Today is the 25th anniversary of the sinking of the HMBS Flamingo which was unjustly attacked by Cuban MIGS off the Ragged Island chain in 1980. The Commander of the boat was Amos Rolle. Four Bahamian marines — Fenrick Sturrup, Austin Smith, David Tucker and Edward Williams — lost their lives in service to their country.
Larry Smith recounts the tragedy in the yesterday’s Tribune:
Today, most Bahamians know little about the incident, which traumatised the country for months. In fact, the anniversary of this event, which the Castro government described as “a regrettable confusion”, passed almost unnoticed.
Cuba agreed to pay $10 million in reparations for the sinking of HMBS Flamingo and the murder of the four marines – Fenrick Sturrup, Austin Smith, David Tucker and Edward Williams. And the eight Cuban fishermen who started it all were convicted of poaching in July, 1980.
On Saturday, May 10, 1980 the Flamingo was on routine patrol in the Ragged Island area when it spotted a pair of Cuban fishing boats off deserted Cay Santo Domingo, a Bahamian atoll just 35 miles from the Cuban coast.
As the Flamingo approached, the Cubans fled – until warning shots were fired. Eventually, marines boarded both boats and found 3,000 pounds of fish, lobster, conch and stone crab. The vessels were taken in tow to the nearest cay for a more thorough search.
But on the way, two Cuban MiG jet fighters appeared overhead and began strafing the Flamingo, which was soon rocked by explosions. According to Commander Amos Rolle, “I went to the radio room but there was no power. Water was already ankle deep, so I ordered my men to abandon ship.”
All except four of the 19 crewmen made it to one of the fishing boats, with the Cuban jets strafing the area even as the Flamingo was going down. Despite a search by Bahamian and American rescue teams, the four marines were never found.
Commander Rolle, his crew, and eight Cuban fishermen arrived at Duncan Town on Ragged Island about five hours later, but were unable to contact Nassau until early Sunday morning. Soon, more Cuban jets appeared, as well as a military transport and a helicopter — which actually landed briefly next to the fishing boats . It seemed that an actual invasion was underway to retrieve the poachers.
While the jets buzzed Duncan Town, sending the inhabitants scurrying for cover, a hastily chartered DC-3 arrived from Nassau carrying Defence Force chief Bill Swinley and Police Commissioner Salathial Thompson. Had Cuban troops landed, they could have captured the entire Bahamian high command.
Although the MiG fighters soon withdrew, the Cuban transport and helicopter stayed on the scene for another two hours, preventing evacuation of the Flamingo’s crew. And on Monday afternoon, other Cuban military aircraft were spotted over Ragged Island by Defence Force personnel.
But reaction in Nassau was less than swift…
The article goes on to recount the confusion and disbelief that prevailed amongst Bahamians, alongwith the various “posturing” by political parties, and then continues…
On Monday, at the request of the Bahamian government, the US Coast Guard dispatched a rescue helicopter from Puerto Rico to help the Defence Force search for the missing marines around Cay Santo Domingo. A US Navy destroyer was also on the scene, and there were also reports that a British frigate was in the area. As the Coast Guard helicopter began its search, it was buzzed by two Cuban MiGs[.]
The Miami Herald reported that the US had dispatched two Marine Corps Phantom jets to the scene on Monday after the Coast Guard helicopter was harrassed. But a Pentagon spokesmen said the MiGs had left the area by the time the US fighters arrived.
[…] The Cubans first said the attack was a mistake. But that was soon replaced by a face-saving formula which accused The Bahamas of working for the US Central Intelligence Agency. Prime Minister Pindling retorted that the CIA couldn’t be behind a Bahamian patrol ship on a routine patrol of Bahamian waters.
[…] Miami Herald reporter Don Bohning wrote that the Flamingo affair had unravelled what Castro had taken decades to achieve — “third world leadership and respectability”. […] eventually the Cubans admitted that their planes had attacked “without authorisation”. […] The Cubans eventually accepted full responsibility for the the attack and paid compensation to the families of the dead marines.