As the story below reports, we lost a good man yesterday. Joe Shannon, air warrior for freedom and an Alabamian beloved by the Cuban exiles who fought Castro and lost at the Bahia de Cochinos in, died after a brief illness. Joe was the last surviving Alabama National Guard pilot who flew support for Brigade 2506. He was 88. If health allows me, I will go to his funeral to pay my respects. He was, said a long-time friend of mine who knew him better than me, "One hell of a man . . . A hell of an AMERICAN man."
Following the AP notice is an earlier story from the Birmingham News which contains more detail on Joe's remarkable life.
RIP, Joe Shannon. And thanks for all you did.
Bay of Pigs pilot Joe Shannon dies at 88 in Ala.
By JAY REEVES
Associated Press Writer
5 January 2010
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) -- Joe Shannon, a retired Alabama National Guard pilot who trained anti-Castro pilots and flew in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba nearly five decades ago, died Tuesday. He was 88.
Lewis Shannon, one of Shannon's three children, said his father died after a brief illness.
"It was just a couple of weeks," he said.
About 1,500 Cuban exiles trained under CIA guidance in Guatemala and invaded the island in April 1961 trying to overthrow Fidel Castro's communist regime.
Shannon was among about 60 Alabama National Guard members who were recruited to help in the invasion. He both trained Cuban pilots and flew a last-ditch mission into Cuba before the invasion failed.
Speaking in an interview with The Associated Press in 2006, Shannon described turning his B-26 bomber into the path of a Cuban T-33 fighter and staying out of the pilot's sight by hugging the ocean.
"It was the only way I had to escape," said Shannon, who was barred from publicly discussing his role in the invasion for years because of national security.
The director of the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, Jim Griffin, said Shannon was the last surviving Alabama Guard pilot who flew in the invasion.
Shannon, an Army Air Corps pilot during World War II, was a member of the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame.
"He was a remarkable individual," hall chairman Billy J. Singleton said. "He knew anything and everything about aviation."
Shannon remained close to a Cuban pilot he helped train for the Bay of Pigs, and he wanted to visit Cuba a few years ago with a university group traveling to the island nation. The U.S. government advised him against going, however.
"Castro still had me on a hit list," Shannon said in the 2006 interview.
Joe Shannon sits in the cockpit of his P-38.
Sky soldier Joe Shannon worthy of honor
November 11, 2007, 2:00AM
By NIKI SEPSAS
In the midst of the cheering thousands who turned out to welcome Charles Lindbergh to Birmingham in 1927 was a 6-year-old boy who resolved then and there to pursue a career among the clouds.
Joe Shannon grew up in Fairfield in a family that had followed the military. Unable to wait until the calendar said he was old enough to enlist, Shannon signed up for the Army National Guard squadron headquartered in Birmingham while still a student at Fairfield High School.
The boyhood days of Shannon and his friends, like those of an entire generation of American boys, came to an abrupt end when Birmingham's Guard unit was activated in 1940. After completing his Army Air Corps training, Shannon's pilot wings were pinned on his uniform, and he shipped out for England to train in British Spitfires.
At just 19 years old, Staff Sgt. Joe Shannon was learning how to stay alive in aerial dogfights against Germany's Luftwaffe pilots in the skies over North Africa.
When Rommel's Afrika Korps was defeated, Shannon's squadron remained in hot pursuit, flying combat missions in Italy during the Salerno landings. He flew missions in the P-40 fighter plane, the P-51 Mustang escort fighter for long-range bombers and the P-38.
"The P-38 was the most sophisticated fighter we had, and the one I found most challenging to fly," Shannon says.
After surviving 50 combat missions during his tour in Africa and Europe, Shannon received orders returning him stateside to train in the B-25 bomber. He then saw action in the China/Burma/India Theater of Operations, where his squadron flew aerial reconnaissance missions from China to the Indian Ocean.
Shannon was recalled to active duty for service during the Korean War. Jet aircraft were now streaking through the skies, and Shannon became qualified to fly them, as well. He also flew during the Berlin Crisis.
Following that action, Shannon received a call from the Central Intelligence Agency. Highly qualified B-26 pilots were being recruited for a top-secret mission that would involve training Cuban exiles to fly aircraft in support of an operation designed to topple Castro's communist government, which President Kennedy deemed a threat to the security of the Western Hemisphere.
"The CIA did not want any active-duty U.S. military personnel involved in the operation," Shannon says. "The operation was not intended to defeat Castro's forces, but to spark an internal uprising which would eventually bring about the downfall of the Castro government."
Shannon and his colleagues were flown to Guatemala, where they trained Cuban exiles to fly the B-26 bomber. The action began in April 1961 at the Bay of Pigs, the site selected by the CIA as the insertion point of the men and materiel. The round-trip flights in support of the landings were exhausting, however, and the decision was made to scrap the no-fly policy for American pilots. A search went out for the pilots who had trained the Cubans, and Shannon and three other pilots were located in time to join the operation.
Wreckage of a Brigade 2506 B-26 shot down by a Cuban jet, flown by fellow pilots of Joe Shannon's unit.
An uproar at the United Nations over the assault led Kennedy to cancel the remaining flights. Without air cover, the campaign was doomed. The invasion troops were killed or captured as soon as they landed in the swampy Bay of Pigs area.
Shannon retired from the Air Force in 1972 after more than three decades of service to his country and began flying as a corporate pilot. His career in aviation has now spanned more than 60 years, and he has logged more than 20,000 hours in the air. The sergeant stripes on the uniform once worn by a novice flier have been replaced by the silver oak leaf cluster of a lieutenant colonel awash in decorations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal with 14 Oak Leaf clusters, the Distinguished Unit Citation, the Chinese Air Medal and the Cuban Liberation Air Force Medal for Valor. The state of Alabama also awarded him its Distinguished Service Medal and Commendation Award. He was inducted into the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame in 1999.
The award that stands out most prominently in Shannon's mind, however, is the Seal Medallion he received from the CIA for his role in the Bay of Pigs operation.
"I believed in President Kennedy's dream of freedom for the Cuban people," Shannon says. "He wanted to offer them a chance at a better life."
At 80-something years old, Shannon continues to take to the skies. He joins a group of aviation junkies every Saturday morning at Pell City Airport to fly and swap aviation stories.
Military aviation history today is being written by a generation of pilots who are streaking though the skies at supersonic speeds in aircraft equipped with laser-guided bombs, heat-seeking missiles and other space-age weaponry that allow them to engage an enemy often without ever seeing him. Shannon represents the dwindling number of fliers of an earlier age who dueled in the skies with an enemy whose faces they were close enough to see.
The history that Joe Shannon helped write and the sacrifices of the men and women of his generation are particularly worth remembering on this Veterans Day.
Niki Sepsas is a free-lance writer who lives in Birmingham.