The Guns of The Bay of Pigs Invasion

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Fifty-four years ago plus five days, nearly thirteen hundred troops of the paramilitary Cuban exile group Brigade 2506 landed in Cuba, in an attempt to overthrow the Communist Cuban government, led by Fidel Castro. Sponsored by the CIA, the Brigade was armed with a motley of weapons, many ex-US military examples left over from World War II. Historical Firearms has posted to their Facebook page an album of photographs showing a cross-section of the weapons used by both the Brigadiers and the Communist forces.

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The Communist Fidel Castro and his men holding captured US arms from the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs, including a Johnson M1941 rifle. Image source: historicalfirearms.info

 

One curiosity present in the photographs is the M1941 Johnson selfloading rifle. HF takes a closer look at the Johnson and its use in the Bay of Pigs Invasion in a blog post:

The M1941 was however rejected by the majority of the US military as tooling and production of the M1 Garandhad already begun in 1937. With the outbreak of World War Two and America’s involvement from 1942 some parts of the US Marine Corps become interested in the rifle.  30.000 M1941s had originally been ordered by the Netherlands for their colonial forces, these were requisitioned and issued to the Marines.  They saw some limited use during the early stages of the Pacific Campaign but were soon replaced with the more plentiful M1 Garandand the majority of the requisitioned M1941s were returned to the Dutch after the war.

However, a number remained in store throughout the 1950s and it was these rifles which would be issued to the men of Brigade 2506.  In the photograph above they have their bayonets fixed and are carrying out close quarter combat drills.  The M1941s bayonet as can be seen above is a type of spike bayonet, this made it useful for little else. The lighter bayonet was issued as the standard knife bayonet, as used by the M1, was found to adversely affect the rifle’s recoil-operated firing mechanism.

The Bay of Pigs Invasion was a fiasco, the unsupported Brigade 2506 landed with a total force of 1,300 and were quickly overwhelmed by Cuban forces who were much better armed.  It had been hoped that a uprising of the dissatisfied would occur as soon as forces landed but this was not the case and within a day or so the Cuban army and militia was quickly boxing in the anti-Castro forces.   Support from US forces, which had been hoped for, did not materialise and other than some Combat Air Patrols flown to intimidate Cuban forces, there was no sanctioned US involvement.

Of the initial landing force some 1,100 were captured on the 20th April with around 120 being killed in action.  Some survivors were picked up on the coast by US destroyers but the majority were not released until 1962 once Cuban exiles had paid a ransom. The entire incident was a major debacle and served only to inflame US -Cuban relations.

The Johnson rifle was in many ways the equal of the Garand. While the superiority of the Johnson over the Garand is largely a fabrication of Johnson’s political savvy, the Johnson did perform better in dust tests, and the initial prototypes proved to be very accurate.

Today M1941 rifles – designated as such by the Dutch government-in-exile, not the US Marine Corps – are prized by collectors for being unique, smooth shooting, accurate, and interesting.

I plan to cover the Johnson rifle in greater depth in an upcoming post. Stay tuned.



Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


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  • Vitsaus

    Does anyone know of any memoir written by a Bay of Pigs veteran? I have a particular interest in anti-communist conflicts, and we seldom learn anything of value about the tragic event.

  • Alex Nicolin

    When I saw the skinny barrel mounted on a thick stock I thought it was an air rifle 🙂

  • Darkpr0

    Are those 41 Johnsons scoped, or do my eyes deceive me? I’ll bet those would fetch a very pretty penny at auction.

    • Looks as though at least a couple of them are!

  • Esh325

    While the Johnson rifle might not have been a success, almost every rifle design today including the M16 utilizes its bolt design.

    • MPWS

      Spoton remark!

  • Bubbles

    I don’t mean to cause any trouble, but I am a Cuban and am offended by this.

    • NotoriousAPP

      Elaborate. No joke. I’m not biased towards either side, I really am curious of your perspective.

