The Flamingo Incident (10th May 1980)
What was it?
The Flamingo Incident, also known as the Cuban Incident, the Cay Santo Domingo
Incident, or the Sinking of HMBS Flamingo, occurred on 10 May 1980, just under six weeks of the Force?s official establishment. The Flamingo Incident was a nation building exercise which legitimized the need for aDefence Force in the minds of Bahamians at last. It proceeded to do what no Bahamian politician was able to do before. This instance of widespread national shock helped Bahamians to grasp the idea of sovereignty and independence and brought out the first instance of patriotism to the Bahamian flag.
As this incident has become known as one of the most formative and definitive events in the life of a small sovereign nation and her first line of defence, this section will present a detailed account of events and its significance in the Bahamian and Defence Force?s history.
What happened? How did events unfold?
HMBS Flamingo, a 103? patrol vessel purchased at 4.5 million dollars from VosperThorneycroft had been in service for nearly two years. Commander Amos Rolle was the Commanding Officer of HMBS Flamingo when they left Coral Harbour Base on Thursday 08 May 1980 on what should have been a routine ten-day patrol of Bahamian territorial waters. He and his 18 crewmembers had been tasked with stemming poaching in this particular quadrant. All remained quiet until about 1700. on Saturday10 May, when they spotted two foreign fishing vessels, some 500 yards north of Cay SantoDomingo, engaged in fishing. The crew of the two vessels tried to escape in a southwesterly direction. They gained on the vessels and finally caught up with them at about a mile from the Cay. The fishing vessels maintained their course and speed, even after orders to stop were passed to them over the loud hailer and warning shots fired in the air and then across the bow of their vessels. Finally shots were directed to the bow of the vessels, bringing them to a complete stop nearly five miles away from the Cay.
The vessels were both boarded and searched by the HMBS Flamingo boarding team and the four Cuban males that were found onboard each of the craft were arrested and the large quantity of fish found onboard the two vessels were confiscated. The two vessels, Ferrocem 165 and Ferrocem 54, were taken into tow. They were heading back towards Cay Santo Domingo, when the first two Cuban military MiG fighter jets buzzed the Bahamian military ship, letting go several volleys of machine gun fire parallel to its starboard side and directly in front of the ship?s bow. No one was hurt and it was assumed that the exercise was aimed at frightening them to release the captured fishermen.
Willing to take no risks though, Commander Rolle ordered his men to hoist a second ensign and a Bahamian flag. With perfect weather, there would be no way that the pilots in their low flying jets could mistake the identity of the Flamingo or that they were in the territorial waters of The Bahamas.
About forty five minutes later the jets returned. The Flamingo was less than 1.5 milesfrom the Cay when the Cuban military aircraft began its second assault of rockets and machine gun fire on the military grey Bahamian vessel. This time, the patrol craft was hit. The Operations room filled with water and rendered all communication equipment down. The bridge burst into flames. Melting steel appeared all around from the rocket attack and as it was in
danger of imminent sinking, the crew abandoned ship. Even as the ship sank and the crew attempted to swim to safety, the jets returned, strafing the surrounding waters with machine gun fire and tearing apart the two lifeboats that had been jettisoned overboard.
Though the jets disappeared, a military helicopter remained in the area. The dory, driven by M/S Whitfield Neely, now Senior Lieutenant, who had been stationed on one of the captured craft, collected all the survivors, four of whom were wounded.
Roll-call revealed that four marines-A/B Fenrick Sturrup and M/S David Tucker, Edward Williams and Austin Smith-were missing. HMBS Flamingo?s crew had managed to secure a sub machine gun with one magazine of 30 rounds and a pistol before they abandoned ship. This was no match for their menacing machine chaperone hovering above. Thankfully, the helicopter left after the Flamingo had completely sunk. A search of the area for the four missing men ensued, in lifeboats, to no avail.
All persons were then transferred to the Ferrocem 165 and they departed the area under the cloak of darkness to find cover at Ragged Island. The other vessel, Ferrocem 54 was left drifting as the Engine was shot out). The remaining crew took turns smoking cigarettes as a means of light with which to navigate in a darkened ship state. This proved to be a wise decision, as the Cubans returned, in hopes of leaving no survivors and rescuing their own. The Bahamian crew and their prisoners arrived at the Bay of Anchorage at the southern tip of Ragged Island at 1330 on Sunday morning and proceeded to Duncan Town on foot. Telegraphs were sent to Nassau informing about the tragedy and bold attacks by the Cubans.
