Image: Rafael Soldevilla, 74, a Bay of Pigs veteran combatant
Javier Galeano  /  AP
Rafael Soldevilla, 74, a Bay of Pigs veteran combatant, poses for a photograph in his home in Havana, Cuba, which is markinh the 50th anniversary of the April 17,1961 defeat of invading exiles .
updated 4/16/2011 7:08:06 PM ET 2011-04-16T23:08:06

Rafael Soldevilla Quesada was on guard duty at Fidel Castro's house when a defense ministry official rushed in with the news: A 1,200-strong invasion force of U.S.-backed exiles had landed at Playa Giron, as the Bay of Pigs is known in Cuba.

The attack was not much of a surprise, Soldevilla recalled 50 years later. Castro himself had warned that a recent bombing raid by planes painted to look like they were part of the Cuban air force was a prelude to invasion. They both rushed, along with others, to defend Giron.

"Fidel said 'What fools they are!'" Soldevilla said. "We knew they were coming."

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Faced with a bold challenge to its very existence, Castro's young government sent a hastily mustered defense force that included many who weren't even soldiers. In interviews with The Associated Press, Cubans who fought in the brief battle say that fact was both the key to victory, and the reason Giron still inspires deep pride among many on the island.

The son of a photographer for the revolution, Francisco Manuel Torreiro had no combat experience and was just 15 years old when the exiles landed. But as a member of a local militia with two months training, he was one of those who hopped into trucks and went by caravan to Giron. They arrived to the sound of cannon fire and a B-52 bomber rumbling overhead.

"The first thing I felt was fear," Torreiro recalled. "This was baptism by fire for us."

Torreiro recalled jets firing down at him and other youths.

"They were killing companeros, and in desperation we fired at them with what guns we had."

Torreiro was wounded in the hip, an injury that left him with a limp and ended his brief military career. In an interview in his Havana home, he showed a faded black-and-white picture taken while he was recovering in a Havana hospital.

Image: Cuban soldiers rehearse in Havana, Cuba, for a parade to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion
Franklin Reyes  /  AP
A woman watches Cuban soldiers rehearse Thursday for a Saturday parade at the Plaza de la Revolution in Havana, Cuba, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by U.S.-backed Cuban exiles.

Toribio Pozos Piloto was a 42-year-old shoe factory worker when officials gathered employees to ask for volunteers.

"They asked for all those who were prepared to defend our country. I immediately raised my hand," Pozos said. "I was ready to go wherever they sent me."

Soldevilla described his immense pride upon arriving at a sugar plant where workers had armed themselves.

"The men were in their revolutionary militia uniforms with Molotov cocktails and whatever weapons they had, ready to burn the factory rather than let the enemy take it," he said.

The exiles were heavily armed and killed 176 Cubans while losing 118 of their own. They were counting on Cubans to rise up and join them, but nothing of the sort occurred. Instead, thousands took up arms to defend the revolution that ousted Fulgencio Batista two years earlier.

"We only had small machine guns, no heavy weapons," recalled Pozos, who is 92 years old and blind today but can still lucidly describe the events of 1961. "When they saw so many Cuban companeros there, they gave up."

More than 1,000 exiles were taken prisoner and later sent back to the U.S. in exchange for money and medicine.

Times grew tough in Cuba during the 1990s, following the loss of support from the Soviet Union.

But Torreiro managed to make a career in photography, documenting the island's history for state-run media. He helped build his own apartment, a small but comfortable home in Havana. And though his wounded hip has continued to bother him throughout his life, he says his time fighting at the Bay of Pigs solidified his commitment to the revolution.

Today Torreiro is retired and sculpts pottery, which he occasionally sells. He still marvels at the Playa Giron victory, and the part it played in preserving the revolution.

"We are here today because in Giron, thousands of Cubans didn't let them make a beachhead," he said. "If they had made that beachhead, it would be a completely different story."

Associated Press writer Peter Orsi contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: 50 years later, Cuba still celebrates

  1. Closed captioning of: 50 years later, Cuba still celebrates

    >>> it's been 50 years since the bay of pigs invasion , one of the most infamous events in american history . but in cuba it's seen far differently. nbc's mark potter joins us now from havana with more. mark, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, lester. this weekend cuba is remembering a critical moment in history still felt today. huge crowds have come out to celebrate in ways not seen here for years. in the plaza of the revolution, a massive display of military might and celebration of cuba 's victory 50 years ago at the bay of pigs , the failed invasion planned by the cia and backed by the u.s. military seen as a historic turning point for fidel castro .

    >> this is a watershed event for cuba that cuba in the track on alliance with the soviet union and in the role to hardcore communism.

    >> reporter: on april 17 , 1961 , 1400 cia-trained cuban exiles made landfall in southern cuba . the u.s. supplied them with planes, ships and armament. but in an attempt to hide its involvement, the kennedied administration withheld air support when the invasion began to fail.

