Joe Shannon nearly died trying to provide air cover for Cuban patriots stranded on the beach at the Bay of Pigs! Shannon was born in rural Alabama in 1921. At age 6, he got his first taste of aviation. He met Charles Lindbergh and saw his single-engine Ryan monoplane, the "Spirit of St. Louis", as they triumphantly toured the nation. In 1939, Shannon joined the Alabama National Guard as a mechanic but, in late 1941, got a chance for aviation training as a flying sergeant. He began his training in January 1942, after it had temporarily been delayed by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. During flight training, Shannon met a lifelong friend, Bob Hoover.
He received his wings at Dothan Army Airfield, Alabama, in class 42I. In England, he checked out in Supermarine Spitfires , and was sent to the Mediterranean Theater. He flew combat in Lockheed P-38 Lightnings over North Africa and then Italy. Later in the war, Shannon flew weather reconnaissance in the North American B-25 Mitchell over "the Hump" in China, Burma, and India. He stayed in the Air Force until early 1953, flying the Douglas B-26 Invader and later the North American B-45 Tornado jet bomber. Leaving active duty, he joined the Alabama Air National Guard (ANG), where he continued to fly the B-26.
He later transitioned to the swept-wing Republic RF84F Thunderflash, ready to meet Soviet threats. One of the many flash points of "Cold War" was just 90 miles south of Florida. In response, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) planned a "black world" operation to land anti-Castro Cubans on a remote beach. Even the air cover for "Operation Phoenix" was to be flown by Cubans. The CIA obtained Douglas B-26s from the desert "boneyard" in Arizona and set up a training base deep in the Peten Jungle of Guatemala. Since the Alabama ANG at Birmingham had been the last unit to fly the plane, the CIA recruited everyone there from firefighters to flight surgeons. Col Joe Shannon was sent to Guatemala in January 1961 to train the pilots.
They were all Cuban defectors who had flown for Cubana Airlines or in the Cuban Air Force. Later, as the actual invasion grew into a political and military fiasco, Shannon and three other Americans were given permission to fly, but it was too late. Returning to duty with the Alabama ANG, Shannon flew the McDonnell RF4C Phantom II, before retiring in 1973. After 15 years as a corporate pilot, he lives quietly with his wife Helen but still flies his absolutely perfect Cessna 140 every weekend. He took his most recent flight check, at age 74, in a North American P-51 Mustang.
Early in the morning of 19 April 1961, 2506 Brigade troops, having landed with CIA support, were in a desperate situation. Pleas for help finally persuaded the CIA to allow American "advisors" to fly a combat mission. Joe Shannon and three other members of the Alabama ANG took off in two Cuban-marked B-26s and headed for the island's south coast. Making landfall at dawn after a 3-hour flight, between Giron and Cienfuegos, they turned west along the coast at full throttle and 200 feet above the sand. Suddenly, a Cuban Lockheed T-33 fighter attacked them. As his wingman crashed into the sea, Shannon instinctively pushed the throttles and prop controls full forward, heading downward until his propellers were nearly "dipping into the water."