      • Esh325

        Honestly, I don’t see anything wrong because it’s an article that’s just examining the use of the rifle in a particular conflict, and isn’t taking any sides.

      • David Sharpe

        He’s referencing the article that was posted on St. Paddy’s day that was deleted after some Limey Brit complained about it..

    • SP mclaughlin

      Offended by an unbiased mention of history?

      • ostiariusalpha

        He’s just riffing on the hullabaloo that happened on this site when a Brit soldier got offended by an article about the AR-18.

    • ghost

      Everybody is offended by something, you are entitled too.

      • Bubbles

        I guess it’d be different if I were British. Sorry for the troubles I caused. Cough.

    • Could you be more specific?

      • RocketScientist

        Pretty sure its a joke/sarcasm. Guy would have to chime in himself to confirm, but I’m assuming he poking fun at the whole AR-18, easily-offended-Brittish cluster**** a month or so back.

        • Tinklebell

          This is hilarious because if you read an English newspaper – irrespective of its political bias – it’s as if being offended by everything and nothing is a national pastime. The frightening part is that the UK actually has laws on the books that enable the local councils or the police to investigate, and even prosecute, anything that could remotely be considered “offensive”. More often than not, this is highly subjective too.

      • David Sharpe

        He’s referencing the article that was posted on St. Paddy’s day that was deleted after some Limey Brit complained about it………

    • Kevin Harron

      Aren’t you a special snowflake? Offended by a historical article.

      • David Sharpe

        He’s referencing the article that was posted on St. Paddy’s day that was deleted after some Limey Brit complained about it.

    • Zebra Dun

      Lots of things offend me, I just shake it off and stomp it down.

    • Gabe Suarez

      I’m Cuban, my family suffered during those times – and I am not offended.

      In short – The Cubans wanted their place back…JFK promised he would help, and then like so many other US presidents have done before and since, stabbed them squarely in the back.

      I still have ties there and maybe I will see about “legally-smuggling” those rifles back into the USA.

      • David Sharpe

        He’s referencing the article that was posted on St. Paddy’s day that was deleted after some Limey Brit complained about it…

  • Azril @ Alex Vostox

    Apparently Fidel and Raul Castro is fond to a sniper rifle especially Remington M70

  • ghost

    CIA sent them in, and cut them off. More to it than that, but a bit political.

    • SS Totenkopf

      “I want to splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the wind”- JFK- shortly after he said that the Secret Service detail was waved off from his topless limo, Jackie O was picking up pieces of his brain in Dallas, Israel got their nukes and the Zionists have had their puppets in the Offal Office ever since.

      • Don Ward

        I thought scum like you didn’t like Catholics.

  • Lance

    Many US allies and pro-US groups in the 1960 got surplus WW2 arms since we had so many of them See more than M-1941s there see a M-1903 and a M-1 as well. South Vietnam also had only US WW2 arms fighting then the new VC insurgency. Armed with M-1 Garands and carbines BARs and M-1919s was common then. ARVn didnt get modern rifle till after 1968 with President Nixon’s Vietnamization program. Only then they got M-16s. Same goes for these ill fated freedom fighters. If Kennedy gave them the air power they needed maybe we didn’t have to deal with Castro.

    • Vitsaus

      Surprised that a democrat was reluctant to commit the full capability of the US military against communists?