    >> we made it repeatedly clear that the armed forces of this country would not irnts ventervein in any way.

    >> reporter: in just three days, castro's massive defense force crushed the invaders, killing more than 100, capturing more than 1,000. this now-tranquil area is where the main invasion force came ashore and was confronted by cuban fighters. in the mystery of the cuban revoluti revolution, this is a very important place. 70-year-old domingo rodriguez still remembers how invaders opened fire on its militia platoon. cuba radio host helped capture the attackers and is said the cuban victory was a worldwide embarrassment for the u.s.

    >> there were two or three small boats with the pirate sign.

    >> reporter: on the other side, in a bay of pigs museum in miami, cuban exile veterans mourn the anniversary. this man who flew a bomber in support of the invasion said the u.s. refusal to save the exiles still hurts.

    >> we were promised something that wasn't delivered so that's betrayal. would like to say, but i felt betrayal.

    >> reporter: at the war museum here, the solemn remembrance is for cuban lives lost defending the revolution in a battle that forever changed u.s./cuban relations. and on a day of history, there is concern here for the future. earlier today the communist party congress convened here to address new ways to fix cuba 's deeply troubled economy.

    >> mark potter in havana thanks.

Photos: Fidel Castro: The Life of the Cuban Leader

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  1. Three-year-old Fidel Castro is pictured here in 1929. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The three Castro brothers in 1941 from left to right: Fidel, Raul, and Ramon. Castro named his younger brother Raul his temporary successor on July, 31, 2006, after undergoing intestinal surgery. It marked the first time that Castro had relinquished power in 47 years of rule. (Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Castro, at 17 years old, plays basketball at Belen Jesuit High School in 1943. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Castro took up arms against the Cuban regime of President Fulgencio Batista for the first time unsuccessfully in 1953. Hoping to spark a popular revolt, Castro led more than 100 followers in a failed attack on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953. He survived the attack, but was imprisoned for two years. After receiving amnesty he went to Mexico where he was detained by Mexican immigration authorities for training troops for another uprising in Cuba. He is shown here resting on his cot in December 1956 in a Mexico City jail. He was released shortly after this picture was taken and continued his fight against Batista. (Bettmann via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Castro is cheered by a village crowd on his victorious march into Havana in January 1959 after revolutionary forces seized control of Cuba. (Grey Villet / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Castro and his Marxist revolutionary ally, Che Guevara, try their hand at golf in 1959 after seizing power in the Cuban Revolution. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Castro and the American novelist Ernest Hemingway in Havana in 1959. Hemingway spent many years in Cuba and his novella “The Old Man and the Sea,” for which he won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature, centers on an aging Cuban fisherman. After the Cuban Revolution, Hemingway was forced to flee Cuba and return to Ketchum, Idaho where he lived out the last years of his life. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fidel Castro talks with Ed Sullivan, television variety show host and N.Y. Daily News columnist, January 6, 1959, days after the Cuban revolution ousted the Batista regime. The United States was the first nation to recognize Castro as Cuba's leader, but his radical economic reforms quickly rattled American leaders. (Harold Valentine / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Castro visits the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1959. Castro visited the U.S. in April of 1959 as part of a charm offensive for his new government, but was refused a meeting with President Eisenhower. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Castro speaking before a huge gathering of people in Cuba in 1960. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Castro and Ricardo Alarcón on national TV on April 9, 1961, a few days before the failed U.S. invasion of Cuba on April 15, 1961 known as the Bay of Pigs. Alarcón, head of the Cuban parliament since 1993, is still a close Castro confidante and his main point person on U.S. relations. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Cuban Revolution leaders Fidel Castro and Che Guevara shown during a meeting Havana in the early '60s. Castro declared his revolution to be a socialist movement on April 16, 1961. The failed U.S. invasion of Cuba, known as the Bay of Pigs, happened the next day, on April 17, 1961. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Castro sits inside a tank near Playa Giron, Cuba, during the Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17, 1961. About 1,500 Cuban exiles, supported by the CIA, landed in Cuba in the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961 with the purpose of sparking a popular uprising and ousting Castro's government. Most rebels were quickly captured or killed by the Cuban armed forces, marking a major defeat in the U.S. effort to dislodge Castro from power. (Raul Corrales / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Castro cuts sugar cane in a Cuban field in October, 1962. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Castro learning to ski during a trip to Russia in 1962. The Soviet Union was a major source of military and economic aid for Cuba until its collapse in 1991. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Prime Minister Fidel Castro gives a radio and televised speech on Oct. 22, 1962 during which he talked about the measures taken by the United States regarding Cuba and the annoucement by President John F. Kennedy of a U.S. blockade of the island. The tense 13-day standoff over Soviet nuclear-armed missile installed on the island, brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war. It was resolved after Nikita Khrushchev offered to remove the missiles. (Keystone-France via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Castro, his bother Raul, and Che Guevara in 1963. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Castro holds the hand of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during an official visit to Moscow in May 1963. Taking advantage of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Cuba relied on billions of dollars in Soviet subsidies for decades. The disappearance of Soviet aid after the collapse of the Soviet Union created hard times in Cuba known as the "Special Period" because of the tight rationing of food, fuel, and consumer goods. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Castro, a star pitcher at the University of Havana and longtime baseball fan, gets set to fire a ball as he pitches for Camaguey Province against Pinar Del Rio Province at Cuba's Veradero Beach in July 1964. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Cuba Leader Fidel Castro sits with Moammar Gadhafi in Tripoli on March 8, 1977. In 2011, Castro criticized the United States involvement in Libya calling NATO's actions "genocide." (Arna / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Castro, once a passionate cigar smoker, is seen here exhaling cigar smoke during an interview in March, 1985 at his presidential palace in Havana. He gave up the habit in 1986 citing health concerns. Cuba has long been known as the world's foremost producer of cigars and the industry generates over $200 million annually for the country's economy. Bans on smoking in public places were introduced in Cuba in 2005. (Charles Tasnadi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Castro took to the streets of Havana during the Aug. 5, 1994 riots, the largest anti-government riots since he had assumed power, that sparked the rafters crisis. Five years after the fall of the Soviet Union the Cuban economy was in disarray and tens of thousands of Cubans cast out in homemade rafts to make the risky journey to the U.S. creating a migration crisis. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Castro visiting the Great Wall of China during a state visit in December, 1995. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba looked towards China more as a Communist ally. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Pope John Paul II shakes hands with Castro at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on Jan. 21, 1998 after the Pope arrived for his landmark visit to the communist nation. (Michel Gangne / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Castro talks with Elian Gonzalez during the inauguration of the "Museo a la Batalla de Ideas" in Cardenas, Cuba on July 14, 2001.

