear that the organization used to spy on its most fierce enemies. But seeing an chance to move the laboratory to the front line, he embarked on what his intelligence agency colleagues mainly considered a’ suicide mission’-traveling head-first into the depths of Havana at a moment when the communist regime of Castro was in complete flow and relations with America had never been more tense.
Taking two operatives with him— relative rookie Walter Szuminski, 30, and Thornton Anderson, 34 — the three men went to the Cuban capital on August 31, 1960, bugging the apartment of several Chinese diplomats and the communist revolutionist’s close confidants. But with the busload rounding up counter-revolutionaries and political prisoners with Castro, the presence of the trio in the city did not go unnoticed and the state detained them before they could complete the cowboy operation.
Unlike so many captured U.S. government agents before them, however, the three men succeeded in avoiding the firing squad, spending months in interrogations convincing Cuban soldiers that they were normal tourists and engineers coerced into spying by an American embassy representative. The story was stuck against the odds. But the nightmare wouldn’t end there as the men were ordered to serve 10-year sentences in one of the most famous prisons in the country, the Isle of Pines, a fetid facility on a small island off the southwest coast of Cuba.
After their first failed attempt at revolution, Castro himself had spent time confined in the cells of the facility along with his brother. But since his increase to authority, he has become central to the penal system of his new government –a threatening symbol of truth that awaits all those who plot against him. For Christ, the concept behind the squalid, bed-bud riddled, Alcatraz-like jail bars spending a decade was not a truth that he feared. Unlike Szuminiski and Anderson, Christ had been privy to a briefing that the CIA had trained Cuban dissidents on a private island off Miami’s coast, who would quickly fight back to Havana, supported by American Air assistance.
Dubbed the Bay of Pigs, the invasion would aim to start a counter-revolution, eventually ousting Castro from power. The original assignment of Christ to bug the Chinese diplomats ‘ room was intended to provide a piece of the puzzle to provide intelligence on Castro’s defensive actions. But Castro was prepared for the invasion, and 100 U.S. trained counter-revolutionists were dead in less than 24 hours, and 1,100 more were captured. Christ, Szuminiski and Anderson listened as gun-fire erupted and slowly dissipated in the distance from their fourth-floor prison cell.
As prison guards celebrated, Christ new that the counter-revolutionary armies had fallen and suddenly the three stranded agents ‘ instant future seemed even more troubling. Castro’s next measure after ensuring victory was to obtain some leverage against the Americans to prevent any other invasion efforts. The prison on the Isle of Pines was filled with dissidents and state enemies long hoping to see Castro and his kind driven out of control.
Many of those imprisoned were figureheads of anti-Castro movements, and if the US were to provoke a counter-revolution, their first call would be to free the Isle of Pines prisoners who would help set the wheels in motion. The location of the failed operation Bay of Pigs suggested that in the first place the prison could have been one of the planned targets of the invaders. As a consequence, Castro ordered the walls of the prison to be wired for destruction with explosive and tricked to blow on his own orders.
Christ watched the jail walls for several days as troops carried boxes labeled mecha explosivo— an explosive detonating fuse. Also started to come in abundance days after wooden boxes with the letters ‘TNT’ stencilled on the side. Estimating that each box contained about 50 pounds of dynamite, Christ worked out that the jail now had about five tons of powerful explosives. Guards then started to disperse black plastic rings with white digits engraved on them, each digit corresponding to the prisoner’s identity, so that their bodies would be accounted for when they were fired.
Christ knew that even the slightest change in Castro’s mood could level the six-thousand-or-so prisoners inside the Isle of Pines to relative dust, and drastic action needed to be taken. Various schemes to sabotage the prison’s now explosive foundations began almost as soon as the panic did, with various factions within its walls beginning to incept covet diffusing efforts.
Eventually, a former Cuban Air Force Officer, named Captain Miro took charge and sought to unify the dispersed groups’ efforts, appointing the three Americans – who he believed to just be engineers – as head of the operation. It was imperative that the CIA men maintained their cover. Had their special expertise have become common knowledge among the prisoners, word would eventually reach the guards and Castro’s soldiers.
The explosives had been installed in a utility tunnel beneath the prison. One of Miro’s men had discovered a small rat hole drain in the first-floor bathroom, leading directly to the tunnel. Volunteers of the cause used improvised hammers and chisels to chip away at the concrete behind the toilet. The overwhelming din in the tower — with the roar of hundreds of men shouting and the clanking pipes— helped disguise the tunneling efforts. Within three days the hole went from just five inches in diameter to a foot.
They recruited a small man nicknamed Americano to squeeze through the gap, who discovered the soldiers had rigged the dynamite with some sort of failsafe detonation system. If the electrical detonation system malfunctioned or was tampered with, the Cuban soldiers would be able to ignite the primer cord from a shed a half-mile from the prison. Sabotaging one system wouldn’t be enough. They had to find a way to disable both detonators without being detected by the guards.
Thanks to their experience working with audio equipment, the CIA men found a simple solution to the electrical failsafe system. The difficulty came with teaching Americano – the only man who could fit inside the gap – to execute it. For four nights they worked with him in a cell, running the operation over and over, even blindfolding him with a blanket and to cut and twist the correct wires should light in the tunnel be limited. When he was deemed ready, Americano lowered himself down into the tunnel an hour before final count for bedtime, emerging just before his sixty minute time-window was up, grinning and nodding his head that the defusing had been a success.
Word came back one by one that identical missions that the CIA men had orchestrated in other towers were also successful. The men then awaited their released. More than two-and-a-half years into their ordeal, a roar broke out among prisoners in March 1963. Prisoners applauded and slapped the three men on the back as one guard called out their names from a clipboard in the center of the facility. Though they hadn’t realized it before, the trio had become heroes to the men around them.
It was an unlikely victory against Castro at a time when nobody seemed capable of one – particularly the US. Christ, Szuminski, and Anderson were all escorted outside the prison walls, where American lawyer James Donovan greeted them. Donovan had been working for months directly with Castro attempting to broker a deal for the release of more than one thousand Bay of Pigs prisoners. Eventually, he found a bartering chip that Cubans couldn’t refuse: $53 million worth of food and medical aid.
The offer was produced formally on Christmas Eve 1962, and the detainees were assured that they would quickly be released from the ill-fated invasion. Without the authorization of President John F. Kennedy, Donovan also asked Castro to sanction the release of nearly nine thousand detained relatives of the invaders of the Bay of Pigs, along with a couple of twelve American prisoners rotting away in Cuban detention– including the three CIA agents. The trio managed to keep their cover under the worst circumstances imaginable for a staggering 949 days in Cuban custody and took exceptional risks to save their fellow prisoners ‘ life.
For the first time, their remarkable story has been shared publicly. The Untold Story.