William Morgan was an American who became a leader in Fidel Castro’s army — only to be executed as a traitor after the revolution. More than 40 years on, his widow is fighting to clear his name. By Christopher Goodwin
Nowhere could seem further from the balmy subtropics of Havana, Cuba, than the bleak, wintry snowscapes of Toledo, Ohio. But every day for the last 45 years, the 69-year-old Toledo housewife and grandmother Olga Goodwin has forced herself to think about a dusty corner in Havana’s Colon cemetery. There, in an unmarked grave, lies the body of William Alexander Morgan, Olga’s first husband, an American who fought alongside Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution but was later executed as a traitor by the Cuban dictator.
“William died without a country,” says Olga, a small, nervous but passionate Cuban woman whose English is still very fractured. Sitting in her lawyer’s office in Toledo, Olga Goodwin (no relation to the writer) fights back tears as she describes her quixotic fight to have her ex-husband’s remains returned to the United States and to have his US citizenship restored. Morgan was stripped of his citizenship for fighting in Castro’s army. “He was American but he wanted freedom for my country,” says Olga, who escaped to the US in 1980 after spending 12 years in Cuban jails, and has since remarried. “I cannot find peace until William can come home to his country.”
The story of the mysterious life and death of William Morgan is one of the last untold stories of the Cuban revolution. It has been pieced together by The Sunday Times from interviews with his widow and others, from contemporary accounts, and from previously classified CIA, FBI and State Department documents. It is the improbable story of how a high-school dropout from Ohio, an ex-con, a ranch hand, gambling enforcer, mafia- gunrunner and circus fire-eater, became one of the top leaders in Castro’s revolutionary army, only to be executed as a traitor after the revolution.
Olga Goodwin, then Olga Maria Rodriguez Farinas, insists she fell in love with Morgan before she even met him in April 1958, in a rebel encampment in the Escambray mountains of central Cuba. Olga, then a romantic young revolutionary, had heard stories about the young “Comandante Yanqui”. Morgan and Olga were both fighting against the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista with the Segundo Frente – the Second National Front of the Escambray – which eventually numbered some 2,500 fighters, mainly poor farmers. Castro, and the legendary Argentinian Ernesto “Che” Guevara, led the largest rebel group, the 26th of July Movement, in the southern Sierra Maestra mountains.
“Here was a guy from the United States fighting for my freedom,” recalls Olga. “Inside of me, this was the reason I feel in love. When I saw him, my heart went boom, boom, boom.”
Olga, then 22, pretty and blonde, was from the city of Santa Clara, the second of six children. In the months after they met, she and Morgan, then 30, who spoke little Spanish, snatched brief moments together. Even today, though, it’s unclear how much the bearded, blue-eyed Morgan told the love-struck Cuban girl (Olga and Morgan married in November 1958).
William Alexander Morgan, born in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 19, 1928, was the son of a financial officer for Toledo Edison, the electric-power company. A terrible student, he was kicked out of four high schools. In 1946 he joined the army, and a year later was transferred to Japan, but went Awol after marrying a Japanese nightclub hostess (they were divorced within a year). Morgan was sentenced to three months’ hard labour but escaped. When he was recaptured, he was given five years in a military prison in California.
On his release, Morgan returned to Toledo, and worked for a while as a debt collector for a well-known Toledo underworld gambling boss. In the middle of the 1950s, Morgan joined a circus in Florida, working as a fire-eater. There he met his second wife, Ellen May Bethel, a snake charmer. They had two children, but were divorced in 1958 on the grounds of Morgan’s desertion. Around 1956, Morgan became involved in gunrunning in Florida, FBI reports indicate, buying guns in the southern US from the Cleveland mob boss Dominick Bartone, a convicted gunrunner, and shipping them to the anti-Batista rebels in Cuba.
Morgan went to Cuba around the end of 1957. He wanted to fight against Batista because one of his closest friends, Jack Turner, also a gunrunner, had been executed by Batista’s forces in 1957. By March 1958, Morgan had found his way into the Escambray mountains. Although some guerrillas mistrusted this “gringo” and thought he might be a CIA?plant, he won respect for his courage in battle. Today, many people forget that the rebels fighting Batista were not a single, cohesive army, but a loose federation, with widely divergent political views. The Second Front, led by 25-year-old Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, was avowedly anti-communist. There were communists fighting against Batista, such as “Che” Guevara, and many of those fighting with him and Castro in the 26th of July Movement, but at that stage, most historians believe, even Castro was not a convinced communist.
In the summer of 1958, Guevara and some 200 fighters from the 26th of July Movement appeared in the Escambray intending to take control of the Second Front. But Morgan stood up to Guevara and his men, and sent them packing.