    • Dave C

      The aircraft are a crutch. The Cuban air force dispersed the remaining aircraft after the first airstrike on D-2. The U.S. hand in the airstrikes was immediately revealed, and so JFK freaked out because the whole “plausible deniability” was going out the window. A further airstrike would have undermined the last shreds of CIA “subterfuge.” The planners, Hawkins and other planners told Richard Bissell to scrub the mission, and Bissell refused to relay the recommendation up the chain of command. The window of opportunity was rapidly closing–indeed, it may have already–given the buid-up of the FAR and supply of weapons from first Belgium, later the Czechs and Soviets… The idea that there’d be popular uprisings against the Castro regime was undone by mass-arrest of potential disloyal people tipped off about the imminence of invasion by the airstrikes on 15 April. The idea that Castro would be removed by a timely leadership vacuum via assassination… Well, that didn’t happen either. On the very day of the invastion–D-Day itself–the Texan CIA agent Grayston Lynch was dumbfounded to learn that there’d be no U.S. air umbrella over the landing beaches provided by U.S. Navy aircraft. The AB2506 would rely solely on the WWII vintage Douglas B26 aircraft flying from Nicaragua. Lynch put it this way: It was like finding out “superman was a fairy.” The invasion was swept up in 66 hours. Blame Kennedy if you must–and people do–but the plan was deeply flawed from start to finish. JFK, humiliated, followed up with Mongoose, which managed to convince Castro and his entourage that U.S. forces would be used in a future invasion, which led to the October 1962 Missile Crisis….

      Macchiavelli once said: “Never do your enemy a light injury…”

      • RealitiCzech

        I still don’t understand how they thought a couple thousand Cubans who sought refuge in the US invading Cuba over a hundred miles of open sea would somehow be ‘deniable.’

    • Agitator

      But if we wanted to win the war, we should have given everyone M14s right?

    • TJbrena

      People forget how popular Castro was in the early 60s, especially compared to Batista, and in the midst of Cold War ideological struggles even the US gov’t forgot that.

      Most Cubans were dirt-poor and thus benefited heavily from the socialist policies Castro instituted at the cost of economic growth; most Cubans saw their quality of life improving drastically in those early years. Middle-class and upper-class Cubans got boned hard by those same policies and would have been the most disillusioned with Castro in those early days, but they were a minority.

      Remember, Socialist ideology appeals most to a populace that’s predominantly poor and powerless with a very rich/powerful minority. Trying to remove a government that people think is helping them plays into their narrative, especially one with a persecution complex like the Castro regime has. Chrissakes, Cuba’s gov’t still says the US embargo is a genocide against the Cuban people.

      Even if the invasion succeeded, the chance of it causing a regime change was slim unless Brigade 2506 could go innamountains and survive until they became completely self-sustaining within Cuba. Regardless of how long that would take, the time needed for such a movement to be able to enact a regime change would likely have been at least a decade from landing in Baya de Cochinas to feeding Castro a .45 cigar.

      Fast forward twenty years or so, and Cuba was in mostly stagnant economically and socially, so we ended up getting all those Cubans headed to Florida. Had the Bay of Pigs invasion been carried out with different planning and in the 1980s when discontent with the Castro regime was much more widespread, the results would have been much more rapid and favorable.

      This isn’t a Kennedy vs Reagan comparison so much as it is a 60s Cuba vs 80s Cuba analysis.

      Let’s not turn this into an argument about current events.

  • Darren Hruska

    I’d love to get an M1941 Johnson rifle within my lifetime! I’ve seen one once, but it was priced at a pretty hefty $5,000. So yeah, definitely a collector’s item.

    • RocketScientist

      When I first started to get serious into firearms (maybe 10-12 years ago?) I was at my first gun show (small obscure local one, not part of a major circuit). There was a guy with some old C&R/surplus rifles on his table (Mosins of course, a few stock and sporterized Mausers, a K31, the typical). Among them was this weird looking semi-auto I’d never seen before. Guy was asking around $1k, from what I remember. I considering this was way more than an AR at the time I remember wondering what this guy was thinking. Though it was a neat gun, neat action etc. But nothing I was interested in (was shopping for my first EDC piece, or maybe a cheap AR). Now the Johnson M1941 is one of my favorite obscure gun designs ever, and I would LOVE to own one. Kicking myself for not scrounging up the cash then and there to buy one at what I now know to be a damn good price. Oh well, at least I got to handle it and cycle the action and such.

    • RealitiCzech

      Cheapest way is to get a sporterized model and convert it back to military spec as parts come available. Sporterized models are usually 2k and under.

