U.S. Marines, Cuba, and the Invasion that Never Was: Part 1

By: Dr. Edward T. Nevgloski, Ph.D.
President John F. Kennedy speaks at a news con­ference in Washington D.C., 1961. The threat of nuclear missile sites in Cuba prompted the president to take defensive action. (Photo courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
On Oct. 14, 1962, photographic evi­dence produced by an American U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft revealed the construction of Soviet medium-range nuclear ballistic missile sites in Cuba a mere 90 miles off the southern coast of the continental U.S. Additional reconnaissance flights on Oct. 15 and 16 confirmed site construction as well as the presence of numerous ballistic missiles. One month prior, at the height of the Soviet Union’s military buildup in Cuba that began in 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy had warned Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that “if at any time the Communist build-up in Cuba were to endanger or interfere with our security in any way …. or if Cuba should ever …. become an offensive military base of significant capacity for the Soviet Union, then this country will do whatever must be done to protect its own security and that of its allies.” Although Cuba’s bud­ding mil­itary relationship with the Soviet Union and the deployment of Soviet advisors and operational ground and aviation units to Cuba increased American-Soviet ten­sions, the presence of nuclear-capable offensive missiles brought the two super­powers closer to a direct military con­frontation than at any point during their 47-year Cold War.

In both open and back-channel discus­sions with Soviet officials, President Kennedy demanded the construction of the sites cease and that the missiles be removed. To convince Khrushchev of his resolve, Kennedy ordered a U.S. invasion force, including more than 35,000 Ma­rines, into positions off Cuba and through­­out the Caribbean in anticipa­tion of having to take direct military action. Among the tasks assigned to the II Marine Amphibious Force in military contingency plans was the largest am­phibious assault since Okinawa in 1945 aimed at seizing the Port of Havana and follow-on amphibious and ground as­aults to expand the perimeter of the Guan­tanamo Bay Naval Station. Drawn from documents maintained by the U.S. National Archives and Records Admin­istration in College Park, Md., and the Marine Corps archives at Quantico, Va., this article reveals—for the first time to many—the Marines’ roles in the planning and execution plan for the invasion that never was.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff meet with President Kennedy in the cabinet room of the White House in Washington, D.C. From left to right: Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen Curtis E. LeMay; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, GEN Lyman L. Lemnitzer; President Kennedy; Chief of Staff of the Army, GEN George H. Decker; Chief of Staff of the U.S. Navy, ADM Arleigh A. Burke; and 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen David M. Shoup. (Photo courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library And Museum)

Marines and Initial Invasion Planning

ADM Robert L. Dennison served as the commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Command from 1960 to 1963. (USN photo)
Gen David M. Shoup, the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps. (USMC photo)

The Joint Chiefs of Staff approved America’s first Cuba invasion plan in July 1959 following communist revolutionary Fidel Castro’s brutal six-year struggle to remove Fulgencio Batista from power. Designed by a multi-service team of planners in Admiral Robert L. Dennison’s U.S. Atlantic Command, Operation Plan (OPLAN) 312-60 called for a brief air campaign followed by an Army XVIII Airborne Corps’ assault on the Jose Marti and San Antonio de los Banos military airfields south of the capital at Havana. After 19th Air Force transports delivered additional Army ground forces to seize the Port of Havana, the Second Fleet’s Atlantic Amphibious Force would land an armored regiment at Regla inside the port to assist in capturing the capital. Planners later changed the armored regiment’s insertion from sea to air. After toppling Havana, the American ground force would have to clear all remaining pockets of resistance east to the Guantanamo Bay. Planners estimated it would take 30 days to complete the invasion.

The Marine Corps did not participate in OPLAN 312-60 planning and, in the event of an invasion, had no role other than defending the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station and providing fixed-wing attack squadrons for air strikes. It is unclear as to why Marines were more or less left out, though the most plausible explanation was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s open animus toward the Marine Corps and the service’s diminished role in the national defense strategy. With the nuclear triad of missiles, submarines and bombers syphoning off most of Eisenhower’s defense budget beginning in 1953, the Marine Corps endured a more than $40 million budget cut and an end-strength reduction of over 60,000 Marines between 1954 and 1959. The Marine Corps’ 21st Commandant, General Randolph M. Pate, known more for his administrative acumen, overlooked his service’s bloated supporting establishment and deactivated six infantry battalions and six aircraft squad­rons in 1959—a more than 30 percent reduction in combat strength—and left the remaining battalions and squadrons to function at 90 percent and 80 per­cent manning levels. Eisenhower’s misguided policies and Gen Pate’s misplaced priorities kept the Fleet Marine Forces chronically under­strength and incapable of supporting contingency plans like OPLAN 312-60.

