This year, the 117th Air Refueling Wing of the Alabama Air National Guard is memorializing four fallen Alabama veterans who died during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. The four men, Leo Baker, Wade Gray, Thomas “Pete” Ray and Riley Shamburger, are remembered by the Wing each year.
This year, they decided to go bigger, says Col. Scott Grant, maintenance group commander for the 117th.
“We decided this year that we would dedicate an airplane, our very first airplane that is going to have nose art on it in many, many years,” Grant said. “We are absolutely thrilled to have the University of Alabama at Birmingham Art Department to help us out with that.”
The nose art was researched and designed by 117 ARW Guardsman and history buff Tech. Sgt. Aaron Sharit. The design is an emblem that correlates with the mission: It comprises the unofficial squadron patch, the Cuban colors and a shield that signifies the Cuban pilots, Baker and Ray’s tail number, and the names of all four men lost in the mission that day.
Over the course of three days, UAB art students Tait Wayland, Hannah Rettig and Stephen Stark, with UAB Assistant Professor of Drawing and Bookmaking Doug Baulos, MFA, Professor of Painting Gary Chapman, MFA, and Studio Technician Bo Hughins, drew and painted the mural memorial sign with help from local artists Michael Swann and Katherine Anne Thompson. The students also learned about the history of sign painting and the materials and methodology involved.
“Sign painting is still a really big thing, and it’s actually enjoying a popular resurgence,” Baulos said. “It’s not only good experience, but a unique experience.”
Rettig, a junior in the BFA program, says she had never before done anything like this project.
“Not only is it a new experience, but it is something totally cool to kind of leave your mark for the Air Force,” she said.
According to the Alabama Air National Guard, in late 1960, General Reid Doster, the 117th Reconnaissance Wing commander, was approached by the CIA in secrecy to get volunteers to train and assist Cuban exiles in the Bay of Pigs invasion. They wanted the men of the 117th since they were the last unit in the United States to fly the B-26, their aircraft of choice for the operation. After months of training, the operation began on April 15, 1961. President John Kennedy, nervous about U.S. involvement, cut the number of aircraft used on the first night from 16 to eight. By April 18, the Alabama guardsmen were flying combat missions alongside their Cuban aviators and friends; but Washington vowed to deny any involvement if they were captured. On April 19, while flying a mission, the Alabama guardsmen were attacked by Cuban fighters. Shamburger and Gray’s B-26 smashed into the water at high speed after being shot down, and they were killed on impact. Ray and Baker were shot down over land and killed after capture. Ray’s body was the only one ever returned to the United States, but not until 1979. He is now buried in Forest Hill Cemetery overlooking the Birmingham airport. The 117th each year has marked the day by visiting his grave.
This year, they will have a private dedication of the 1958 KC-135R Stratotanker, scheduled for April 18, followed by a public graveside ceremony where Ray is buried at Forest Hill, with the 117 ARW Honor Guard and a 21 gun salute.
The 2014 memorial keeps getting bigger and bigger, which is terrific, Grant says.
“This year we are looking at having the Bay of Pigs invasion participants and the families that we can find of the four fallen heroes to be beside the aircraft for a dedication of this nose art as it enters our fleet under the colors of Mad Dog 935,” he said.
Then, just like every year on that day, they will adjourn to visit the legendary Airport Inn, where so many of the missions were planned, to sign a logbook and memorialize their fallen brothers in arms.