  • Zebra Dun

    I believe the major problem was the barrel which for reasons unclear did not lend itself to being a good bayonet attachment which at the time was heretical in the Marines.

    • ostiariusalpha

      The barrel on a Johnson traveled backwards during recoil to operate the cycling of the action. It was sensitive to changes in mass, hence anything attached to it that was too heavy would cause the action to short-stroke. A light bayonet was all it could reliably handle.

  • Dave C

    Once more from the top:

    Brigade de Asalto 2506 o sea, “Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación/CIA”:
    .45 M1A1 Thompson
    .45 M3A1 sub-ametralladora
    .45 M1928 Thompson
    .30 Carabina M2
    .30 Carabina M1
    U.S. rifle, caliber .30 M1 (El Garand)
    M1941 Joohnson .30-06 (paracaidistas)
    Fusil automático M1918A2 Browning Automatic Rifle
    M1919A6 Ametralladora/ LMG
    .50 “Ma Deuce” M2HB HMG/Ametralladora pesada
    Lazacohetes M20 89mm “Super-baazooka”
    57mm M18A1 recoilless rifles
    75mm M20 recoilless rifles
    60mm, 81mm, 107mm U.S. Mortars
    5x M41 Bulldog Walker tanques liigeros con ca˜ón 76mm M32 y ametralladoras.
    16xB26B Douglas Invasores, cada un con 8x.50 M2 ametralladoras, cohetes, bombas y napalm
    6xDouglas C54 Skymaster transport planes
    8xCurtis C46 Commando transport planes
    TOTAL: 1,511 tropas en 5 batallones, una compa˜ía de paracaidistas, otra Cmpa. de armas pesadas, otra de intelligencia y reconocimiento, y los tanquistas de los 5 M41.
    10 camiones artillados con ametralladoras .50M2HB
    75 M20 Super bazooka lanzacohetes
    21 cañones sin retroceso de 57mm o 75mm
    60 morteros, 83 ametralladoras, y 5 barcos, tipo LCU, LCVP, LSD, etc.

    Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias y MNR, o sea, Castristas:
    9mm Sa.23 y Sa.25 sub-ametralladoras Checoslovacas en gran cantidad.
    7.62x25mm Shpagin PPSh41 sub-ametralladoras Soviéticas.
    7.62x45mm “Modelo 52” Vz52 Fusil semi-automático Checo.
    7.62x51mm FAL Belga.
    Tal vez, unos Fusiles tipo Grand y Springfield del Ejército Cubano antes de la triunfa de la revolución.
    7.62x45mm Vz52 Ametralladora ligera Checa.
    Tal vez 7.62x54mmR DP Soviética y RP-46 ametralladora Soviética.
    7.92x57mm ZB53/V37 ametralladora pesada Checa.
    12.7mm DShKM Checa, tipo M53 incluso el “cuádruple AAA.
    Todo tipo de artillerâ, cañones y obúses Soviiéticos entre 76mm hasta 122mm
    T-34/85 tanques medios desde la Unión Soviética.
    En reserva, unos IS-2M Stalin tanques pesadas.
    SU100 cazatanques/ cañón autopropulsados Soviéticos.
    3 Lockheed T33 aviones con 2x.50 M2.
    5 Douglas B26 Invasor Modelo C.
    5 Hawker Sea Fury aviones con cañones 20mm y cohetes
    6 Grumman Avenger (no usados?)
    TOTAL: 24 Batallones de MNR, 2 “columnas” de la FAR, 1 Bn. PNR, más o menos un medio del parque entero de tanques y artillería pesada de las FAR…

    El régimen Revolucionario y Fidel Castro ganaron la victoria. ?Sabes por qué?

  • Fruitbat44

    Whatever the politics of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Johnson is still an interesting rifle.

    Looking forward to an in depth article on it.

  • David Sharpe

    I wonder when this will be deleted after someone complains………

  • idahoguy101

    The Johnson machine rifle MAY have been better than the Browning BAR. But the Browning BAR was in mass production and GI approved.