Monsignor Bryan Walsh
Today is December 3, 1998. I have with me Monsignor Bryan Walsh.
Sister Eileen: Monsignor, tell me about the Pedro Pan people.
Monsignor: Well, it all started one afternoon in October of 1960. We were in the middle of the first crisis over Cuban refugees in Miami. I had been in Puerto Rico the previous summer studying Spanish. I had come back to Miami to find that Bishop Coleman Carroll had taken a direct interest in the impact that the Cuban refugees were making on Miami and the great need. This impact was evident at the Centro Hispano Catolico which had opened just about a year before. A social service agency, it was the only one Spanish speaking agency to help Spanish new comers. It received the full impact of the Cuban refugees. Archbishop Carroll had said to me, when I came back to Puerto Rico, he said, "Well, what's Catholic Charities going to do about the refugees?" I said, "Well, all of the services that we have, are available to the refugees, particularly the child welfare service." This man came into my office, a Cuban, he had with him a boy about 15 years of age. The boy's name was Pedro Menendez. The boy, he said, had been sent by his parents to relatives in Miami to be cared for because they feared the changes in Cuba. The boy had been one month in Miami. The financial situation of the relatives in Miami was bad because they were recent refugees and there was just absolutely no form of assistance for refugees other than the Centro Hispano Catolico at that time. They were barely able to take care of themselves much less have an extra mouth to feed.
During the month the boy was in Miami he had been passed from one group of relatives to another. He was very depressed and had actually lost weight because he was not eating properly. So, the man who may have been a relative, I don't recall that, wanted to know if the church could help. I said, "Well, obviously we can help. Taking care of and defending children is part of my mission." So we discussed possibilities of how we could get some help for the boy. I believe we put him into a foster home temporarily.
But the incident alerted me and reminded me that every refugee migration has unaccompanied minors, teenagers usually who are separated from their families with maybe younger children. Somewhere or another, they joined the migration stream, maybe with relatives like uncles and aunts or maybe just friends of the family or sometimes entirely alone.
We had run into this problem four years before when I first became director of the Catholic charities in 1956 with the Hungarian freedom Fishters. Many of them came to this country after the collapse of the Hungarian Revolution. They were sent to Camp Kilmere in New Jersey. These were mostly older teenage males and the resettling process was very poor. There were some people who called in and said, "Yes, I'll give a home to this person, this child or teenager." And there was no home study, no supervision. It was just a telegram picking them up at the airport on such and such a flight, such and such a time.
One old lady had come to me in the Epiphany Parish that time one Sunday morning and had two big older teenagers with her. She was a frail little old lady. She had responded because she was of Hungarian extraction to this call for help, and was totally unsuitable. These looked like real tough guys. It had done without any consultation with local Catholic charities and anyone else. So I started raising a fuss with the National Catholic Agency in Washington. I said, "No way can we take care of them. Get them out of here, send them somewhere else."
I had done a little bit of reading on unaccompanied minors at that time. I was aware of the movements such as the British children who came over in 1940. And the Basqure children from Spain went to England. There were the Jewish children who went to England and other countries in 1939. I was a little bit aware of the problems of unaccompanied minors. And I could see that in Miami we were going to have this problem.
At that time in response to Bishop Carroll's pleading, President Eisenhower had sent a man to Miami to investigate the situation and report back with recommendations. That man, his name was Voorhees. He was a lawyer, Madison avenue type who had run the Hungarian Refugee program out in Camp Kilmere for President Eisenhower four years before. I was working with Bishop Carroll in all aspects of the Cuban situation by this time and so I had a chance to talk to Mr. Voorhees and raise the issue of unaccompanied minors. I wrote it up for him and presented him and said that we were concerned about them. How they were going to be taken care of would be a tremendous concern to their parents in Cuba. There was the question of the protection of their religious heritage. Most of them would be Catholic and Cubans Feun who were not very strong as Catholics, regarded the United States as a Protestant country. So, we had to be very sensitive to the issue of the religious heritage. There were other aspects of it. Mainly in this community, Miami and the church here, could not take care of more than a handful of these children and we could expect more.
