TAMPA, Fla. — Lee Davis entertains visitors from his bed these days, facing the final stages of prostate cancer, congestive heart failure and a move to hospice in the coming weeks.
But first, the one-time commodore of the Davis Islands Yacht Club, whose friends remember him for chasing every pursuit to the extreme, wants the whole story told about one of the greatest adventures of his life.
It was a rescue mission, widely covered by the media at the time. It thrust Davis into the middle of a Cold War incident. It helps shed light on Cuba’s isolation from the United States as relations are beginning to open again.
And it was an abject failure.
Lying in his living room, holding diary entries and newspaper clippings to back up his tale, Davis smiles, lifts his finger and points to a painting hanging nearby. It’s the Skylark, the 58-foot yacht that brought him there and back.
“My memory is fine,” said Davis, 92. “My body ain’t.”
. . .
The story begins in late September 1965 when Fidel Castro suddenly announced that Cubans fed up with the Revolution, except men of military age, could leave the Communist nation if relatives living abroad picked them up at a maritime center in the town of Camarioca.
“This was the first major migration from Cuba,” said William LeoGrande, a Cuba historian and professor of government at American University. “Families from Florida grabbed whatever boat they could to get their relatives.”
In Tampa, 33-year-old house painter Orlirio Godinez longed to bring his parents over from Cuba but he had no access to a boat.
While shopping at King Greco Hardware, he lamented the situation to store manager Dick Greco. Greco, later elected four times as mayor of Tampa, confidently replied, “I know a man with a boat who is adventurous enough to help.”
He was speaking of Davis, a 39-year-old veteran who had flown fighter planes during World War II and had moved to Tampa from Virginia a decade earlier.
“Everything Lee did was to the nth degree,” Greco said. “He was crazy.”
Not everyone thought it was a good idea. Congressman Sam Gibbons, who also saw combat during World War II and whose many accomplishments included helping found the University of South Florida, warned his friend to stay home. The United States had threatened to arrest Americans who took part.
Davis agreed to make the 400-mile journey, anyway.
“If that was my folks I’d sure like someone to help me,” he said.
. . .
Joining Davis and Godinez was captain and master mechanic Max Friedman and photojournalist George Sweers with the St. Petersburg Times.
They left on Oct. 21. Engine problems quickly stranded them in Key West.
Two days later, back at sea, they faced eight-foot waves, 30-mile-per hour winds and thick fog. They had trouble using instruments to find their way.
“We navigated pretty much on dead reckoning,” Davis said.
Godinez would later purchase a statue of the Virgin Mary with three fishermen on rough seas, said his daughter Joanne McCorkle. He prayed to it every day, convinced that a higher power had guided them.
When the yacht reached Matanzas east of Havana on the islands northwest coast, the Cuban military boarded and sailed it to nearby Camarioca. The port was filled with vessels of all types, about 350 in all, anchored for the boatlift.
Davis and crew watched hundreds of Cubans herded onto boats, with few possessions in hand. But Godinez never got to connect there with the passengers he came for.
On day three in Cuba, journalist Sweers was moved off the yacht and returned to the United States. Cuba did not want American media coverage.
Davis estimates this was Oct. 28, the same day Cuba announced no more boats would be allowed in crowded Camarioca.
The military piloted Davis’ yacht to nearby Varadero and Godinez was taken off by force. At a husky 6-foot-3, Godinez dwarfed his escort, but Davis remembers Godinez mumbling, “He has a gun. That makes him the big man.”
Godinez was sent to a detention camp. Davis and his captain were to be taken off, too, as boats were being confiscated. They figured theirs was next.
But Davis wasn’t giving up the Skylark. He puffed out his chest, raised his voice to signal importance, and demanded to see whoever was in charge.
To his surprise, he was taken to meet a commandant.
The Cuban official seemed overwhelmed, so Davis kept up his bluff. He said his vessel needed repairs and he feared it would sink without him.
And that he wanted Godinez back.
“I have three requests,” Davis added. “We need beer. We need rum. I have never been to Cuba and I want a car and driver to go to Havana.”
He speculates that the commandant feared an international incident when he agreed to leave Davis and the captain on the yacht, under supervision.
Davis quickly won over his three guards, all teenagers, with a stack of Playboy magazines he kept onboard.
“They kept coming to look at the pictures,” he said with a laugh. “They ended up almost like they worked for us.”
He never got to Havana, but he was driven around Varadero and provided the beer he’d requested.
. . .
Godinez got no such preferential treatment.
He was moved among three different camps, none of which had a bed. A diabetic, he grew ill without his medication, his daughter said.
But he was heartened to hear that the important American was constantly demanding he be released, Godinez’ wife, Romelia Godinez, told the Tampa Bay Times.
Guards eventually quit watching Davis at night so he radioed the Florida Coast Guard to be connected with Tampa television station WFLA Channel 8, where he had friends.
Then he made a deal: If the station let his teenage daughter Sharon Davis know he was well, he would broadcast news reports for them from behind Cuban lines.
“I was worried,” Sharon Davis’ said. “The trip was supposed to be short.”
The Times published an account of the journey by Sweers upon his return, but he didn’t know how his shipmates had fared. Godinez’ wife said she drove to Davis Islands each morning, praying she’d see the yacht.
Davis made a few calls to Channel 8, reporting on Russian vehicles in Cuba and a woman who wrote him a note: “I love you. Take me with you.”
“Everyone was wondering what was happening in Cuba,” Arch Deal, Channel 8’s anchor at the time, said. “We had someone with answers. It was big.”
LeoGrande of American University said he suspects that if Davis had been found calling in reports, unchaperoned, no amount of bluffing would have kept him safe.
On day 13 in Cuba, Godinez was brought back to Davis’ yacht. The once massive man was so frail he needed a rope to hold up his pants.
Back together again, the crew of the Skylark was allowed to leave.
. . .
Godinez briefly saw his mother before the yacht cleared customs, but she was not allowed to join him. By then, more than 3,000 refugees had fled to Key West aboard 160 vessels and the Cuban government had stopped the departures.
In Key West, the Coast Guard threatened to impound Davis’ yacht and press charges against him. Again, he puffed out his chest: “I have been down in Cuba for 13 days and they didn’t take my boat and you’re not.”
One call to Congressman Gibbons got him out of trouble.
On Nov. 11, friends and family gathered at Davis Islands to greet the return of the yacht. A fire truck sprayed an arch of water in welcome. Davis laughs now when he recalls the fitting conclusion to his adventure: The yacht wouldn’t stop, slamming into the dock.
A few months later, Godinez’ parents made it to Florida anyway aboard one of the Freedom Flights that brought 300,000 Cubans to the United States.
As for Davis, exasperated, he initially told reporters he would never make such a trip again.
Today, from his bed in the living room, the last survivor of the Cuba journey feels much differently.
“I have no regrets,” he says, “but wish I had more life to live. I feel like I have more adventures in me.”
Information from: Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.), http://www.tampabay.com.