This 1962 painting by Richard Genders depicts Navy and Marine officers as they plan for the invasion of Cuba. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

The Marine Corps’ scene changed dramatically in 1960 when General David M. Shoup became the 22nd Commandant. Restoring operational readiness as the service’s primary focus, Gen Shoup chose to downsize training and support commands and used a 3,000 Marine end strength increase authorized by newly elected President Kennedy one year later to bring the Fleet Marine Forces back to full capacity. Under Kennedy and Shoup, observed Marine Corps historian Edwin H. Simmons, “technical capabilities had caught up with doctrinal aspirations.” The likelihood that current events would lead the Joint Chiefs to modify the invasion plan were high as were the chances that the Marines would play a part given the changes as a result of Shoup’s operational focus and Kennedy’s defense strategy.

 OPLANS 312-61 and 312-61 (Revised)

Newspaper headline from 1960.  (Courtesy of Newspapers.com)
ADM Alfred G. Ward was the Atlantic Amphibious Fleet commander. (USN photo)
Fidel Castro speaks at a rally in Havana, Cuba, 1959. Castro rose to power after a six-year struggle to forcefully remove Fulgencio Batista from office. (Photo courtesy of National Archives)

The January 1961 Department of De­fense (DOD) study “Evaluation of Pos­sible Military Courses of Action in Cuba,” outlining potential courses of action “in view of increased capabilities of the Cuban Armed Forces and militia” and the Soviet military buildup on Cuba was a clear indication that Marines would have a role in invasion planning and a possible invasion. Specifically, DOD officials included in the study the forces available for an invasion, namely the U.S. Atlantic Fleet’s “two carriers, a Marine Division, and a Marine Air Wing.” When Admiral Dennison reconvened invasion planning in February at the direction of the Joint Chiefs, he invited Fleet Marine Force Atlantic planners to help develop the ground scheme. The resultant OPLAN 312-61 added an amphibious assault by a Marine brigade to seize the Port of Havana.

Concepts derived from Major General Robert E. Hogaboom’s Fleet Marine Force Organization and Composition Boards in 1955 and 1956 offered planners integrated Marine air-ground forces at the exp­e­ditionary unit to force level for rapid deployment anywhere in the world by sea and air. With the pros­­pects of a presidential decision to invade Cuba could come with little-to-no notice, the inclusion of fast landing forces, flexible emergency plans, and pre-loaded combat supplies on amphibious ships in contingency were now essential and part of every discussion.

Intelligence gleaned from the botched Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored Cuba invasion by anti-Castro exiles in mid-April 1961 brought Atlantic Com­mand planners back together. Of par­ticular concern were reports of Soviet-made tanks and antiaircraft systems and a Cuban ground force of upwards of 75,000 soldiers. In turn, planners pro­duced OPLAN 312-61 (Revised). Re­maining in were the air strikes, airborne assault on the military airfields, seizing Havana, and defeating all Cuban forces between the capital and Guantanamo Bay. The most significant change was an amphibious assault east of Havana and a series of land and sea-based attacks by II Marine Expeditionary Force. The Atlantic Amphibious Fleet commander, Admiral Alfred G. Ward, recalled, “We would plan on where the Marines would land, plan what cruisers would be needed in order to provide gunfire support, and what would be necessary to protect these landings.”

Concerned that President Kennedy might order military action with very little notice, the Joint Chiefs directed ADM Dennison to develop a more syn­chronized invasion scheme. Although the concept of operations and force composition remained intact, OPLAN 314-61 now had more elaborate time stric­tures governing force deployments, the air campaign, and the time between the airborne and amphibious assaults. The changes had no impact on II Marine Expeditionary Force’s plan completed during the summer of 1961.

 II Marine Expeditionary Force Operations Plan 312-61

LtGen Joseph C. Burger, Commanding General, Fleet Marine Forces Atlantic, 1959 to 1961. Burger also assumed the command of the II Marine Expeditionary Force in June 1961. (USMC photo)

Marine Corps HUS-1 helicopters with HMR-262 take off from USS Boxer, during operations off Vieques Island with the 10th Provisional Marine Brigade, March 8, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.)