When it came to making his report in early December to President Eisenhower, the only assistance he recommended for services in Miami was the unaccompanied minors program. This was very disappointing to Bishop Carroll and to myself too because we realized that the families were the big issues. The only aid for families was, "Well if you want to leave Miami, we will pay your fare to Los Angeles, to New York, to Chicago." Then, he asked resettlement agencies, such as the US Catholic Conference to handle it from then on, the same as it had after World War II.
USCC had settled two million refugees without any assistance from the government. The government just brought them to the port of entry and then they were the responsibility of the volunteer agencies from then on. I told Mr. Voorhees that this was simply spreading the problem so thin around the country that nobody would notice it, but the people would suffer.
I could see that from the impact in Miami, people would be afraid of the climate, the cold weather and all the rest of it. They had never lived in a cold climate. We were left literally holding the bag in Miami. That was when he said, "Well, if they want to stay in Miami, give them a tin can and let them sit on the corner of Flagler Street and beg." So that was the official answer or unofficial answer of the Eisenhower administration to Miami's plea for help. I felt relaxed however, from the point of view that my direct concern was unaccompanied minors. We had one under care, but I was promised money. That gave me a feeling of security to investigate more and see what we needed.
About a week or ten days later, I got a call from a man, an American, who had just come from Havana. His name was Jim Baker. Jim Baker was the Head Master of Ruston Academy. Ruston Academy was a private American school in Havana. The majority of the children were American or British children living in Havana whose parents wanted education in the English language. Many Cuban families also sent their kids to Ruston Academy so that they would grow up bilingual. The school was being threatened with confiscation and Jim had come to Miami at the request of a group of American businessmen who had been in Havana and had just left, members of the American Chamber of Commerce. They were looking into the possibility of establishing a boarding school in Miami where parents in Cuba could send their children for safe keeping. It would be temporary as they were hopeful for a change in the regime in Havana.
So, he and a group of these men came to see me. Everybody in Miami had told him when he inquired about this that he should talk to me about help because I had some relationship with the federal government. So, I listened to them and talked to them and said, "Well, a boarding school traditionally operates because they have the support of a family behind it. They take care of the kids for 180-200 days a year, but everything else, every crisis and everything else is resolved by the family. We were talking about kids being without the care and protection of their parents and we're talking about 365 days a year. We're talking about who is going to sign for appendectomies and medical care.
These are the problems in child welfare we deal with every day in which will probably occur here in this case too because Cuban children are no different from American children when they're separated from their parents and so a traditional boarding school would not be the answer. These kids need care and protection and there were legal problems. I said, "Our relationship with the government is we have a contract in which they would pay us a per diem to care for these children just the same as many parts of the country the local state pays a Per diem to Catholic charities and other agencies to care for dependent children. So basically what I can tell you gentlemen is this: "If you get the children to Miami, I can take care of them." Clearly the way things are going in Cuba, parents no matter how wealthy they are would not be able to send money to Miami to care for these children." It was an offer in a sense that they could not refuse.
Jim went back to Havana and he talked to parents in Havana and he talked to the American Ambassador in Havana. The idea was that the children would be given student Visas to come here. So a list of 200 names was drawn up and a couple of days before Christmas, (I think Christmas that year was on a Sunday) I think it was Friday I got a call from the US State Department in Washington. A man in the State Department introduced himself as Frank Hurback. They had a request from the Ambassador in Havana to approve 200 student Visas for children to come here unaccompanied. The government, the State Department, was willing to approve these Visas, but they needed a NGO, a non-government organization to accept responsibility for the children. He said, "We know there are other ways you can go to get money from the government, but as far as the State Department is concerned, this is unconditional. You just accept responsibility, you'll be loco parentis for these children here."
I said, "Well, I really should consult the Bishop and the authorities. How soon do you need this?" He said, "We need it right away." It was Christmas. "You must send me a letter today that says if you accept this responsibility or not." I said, "When will the first children come?" They would probably come 25th, Christmas day, because there is a great fear in Cuba that on January 1st, the authority of parents, "Patria Potestad" would be taken away. It was going to be lifted and parents would not be able to send their children out of the country. So, people are in a panic. So, I said to myself, "I suppose to save 200 children from communism is worth a career." So, I said I'll take a chance and go ahead and argue with Bishop Carroll later. So, I said, "Okay, I'll send it to you." He said, "Well, send two, one to the State Department and one to my home address special delivery." So, I did that and then I started thinking with 200 children coming in the next few days, where am I going to put them with no money in the bank or anything else?
