Friday, April 6, 2012

A Mission on the CIA Raider Ship Rex

JM/WAVE CIA station at University of Miami, Fla. South Campus

Bradley E. Ayers – The Zenith Secret (p. 18, 27 -34)

Monday morning we met the station chief, Ted Shackley. As we sat in the outer office, waiting a little nervously, I saw that they had missed no detail on setting up the false front of Zenith Technical Enterprises. There were phony sale and production charts on the walls and business licenses from the state and federal governments. A notice to salesman, pinned near the door, advised them of the calling hours for various departments. The crowning touch was a certificate of award from the United Givers’ Fund to Zenith for outstanding participation in its annual fund drive...

I was eventually given three separate cover identities, each for use under different, special circumstances. One was the Army civilian employee ID/ cover under my true name. The second was to be used in any internal CIA communications, reports, memos, accounting records, etc. – anything that would go into the agency files. I was to identify myself and sign-off as Anthony P. Darguzis, supposedly a fictional name. Later, I learned the CIA used the London telephone directory to come up with this and other pseudonyms for in-house purposes.

At JM/WAVE, I was given another operational cover identity, to be used in external activities while working with the Cuban exiles, in any capacity. This was Daniel B. Williams who would be listed as a legitimate employee on a variety of corporations set up to cover covert operations against Cuba. A plausible personal history was fabricated and memorized for use with both the Army cover and the covert operational cover. Cover documents, IDs, drivers licenses, etc. were produced by the agency cover branch and appeared to be absolutely legitimate. (p. 265)

Outside agents were American or Cuban CIA employees who were not cleared for entry into the undercover headquarters. These employees were either too “hot” because of exposure to exiles or did not have the proper security clearance. Contact with these persons was always made clandestinely on the outside, using individually assigned operational cover; in my case, the Paragon Air Service cover.

The Rex and the Leda were converted WWII Naval vessels configured and maintained by the JM/WAVE Maritime branch for use in the station’s covert paramilitary operations against Cuba. Each vessel had an American case officer that managed the crew, coordinated missions, arranged dockage in the U.S. and elsewhere undercover, and dealt with all the financial details associated with the operations of the ships. The Operations and Maritime Branches were closely intertwined but often at odds.

Sometime later I learned that the Plantation Key complex (used for training) had, in fact, been a base for paramilitary operations prior to my occupancy, apparently by commandos directly under Morales’ control. The site had a good, small seaside basin for securing V-20s. It had been vacated because neighbors had become suspicious.

(Gordon Campbell was Ted Shackley’s assistant chief of station and in charge of the maritime operations.)

The only way I could maintain a secure contact with Gordon Campbell,...was to go ashore to the pay phone at Black Point...Gordon Campbell gave me several Miami-Homestead area phone contact numbers to use for secure communications with him...One number I tried was answered by a women with the greeting, “Mr. Bishop’s office.” I concluded I’d either dialed incorrectly or Campbell had given me the number by mistake, or I may have erred in recording it when he gave it to me. However, several times when talking casually with (Shackley’s secretary) Maggie, she dropped the name Bishop when referring to Campbell. I didn’t know what to make of it, but I ceased using that number for the contact with Mr. Campbell.

...Despite objections, Ted Shackley accepted my recommendations almost to the letter. Ted informed me that I was to be permanently assigned to the training branch to set p and supervise a new program. Two weeks later I was on a V-20, speeding through the darkness, about to intercept a large mother ship lying at anchor some several miles off Islamorada. Our Cuban operator expertly turned the craft and came about on the lee side, then maneuvered it beneath the overhanging hull of the looming vessel. We were surrounded by blackness. Silently, a line was thrown from the deck above us and cargo net was dropped over the side. We clambered up and over the cold, slippery rail of the Rex, a converted Navy World War II patrol craft.

As the V-20 sped back toward the Florida coast, the full implications struck me. We were on our way to Cuba.

The roar of the departing V-20 was quickly swallowed by the sounds of the sea and the noise of the larger ship’s diesels as they throbbed to life. I looked back for a moment. The lights of Miami glowed to the north. South, toward the Straights of Florida and the Communist island, there was only dark, open sea. To the east I could see Alligator Reef and the slowly moving lights of a large tanker in the shipping lanes of the Gulf Stream, miles from our position. It seemed unreal, as if I were standing on the edge of the world…. I was watching off the port bow, and soon the blink of the signal light from the smaller sister ship – the decoy vessel that would accompany us to Cuba – dotted the blackness. It was her acknowledgment that we’d weighed anchor and were under way. She would follow us at a distance of ten miles, using her small radar receiver. Radios would be used only in the event of an emergency...

