Sunday, April 29, 2012

An American rebel’s final defiant words before execution by Castro

Posted on Saturday, 04.28.12

The death of William Morgan

An American rebel's final defiant words before execution by Castro

A newly uncovered letter by an American rebel to his elderly mother on
the eve of his execution by Castro shows he had no regrets.
By Michael Sallah And Alfonso Chardy

Just one day before his own brutal execution, William Morgan sat in a
dingy Cuban prison cell and scrawled his final letter to his elderly
mother in Ohio.

Charged with trying to overthrow the Castro government, the man known as
el Yanqui Comandante wrote he had no regrets for fighting in a
revolution that changed Cuba, defended his role in battling the leaders
who seized control, and said he was ready to die.

"And if my life will help the people of Cuba, then I am glad to give
it,'' he wrote before he was hauled before a firing squad.

For 51 years, the original letter written by one of the most intriguing
figures of the revolucion remained buried — and never delivered to his

Until now.

A half-century after Morgan was shot to death at La Cabana prison, the
man entrusted to pass the original letter onto Morgan's family found it
tucked away in his personal archives: five, simple folded pages.

Weeks later, he sent a copy of the note to a Miami Herald reporter, who
then forwarded it to Morgan's closest surviving heir: his widow in Ohio.

"It moved me very deeply," said Olga Morgan Goodwin, a Cuban native who
married Morgan during fighting in the Escambray Mountains. "William
wrote it in the final minutes of his life."

What's not clear is why the original letter written in the darkness of a
prison cell took so long to be delivered.

Henry Raymont, now 85, the UPI reporter who interviewed Morgan before
his trial, recalled watching the prisoner pen his final goodbye to his
mother from a bench in his cell, writing: "I am a very fortunate man to
at least know the time of my death and prepare for it."

After Morgan was shot against the wall by a firing squad, Raymont rushed
to send it on the UPI news wires with instructions to deliver it to
Loretta Morgan in Toledo.

"I know I sent it,'' said Raymont. "They ran the full text on the wire."

But when Loretta Morgan died in a nursing home in 1988, there was no
copy of the UPI dispatch in her prized collection of her son's
possessions, which included half a dozen letters he'd sent from the
mountains during the revolution, said Morgan's widow, now 76.

Five decades later, the letter offers a rare glimpse of the charismatic
street hero who led a band of guerrillas in a sweep across the mountains
that helped force President Fulgencio Batista to flee in 1959.

While the letter is expected to spark debates over Morgan's place in
revolutionary history, it comes as his relatives continue to mount a
rare campaign: to return his remains to the United States.

At the behest of the family, a delegation led by former President Jimmy
Carter asked Cuban leaders in 2011 to return the body from the Colon
Cemetery to the United States for reburial. Despite assurances the
request was being considered by the Castro government, it has yet to act.

"I am still waiting," said his widow.

At the height of the Cold War, Morgan splashed into history in dramatic
fashion when he led his own unit to a stunning series of victories in
the mountains.

A swaggering figure with underworld ties, he broke into the revolution
by running guns to the rebels, but later joined the cause after a fellow
gun smuggler was killed by Batista's guards, he told reporters.

The story has never been confirmed, but former rebels say the stocky,
tough-talking Ohioan showed up in the mountains in early 1958 showing
the skills to lead his own column.

While much was written about Morgan's exploits, including articles in
The Miami Herald and The New York Times, little is known about his final

Two reporters who covered his trial in March 1961 wrote that Morgan, 32,
declared his innocence, saying he would "walk to the wall with no
escort" if found guilty.

But the newly found letter provides a snapshot of the American rebel
leader that has long remained hidden from history: He had no regrets for
his actions.

Rather, he went on to blast the fledgling government for abandoning the
goals of "the Revolucion for which I fought."

"For no man has a right to impose his will or belief on others," Morgan
wrote. "All men have an in borne right to better themselves and their
families. I have spent my time in Cuba trying to help them do just that."

By getting rid of Morgan, Castro snuffed out one of the top rebel
fighters who could have sparked an insurrection in central Cuba, say

Just two years earlier, Morgan was hailed as a comandante — the only
American to achieve the top rank in the rebel forces — even helping
Castro smash a coup attempt by Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo in 1959.

Their relationship began to strain at a news conference after the failed
coup when Castro handed Morgan a wad of cash seized from the plotters as
a reward, embarrassing Morgan on national TV.

"William was so angry," recalled Goodwin. "He did not do that for money."

As Castro began forging ties with the Soviets in 1960, Morgan broke with
him and began trucking guns and hand grenades to the mountains from a
government fisheries farm he was operating, interviews and FBI records show.

After his arrest in October, he was thrown in La Cabana, the notorious
prison, where he rose every day doing exercises and sprints around the yard.

"I want you to know that I have been prepared for this as long as I have
been in prison," he wrote to his mother. He also suspected his trial in
just a few hours was a fait accompli. "I leave a love of God and country."

Though Morgan noted in his letter he thought his wife and their two baby
daughters were safe — "and this gives me great peace of mind"— it was
not the case: Olga had bolted from the Brazilian Embassy where she was
granted asylum to rally other rebels to save her husband. She was soon
arrested and would spend the next 13 years in prison.

Even with his impending death, Morgan begged his mother "not to misjudge
either Cuba or its people who I have come to love," insisting the
revolution was still crucial to their rights.

"The way of freedom is hard — and the road is covered with the blood of
those who must die so that the rights of man can live," he wrote.

One Cuban historian who read the letter said he thought Morgan believed
the fate of the revolution had not been settled and was still "a work in
progress," said Juan Antonio Blanco, a Florida International University
professor. "It's easy to look back with 20/20 vision, but it wasn't so
clear to most people at the time."

One expert took it a step further, saying Morgan pleads with his mother
not to condemn the revolution. "The fact that he's facing the firing
squad is less important," said Louis Perez Jr., a University of North
Carolina historian. "He is still sympathetic to the [cause]."

At the time, he still believed there were enough guerrillas in the
mountains to defeat Castro's forces and bring about the reforms promised
during the fighting, said Goodwin.

By the time Morgan walked to the death wall at 9:45 p.m. March 11, 1961,
his mother's appeal for clemency had been ignored.

In his final moments, he asked that his handcuffs be removed, and then
leaned over to hug the head of the firing squad and John McKniff, the
priest who chronicled the event in a letter. "Tell the boys I forgive
them," Morgan said.

After stepping to the craggy, bloodstained wall — wearing his military
boots — he removed a rosary from his neck and handed it to the
55-year-old priest.

What followed is not clear, but in one version, Morgan was ordered to
kneel and beg for his life, prompting him to shout back, "I kneel for no

Sharpshooters then aimed for his knees, forcing him to collapse, and
then waited momentarily before shooting him in the chest, ending his
life. "He died with extraordinary valor," said his defense lawyer, Luis

When the attorney phoned 65-year-old Loretta Morgan in Ohio to tell her
the news, "she was so upset she couldn't finish the conversation," he
told reporters.

Whether someone took the time to read the UPI dispatch of Morgan's
letter to his mother or personally deliver the transcribed words to her
is unclear.

Raymont insists she received the wired document. "I am certain of it,"
he said.

Morgan, who was denied a phone call to his mother, wrote that it was the
"longest letter I have ever written," but wanted her to know that "my
actions and my life I leave for others to judge and to you and dad I
leave my love."

In a final salute, he said he realized his death would be hard on her,
but signed off with a last request: "One thing mom," he wrote, "don't
cry for me."

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