Bay of Pigs diorama

Completed in May 2011.
Primarily paper and clay.
1/35th scale.

For my next diorama I'm going to try something new, an airplane. Specifically, a part of a crashed airplane and some (notorious) people standing on and around it.

Our story takes place in the spring of 1961 on the southern shores of the island of Cuba. In what would become known as the "Bay of Pigs invasion", a merry band of Cuban rebels known as "Brigade 2506" captured a small dirt airfield outside the coastal town of Giron April 17th to use as a re-supply point for their ill-fated invasion. As history will tell, that didn't work out so well and within a few days the rebels were pushed back into the sea.

During the short time the rebels were active, their "air force" was in constant combat. The air wing of the rebellion was composed of WWII-vintage Douglas B-26B Invaders, modified by the CIA in Florida, based out of Nicaragua, and flown either by active duty members of the Alabama Air National Guard or by Cuban mercenaries. Marked as real Cuban AF planes (they flew similar models) for sowing confusion and delay in the defenders, they spent a few days buzzing around the beachhead bombing and straffing the Cuban Army. They were promised air cover by the US Navy but Kennedy balked and these old bombers were easy pickings for the Cuban Air Force with its modern jets and high-performance piston-engined fighters.

It was in this period that about 11am on April 17th, just a few hours after Giron airfield had been captured by the rebels, an airplane came limping in. This was the rebel B-26B, code named "Chico Two", which had been bounced by a Cuban AF T-33A jet on an attack mission and was attempting to make an emergency landing at Giron airfield. The pilot was Captain Matias Farias, a Cuban exile, and his navigator was Eddie Gonzales, who had been killed in the attack by the Cuban jet.

While details are lacking, Farias apparently crashlanded quite hard, and the plane broke up on impact with heavy damage. Farias, however, survived and later escaped Cuba (he's still alive as of 2011).

By April 19th, the rebels' hold on Giron was broken and they were routed in embarrassing defeat. They left behind the wreck of the crashlanded B-26B. Some time later, though certainly within just a day or two at most, Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his brother Raul visited the wreck with his entourage and took advantage of the photo-op. Raul, being Raul, climbed up on the tailplane and posed for a snapshot. Here is the black-and-white photo that is of interest to me...

So, my goal here is a small vignette showing the plane's tail, Raul on it, and a number of other figures in various poses around it. I'll make up the rest of the details as I go along, as usual. Scale will be back to 1/35th, as I kinda miss the smaller details, meaning a six-foot person will be a two-inch figure.

To make things even more difficult (because that's the way I roll...) I'm going to confine the diorama to a 4x6inch picture frame. That's in 1/35th scale going to be a space around 12 feet by 18 feet, which is not very big. Luckily, the direction the diorama will be going is mostly up, as the plane's vertical fin is sticking up at an angle. The two tailplanes are long, but thankfully for me were both damaged badly in the crash and are now just stubs. The only change I'll have to make is the length of the fuselage. In the photos you can clearly see that the plane's tail broke off about 18 feet from the end, which wouldn't work for my 4x6 frame. So I'm going to take a creative liberty and say the tail broke off at about 12 feet from the end, which isn't really that big of a problem and it hopefully should still look pretty much like the photos. First up, the fire-damaged tail. Detailed plans for the B-26B are readily available online (it was a common plane and some are even still flying today), so then it was just a matter of resizing them to my scale.

The "bulky" part of the fuselage I was originally going to make out of paper, but I realize now that it has to hold quite a bit of weight, as well as keep all the parts firmly unmoving. So I'm going to build it out of Scupley clay as I only need a smallish chunk of it. The hard part was carving out the notches for the three flying parts to be added later. The "broken off end" was surprisingly easy, as a look at the plans show a bulkhead exactly at the point where I wanted to break the tail off. You see this a lot in crashlandings with planes with long tails, they often snap off at a bulkhead where the welds/rivets can't handle the stress. Going to put on the vertical fin next, so that I can get the basic shapes all lined up right. Also made this out of clay, with two copper wires run through it for strength.

The right and left horizontal stabilizers are next, which are canted up in a "v" angle. Both are very damaged and broken off, leaving only charred stubs. The photograph clearly shows the right stabilizer's condition, but I'm just guess on the left one. I assume that because the overall tailplane is tilted to the left, then the left stabilizer should be more damaged than the right (I guess...). Also made these out of clay, leaving the elevators for later. Now that I have all the parts, I can put them together. Using Gorilla glue, I fixed everything up strong. This is my first experience with Gorilla glue and it works great, once I figured out that it expands while drying and "foams" up also. Luckily I didn't get any on my kitchen table! Then I could do a final sanding and trimming and cussing, followed by more cussing as I had to fill in nicks and cuts and low spots that I didn't notice before. The end result is a pretty slick tailplane.

Ok, now this is just the "form" for the tail, a solid structure to keep it from falling apart. The "skin" of the tail is next. At first I was going to use tinfoil but after some thought I decided to try using simple cardstock paper to represent the steel and aluminum that made up the real B-26B's surfaces. Using photographs and plans for the plane, I "skinned" the tail surfaces with cardstock, adding in lines and creases where the joints would show. I even tried to add some rivets, but at this small of a scale, they won't really show up, especially after a coat of paint. Towards the damaged ends of the stabilizers I "frayed" out the ends to represent ripped metal. I also added a bit of that where the tail broke off from the fuselage.