    Gonzalez was aboard an overcrowded motorboat that capsized en route from Cuba to Florida, killing his mother and others seeking to enter the United States illegally. He was rescued off Florida on Nov. 25, 1999, and then was at the center of a seven-month custody tug-of-war that culminated in US federal agents seizing him by force from Miami-based relatives. (Adalberto Roque / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Former South African President Nelson Mandela and Cuban leader Fidel Castro embrace during a visit by Castro on Sept. 2, 2001 in Johannesburg, South Africa where the two leaders were participating in the World Conference Against Racism. In power since the Cuban revolution in January 1959, Castro was one of the world's longest ruling leaders. Only Queen Elizabeth, crowned in 1952, has been head of state longer. (Jose Goitia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Cuban President Fidel Castro and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter talk after a friendly game of baseball at the Latinoamericano Stadium on May 14, 2002 in Havana, Cuba. This is the first visit by a former or sitting U.S. President since Castro came to power in 1959. (Jorge Rey / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Castro speaks with his brother Raul Castro during a meeting of the Cuban Parliament during December 2003.

    Raul Castro, who has been running Cuba since his brother Fidel was sidelined by illness in 2006, became his official successor in February 2008. (Adalberto Roque / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Two women hold up the latest edition of Granma newspaper bearing the headline "Message from the Commander in Chief," on Feb. 19, 2008, in Havana. Castro stepped down that morning as the president of Cuba after a long illness, according to Granma, the official publication of the Cuban Communist Party. (Jose Goitia / Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Fidel Castro is seen on June 18, 2008 in Havana during a meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, left, and his brother Cuban President Raul Castro, right. Castro, 81, has not been seen in public since he fell during an appearance in July 2006, but the state-run media occassionally releases official photos of the ailing former leader. (Estudios Revolucion / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Fidel Castro speaks during a meeting with students at Havana's University on Sept. 3, 2010. Castro warned of the dangers of nuclear war in his first speech to the Cuban public since falling ill in 2006. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Fidel Castro makes a surprise appearance at the 6th Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba, on April 19, 2011. Raul Castro, right, was named first secretary of Cuba's Communist Party, with his aging brother Fidel not included in the leadership for the first time since the party's creation. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Castro looks at the camera during a rare public appearance to attend the inauguration of an art gallery on Jan. 8, 2014 in Havana. The gallery Castro visited is run by Cuban artist Alexis Leyva, aka Kcho. (Sven Creutzmann / Mambo Photo via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Castro speaks with China's President Xi Jinping in Havana, on July 22, 2014. Xi Jinping said that his state visit to Cuba is aimed at carrying forward the traditional friendship between the two countries jointly built by Castro and the older generations of Chinese leaders, so as to inject new impetus into bilateral cooperation. (Alex Castro / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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