After checking on the team members – they were now asleep – Marcus took me down to the galley and introduced me to Captain Luis and his first mate Enrique. The captain, a stocky, distinguished looking man in his late 40s, wore a gleaming .38-caliber revolver holstered on is belt. Enrique was thin and rangy, with the look of the sea about him, the deep lines etched in his leathery, tanned skin told of a lifetime of sailing.

Captain Luis spoke excellent English, and since he had been on many similar missions, I was most interested to share his firsthand knowledge of Castro’s defenses. For the next hour we sipped bitter Cuban coffee as he explained in great detail the modus operandi of the Komar-class coastal patrol boats supplied to the Cubans by the Russians. I was amazed to find that he even knew the names of the Cuban commanders and crew members of some of the fast, heavily armed Soviet crafts. His information on the frequently changing routes and schedules of the coastal patrols was less than 24 hours old. He also knew the exact locations of the powerful coastal searchlight and gun placements in the are the team would be infiltrating.

I had to admire the CIA’s ability to secure such operational intelligence and disseminate it to Captain Luis; there were always two or three operations taking place simultaneously, in one phase or another. Despite the thorough knowledge of the enemy’s defenses at sea, he and Marcus had only sketchy information on Castro’s shore surveillance. They knew that the Communists used radar, lookouts, and foot patrols with dogs, and had a network of civilian informers, mainly loyal fishermen and coastal residents. The specifics were supposed to have been part of the intelligence given to Marcus by the CIA case officer who had briefed the team, but the case officer apparently had forgotten to include this information. It would be a touch and go situation once the commandos had gotten past the patrol boats.

It was well past midnight when I went below to my small, shared cabin in the forward part of the ship and in minutes I was asleep. Awakened to the same monotonous engine throb that had put me to sleep I realized we were rapidly approaching Cuba, and tonight we would launch the operation.

I joined Captain Luis on the bridge, and for nearly an hour he explained the mechanics of the reclaimed World War II vessel. He showed me the elaborate electronic navigation gear and communications equipment that had been installed by the CIA. I was startled to learn that, despite all the equipment, the captain was navigating by dead reckoning alone, and only an occasional cross checking by LORAN (a worldwide, long-range, commercial air-sea navigation system). Except for the usual multilingual banter coming over the standard commercial ship-to-shore radio, no other equipment was on. I asked Captain Luis how the station contacted him to give him last minute information or instructions and I learned that the special high frequency radio was turned on only for limited periods at specific intervals.

The captain showed me the 40mm deck cannons mounted fore and aft and two .50 caliber machine guns set amidship. These weapons, and the small arms available to the eight man crew, were the ship’s only defenses. All of the heavy guns and ammunition were encased in innocent looking plywood boxes that had quick release devices to permit easy access...

Below the main deck, the pealing bulkheads were wet with condensation and pipes were leaking. Captain Luis and I walked through the ship and he introduced me to each crewman….When the captain finished showing me around, I concluded that the Rex was a noisy, leaking relic, continuously in need of repair, but otherwise seaworthy.

After the noon meal, the team went back to their cabin to rest; they would remain there until supper, when we would gather for a final briefing. In the midafternoon, Capt. Luis calculated our position: we were on schedule, somewhere between Cuba and the Dry Tortugas. By dusk, we would reach the drop point...

Instruments and sampling probes had been dropped overboard and were being trailed behind the ship, in accordance with our cover role. The ship would remain on its present course and speed until it reached the drop off point near the village of Dimas, southwest of the Cayou Jutias beacon, at midnight. The vessel would be approximately three miles off the Cuban coast at a time when the two Cuban patrol boats covering the area would be farthest away. As the minesweeper continued to move slowly, the team would launch the rafts, get aboard, start the silent engines, and release their lines to the mother ship. All this had to be done in complete blackout and as quietly as possible.

There would be no turning back, even in the event of discovery, because once the team released the tow line, the mother ship would continue under way to clear the area. Using a compass and visual landmarks on the coast, the team would make its way across the shallow coastal shelf to their landing point.

Hopefully the silent engines would work, but if they failed, the men would paddle the rubber rafts. Meanwhile, the smaller decoy vessel would move to a point some five miles off Sancho Pardo Bank and, with lights ablaze and engines running loudly, would attract the attention of shore lookouts and the Cuban patrol boats. The decoy vessel would be in international waters, so there was little the Communists could do but keep it under surveillance and, we hoped, be distracted from the team and us.