So I was living in an apartment in Mercy Hospital at the time. That's where I was a resident. I was driving home that afternoon and I wondered, thinking of what I was going to do. When I went down Brickell Avenue, I saw the Assumption Academy. It was a boarding school for girls. I said, "Well, they have beds and the kids are away for the holidays." So, I turned around and went back in. The Superior there was an old English lady, Mother Elizabeth. So, I went in and I knew her slightly. I said to her, "How long are your girls going to be away?" She said, "Well, they're coming back the 10th of January." So, I said, "I have a proposition for you. I don't know for sure, but we could in the next few days get up to 200 teenagers from Havana in an emergency situation and I need beds for them even overnight temporarily." Then I saw the fear in her eyes.
We talked a little bit about it and yes I promised that there would be staff there to supervise them and all the rest of it. So she said, "Well, how could I refuse on Christmas Eve?" So, she agreed that she would take the children if it became necessary. Hopefully it would not be boys but only girls, but this is what she said. So, I at least had a bed where I knew I could take them and then went on home.
I called one of our social workers from the Child Welfare division, Louise Cooper. I told her what we were getting into. Of course, she was horrified because of no planning, no nothing. I said, "It's an emergency, you don't plan emergencies." So, I asked her to go to the airport with me on Christmas day and we'd see what happened because we didn't know whether the children were coming or not. The State Department had told me who to contact at the airport in immigration. They would be helpful with courtesy and everything else.
On Christmas day, we went to the airport, Louise and I. We met the two flights from Cuba, there were two flights and no children arrived, but we made contact with the immigration authorities. Pat Crowley was the name of the head of immigration at the airport at that time. He was an Irish immigrant himself. He was from County Cork and he still had a very strong Cork accent. He was very helpful, very interested and was just a little over whelmed by all these things from the State Department that they were to allow us a free hand top line, everything. He had never come across anything like that in the airport but all I had to do was be there and they were to cooperate with me in everything. It was possible that some of the children might have somebody to meet them, but no children arrived on Christmas day.
The next morning I went to the office and I sent Louise Cooper to the airport, to meet the planes and I began making telephone calls and still couldn't catch up with Bishop Carroll to tell him what I was doing. In the course of conversation earlier, Maurice Ferre who was later Mayor of Miami, Maurice told me that he had a house on Brickell Avenue and we could use it for refugees. So, I let him know and it was on 15th Rd right across from the Assumption Academy. We went down to look at the house, he gave me the keys and I rounded up some Catholic Charities Staff and we decided to take bunk beds from what was Camp Matecumbe, a summer youth camp. We realized that we had to get permission from the city and city inspectors, county inspectors and health inspectors.
They were not the least bit interested in the fact that we were helping refugees, they just wanted to enforce all their regulations. They insisted that we had to put a fire escape to the second floor, and so I said, "We'll have the kids sleep on the ground floor, until we get the fire escape in." After a lot of argument they agreed to that. We would have nobody sleep on the second floor until the fire escape was in and all kinds of details like this. In the meantime, about food, we talked to Mother Elizabeth again and since they had a kitchen there and they cooked great food, we said the kids could go over to the Assumption Academy to get their meals. We could have breakfast in the house and the other two meals in the Academy.
A couple of days that at least fell into place and we at least had a place of our own where we could put up maybe 25 kids. Meanwhile we had St. Joseph's Villa which was a children's home that we had out on NW 7th Street near the airport and we had about ten empty beds there. Other independent children and Sisters of St. Joseph were there. So, in a couple of days we had maybe 30-35 beds available. The second day, the day Louise Cooper was at the airport by herself, six kids came in. They were teenagers, two or three boys and maybe a couple of girls, two or three girls. She took them to St. Joseph's Villa. They were 16-17 years of age and very nervous. They were taken care of up there at St. Joseph's Villa.
I think by maybe Wednesday or Thursday we were able to move the boys into the first floor of the Ferre. I decided to move there myself. There was a little apartment in the back above the garage. I decided to move there myself to keep an eye on things and that began almost 20 years of living with Cuban teenage boys. Things fell into place.