An aerial view of Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, Cuba, March 1964. (Photo by William C. Reed, USMC)
An aerial view of Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, circa 1964. (USMC Photo)

II Marine Expeditionary Force’s in­volve­ment coincided with General Shoup’s directive that Fleet Marine Force Atlantic and Pacific headquarters also function as expeditionary force-level command elements during di­vision/wing-level exercises and con­tingencies. Lieutenant General Joseph C. Burger, in addition to commanding Fleet Marine Forces Atlantic, acti­vated and assumed command of II Marine Expeditionary Force in June 1961. Explaining to Leatherneck that same month that being “prepared to react in the shortest possible notice” was his focus, LtGen Burger oversaw the detailed planning and completion of both Fleet Marine Force Atlantic Operation Plan 100-60 and II MEF Operations Plan 312-61. Burger’s blueprint for keeping 25,000 Marines ready involved quarterly brigade-size amphibious assault exercises on Puerto Rico’s Vieques Island with several smaller exercises taking place at Camp Lejeune in between. Doing this kept one third of his units assigned to II Marine Expeditionary Force Operations Plan 312-61 embarked and within a few hours transit time from Cuba.

In the event that President Kennedy ordered an invasion, the II Marine Expeditionary Force owned four major tactical tasks; one within each of OPLAN 314-61’s four phases. In Phase I (Counter the Threat to Guantanamo and Prepare for Offensive Operations) LtGen Burger was responsible for defending the naval station. To do this, the battalion afloat in the Caribbean would land and im­me­diately take up positions the length of the demarcation line sep­arating the naval station from sov­ereign Cuba. Burger would then fly 2nd Marine Division’s “ready” battalion and a reg­imental head­quarters directly to Guan­tanamo Bay where it would absorb an armor pla­toon, an engineer detachment, and an artillery battery de­ployed from Camp Lejeune as augments to the naval sta­tion’s permanent Ma­rine Barracks.

With the 2nd Marine Divi­sion (minus those defending the naval station) and 2nd Marine Air Wing’s helicopter squad­rons embarked on am­phib­ious ships at Little Creek Amphib­ious Base near Norfolk, Va., and anchored off Camp Lejeune, N.C., the II MEF deployed to the Carib­bean for Phase II (Position for Operations).

Cuba area of operations. (Map designed by Steve Walkowiak)

Once off Cuba, two heli­copter squadrons had to re­locate to Guantanamo Bay to support 2nd Marine Division elements there. Meanwhile, Marine fixed-wing squadrons tran­sitioned to either aircraft carriers or to the Naval Air Station Key West, Fla., and the Naval Air Station Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico.

On the order to invade, 2nd Marine Air Wing’s fixed wing squadrons would strike Soviet and Cuban air defense systems and ground forces in and around Havana and near Guantanamo. As a counter to Cuban and Soviet infantry, armor, and mechanized formations defending Havana, planners tasked the Army’s 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions and the 1st Armored Division with landing 10 miles east at Tarara and sweeping southwest and then north into the capital. For this to happen, 2nd Marine Division, in Phase III (Assault Havana Area) and “in coordination with airborne and surface-landing of Army forces,” had to establish a beachhead at Tarara. The division’s two infantry regiments reinforced with engineers and armor and supported by an artillery regiment would then attack west to seize the Morro Castle and the Port of Havana.

During Phase IV (Assault Guantanamo Area) operations, the II Marine Force re-embarked amphibious ships for “assault landing operations” in conjunction with 2nd Marine Division elements attacking west from the Guantanamo Bay. A consolidated II MEF would then attack toward central Cuba and link up with the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps and the 1st Armored Division. Planners assessed that major combat operations would take 60 to 90 days to complete.

President Kennedy and the Joint Chiefs grappled over invading Cuba. The Joint Chiefs’ perspective was that in addition to Castro’s growing military capability and ongoing Soviet military buildup, the failed CIA-sponsored invasion exposed gaps in Cuba’s defenses such that if an invasion were to happen, it should be sooner rather than later. Surprisingly, Gen Shoup disagreed. In his novel “The Best and Brightest,” journalist David Halberstam recalled how Shoup’s primary concern was the size of the invasion force needed to control the island and American casualties. To elaborate, Shoup placed a map of the U.S. on an overhead projector and covered it with a transparent map of Cuba. Drawing attention to Cuba’s vastly smaller size in relation to the U.S., he covered the two maps with a transparency containing a small red dot. When asked what the red dot represented, Shoup explained it was the size of Tarawa before adding, “It took us three days and 18,000 Marines to take it.” Whether or not Shoup influenced Kennedy’s decision is unknown. Talk of an invasion, however, subsided. By the summer of 1962, the U.S. and Soviet Union were once again on the brink of war.

Editor’s note: Read Part II of “U.S. Marines, Cuba, and the Invasion that Never Was,” in the October issue of Leatherneck.

Author’s bio: Dr. Nevgloski is the former director of the Marine Corps History Division. Before becoming the Marine Corps’ history chief in 2019, he was the History Division’s Edwin N. McClellan Research Fellow from 2017 to 2019, and a U.S. Marine from 1989 to 2017.