The Cuban jet fighters returned at 0930 on Sunday 11 May along with a large long range transport aircraft and a helicopter in Duncan Town. They simulated rocket attacks over the island and at one point, the helicopter landed on the island opposite where the Cuban fishing vessel was anchored, tearing off roof shingles and tree branches in the process. The men got out of the helicopter, armed with guns and looked around their immediate area.
The Cuban helicopter and transport aircraft continued their assault by flying on alternatesides of a Bahamian DC 3 aircraft, carrying fully uniformed Defence Force and Police force officials, as it landed on Ragged Island. The MiGs withdrew at 1015 hours with the helicopter.
The other aircraft followed suit 2 hours and 15 minutes later, thus preventing the DC 3 from taking off before noon. It wasn?t until a US scramble jet flew over and around that the Cubans withdrew and the Bahamian contingent was enabled to leave. The small island community had been harassed for over three hours.
Then on Monday 12 May 1980 at 1420 p.m. RBDF personnel spotted a Cuban fishingboat as they were heading to Nassau. It remained in the vicinity for about 15 minutes. In 3 separate and deliberate acts of military aggression, the Cubans had demonstrated their lack of respect for the puerile archipelagic nation.
The brave survivors through numerous interviews recall how they were still pickingmelting steel from their skin and hair many months later from the rocket blasts. They unanimously agree that the traumatic happenings were a frightful reminder of the frailty of life and the dangers associated with the career they had chosen.
Upon their return to Nassau, Commander Rolle was summoned to an emergency National Security meeting where he would describe the events before Acting Prime Minister Arthur Hanna and other top government officials. Prime Minister Pindling at this time was attending the Templeton Prize for Religion awards presentation ceremony, where he had been expected to
officiate at the Guildhall in London. Outraged when he was informed about the atrocious attack, he cancelled his trip and made plans to return to The Bahamas immediately. The Bahamas government was enraged at the hostile, deadly and unprovoked attack by their neighbours to the South. As a young nation, the Bahamas had to be very careful to use this opportunity to stand on its own.
Legal, Political and Diplomatic Action
A strongly worded note was sent to Cuba, in protest of the incident and violations to international law and Bahamian sovereignty. In the note, Minister Paul Adderley said that the Bahamas demanded that the “Government of the Republic of Cuba apologize in appropriate terms to the Government and the people of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas for its violent acts of aggression.” They demanded assurance of the Cuban government that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Bahamas would be respected and would not be violated in the future.
On 12 May, Cuba sent a 7-member team to The Bahamas to engage in urgent discussions with The Bahamian government. The team was headed by Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Calegrino Torres, Cuban Ambassador to the Bahamas Raul Rouri and brother of then Cuban President, Raul Castro. Diplomatic relations between Cuba and The Bahamas before the attack was very peaceful. This tragic incident would produce a rift between the two neighbouring countries especially in the ensuing months, but diplomatic relations were maintained. Prime Minister Pindling during an impromptu press conference on Coral Harbour Base three days later revealed that “diplomatic relations with Cuba would be broken off only as a last resort…It?s easier to talk when one has diplomatic relations. It makes talking much more difficult when one does not have proper relations.”2 Cuban officials attempted to come up with a story that would exonerate them completely.
The eight Cubans, Captain Javier Fuentes Maranda, 37, Angel Roberto Perez Naranjo, 30, Israel Avila Mesa, 40, Pamolinares Canales, 58, Juan Rawson Merino, 22, Idaelio Suarez, 25, Antonia Batista, 52, and Juan V. Bermude, 30 were represented by J. Henry Bostwick, who urged the courts not to be influenced by the emotional and political factors surrounding their capture. He put forward that others facing the same charge were allowed bail and that he was operating on the premise that in the Bahamas, persons are innocent until proven guilty.
They appeared before the Acting Magistrate Ian Bethel and were charged with using their two vessels as Captain and crew to engage in foreign fishing in The Bahamas? exclusive fishing zone. Prosecuting Attorneys objected outrightly to the consideration of bail. However, their Defence Attorney was able to secure them bail in the sum of $10,000.00 cash each. The trial was set for July 1.
First Cuban authorities reported that they thought HMBS Flamingo was a pirate ship. Persons onboard the Ferrocem 165 admitted that they had radioed Cuba for help, alleging that a pirate ship was attacking them and admitted also that they had actually expected the attack. However, the Bahamian military patrol vessel was clearly marked on all sides and visibility on that day was clear, so the story would not hold. It was proven that five of the eight men onboard the two vessels had been arrested by Bahamian authorities before, as well as one of the ships. It was more than likely the fear of a second sentencing that drove them to evade imminent capture.
The Cuban government then offered compensation and alleged in an official statement that they cabled directly to the two dailies in Nassau: 2 The Tribune, Wed May 14, 1980