During the week a number of other kids arrived, one or two a day, but not 200 like we expected. Meanwhile I still hadn't got to talk to Bishop Carroll. About Wednesday night I was still at Mercy Hospital and I got a call from him late in the evening. He said, "There was someone trying to get a hold of you yesterday from Washington." I said, "Well, who was it?" He said, "Someone from the State Department named Aurbach about children coming in from Cuba." He said, "You know about that?" I said, "Oh yeah, I know about that. I've been trying to call you to tell you what we were doing." He interrupted me and said, "They are talking about 200 kids. Are you responsible for limiting the number?" I said, "Oh no Archbishop, 200 is what is on the first list." So, this 200 got me off the hook. "You will take everybody," he said, "don't let them limit you." Of course he gave me a cart blank from him. He of course, never asked about the money end of it and he was prepared and ready to do everything until it came to paying the bills. I knew I was in a strong position in regard that the government had promised me money. We were able to move on from there.
The end of that week I think we probably had close to 20 children and on January the 1st, Fidel Castro made a big speech in the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana commemorating the 2nd anniversary of his take-over coming to power. In it he ordered the staff of the American Embassy to be limited to 12 people, the same number of people who were at the Cuban Embassy in Washington. The American Embassy had about 200 people there at the time. He did not say anything about the Patria Potestad rule. That was a false alarm.
Two days later President Eisenhower broke diplomatic relations with Cuba. The embassy shut down, the consulates were shut down, and everybody left Cuba. I thought to myself, "Well, that's the end of the nice effort. There's nobody left now in Cuba to give Visas, no more children will be coming from Cuba unless they already have a Visa." We already had 20 children and we could still collect some more, so we proceeded to plan and to make arrangements in which we would be able to accommodate more children.
I heard that the county had a child care facility on the grounds of the old Kendall Hospital out in Sunset. They had a children's home there for white children and they had a segregated home for black children. The year before the county had desegregated its facilities. The home that had been built for black children was empty and so I contacted the county and said, "Could we come to some arrangement?" It had 150 beds and was set up for care for independent children. They were delighted to come to an arrangement with me because otherwise I said, "You were going to have to take care of these children because you have the facilities." So, they gave me the building for $1 a year. That really relaxed us because it had the section for boys and the section for girls and a separate building that provided some living quarters for adult staff. It had a cafeteria, it had four classrooms and it was really the big breakthrough.
Then we were able to go to Mother Elizabeth and tell her, "Thank you for the offer but we won't need to use any of your beds, but continue to feed the boys that I send over from 15th Grove." Every other day on the flights from Cuba, we met every flight. Somebody was there to meet every flight. We'd get one or two children. The second week of January I was scheduled to go to Washington. I was delegate from Florida for the White House Conference of the Aging.
A couple days before I was going up and I had a call from my friend by this time Frank Aurbach from the State Department saying, "Do you think you can come to Washington, we'd like to talk to you about a plan?" I said, "Well, I'm going to Washington on Sunday." I said, "Sunday morning I'm going up as a delegate to the White House conference." He said, "Well, what time will you get in?" I said, "Oh about one o'clock." "When you get in," he said, "give me a call." And he gave me his phone number.
I checked into the hotel in Washington and called him and he said, "Will you meet with us this afternoon?" I said, "Sure." He said, "Come over through the side door of the state department." and he told me where. He said, "I will meet you there at 2:30. We're going to the state department. So, at 2:30 I go to this empty building at the side of the State Department with not a soul in sight. It was a cold day almost like a scene from "I work for the FBI" or something, you know like in one of those old black and white movies they used to do on tv. A car pulled up and a man came out and he said, "You must be Father Walsh." I said, "Yes." And he said, "I'm Frank Aurbach." Through a tiny door on the side of the State Department, we went in. We went up to his office and there a group of people met us. There was somebody from the British Embassy and some immigration people and who else I don't know. There must have been half a dozen there. Then over the next couple of hours they evolved a plan to overcome the fact that there was nobody in Cuba to give Visas for these children to come. They were very anxious that the Cuban parents would be able to send their children over for what they want. What emerged was that one of their reasons for interest was on that first 200, were the children of a number of people who were very active in the underground in Cuba, very important for the Bay of Pigs which was going to take over in four months although we did not know it at the time. These people wanted their children safe because they were afraid that if they got caught their children would be taken away and raised by the state and Fidel had already sent his son to study in Russia or Czechoslovakia. They were just very fearful of this whole business of the state taking over their children.