Tension mounted as the briefing continued. We wer all sweating profusely in the small, closed, place. The commando team leader, visibly nervous, drew on the back of a nautical chart a rough sketch of the coastline near Dimas. He spoke in Spanish and the team and Marcus translated for me. The launching and the boarding of the rubber rafts were routine; each man knew his assignment. The silent engines would be mounted and started immediately while the boats remained in tow. When the ship reached the drop point, Captin Luis would momentarily rev the engines as a signal to release the lines. The two rafts would then proceed shoreward. Once inland, the team would locate a safe hiding place and stay there until dawn.

At first light, the team would bury the cache of containers in the mangroves that fringed the shoreline. Then two of the men would move several hundred yards inland to observe the raod that ran along the coast from Dimas to the village of Baja. If the team was detected, Castro’s men would probably use that route to reach the area; approach from the sea by any sizable boat was impossible because of the shallow water. In addition, the team might be able to pick up some valuable information while watching the road. When it was sufficiently dark, the team would reassemble, uncover their rubber boats, and, this time using only paddles, row back to the rendezvous point. Besides using the compass on the return trip, they would have an RDF receiver to home in on the mother ship.

Captain Luis would have the mother ship in the vicinity of the rendezvous point for one hour, from 0200 to 0300. If for some reason contact was not made, we would return at the same time the following night. After that, the team would be presumed lost. The decoy vessel would play essentially the same role during the recovery phase as it had during the drop, and, of course, would take us back to Florida.

All illumination on board the ship had now been extinguished, and there was only stifling heat and eerie redness of the blackout lights. In the equipment room, Marcus and I helped the men secure their gear. They wore dark clothes, heavy work shoes, and either dark blue baseball-type or wool watch caps. They carried compasses, machetes, entrenching tools, rope, canteens, and ammunition pouches attached to standard Army pistol belts. Two men carried light packs, one containing rations and the other containing a small, specially developed long-range radio transreceiver. With the receiver, they could talk with the mother ship and, under optimum conditions, with CIA reception stations at various locations throughout the Caribbean.

The team leader wore a .45 caliber pistol in a shoulder holster, while each of the other men carried a standard M-3 .45-caliber submachine gun and four clips of ammunition. All labels and identifying marks had been removed from the equipment.

When they finished dressing, Marcus checked the men again, and then gave each a small emergency survival kit containing fishing gear, water-desalination and purification chemicals, secret writing materials, Cuban money, morphine, and a special capsule containing a painless, rapidly acting lethal poison. The contents of the kit would be used at the discretion of the individual, depending on the nature of the emergency. There was no question about the morality of this procedure.

I was troubled by the loose, careless way them men wore their equipment. It could easily be lost and was hazardous in other ways as well. I told Marcus to have the men jump up and down in place. He looked at me quizzically but passed on my instructions to the team. The clank of metal against metal filed the cramped room. We securely taped the loose straps and buckles, then Marcus handed me a .45-caliber pistol in a shoulder holster and buckled a similar weapon around his waist.

The deck was black. In the distance to the west, lightning flickered and a roll of thunder could be heard over the low growl of the diesel engines. To the south, beacons and scattered lights marked the coast of the Communist island. Off our stern, the bright lights of the decoy vessel were visible. The team moved to the stern and, with the help of the crew, began to uncover the rubber boats. Talking loudly, cursing, and the clanking of the deck fittings were quite audible over the drone of the ship’s slow-turning engines. Marcus tried to quiet the men, but they persisted in their talking. Captain Luis shrugged, as if to say it was impossible to keep them quiet. I believed him. But I was sure the Cuban patrols would have heard us by now.

We all worked to slide the heavy neoprene rafts gently over the rail and lower them to the water so that they’d land right side up. Two of the commandos were lowered to the rafts...I looked at my watch; time was slipping quickly….We seemed close to the shore, and I was tense, expecting to hear the first burst of machine gun fire that would signal our discovery.

Finally the cargo net was cast over the side and the remaining team members clambered over the rail and down to the rubber boats. Marcus, the captain and I watched from the stern as the two small boats became dark blobs trailing a hundred feet behind us in the phosphorescent wake...The Cuban coast was very near; the captain had violated the three-mile limit and we were within one mile of the shore. We watched the tow line go slack; then the rafts were lost in the darkness...

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