April 22, 2018
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‘We were within seconds of a situation’: Houlton man recalls service during Bay of Pigs

Houlton Pioneer Times photo by Joseph Cyr | BDN
Houlton Pioneer Times photo by Joseph Cyr | BDN
Torrey Sylvester of Houlton displays a photograph of the U.S. Naval destroyer U.S.S. Conway on which he served for 36 months, along with a letter he wrote to a Cuban exile he helped rescue in the Bay of Pigs incident 50 years ago.
By Joseph Cyr, Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — Fifty years ago, Torrey Sylvester of Houlton was a 24-year-old member of the United States Navy serving on the destroyer U.S.S. Conway.

In April 1961, he was heading to the Caribbean on a secret mission. That mission would later become known the world over as “The Bay of Pigs.” At the time, he knew very little about the events that were to transpire or the significance they would have across the globe.

The Bay of Pigs Invasion was an unsuccessful military action performed by a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles to invade southern Cuba with support from the U.S government. The action was an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro and lasted April 17-19, 1961, during John F. Kennedy’s presidency.

In the 50 years since that exercise, Sylvester has often wondered what had become of the group of Cubans, particularly one young man whom he formed a bond with while sharing a room on the ship.

That man was Blas Casares, a student at the University of Oklahoma who dropped his studies to volunteer as a frogman for the CIA, according to an article in the Miami New Times of Jan. 17, 2008.

Sylvester and Casares shared many conversations in the days after the failed military operation. Upon returning to Norfolk, Va., Sylvester drafted a letter to Casares to check on his well-being, but never received a response. For years, he never knew if his letter ever made it to his Cuban friend.

So imagine Sylvester’s surprise when he received an email a few weeks ago from Casares, looking to catch up on the 50th anniversary of the attack. Casares’ email also included an attachment of the very letter Sylvester sent to him all those years ago.

Sylvester said Casares tracked him down via the Internet, and the two men have since spoken many times on the phone in the past month.

“It blew me away that he had saved this letter,” Sylvester said. “I just picked up the phone and called him. He had been searching for me, but didn’t know my whereabouts.”

Sylvester graduated from the University of Maine in Orono on June 1, 1959, and signed up to be a member of the U.S. Navy the very next day.

“I did that so I wouldn’t get drafted,” he said. “That way I could choose which branch I wanted to serve.”

He attended officer’s boot camp in September in Newport, R.I.

“I had never been on a [large] ship and never been on salt water,” he said. “I was a County boy.”

He completed four months of intensive training, earning an ensign commission.

“All that time, I never stepped foot on a ship, because they were all engaged in activities between Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom,” he said.

He first set foot on the USS Conway in January 1960 and that ship served as his home for the next 37 months. He started out in the gunnery department and worked his way up to anti-submarine warfare officer before eventually becoming a gunnery officer.

“We served in peacetime, but I still had three very interesting missions on the Conway,” he said. “We were one of seven destroyers all built in Bath [at Bath Iron Works] and were called ‘Destroyer Squadron 28.’”

With his home port Norfolk, Va., Sylvester said he went on a couple of missions near Greenland to locate and track Russian submarines trying to make their way through the icy Atlantic for Cuba.

“We were the premier anti-sub group in the Atlantic, which is where all the action was,” Sylvester said.

During peacetime, his ship also was assigned as a “down-range recovery ship” for all the Mercury 7 space missions, plucking such astronauts as Alan Shepard, Don Slaton and Gus Grissom from the ocean after their historic space missions.

But his assignment on April 17, 1961, was shrouded in mystery. He knew something was afoot since the Conway’s hull number of 507 had been painted out, as had the name of the ship on the stern. Each ship also had a CIA representative on board to monitor the activities.

“We had no idea what was going on,” Sylvester said. “We were ordered to the coast of Honduras, which took about a day’s steam from Cuba. There, we escorted three fairly good-sized C2 tankers and freighters. On those ships were members of Brigade 2506, which were Cuban rebels.”

Brigade 2506 was comprised of about 1,300 men, of whom nearly 1,200 were captured in the failed coup. The United States eventually negotiated their release on Dec. 29, 1962.

“We were about six miles off the coast,” Sylvester said. “We could hear all the gunfire and traffic on the radio asking for air support. Planes flew over, but had been ordered not to engage by President Kennedy. We couldn’t fire a single shot, and therefore the rebels got their butts kicked.”

Sylvester said he remembers about 36 rebels who managed to avoid capture and made their way to the beach. Casares was one of the individuals who had avoided capture and was waiting on the beach for the Conway team to extract them.

“Our ship was given the order to go in and look for any survivors,” said Sylvester. “Our commanding officer asked for volunteers to take our boats in and pick up any survivors. I was single, so I stuck my hand up to volunteer. We took two 26-foot, motor whale boats, which are powered by a diesel engine. They don’t go very fast, but they are durable.”

Sylvester said he had a .45 handgun and a Thompson submachine gun. He along with two other individuals were in one whale boat, while a similar three-man crew was on a second whale boat.

“We motored in and didn’t see anybody,” Sylvester said. “I got out and stood on the beach and waited for close to an hour. I can tell you we were all sweating bullets. Finally, we saw a group of about 36 guys come out of the woods.”

Sylvester said the rebels were in “pretty tough shape” suffering from cuts, broken limbs and flesh wounds from gunshots.

“We got all the guys on board without incident,” he said. “We got them all taken care of and then received word to proceed back to Norfolk.”

Sylvester said he formed a kinship with Casares, who spoke fluent English, albeit with a Cuban accent, as the two shared a room on the return trip to the United States.

In July 1961, he wrote Casares a letter, but after not getting a response, he forgot all about it.

“I didn’t have a copier or anything like that, so it was forgotten,” he said.

For years, Sylvester and the rest of the crew had been sworn to secrecy by the CIA and were not allowed to talk about their mission to the Bay of Pigs. He drafted a story about the events about 15 years ago and sent that article to the Naval Institute Proceedings, hoping it would be published.

“They wouldn’t print it because they said it was too sensitive,” he said.

Interestingly enough, Sylvester and the USS Conway were also involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis on Oct. 22, 1962.

“That was a tense standoff,” Sylvester said. “We were surrounding this big merchant ship that was delivering weapons to Cuba. I had firing keys in my hand, but we were told to wait. The Cuban Missile Crisis was very interesting as I feel we were within seconds of a situation before [president John F.] Kennedy stared down [Russian premier] Nikita Khruschev.”

Instead the destroyers circled the merchant ship, preventing it from moving forward, while waiting for the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy to arrive on the scene for diplomatic negotiations.

During his 37 months on the Conway, Sylvester said the ship was never fired upon in anger, nor did his ship fire on another in anger.

Sylvester said Casares, along with a few other officers, were given immediate American citizenship, provided they enlisted in the military. Casares volunteered for the Navy and ultimately became a Navy SEAL. He later became a businessman in Miami, Fla.

Sylvester said he hopes to meet with Casares face-to-face in September during a USS Conway reunion in Pittsburgh.

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