So, they then told me about what a Visa waiver was. The Visa waiver was the fact that the State Department had the authority to waive the Visa requirements so that a transport company like an airline could bring somebody to the United States even though they did not have a Visa and they would not be fined. It was a normal procedure and is still a normal procedure. So, they said that what they wanted me to do was to sign a paper. Simply say "To whom it may concern at the request of the Catholic Welfare Bureau" (which was the name of our agency at the time.) The State Department has waived Visa requirements for the following person named, Birth date, and that the airlines Pan American and the National airlines and K.L.M. were authorized to transport the person from Havana to Miami. I would sign it. It was not a legal document, just a notification that the Visa had been waived. They said you can give this to anybody between the ages of six and sixteen.
Then they said for 16 through the 18th birthday we need to have the names ahead of time and the birth dates so that the U.S. could do a security check on them. So, what it meant was that the group in Havana that Baker had set up had to send the names to us of those who were over 16. If they were under 16 we didn't have to have any communication. They said that we don't know how the Cuban authorities were going to react to this. So, we have a contingency plan. That is for the children to be given a Visa for Jamaica which was a British possession, by the British Embassy. Children could come to Jamaica, stay overnight and then the American consulate would give them a Visa to Miami. So they said, "Do you think you could make arrangements to accommodate the children in Jamaica for a night?"
This was another surprise and during the course of that afternoon, essentially this is the plan that emerged. They would begin the process by bringing the children out through Jamaica. Then, if there was no fuss at the Havana airport, they would gradually try to send them directly to Miami, they would see what happened. So, they said, "Will you go to Jamaica this week?" I said, "Sure, I'll go."
Of course I wasn't going to the White House conference, I never did get there because the next day, Tuesday, I was on the plane back to Miami. In Miami I called the Bishop of Jamaica in Kingston. He was a Jesuit from Boston. I told him that I wanted to come down and talk to him about Cuban refugees. He said "Okay."
On Thursday, one of my social workers Rachel Erwin and I flew down to Jamaica. The Bishop met us and we talked about how children could be accommodated overnight. We went to see the American consul and the British. They knew all about it and they were briefed and so the Bishop was very willing to cooperate. He said some boys could stay in St. George's High School, it's a boys' school run by Jesuits and he could accommodate the boys there overnight and the girls at another school run by the Allegheny Sisters. Sister Lucian, I think she used to be at one time principal of the Corpus Christi school in Miami. She was the Head Mistress there and the arrangements were worked out. Actually, not many of the children came through Jamaica, some boys were cared for in the Bishop's house. There were just a few that had been brought there.
His secretary, Father Jack Carter was a Jamaican priest. He would be the Liaison. The next day we flew back to Miami and told the State Department that it was all set up. In Kingston all we had to do was to let Father Carter know when the children might come in.
We waited a few days. Some of the children began to come in through Kingston. So, we were back on track and Ian Baker setup was a courier system which had to bring messages and documents back and forth. They were mostly carried by western diplomats who had diplomatic immunity. In many of these cases we would put envelopes within envelopes within envelopes with different names on each envelope. The outside envelope we used to write with, her name was Polita. Later we found out that it was Polita Grau who was the niece of the former president of Cuba Grau San Martin. Her brother, Mongo was also later involved. Later they served long years in prison. In her case because of Pedro Pan and his case because of other things as well. They were not the only people who went to prison because of helping children.
By the third week in January, we were back on track, we had the system running. It went very smoothly. I would say that's how operation Pedro Pan got started. We always made a distinction between the program of helping children leave Cuba and the care of children in Miami who were without the care and protection of their parents. There was a very clear distinction.
That's how it evolved because originally I was just interested in taking care of children in Miami. But, then the people in Havana, the State Department, they got us involved in the other program. Now that we decided that we want to keep this very secret because one) we didn't want to attract the attention of the Cuban authorities figuring that it was organized. They knew children were leaving from the airport, but if they knew it was an organized effort they would interfere with it. We would get parents in trouble, make problems for the parents in Havana. There were other people who were helping, so we wanted it kept as secret as possible.