As the revolution against Batista gathered pace in 1958, Morgan was promoted to comandante, or major, the highest rank in the revolutionary army, bestowed on only one other foreigner: Guevara. Morgan also became second in command of the Second Front under Menoyo. On December 22, 1958, Morgan led his troops as they laid seige to the large industrial city of Cienfuegos, taking it with ease, when news came through on January 1, 1959, that Batista had fled Cuba. Castro, then 33, soon became prime minister. Guevara and Morgan clashed again when Guevara tried to have some of Morgan’s officers stripped of their rank. “It got real ugly,” Menoyo said. “Morgan and Che were about to fight. I was going to join in. We had our hands on our guns.”
Morgan was popular in Havana, provoking cheers of “Morgan, Morgan” whenever he appeared in the streets, but his popularity did not translate to power. Most of the Second Front leaders, including Morgan and Menoyo, found themselves excluded from the positions they had expected in the new government. Guevara, however, was appointed head of Cuba’s national bank, and most of the other top jobs were taken by leaders of the 26th of July Movement.
“After the revolution, I took my uniform off right away,” says Olga. “I put it in the garbage. I thought we would have peace. I thought every four years we would have elections. We would have hospitals, farms, schools, roads. I just wanted a quiet life, with William, with our daughter, later. But we never had peace. We could never be alone. We never had time for ourselves.”
In the murky world of post-revolutionary Cuban politics, of plots and counterplots, it was unclear just whose side Morgan was on.
In early April 1959, a “secret” FBI report concluded that disgruntled Second Front leaders, including Menoyo and Morgan, were forming a secret opposition group in Havana, and that $6m had been contributed to overthrow Castro by wealthy Cuban exiles, including the former dictator Batista. FBI reports also disclosed that Morgan had secretly flown to Miami and had met Dominick Bartone, his old friend and a convicted mafia gunrunner, and Augusto Ferrando, the consul general for the Dominican Republic, to discuss a counter-revolutionary plot against Castro. The FBI informant Manuel Benitez, a chief of the Cuban national police before the revolution, said Morgan had been paid $150,000 for his co-operation.
On July 27, 1959, Morgan flew into Miami again with Olga and her sister Coralia. Over the next few days, the FBI kept Morgan under close surveillance, discovering, among other things, that Morgan and Olga were breezing around in a new blue Cadillac sedan, which had been rented by Bartone. On July 30, 1959, the FBI brought Morgan in for an interview. He told the FBI that around 4,000 men from the Second Front would follow Menoyo and himself, “should they issue an order”, and that “the Second Front was the nearest thing to a counter-revolutionary group in Cuba”. Morgan claimed to have talked to Castro before coming to Miami and spoke admiringly of him. He said he could have assassinated Castro on that occasion, as he was armed and Castro was not. Morgan also told the FBI he had heard there might be an invasion of Cuba from Cuban exiles in the Dominican Republic in mid-August 1959.
Barely a week later, it became clear that much of what he had told the FBI was true, though not his own role. There were advanced plans for a counter-revolution against Castro, financed by the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo and wealthy anti-Castro Cuban exiles. But the truth came with an astonishing sting in its tail.
On the evening of the FBI’s interview with Morgan, Olga and her sister flew back to Havana. Morgan then sailed from Florida to Cuba in a boat loaded with guns and ammunition. Manuel Benitez told the FBI that the guns, worth more than $500,000, had been sold to Morgan by Bartone, and paid for by Augusto Ferrando. But the FBI didn’t learn of this until around August 14. By then, events in Cuba had taken an amazing turn.
On the night of August 6, Morgan and Menoyo called the counter-revolutionary plotters to a meeting at Morgan’s house. The plotters thought they were about to launch a coup against Castro. Instead, Morgan and Menoyo had them arrested. Then, in an amazing coup de théâtre, Castro strolled in. “Any orders, Mr President?” Castro asked, mocking the stunned Arturo Hernandez Tellaheche, an ex-senator who had expected to lead a new post-Castro government. Castro went round asking each of them: “So, what were you going to be minister of?”
Castro, Morgan and Menoyo then flew to the southern coastal town of Trinidad, where the counter-revolutionary invasion was to land. The Cuban media deliberately created confusion by suggesting that Morgan was a traitor. Morgan began broadcasting to the counter-revolutionary forces waiting in the Dominican Republic, telling them that anti-Castro forces “were advancing”. The following night, a C-46 transport plane arrived from the Dominican Republic. Castro’s troops, pretending to be rebels and shouting “Death to Castro!”, helped unload the large cargo of guns and ammunition before arresting those who had flown in. With Morgan’s help, Castro had foiled the most serious plot against his new government. Over the next few days, more than 1,500 people suspected of supporting the plot were arrested, and many were later executed.