Now for the damaged rudder and elevators. From the photograph it's clear there is some burn damage, but only to the "moving parts", which is kinda odd. Spending some time on google, I found dozens and dozens of pictures of crashed, burnt-out airplanes and a great number of them also show this weird aspect. Perhaps it's because the metal of the rudder is different, lighter, something than the metal of the fin? Who knows, but I do know that the thin, lattice-like "skeleton" of the burnt rudder is going to be insanely difficult to make with my limited materials. I really need to make it out of plastic strips or even thin metal, but all I have are wood and paper. Let's give it a shot. The right side elevator is completely gone, but the left side one is about half there still. This one didn't turn out that well, but I'm hoping once painted it will be better.

Speaking of paint, it's time for that now. This particular plane was painted and marked to masquerade as a regular Cuban Air Force bomber, so it's pretty easy to just look up what the CAF's colors were in 1961. The fuselage and tailplane surfaces were light gray and the rudder had a stylized Cuban flag on it, not too difficult. Of course, the tailplane has damage to it, by rending and burning, so I'll have to blend that in. I'll also have to weather it a bit and add some "bare metal" colors to the parts that are now exposed. I used regular acrylic craft paints from my stash, thinned out a tiny bit with water to make them flow better, put on with regular brushes. In the end, not too bad.

Moving on to the base now. In my mind's eye, the plane is sitting near the edge of the gravel runway, having slid off after breaking apart. It's lying in some vegetation in a fairly flat area, leaning to one side some. To start, I formed a "ground" with a thin layer of Sculpey clay, and trimmed it to fit my 4x6 picture frame. Colors are a bit lighter than normal as this airfield was pretty much right off the beach. Started with tan and then washed in some lighter browns and khakis. Along one corner I wanted the edge of the runway, which I assume was just crushed gravel and hard-packed dirt. To represent this I brushed on some Elmer's glue and sprinkled it with plain sugar. Once it dried I re-brushed it with more glue and dry brushed over with some tans and white. The end result wasn't what I was expecting, but pretty good. Next time I'll use rock salt maybe, something with a larger grain.

Since this is a tropical island I need some flora. This part of Cuba has a lot of clumps of tall, thick grasses, which I made with paper cut-outs rolled around a stick and glued. I also made a few "bent over" as the tailplane skidded off the runway after the crash. After gluing them down and lightly brushing them with a variety of greens for color, and then dry brushing around their bases, they look pretty good.

Ok, with that, I think I can go ahead and place the tailplane on the base. A generous slather of Beacon glue and some touch-up paint and she's good.

Alright, time for the people. The most important figure will be the only one actually show in the reference photo, Raul Castro. Here's the picture again...

In this scene, Raul was a 29-year old former revolutionary turned wannabe communist bigwig. As mentioned before, he had nothing to do with this plane being shot down, nor anything to do with the overall victory at the Bay of Pigs. In fact, from what I can ascertain, he was nowhere near there until the shooting had stopped. As to why he's up there on the plane's tail, posing like a badass with his submachinegun and his jaunty beret, one can only assume that Raul was a bit of a dick back in 1961.

I'll build him the normal way, Sculpey clay over a copper wire skeleton. I uniformly suck at making human figures for these dioramas, but I am trying with each one to get a little better. I'm going to really, really try hard on this one to get Raul's clothing looking like, well, like actual clothing and not just blobs of clay.

Colors are a guess, obviously, but I'm assuming the standard Cuban Army "look" of olive drab pants and white shirt with a black beret. There's enough color photos of Raul from that era that I can get his skin and hair colors down right. The weapon (an early Uzi) is a mix of clay and wire and it's a tad too chunky. Perched on the plane, he matches the photo pretty well, I say. The only problem is that I should have had his head titled down more, as it is he's looking "off scene", which is not really a problem, I guess.

Alright, there's space in the diorama for a couple more figures. Since Raul is posing for a photo, someone has to be there to take it. I've read that famous Cuban photographer Alberto Korda accompanied the bigwigs to the Bay of Pigs to check out the aftermath, so let's say that he's taking the picture. At this moment Alberto is 33-years old, bearded, inordinately tall, and stocky. He's the guy who took that photo of Che Guevara that's on all the ironic hipster t-shirts, by the way. I'll have him standing there holding a camera, gesturing to Raul to "Look even more douchey." I'll dress him in standard Army pants and jacket, he did tend to blend in with his subjects a lot.

Alright, final touches now. Added a few more plants, greened out the ground a bit more, touched up some paint, trimmed some leaves, and I think it's done. I was going to add another figure, or an animal, to the diorama but it was just too crowded in the end so I stuck with two.

As I used existing stocks of clay and paint, the total cost for this project was just 95 cents for the picture frame. Not a bad outcome for under a dollar, I say.

Here are the final pictures...

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