So, I talked to people in the media here, people like Ralph Renick and others who were covering the Cuban situation and simply asked for their cooperation in publishing nothing and we got it. Ralph Renick I think it was who coined the phrase Operation Pedro Pan as saying to every new reporter that he had a great scoop, he'd say, "Well, that's Pedro Pan, you can't talk about that. You don't publish that." So, for a year and a half there was a black out in the news. Which actually answers how some of the revisionists stories around today who say the whole thing was a propaganda plotted by the CIA to disrupt Cuban society. Of course, how it could be a propaganda Plot when you kept it secret. It was rather self-contradictory. But, that's how it all started and it did continue for 20 months until October Missile crisis of 1962. That part of the story answers your question.
Sister Eileen: How did you care for these children actually when they came over here.
Monsignor: About half of the children upon arrival had relatives or friends in Miami, mostly relatives, who took them straight from the airport. The other half needed care either immediately or afterwards because sometimes those arrangements with relatives didn't work out. Altogether our records indicated we had about 14,000, there is some duplication in that number. I think it might be a little high, but we're trying to put the whole thing on computer now and find out just exactly what the demographics are, but we cared for about 7,000 children from a few days to many years.
The bulk of the children were reunited with their parents between December 1, 1965 and June 1966 when the freedom flights first started. We have never had any communication from Cuba from any parents whose children were lost. So we feel certain that no children were lost. Over the past 20 years there was plenty of opportunity. We have a couple of cases of where children were orphans or illegitimate or this sort of thing. It was very difficult to get the whole story of where they came from in Cuba. We worked with them and they are very unusual situations.
During the Pope's visit, in preparing for the Pope's visit, a story emerged in Havana of the thousands of unaccompanied children who were lost. It was picked up by the BBC radio correspondent there. Susy Hayes called me and I said, "Well, do you have any names? Tell me evidence of this and we sure would be interested." So, last December she came to see me. We talked about it and I was pretty suspicious that this was something that had been planted by the Cuban government. I said, "You find a single case and I'll talk about it." I said, "We have the records of who arrived at the airport and we have records of who are in our care and we honestly want to know. But, for the last 20 years or more, it's been very easy for Cubans in this country to trout with fume.
Any federal fan who got lost and lost contact with his family could easily travel to Cuba and I've never heard of anybody going there looking for his parents or her parents and not finding them. It's been very easy for, sometimes slow, but almost possible for people in Cuba, parents to communicate with us. We have never received anything of the nature and so to talk with thousands or even hundreds is heartily ridiculous.
There are individual cases whose father was very old, the father had died and I know cases of where these men go to Cuba to visit their father or mother. In fact, they have come from Cuba to visit here too, but they have decided to stay in Cuba. Other cases in the Freedom flights in 1965, the problem arose because very often parents, well not very often, but in some cases parents have sent older brothers or older sisters to Miami and the younger children stayed with them in Havana.
Meanwhile, from '62-'65, some of those boys who had stayed with them in Cuba had turned 16 or 15 or over 15 and were in the military age. The Cuban government wouldn't allow them to leave with their parents. They would let the parents go and the sisters go, but the boys could not go. So parents were faced with having a 16 or 17 year old son who couldn't leave Cuba and a 19 or 20 year old son in Miami or the United States. What choice would parents make? Compared to other unaccompanied children's programs, we had no real problems in that regard. Why? because we insisted on child welfare practice being followed.
We had people who wanted to adopt these children, but we said no way, we didn't have authority to put these children up for adoption. We even had a couple cases where the boy after three, four, five years and was now a teenager and very accustomed to living a good life in some of the foster homes. Their parents were coming and they realized that they would have to work and they would lose a lot of the opportunities they have established here. We had some cases of where they asked to be adopted. We sent counselors in and they said, "You have an obligation to your parents. You're not going to get off the hook." These were the rare exceptions.
Finally unification went I think very well. Compared like for example with the Vietnamese children where a lot of especially very young children were flown out of Vietnam supposedly from an orphanages in the final days before the fall of Saigon, but there was one very terrible plane crash at which in take-off 400 children died. Some of these children were placed for adoption, or have their Parents showed up late and reclaimed them.