On August 14, Castro went on TV, praising Morgan and Menoyo for their part in double-crossing the Trujillo plotters. Even today, though, it is not clear if Castro knew about the plot from its inception, or if he had learnt of it later and forced Morgan to betray it. But Trujillo, Bartone and the other plotters were infuriated at being double-crossed. Within weeks, Trujillo had offered a $500,000 bounty for Morgan’s death. Olga recalls two attempts on their lives, the first on September 3, when a car drove by their house, spraying it with bullets. And later that month, the US?State Department announced that Morgan had been stripped of his ?citizenship for fighting in a foreign government’s army. Morgan denied he had ever been a member of the Cuban armed forces, saying he only been a member of the rebel army, and also insisted that he had never accepted Cuban citizenship.
Despite lauding Morgan, Castro had evidently lost his trust in him. Rather than winning a position in the new government, in early 1960, Morgan was given money to start, of all things, a frog farm. During this time, Morgan and Olga had their second daughter. “Major Morgan still wears a Cuban major’s uniform and totes a gold-plated .38 automatic,” wrote a reporter from the Toledo Blade newspaper, who interviewed?Morgan “beside a sun-scorched frog tank”. “He rides in a blue Oldsmobile hardtop, outfitted with three radio telephones, two sub-machine-guns and a glove compartment full of hand grenades. The trappings do not disguise the fact that Major Morgan has been relegated to a civil servant’s job of minor consequence. ‘Cuban frog’s legs are tops,’ said Morgan, trying to make the best of things. ‘We’re also supplying guppies.’”
Olga says that over the following months, Morgan became increasingly infuriated by the anti-democratic direction Cuba was taking. Morgan started using the frog farm’s trucks to take arms to anti-Castro guerrillas in the Escambray mountains. But on October 17, 1960, Morgan, Olga, and Morgan’s chief aide, Jesus Carreras, were arrested. Morgan and Carreras were taken to La Cabaña prison; Olga was put under house arrest, though she escaped with -their daughters by drugging her guards and found asylum in the Brazilian embassy. Olga was able to see Morgan in prison only once before his death.
In La Cabaña, Morgan became acquainted with John Martino, another American jailed by Castro. “Men have been infiltrating into Cuba for two or three months now,” Morgan told Martino the night before he was executed. “They are working closely with the CIA. But Fidel Castro knows this also. Castro wants to eliminate anyone who can take power from him and that is why they are going to shoot me.” Morgan was right. On April 17, 1961, 1,300 anti-Castro Cubans, backed by the CIA, landed on the Cuban beaches in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. By then, Morgan, who could have helped rally anti-Castro forces inside Cuba, had been executed.
Morgan’s trial took place on March 9, 1961, lasting six hours. In a final plea, Morgan told the court: “I have defended this revolution because I believed in it.” Morgan and Carreras were found guilty and sentenced to death.
The circumstances of Morgan’s execution were as vivid as his life itself. He was led out that night onto the grassy moat of La Cabaña, illuminated by spotlights. Seven men were lined up in a firing squad. At the execution wall, “el paradon”, Morgan’s hands were tied behind his back, and a voice shouted out that he must kneel. “I kneel for no man,” Morgan retorted. At that, two shots were fired into his kneecaps, forcing him to the ground. “See, we made you kneel,” the same voice shouted. A further volley of bullets finished him off, completely destroying his face. He was 32. His body was taken from the prison that night by Olga’s sister and buried in Colon cemetery beside that of Carreras, who had been shot five minutes before him. Some reports have suggested that Castro witnessed the execution, but news agencies at the time reported that he was at a party for Chinese communist officials.
Morgan’s death did not mean the end of Olga’s troubles. Captured by the secret police soon after his execution, she spent nearly 12 years in Cuban jails, in solitary confinement for much of the time. Olga doesn’t like talking about her experiences in prison, saying it was “terrible, terrible, terrible”. Her health never recovered and she still has migraines and damage to one eye from beatings.
But what she suffered on her release was worse: her two daughters, raised by her parents in Santa Clara, had been indoctrinated against her and their late father by their teachers, and considered them traitors. In despair, Olga went to Havana and lived for a while in a convent. Finally, she and most of her family, including her mother, daughters and some of her sisters, managed to leave Cuba in 1980 during the mass exodus of the Mariel boatlift. Olga moved to Toledo to be close to Morgan’s family. She married a welder called Jim Goodwin, who has only found out about his wife’s history in the last few years.
Now Olga says she will not rest until she has fulfilled her late husband’s final wishes and had his US citizenship restored. “I believe in freedom,” says Olga. “I believe in peace. But I never had peace. If I can do this for William, then I can be free inside too.”
From time to time, Olga cannot help rereading Morgan’s final letter to her, now yellowing and fading, written just hours before he was executed and smuggled out of prison: “Since the first time I saw you in the mountain, until the last time I saw you in prison, you have been my love, my happiness, my companion in life, and in my thoughts during my moment of death,” Morgan wrote. “When I found you, I found everything I can wish for in the world, and only death can separate us.”
In the end, perhaps William Morgan’s love for Olga was the only thing in his short and turbulent life that we, and she, can ever be sure about.
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