Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Port Everglades welcomes Bay of Pigs prisoners, families

New arrivals aboard Shirley Lykes
Courtesy of Robert Del Pozo,
then child in center

By Jane Feehan

Most think of Miami as the debarkation city for Cuban exiles aboard ships after Fidel Castro came to power but Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades welcomed more than 2,000 Cuban citizens in 1962 and 63.

After the disastrous exile-led Bay of Pigs Invasion of April 1961, more than 1,000 men of Brigade 2506 were captured and convicted by the government of the island country. Some were executed, others sentenced to prison for life. Castro decided to ransom the remaining prisoners - and their families.  Successful negotiations for prisoner release and release of more than 1,000 relatives included ransom (“indemnification set by the revolutionary tribunal”)  of polio vaccine, tractors, food and other supplies.

Supplies and equipment totaling $53 million was gathered and sent to Fort Lauderdale. Ships affiliated with the Committee of American Ship Lines donated services to the Red Cross to expedite the exchange. Part of the ransom was loaded aboard the SS African Pilot in Fort Lauderdale Dec. 21, 1962. On December 27, 923 prisoners and family members aboard the returning ship entered Port Everglades to a warm welcome. Two days later, President John Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline met the ransomed prisoners in a Cuban freedom rally at the Orange Bowl. 

Other family members remaining in Cuba sought freedom.

Castro told the U.S. he would allow a second group of relatives free for another ransom. On Jan. 25, 1963, the SS Shirley Lykes entered Port Everglades with 1,170 Cuban passengers. They received a more subdued greeting than the one offered the African Pilot with its freed prisoners. Fourteen buses were on hand to take the exiles to Miami and six ambulances took some to hospitals.

The manifest included 390 men, 527 women and 253 children - 14 people on stretchers and the Del Pozo family pictured above. Adults told stories of having to leave keys to their homes and cars to Castro. Some felt they were too old to start again in the U.S. Others looked forward to new opportunities, new lives.

Each was given a bag at Port Everglades from the Red Cross with food and toiletries. Children received toys. The SS Shirley Lykes also came laden with 250,000 vials of polio vaccine; Castro said he didn’t need it. Some said it was because there wasn’t enough refrigeration on the island; others said he might have received it from another source.

For many of those exiles that winter, including the Del Pozo family pictured above, Fort Lauderdale provided their first glimpse of the U.S., their new country. Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.

Miami News, Dec 20, 1962
Palm Beach Post, Dec. 29, 1962
Miami News, Jan. 25, 1963

Tags: Cuban exiles in Port Everglades, Port Everglades history, Bay of Pigs prisoner ransom, Fort Lauderdale history, film industry researcher, film researcher

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