Joseph Lewis Shannon (born May 11, 1921 in Coal Valley, Walker County; died January 5, 2010 in Birmingham) was a military and commercial pilot and one of four U. S. pilots to fly missions in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
Shannon grew up in Fairfield, son of a pilot in Birmingham's 106th Observation Squadron in the Army National Guard, based at Roberts Field. At the age of six he was in the enormous crowd that welcomed Charles Lindbergh to Birmingham in 1927, just after his historic solo transatlantic flight. As a teenager, Shannon and his friends pooled their savings to obtain a J-3 Piper Cub, which he first flew solo in 1940 at the age of 18.
World War II
Shannon enlisted himself while he was still at Fairfield High School, and joined the guard full-time after graduating in 1940. His unit was activated later that same year for advanced maneuvers. After the attack on Pearl Harbor he was ordered to Army Air Corps flight school. He earned his pilot's wings in 1942 and was sent to England with the rank of Staff Sergeant to train on British Spitfires.
Shannon's squadron flew combat missions in North Africa and Italy, first using P-40 Warhawks, and then P-51 Mustangs. He also flew P-38 Lightnings in combat in 1943, which he considered the most challenging, most sophisticated, and most fun to fly. His fighter group lost 22 pilots to German ME-109s in a two day span. Shannon received a battlefield commission to warrant officer status and completed over 50 combat missions as a fighter pilot before returning to the United States to train on the B-25 bomber.
He returned to action as a pilot in the China-Burma-India theater for the Second Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, flying reconnaissance missions over the Bay of Bengal and southern China until the end of World War II.
After WWII, Shannon returned to Birmingham and helped lead the reorganization of the local guard unit into the 106th Bomb Squadron and 160th Fighter Squadron in the 117th Fighter Group, which was moved to Birmingham as the 117th Tactical Reconnaissance Group.
As part of a recruiting promotion, Shannon set the speed record for the A-26 Invader, reaching 395 miles per hour on a 13 minute flight from Montgomery to the Birmingham Municipal Airport.
During the Korean War, Shannon flew a B-26 Marauder into combat. He also trained on the new C-47 Skytrain transport, which he piloted to Europe during the Berlin crisis of 1960.
Bay of Pigs
Because of his familiarity with the B-26, Shannon and fellow guardsmen from the 106th Bombardment Squadron in Birmingham were recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency in December 1960 to train expatriate Cuban pilots in Retalhuleu, Guatemala. Those pilots would conduct a planned invasion of Cuba, which, it was hoped, would spark a popular uprising against Fidel Castro. The pilots would pose as traitors, with the B-26's disguised in the markings of the Cuban air force. Though originally planned for the Southern Cuban city of Trinidad, the target was changed to the Bahia de Chochinos (Bay of Pigs).
The training went well and the exiles first flights successfully crippled Cuba's air capability. However, the Cuban pilots were greatly overextended during the continuous flying between their base in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua and targets in Cuba. The pilots had no fighter escorts and were vulnerable to the few Cuban T-33s that escaped the bombing raids. Several of the B-26s were lost to enemy fire.
The ground assault by "Brigade 2506", a force of about 1,200 Cuban exile fighters, was routed by Castro's remaining planes. With two of their amphibious assault craft sunk, the landing force was unable to sustain its attack and was eventually driven back to sea. Only two exile pilots remained in condition to continue any air support from Nicaragua. The CIA made the decision to lift its restriction on using American pilots in order to continue the assault. Shannon was one of four U. S. pilots to take to the air in support of the operation.
They came under attack from Cuban fighter planes as soon as they reached the combat zone, and were forced to break off. Riley Shamburger and his navigator, Wade Gray were shot down. Pete Ray and Leo Baker were also shot down, and were killed by ground troops. Shannon explained that all the pilots knew the mission was already lost before they flew, but that they wanted to show support for the Cuban exiles stranded on the beachhead.1.
Shannon retired from the Air Force in 1972. During his 33 years of service he received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with 14 Oak Leaf clusters, the Chinese Air Medal, the Cuban Liberation Air Force Medal for Valor, and the CIA Seal Medallion.
Shannon was sworn to secrecy about the nature of his Cuban mission until the late 1970s, when he was given permission to talk to the families of the operation's casualties. It was not until May 1999 that the CIA admitted that four US servicemen had died serving the agency in the Bay of Pigs. Subsequently, Shannon was made an honorary member of Brigade 2506 and awarded the Cuban Liberation Air Force Medal for Valor.
He became a corporate pilot after his retirement, and flew occasionally with a group of aviators that meets at the Pell City Airport. In 1999 he was inducted into the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame at the Southern Museum of Flight, for which he also served on the Board of Directors. Shannon died in 2010 at the Fair Haven Retirement Center in Eastwood.
- Joe Shannon, quoted in Chambers - 2007
- Merrill, Lucy (November 2004) "Alabama WW II Pilot: A Legend With Head Still In The Clouds" Over the Mountain Journal, reprinted in Alabama Aviator
- Sepsas, Niki (September 2006) "Sky Soldier". Birmingham Magazine. Vol. 46, No. 9, p. 134-7
- Sepsas, Niki (November 11, 2007) "Sky soldier Joe Shannon worthy of honor." Birmingham News.
- Chambers, Jesse (August 2, 2007) "The good fight." Birmingham Weekly.
- Gray, Jeremy (January 5, 2010) "Birmingham pilot Joe Shannon dies, played large role in Bay of Pigs." Birmingham News